Doing It Her Way : Barbara Sinatra Talks of Her Life, Her Cause--and Frank

Times Staff Writer

You think you know her without even talking to her. After all, she looks like just another pampered wife flocking to this playground for the privileged.

You know the kind. The worry-free, wrinkle-free woman married to the Hollywood Living Legend, whose meticulous grooming is as perfect as a mannequin's, whose 56-year-old legs are Nautilus-toned, whose biggest headache probably is deciding which Oscar (as in de la Renta) to wear.

You tell her so. And, she agrees.

"Yes," Barbara Sinatra says. "I love being a desert bum."

The one-time Long Beach charm school teacher, Las Vegas showgirl and divorced mother landed in luxury's lap when she married the "serious" Marx brother, Zeppo, and moved here in 1963. She fell into "the slow, lazy, indulgent life" of the desert, as her good friend Dinah Shore describes it--mornings of golf and tennis (sometimes barefoot and in bathing suits), lunch at the exclusive Palm Springs Racquet Club, afternoons of gin rummy, nights spent poolside.

Her world became even more idyllic in 1976 when Barbara Marx became the fourth Mrs. Frank Sinatra--and the most anonymous.

'Weekend With Sinatras'

Then she found a way to escape that limbo known as "the wife of." She raised $2.25 million to build the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, a state-of-the-art center for sexually abused children that opened in November, 1986, on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center here. Now she is working to locate another $5 million to endow it, for which she and her husband will host a "Weekend With the Sinatras" for 25 couples in May, where for $25,000 for two, even strangers can rub shoulders with them here and in Las Vegas. And on the weekend before that, she will be the first woman ever honored by the New York Friars Club.

Of course, the mystique of her husband's name counts for a lot--as she is quick to note. But so does Barbara Sinatra's own toughness, which she developed long before becoming Mrs. Marx or Mrs. Sinatra. And which she now cleverly disguises under that honey hair and milky complexion whether she's chairing a board meeting or competing for dollars in this desert oasis already flooded with charity fund raising.

"For someone who's not very pushy," actor Roger Moore notes, "she's very good at asking anybody for anything for her cause."

How tough is she?

Well, for all of her husband's support of her cause--estimated at $250,000 in monetary contributions, plus personal appearances, singing performances and arm-twisting of his famous friends--his wife casually lets it drop that he's persona non grata at the center where molesting fathers often come for treatment.

Why? "Because my husband's from a totally different school. My husband wants to break their legs. He wants to round up all the men and break their legs," she says matter-of-factly.

She laughs and adds, "He says, 'You can talk to them all you want to, but let me teach them and they'll never do it again. If you put them in a hospital for a year, when they come out they're not going to do that.' So he's not allowed in here, you know."

But her statements don't mean that she is criticizing her husband, she says. "I just hope the day ever comes," she says softly, "when I do as many good things as he does."

She acknowledges that "there's good and there's bad" about him. "Not everybody fits into one category.

"But the ones in the press who want to write the negative things are going to write them anyway. So if you're an important name like he is, then you have to expect some of that. And your skin gets a little tougher as you grow older, but I don't think there isn't ever a time when it doesn't hurt."

After years of being influenced by her husband's contempt for the media, Barbara Sinatra nevertheless has come to realize that she now needs to publicize her cause--which is why she granted a rare interview at the center, a stone's throw from the Betty Ford Center.

So this one-time outsider who became the ultimate insider of Palm Springs society is coming out from behind the heavily guarded walls of her compound on Frank Sinatra Drive to answer questions about herself.

The former Barbara Blakeley was born in Bosworth, Mo., which she pronounces with a decided Midwest twang. "Its population is 500, and they're still there, the same 500."

When she was 10, her parents moved to Wichita, Kan., and fell on hard times during the Depression. Shy and withdrawn, she also was gangly. "I always felt like the bones stuck out. I didn't consider myself pretty at all. But I realized that the best thing I could do in life was to work as a model."

Started a Modeling Career

After graduating from high school, she moved to Long Beach with her parents, began modeling for department stores and auto shows and married a singer. (Was he good? "He thought so," she says wryly.)

At 19, she landed a coveted contract with Eileen Ford's modeling agency in New York City. But she was pregnant and returned to Long Beach.

Her friends clamored to learn from her modeling experiences, and, at age 21, she opened the Barbara Blakeley School of Modeling and Charm.

Four years later, she was a divorced businesswoman without business skills and a single parent to a son. (Bob Marx, 36, who took the Marx surname when he came of age, is a New York City attorney.) She found money to be a constant problem and recalls working "my tail off" 6 a.m. to midnight.

"Life was not easy, but worth it," she says, furrowing her unfurrowed brow. "And I do think it made it easier for me to appreciate some of the things that I have now. Because there isn't a day that I wake up that I don't thank God."

She moved to Las Vegas in 1959 and became a showgirl at the Riviera Hotel, fulfilling a "secret yearning."

Enter Zeppo Marx. "He came in to rehearsals and he kept hanging around every night," Sinatra remembers. After three years of off-again, on-again dating, they were married.

He was 57 and retired from show business when she moved into his estate on the grounds of the Tamarisk Country Club. Suddenly, she had money, position and entree. Zeppo Marx was so accessible that he even listed his phone number and address in the local telephone book. "And that's when I first started meeting Hollywood-type people," she says.

Though Marx kept her amused, eventually the difference in their ages drove them apart, she says. "I really think that at the time I married him, he was a young man. But the longer we were married, the more he wanted to be reclusive."

They divorced in 1977. And two years later, when Zeppo Marx died of lung cancer (after dating her sister, Patricia Wells), she was already Barbara Sinatra. But even today, a lot of people locally persist in calling her Barbara Marx.

During her marriage to Zeppo, Ol' Blue Eyes was just another neighbor she passed in her golf cart. "I'd always been a fan of his singing. I'd always had all his records," she says. "But I really didn't care about knowing him because of the press I'd read. It just wasn't a pretty picture."

And she laughs. Imagine , his own wife believing the media reports about him.

But her impression improved after she glimpsed the "other" Frank Sinatra when she planned a City of Hope fund-raiser around the premiere of "Spartacus," and then needed to find another movie.

"So Zeppo talked to Frank on the golf course and told him what had happened. And Frank said he'd fill in and he'd bring his movie ('Come Blow Your Horn') and all the stars and everything. And he did, and that's how we really got to know each other."

Though married to another man, she acknowledges that she felt the legendary Sinatra magic. "I think anyone who met Frank Sinatra would have to have sparks," she explains. "Because he is a flirt. That's just part of his make-up. And there's no way to avoid that flirtation. No way ."

Once divorced from Zeppo, she bought Groucho's old desert home and became Sinatra's almost constant companion. By this time, he had been a bachelor for nearly a decade after three failed marriages--to Nancy Barbato, Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow.

And when did the romance begin? Suddenly, her face freezes and an icy expression indicates that the interview has become too personal.

"I don't think it's really important," she says. "I'd rather talk about the Children's Center."

Marriage in 1976

He was 60 and she was 46 when their July, 1976, nuptials took place three months before the couple's announced wedding date. "We received an invitation from the Annenbergs to come to a party at their home. And it said, 'Pray Silence,' " remembers her good friend Barbara Kaplan.

That was one of the singer's favorite sayings.

And she, according to friends, has been a major influence on him ever since.

Even Kitty Kelley--whose 1986 unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, "His Way," contained negative tales--cannot find anything bad to say about Mrs. Frank Sinatra No. 4.

"I think she's a beautiful, beautiful, woman," says Kelley, reached by phone in Washington. "She has chosen the life she wants, and I salute her."

She has succeeded in getting the "Chairman of the Board" to tow the line as a husband even though his other wives tried and failed. "She's very powerful in that marriage," one source says, "and he really does what she says now. It wasn't always that way."

By all accounts, she has made him cut down his drinking, smoking and carousing. But occasionally she joins his infamous all-nighters with the guys. "She's great at that," Moore notes. "She has a tremendous constitution. I flake out long before she does."

In fact, life at the Sinatra compound sounds downright tranquil. "When things are easy for your mate, they're easy for you," a friend suggests.

So why, then, is there still a sign on the service entrance that warns, "Never mind the dog. Beware of the owner"?

'None of That Sulking'

Sinatras' friends agree the marriage is still fiery. "Because of the people they are, they explode every once in a while at each other," Shore acknowledges. "And then, when they come back together, their relationship is that much better. They get everything out in the open so there's none of that sulking. It's a nice healthy thing for both of them."

"Yes," Kelley says, "she's earned those diamonds."

But more than Barbara Sinatra's jewelry, her friends can't help commenting about her looks. "She's still just as gorgeous as when I first met her," Kaplan notes. "I can't stand it. But then again, she does devote a lot of time to the beauty business."

A hair stylist, manicurist and make-up artist come to her home on a regular basis. And, besides working out faithfully in the couple's fitness room, she's also an excellent golfer and tennis player as well as horseback rider.

But, Shore cautions, "You mustn't be put off by how pretty Barbara is or well-groomed. There's nothing shallow about her."

Sinatra herself explains it this way: "You feel like you've got to do something else in this world besides getting your hair and nails done, and playing golf and tennis, and just living for me, me, I, I."

For years, she worked for her husband's causes, including one that brought health care to West African children. "But it was like a bottomless pit no matter what amount of resources and energy she poured into it," says John Shields, now head of the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center.

Help at Local Level

"I think that's when she decided to try to do something meaningful and important at the local level."

In 1985, Kaplan went to work for the Family Services Agency of Coachella Valley and told Sinatra about horrific cases of child sexual abuse that were occurring uncomfortably close to their golf greens and walled mansions.

"I'd known it existed, but you just don't think of it happening to your neighbor," Sinatra says. "And I reacted like everyone else--I wasn't sure I wanted to hear about it."

But she did get involved. She taught a session in poise and personal hygiene to a group of teen-age girls. "I thought that our charm class would work from the outside in," she explains. And then she wanted to take them home, give them a new life and make them forget their pain.

"But people said, 'No, that's the wrong way to do it. They become too dependent on you, and you become too attached to them. And it's not healthy for either one of you.' "

They also advised her to learn to "help as much as you can. And then shut it off. Well, it's hard," she complains. "It's almost impossible. I don't tear up as much as I used to. But you can't help it at times."

Selling Off the Rooms

After three years of helping with fund raising for the program, Sinatra decided to raise enough money for a permanent treatment facility. Tucking blueprints under her arm, she called on prominent residents in the valley and sold off the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center room by room.

"At first, I didn't want it to be named after me. I felt it should be named after some doctor," she says. "But now I can see one of the reasons why (the board) did it. Because they know I'm going to see that it endures. I feel responsible for it."

And, since that's her portrait hanging on a wall in the center's conference room, "it definitely gives me my own identity."

"I think she's happier now than she's ever been because she has a purpose to her life," Shore says. "It's hard to say that abused children are ever fortunate. But if they're going to find a friend outside their homes, it's good that it's Barbara."

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