This post comes to us from Miriam Kleiman, Program Director for Public Affairs.
After 20 years at the National Archives (first as a researcher, then employee), I’m still delighted to discover new (to me) archival treasures. Not so long ago, a reporter asked me if the Archives had any Frank Sinatra–related records to mark the centennial of his birth in December 2015.
I began a search and discovered the fascinating story of his ill-fated 1974 Australian concert tour.
To put it mildly, things did not go his way—according to diplomatic cables titled “Frank Sinatra Brouhaha” and “the Frank Sinatra affair,” which were declassified in 2005. This was a different kind of affair for Sinatra—he excited not another bombshell, but the powerful leader of the Australian trade unions.
President Nixon, Pat Nixon, President and Mrs. Giulio Andreotti of Italy pose after Frank Sinatra’s East Room performance at the State Dinner honoring President Andreotti. April 17, 1973. (Richard Nixon Library)
He got under their skin . . .
The 58-year-old crooner arrived in Melbourne via private jet on July 9, 1974. Following a decade of weak record sales, even weaker movies and a short-lived retirement, Sinatra’s “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back” comeback tour included five concerts in Australia—two in Melbourne and three in Sydney.
Reporters swarmed him upon arrival, but he refused to grant interviews. Lacking new material, the press instead wrote of his alleged mafia ties and ran photos of his many female companions captioned “Sinatra’s molls.”
Following his opening number at the Melbourne concert that evening, Sinatra (on stage) expressed frustration with the Australian press:
They keep chasing after us. We have to run all day long. They’re parasites who take everything and give nothing. And as for the broads who work for the press, they’re the hookers of the press. I might offer them a buck and a half. I’m not sure.
Objecting to such characterizations, the Australian Journalists’ Union demanded an apology the next morning, July 10. Sinatra refused.
Robert Hawke, head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (and a future Prime Minister of Australia) seized the opportunity and intensified the brouhaha by mobilizing other unions. Theatrical unions cancelled Sinatra’s second Melbourne concert. Transport Workers Union members refused to refuel Sinatra’s private jet. Hotel union members would not serve the Sinatra party or handle their luggage.
Reporters circled the unhappy singer as he left his Melbourne hotel for the airport, and “some roughhouse between security men protecting Sinatra and press” resulted in injuries, further heightening tensions and anti-Sinatra backlash. The group then flew via commercial plane to Sydney, allegedly under assumed names.
Can’t refuel, can’t fly away . . .
Sinatra arrived in Sydney to learn that the theatrical unions had canceled his three Sydney concerts. And he was trapped—he could fly neither private nor commercial: the Transport Workers Union “refused fuel to any commercial aircraft which might carry Sinatra.”
Union head Hawke raised the stakes further, threatening: “If you don’t apologize your stay in this country could be indefinite. You won’t be allowed to leave Australia unless you can walk on water.”
U.S. diplomats were on standby. “Anticipating the possibility” that Sinatra might need assistance, the U.S. Consul General in Sydney, Norman Hannah, called Australian Labor Party leader John Ducker July 12 and “distinguished between and ordinary labor action and a threat to impede Mr. Sinatra’s freedom of movement, including holding him hostage in Australia” [emphasis added].
Hannah cited the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees “the right of everyone to leave any country.” He cabled DC: “Ducker took the point. . . . We both agreed the matter should be resolved amicably through negotiations.”
Hours later, Sinatra’s attorney Milton Rudin asked to meet with Hannah at Sinatra’s hotel at 4 p.m. “to discuss the situation.” Rudin claimed the press had “grievously distorted and exaggerated” Sinatra’s remarks (despite the fact that the concert was recorded). Rudin was “particularly worried about the threat to prevent Sinatra from departing and I assured him that were this threat carried out, this would be a matter of great concern to us.”
After the Rudin-Hannah meeting, Ducker, Rudin, and Hawke met for nearly four hours, “during part of which they were joined by 15 repeat 15 independent Union representatives (and consumed considerable quantities of Rudin’s cigars and Chivas Regal)” Hannah reported [emphasis added]. It was almost midnight before a compromise was reached. Sinatra refused to apologize but agreed to sign a statement that he “did not intend any general reflection upon the moral character of working members of the Australian media”and regretted both “any physical injury resulting from attempts to ensure his safety” and the inconvenience to patrons.
Let me try again . . .
His last Sydney concert was rescheduled. He was more reserved on stage this time, noting only: “What a bunch of coconuts we’ve had this week!”
Hannah relayed “all’s well that ends well” update July 16—stating that he had seen Rudin at that concert, and “he expressed gratification with the resolution of last week’s confrontation.” Another U.S. diplomat in Australia cabled the State Department praising Hannah’s “effective discreet initiative . . . to help promote satisfactory resolution of the Frank Sinatra affair.”
Sinatra and his entourage then did fly away.
“A funny thing happened in Australia,” he later told an audience in New York. “I made a mistake and got off the plane.”
Surprisingly, Old Blue Eyes returned to Australia to perform in 1988, 1989, and 1991.