A Respect For Life — In Any Form  

The Playboy Interview with Frank Sinatra:

Back in 1963 Joe Hyams interviewed Frank Sinatra for Playboy. Published in three parts, it showed a largely unknown side of this complex artist. Here we edit the original to focus on Sinatra's humanistic beliefs. The full interview can be found on Longform.org

Many Australians would have a negative view of Sinatra's political stance, even if older generations remember his great voice and sex appeal as an actor. Apart from his womanizing ways and Mafia connections, he also came off second best in a 1974 stoush with Bob Hawke, originating in supposedly anti-union remarks.

His last hit song, My Way has been said to epitomize Sinatra - chauvinistic, narcissistic, unapologetc and grandiose. An interesting fact is that it was written by Paul Anka as a rip-off of the French classic Comme d'Habitude. From all that's been written, Sinatra emerges as a conflicted, self-centred weakling with powerful friends, who called the shots. We have to "dig" to get at the man's real beliefs. But as the edited interview shows, we can always learn from anyone - when we listen.

Sinatra: Most of what has been written about me is one big blur, but I do remember being described in one simple word that I agree with. It was in a piece that tore me apart for my personal behavior, but the writer said that when the music began and I started to sing, I was “honest.” That says it as I feel it. Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe. I’m honest. If you want to get an audience with you, there’s only one way. You have to reach out to them with total honesty and humility. This isn’t a grandstand play on my part; I’ve discovered — and you can see it in other entertainers — when they don’t reach out to the audience, nothing happens. You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but an audience is like a broad — if you’re indifferent, endsville. That goes for any kind of human contact: a politician on television, an actor in the movies, or a guy and a gal. That’s as true in life as it is in art.

Playboy: From what you’ve said, it seems that we’ll have to learn something of what makes you tick as a man in order to understand what motivates you as an entertainer. Would it be all right with you if we attempt to do just that — by exploring a few of the fundamental beliefs which move and shape your life?

Sinatra: Look, pal, is this going to be an ocean cruise or a quick sail around the harbor? Like you, I think, I feel, I wonder. I know some things, I believe in a thousand things, and I’m curious about a million more. Be more specific.

Playboy: All right, let’s start with the most basic question there is: Are you a religious man? Do you believe in God?

Sinatra: Well, that’ll do for openers. I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me. I’m like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in that I have a respect for life — in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don’t believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But to me religion is a deeply personal thing in which man and God go it alone together, without the witch doctor in the middle. The witch doctor tries to convince us that we have to ask God for help, to spell out to him what we need, even to bribe him with prayer or cash on the line. Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It’s not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount.

. . . There are things about organized religion which I resent. Christ is revered as the Prince of Peace, but more blood has been shed in His name than any other figure in history. You show me one step forward in the name of religion and I’ll show you a hundred retrogressions. Remember, they were men of God who destroyed the educational treasures at Alexandria, who perpetrated the Inquisition in Spain, who burned the witches at Salem. Over 25,000 organized religions flourish on this planet, but the followers of each think all the others are miserably misguided and probably evil as well. In India they worship white cows, monkeys and a dip in the Ganges. The Moslems accept slavery and prepare for Allah, who promises wine and revirginated women. And witch doctors aren’t just in Africa. If you look in the LA papers of a Sunday morning, you’ll see the local variety advertising their wares like suits with two pairs of pants.

Playboy: Hasn’t religious faith just as often served as a civilizing influence?

Sinatra: Remember that leering, cursing lynch mob in Little Rock reviling a meek, innocent little 12-year-old Negro girl as she tried to enroll in public school? Weren’t they — or most of them—devout churchgoers? I detest the two- faced who pretend liberality but are practiced bigots in their own mean little spheres. I didn’t tell my daughter whom to marry, but I’d have broken her back if she had had big eyes for a bigot. As I see it, man is a product of his conditioning, and the social forces which mold his morality and conduct — including racial prejudice — are influenced more by material things like food and economic necessities than by the fear and awe and bigotry generated by the high priests of commercialized superstition. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m for decency — period. I’m for anything and everything that bodes love and consideration for my fellow man. But when lip service to some mysterious deity permits bestiality on Wednesday and absolution on Sunday — cash me out.

Playboy: But aren’t such spiritual hypocrites in a minority? Aren’t most Americans fairly consistent in their conduct within the precepts of religious doctrine?

Sinatra: I’ve got no quarrel with men of decency at any level. But I can’t believe that decency stems only from religion. And I can’t help wondering how many public figures make avowals of religious faith to maintain an aura of respectability. Our civilization, such as it is, was shaped by religion, and the men who aspire to public office anyplace in the free world must make obeisance to God or risk immediate opprobrium. Our press accurately reflects the religious nature of our society, but you’ll notice that it also carries the articles and advertisements of astrology and hokey Elmer Gantry revivalists. We in America pride ourselves on freedom of the press, but every day I see, and so do you, this kind of dishonesty and distortion not only in this area but in reporting — about guys like me, for instance, which is of minor importance except to me; but also in reporting world news. How can a free people make decisions without facts? If the press reports world news as they report about me, we’re in trouble.

. . . have you thought of the chance I’m taking by speaking out this way? Can you imagine the deluge of crank letters, curses, threats and obscenities I’ll receive after these remarks gain general circulation? Worse, the boycott of my records, my films, maybe a picket line at my opening at the Sands. Why? Because I’ve dared to say that love and decency are not necessarily concomitants of religious fervor.

Playboy: All right, then, let’s move on to another delicate subject: disarmament. How do you feel about the necessity and possibility of achieving it?

Sinatra: Well, that’s like apple pie and mother — how can you be against it? After all, despite the universal and unanimous assumption that both powers — Russia and the United States — already have stockpiled more nuclear weaponry than is necessary to vaporize the entire planet, each power continues to build, improve and enlarge its terrifying arsenal. For the first time in history, man has developed the means with which to expunge all life in one shuddering instant. And, brother, no one gets a pass, no one hides from this one. But the question is not so much whether disarmament is desirable or even whether it can be achieved, but whether — if we were able to achieve it — we would be better off, or perhaps infinitely worse off.

. . . Look, I’m a realist, or at least I fancy myself one. Just as I believe that religion doesn’t always work, so do I feel that disarmament may be completely beyond man’s capacity to live with. Let’s forget for a moment the complex problems we might face in converting from a cold war to a peace economy. Let’s examine disarmament in terms of man’s political, social and philosophical conditioning. Let’s say that somehow the UN is able to achieve a disarmament program acceptable to all nations. Let’s imagine, a few years from now, total global disarmament. But imagine as well the gnawing doubts, suspicions and nerve-wracking tensions which must, inevitably, begin to fill the void: the fear that the other side—or perhaps some third power — is secretly arming or still holding a few bombs with which to surprise and overcome the other. But I firmly believe that nuclear war is absolutely impossible. I don’t think anyone in the world wants a nuclear war — not even the Russians. They and we and the nth countries — as nuclear strategists refer to future nuclear powers — face the incontrovertible certainty of lethal retaliation for any nuclear strike. I can’t believe for a moment that the idiot exists in any nation that will push the first button — not even accidentally.

. . . if somehow all those involved in production of implements of destruction were willing to accept reason as well as reasonable profit, I think that a shift in psychology might be possible. And if this were to happen, I believe that the deep-seated terror in the hearts of most people due to the constant threat of total destruction would disappear. The result would be a more positive, less greedy, less selfish and more loving approach to survival. I can tell you this much from personal experience and observation: Hate solves no problems. It only creates them.

Playboy: Do you feel, then, that nuclear testing should be continued?

Sinatra: Absolutely not. I think it’s got to stop, and I think it will stop — because it has to stop. The name-calling in the UN and the finger-pointing at peace conferences is just a lot of diplomatic bull. Both sides have to live on this planet, and leaders in all countries know that their children and grandchildren have to live here, too. I suspect that when the limits of strontium 90 in the atmosphere get really dangerous, scientists in both camps will persuade the politicians to call a final halt to testing — probably at precisely the same time, with no urging from the other side.

Playboy: You spoke a moment ago of the fear and suspicion that might nullify any plan for lasting and effective disarmament. Isn’t continuing nuclear preparedness — with or without further testing—likely to engender these emotions on an even more dangerous scale?

Sinatra: Fear is the enemy of logic. There is no more debilitating, crushing, self-defeating, sickening thing in the world — to an individual or to a nation. If we continue to fear the Russians, and if they continue to fear us, then we’re both in big trouble. Neither side will be able to make logical, reasoned decisions. I think, however, that their fear and concern over the ideological balance of power in some areas is far from irrational. Our concern over a Sovietized Cuba 90 miles from Key West, for instance, must be equated with Russian concern over our missile bases surrounding them. It is proper that we should be deeply concerned, but we must be able to see their side of the coin — and not let this concern turn into fear on either side.

Playboy: On a practical level, how would you combat Communist expansion into areas such as Cuba, Laos and the emerging African nations?

Sinatra: It strikes me as being so ridiculously simple: Stop worrying about communism; just get rid of the conditions that nurture it. Sidestepping Marxian philosophy and dialectical vagaries, I think that communism can fester only wherever and whenever it is encouraged to breed — not just by the Communists themselves, but by depressed social and economic conditions: and we can always count on the Communists to exploit those conditions. Poverty is probably the greatest asset the Communists have. Wherever it exists, anyplace in the world, you have a potential Communist breeding ground. It figures that if a man is frustrated in a material sense, his family hungry, he suffers, he broods and he becomes susceptible to the blandishments of any ideology that promises to take him off the hook.

Playboy: Do you share with the American Right Wing an equal concern about the susceptibility of our own country to Communist designs?

Sinatra: Well, if you’re talking about that poor, beaten, dehumanized, discriminated-against guy in some blighted Tobacco Road down in the South, he’s certainly in the market for offers of self-improvement. But you can’t make me believe that a machinist in Detroit, ending a 40-hour week, climbing into his ’63 Chevy, driving to a steak barbecue behind his $25,000 home in a tree-lined subdivision, about to begin a weekend with his well-fed, well-clothed family, is going to trade what he’s got for a Party card. In America — except for tiny pockets of privation which still persist — Khrushchev has as much chance of succeeding as he has of making 100 straight passes at the crap table.

Playboy: In combating Communist expansion into underdeveloped areas here and abroad, what can we do except to offer massive material aid and guidance of the kind we’ve been providing since the end of World War II?

Sinatra: I don’t know. I’m no economist. I don’t pretend to have much background in political science. But this much I know: Attending rallies sponsored by 110-percent anti-Communist cultists or donning white sheets and riding with the Klan — the one that’s spelled with a “K” — isn’t the answer. All I know is that a nation with our standard of living, with our Social Security system, TVA, farm parity, health plans and unemployment insurance can afford to address itself to the cancers of starvation, substandard housing, educational voids and second-class citizenship that still exist in many backsliding areas of our own country. When we’ve cleaned up these blemishes, then we can go out with a clean conscience to see where else in the world we can help. Hunger is inexcusable in a world where grain rots in silos and butter turns rancid while being held for favorable commodity indices.

Playboy: Is American support of the UN one of the ways in which we can uplift global economic conditions?

Sinatra: It seems to me that a lot of us consider the UN a private club—ours, of course—with gentlemen’s agreements just like any other exclusive club. Only instead of excluding a person, a race or a religion, the members of the UN have the power to exclude entire nations. I don’t happen to think you can kick 800,000,000 Chinese under the rug and simply pretend that they don’t exist. Because they do. If the UN is to be truly representative, then it must accept all the nations of the world. If it doesn’t represent the united nations of the world, then what the hell have you got? Not democracy—and certainly not world government. Everybody seems to have forgotten that President Kennedy, before he became President, in his book, Strategy of Peace, plainly advocated recognition of Red China. So I’m not too far out on the limb, am I?

Playboy: With or without mainland China in the UN, what do you feel are the prospects for an eventual American rapprochement with Russia?

Sinatra: I’m a singer, not a prophet or a diplomat. Ask the experts or read the Rockefeller brothers’ reports. But speaking just as a layman, an ordinary guy who thinks and worries, I think that if we can stay out of war for the next 10 years, we’ll never have another war. From all I’ve read and seen recently, I’m betting that within the next decade the Russians will be on the credit-card kick just as we are. They’re going to want color TV, their wives are going to want electrified kitchens, their kids are going to want hot rods. Even Russian girls are getting hip; I’ve seen photos of them at Russian beach resorts, and it looks just like the Riviera. They’re thinning down, and I see they’re going the bikini route. When GUM department store in Moscow starts selling bikinis, we’ve got a fighting chance, because that means the girls are interested in being girls and the boys are going to stop thinking about communes and begin thinking connubially. I’ve always had a theory that whenever guys and gals start swinging, they begin to lose interest in conquering the world. They just want a comfortable pad and stereo and wheels, and their thoughts turn to the good things of life—not to war. They loosen up, they live and they’re more apt to let live. Dig?

Playboy: We dig.

Sinatra: You know, I’d love to visit Russia, and sometime later, China, too. I figure the more I know about them and the more they know about me, the better chance we have of living in the same world in peace. I don’t intend to go there with a mission, to sell the American way of life; I’m not equipped to get into that kind of discussion about government. But I’d love to go and show them American music. I’d take Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald with me and we’d do what we do best. We’d wail up a storm with real American jazz so that their kids could see what kind of music our kids go for, because I’m sure that kids are the same all over the world. I’m betting that they’d dig us. And that’s got to create some kind of good will, and man, a little good will is something we could use right now. All it takes is good will and a smile to breach that language barrier. When the Moiseyev Dancers were in Los Angeles, Eddie and Liz Fisher gave a party for them, and although I couldn’t speak a word of Russian, I got along fine. I just said, “Hello, baby” to the dancers and they shouted, “Allo, babee” back at me. We had a ball.

. . . I’m never cynical, never without optimism about the future. The history of mankind proves that at some point the people have their innings, and I think we’re about to come up to bat now. I think we can make it if we live and let live. And love one another — I mean really love. If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he’s just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hope’s and fears. It’s one world, pal. We’re all neighbors. But didn’t somebody once go up onto a mountain long ago and say the same thing to the world?