Frank & Julie
March 14, 2017
By Will Friedwald for Cabaret Scenes
2015: As the year of Frank Sinatra’s centennial dawned, I could name two women who still walked among us who had known Sinatra when he was a young man. One, famously, was the former Nancy Barbato, who since 1939 has been known as Mrs. Frank Sinatra. At the time of her own 99th birthday (September 11, 2016) “Big Nancy,” as she is also known (all five feet of her), was still cooking big Sunday night dinners for her children and grandchildren and, recently, her great-grandchild.
The other was the legendary supper club chanteuse Julie Wilson, who had turned 90 in October, 2014. I had seen Julie in performance many times, and interviewed her more than once, specifically on Sinatra. I knew the usual stories she told, how Frank came to see her in London in 1950, while he was still married to Big Nancy, but on a very public tryst with Ava Gardner; how Frank and Ava heard her sing “London by Night,” written by a friend of hers named Carroll Coates; how Ava, who had great taste in music, liked the song and told Frank he should sing it. How Frank thanked Julie for introducing him to the song. (And, parenthetically, that’s at least partially why Sinatra recorded “London by Night” so often – because it always reminded him of the great love of his life.) One of Julie’s favorite stories involved a piece of advice that Sinatra had given to her: “You’re a great gal,” he said, “but you sleep with all the wrong men.” (At Julie’s memorial concert, singer-entertainer Sidney Myer piped up, “To think that I have something in common with Julie Wilson!”)
In March 2015, I was enjoying a visit from the great love of my own life. Patty always made a point to check up on Julie whenever she was in town, to take her to lunch and spend quality time with her. Together, we had interviewed Julie more than once: about the Persian Room, about the Playboy Club and TV show, and other aspects of her long career. But Patty had the idea of talking to Julie about the Copacabana, which we had never done, and she asked me if I wanted to come along. Of course I did. My principal motivation was to spend a little more time with Patty, but I also welcomed the opportunity to pay a call on Julie again. Then, too, I knew that Julie’s close companion and virtual kid sister, the charming Debbie Dampiere, would be with us, which was another good reason to go. (With all that femininity around—in that multitude of pulchritude —I could easily pass out from an overload of estrogen.)
So I had plenty of reasons to visit with Julie at her son Holt’s apartment on West 55th Street, but, frankly, I wasn’t actually expecting to learn anything new. I was in for a surprise. We asked her about the Copa and, to my surprise, it turned out to be a road that led back to Sinatra.
In 1946, Julie, aged 21, was working at the Copa. She looked like a chorus girl, but she was in fact part of the vocal ensemble, the choir that backed up the headliners. And she was also starting to be given the occasional solo part. The first time she met Sinatra was during the run of the spring show, when he came in to hear Joe E. Lewis, already one of his heroes. (Interestingly, she remembered Lewis primarily as a “great singer” rather than a comedian.) This was the nightclub revue that introduced “The Coffee Song,” and that was where Sinatra heard it (he would record that song more than once as well).
A few months later, the act slated to headline the fall 1946 show was the comedy team of Phil Silvers and John Lee Morgan Beauregard Ragland “Rags” Ragland. For most of his long career, Silvers was a single, but he was always funniest when he worked with someone, and Rags was a perfect foil. Where Silvers was a fast talking, highly-verbal comic, Ragland’s style was contrastingly slower and more physical. They fell into the familiar vaudeville pattern of a sharpie and a stooge, and they were, by all reports, dynamite together, what Variety might describe a surefire “socko” comedy act.
A lot was riding on the team’s September 1946 opening at the Copa, but, to everyone’s horror, Ragland died suddenly of Uremia only about two weeks prior. Silvers had decided to go on as a solo act, but was nervous and frightened without his partner. He asked his longtime friend Frank to help out, but Sinatra was contractually obligated to stay in Hollywood, where he was supposed to be filming his latest MGM movie, titled It Happened in Brooklyn (despite the title, it was actually being shot in Culver City, California). Then, at the last minute, Sinatra, who was already perpetually in trouble with MGM for acting like he had a mind of his own (in those days, the movie studios essentially owned all the actors they had under contract, who never questioned the orders they were given), suddenly decided to play hooky from Hollywood. He unexpectedly hopped a plane to New York, and presented himself to Phil Silvers—on the afternoon of the opening—as the funnyman’s new stooge.
Louis B. Mayer was horrified at first, but Sinatra’s selfless act of pitching in and helping out two pals, one living and one departed, was a bonanza of positive publicity—the whole country was buzzing about Silvers and Sinatra at the Copa. Most of these details are recounted in several biographies of Sinatra, including James Kaplan’s wonderful The Voice. (Even the dreadful Kitty Kelly had to acknowledge it.) Yet, somehow none of us realized that Julie Wilson was right there, smack dab in the middle of the entire incident.
Ah yes, she remembered it well. “And then, it came the opening night for Phil Silvers, and Rags Ragland died, and Sinatra flew in and didn’t tell anybody—showed up to be his sidekick. Isn’t that nice? I was there. And Frank said, ‘C’mon Julie, we’re going to do a song together, the three of us.’ It was Phil Silvers, Frank, and I was the girl singer. I still remember the song,…” at this point in the interview, Julie started singing to us, “I’ve flown around the world in a plane … I can’t get started, with you.” She added, “I was I was so thrilled I could hardly talk.”
Julie later guest starred on Sgt. Bilko with Silvers, and would cross paths with Sinatra again more than once, including that London encounter. But that was the only time she ever sang with him. “He was a very nice guy, you know? He’d show up when people were in need. So I felt very lucky—yeah, I got to do that one song with him.”
Even at 90, with her soul slowly leaving her body, Julie was still an amazing storyteller and even though she could barely remember names or lyrics at that point, for an hour or so she had transported all three of us — Patty, Debbie, and myself — back to the Copacabana, 1946. Then, she was finished with her story. All of a sudden, we were back in the apartment once more, not even ten blocks away—but 70 years away.
Patty and I couldn’t have known then that this was the last time we would ever see Julie, that she would die a few weeks later on Easter Sunday. But, even then, it felt like a transcendent moment.
And the last words that Julie Wilson ever said to me were about Sinatra. “He was such a kind man.” Then, to make sure she wouldn’t be misunderstood, she took my hand in hers and pulled me closer to her, looked me straight in the eye, and repeated it, for emphasis. “He was a kind, kind man.”
Will Friedwald, Harlem, New York, 2016
Editor’s Note: The above is the post-script from the forthcoming expanded and revised edition of Sinatra: The Song Is You, to be published by Chicago Review Press in May, 2018 (on the 20th anniversary of Sinatra’s death).
 The late Jean Bach told me a similar story regarding Sinatra’s unexpected kindness: in the mid-1960s, she went into a small piano bar on New York’s Upper East End. The pianist was Walter Gross, who had earlier been an important keyboardist and conductor on network radio, who, as a songwriter, had composed the music for the popular standard “Tenderly” (lyrics: Jack Lawrence). One night Sinatra came in, stayed for a few minutes, and asked Gross if he could sing “Tenderly.” He did, and Gross accompanied him—the pianist was too drunk to have any consciousness of what he was doing or who was singing, but he was able to play the melody by rote. When Sinatra finished, he dropped a hundred dollar bill into the tip jar, and left.