Tag Archive | "Frank Sinatra"

The Autumn of My Years

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As the world turns slowly and inexorably on its axis, we find ourselves once again in autumn, a season ushered in on September 21st (the Autumnal Equinox).

Warm days married to cool nights hint that summer is on the wane.  Famed in song and story, autumn marks the end of the growing season and a time of harvest, of preparing for winter.  Right now, many people who enjoy making and drinking wine are enjoying their bumper harvest of grapes.  I happen to be one of those people.

At the age of twelve, I was introduced to the art of wine making by my grandfather.  His first step was to select and order the type of grapes that he enjoyed.  After the grapes were delivered, they were crushed, and the resulting mash placed in barrels for fermentation.  Nature required about ten days to complete her initial fermentation cycle.  When they’d passed, he would press the mash and store the juice in barrels to continue the aging process.  The normal time span for the wine’s maturation was approximately six months: springtime.  Wine making is not an undertaking for an impatient soul, but it’s well worth the wait.  And there is something both comforting and satisfying in sipping a glass of wine that you yourself have created.

In the animal kingdom, the cooler, shorter days signal the fauna to begin to store food and body fat to prepare for the cold, austere winter.  Hibernating animals, such as bears, gorge themselves to prepare for a long winter’s nap before the warmth of spring returns.

Traditionally, autumn is also a time for lovers to visit the seashore or the mountains after the hubbub of summer has passed.  It’s a time to enjoy the peace and serenity of nature with one’s sweetheart and like the harvest, a time for considering the future of ones’ lives.

Aside from the wonders of nature, we senior citizens accept autumn’s bittersweet truths. Our children are all grown up and getting on with their own lives, and we reminisce over happy days gone by.  Simultaneously, the thought of a bitter cold winter is a lot less appealing than it was in our youth, and we wonder if we will see the passage of another spring.

Like the old Frank Sinatra song “The September of My Years,” the season reflects the world as we know it, while the promise of the future remains a mystery:

One day you turn around

and it’s summer.

The next day you turn around 

and it’s fall. 

And all the springs and summers 

of a lifetime: 

Whatever happened to them all? 

Old Blue Eyes’ song rings in my ears and heart at this time of year.  I find solace in this season of plenty even as I prepare for the winter of my life.



The Last Stop on Your Earthly Ride

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Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m the compassionate, slightly ghoulish son who inherited his father’s business in the hit series Six Feet Under.  Let’s pretend also, that the cosmos, or perhaps your doctor, has tipped you off to the fact that you aren’t long for this world.  Gently, but with a salesman’s deft touch, I — the young undertaker — inquire, “So, what kind of send-off do you prefer?”  Startled, you blink and stammer, “S-send off?  I’m here to discuss plans for my funeral!”  I then give you my best mortician’s smile, nod in total agreement, and haul out a thick, 4/color catalog full of options.

If this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.  Most of us cringe at the thought of facing our own demise, including how our remains will spend the rest of eternity.

My personal preference is to be cremated.  It’s quick, the going rate is more than 10 times cheaper than interment, and I like the idea of going out in a blaze of glory.  Another woman I know also prefers cremation.  She is an organ donor and hopes that there won’t be much left of her body when she leaves this Earth, so that people desperate for organs will be given a new lease on life.  She figures that since there will be so little to bury, she would like, as she’s told her family repeatedly, “to be crisped like an order of French fries.” She claims that she will come back to haunt them if her wishes are not honored!

Yet, others of my acquaintance find the thought of cremation appalling.  They rail that cremation leaves our loved ones with nothing: no headstone upon which to place flowers, no gravesite at which to mourn.   This is not an unusual perspective, given the fact that funerals are not for the dead, who can see and feel nothing, or so says the Bible (“The dead…are conscious of nothing, at all” states Ecclesiastes 9:5).  While this is a strange perspective, given the fact that the Christian faith is built upon the concept of eternal life, wakes and funerals are really designed to comfort the living.  They provide a formal, designated period of mourning before the deceased is laid to rest in the ground or placed into that great log flume going up, as Norman Greenbaum sang, “To the spirit in the sky.”

Traditional funerals, however, are extremely costly.  The current average cost for a modest wake — including embalming, the casket, the plot, and the actual burial process — is $10-$12,000.  This is a terrible financial burden for the family to bear, unless the deceased proactively purchased and paid the premiums upon an insurance policy specifically meant to foot the bill for his or her burial.  Cremation, on the other hand, goes for approximately $700-$800, including the cost of an average urn.

Burials also carry hidden costs, including the impact upon our environment.  The cheapest, and therefore the majority, of caskets have historically been made of wood, which means that a lot of trees go to their Maker along with the human dead.  In addition, the removal of trees from the land increases the threat of flooding during storms, as trees’ roots help to absorb rainwater.  The metal caskets in vogue today, while they destroy no trees, last much longer than their natural counterparts and create their own disposal and recycling problems in the future (since most funeral plots are really only rented for a period of time – usually 99 years).

Cremation, on the other hand, may hike up the air pollution level.  But considering how the research findings and warnings of former Vice President Gore and his college professor have been ignored and even discredited, nobody’s really going to give a rat’s hind end about a tad more pollution, particularly if cremation is its source.  What’s the alternative?  Taxidermy?  I think there are laws against that, or at least, I hope they are!  Cryogenic freeze?  Not all of us are rich as Michael Jackson was, to afford such an option (nor as idealistic, to believe that someone in the future will actually care enough to defrost us).

To mitigate the effects upon the environment, some so-called tree huggers are opting for cardboard caskets.  But this still requires the removal of trees from our landscape … unless one is willing to trust recycled paperboard, which as every American consumer knows, is flimsy.  I’d hate to be toted to the graveyard in a cardboard box on a rainy day.  From an environmental perspective, cremation is more desirable.  All one has to do is leave instructions for one’s ashes to be placed within, say, an empty two-liter bottle of Pepsi® or Tide®.  Recycled, indeed!!!

Another disadvantage of a traditional burial is … how shall I put this delicately, since I’m no tender funeral director in real life?  I guess there’s no delicate way to put it.   Another disadvantage to a traditional burial is that you never do know with whom you may wind up spending eternity.   As the population continues to boom and greedy real estate moguls continue to gobble up the land, space for occupied caskets has become a premium.

London, England has already adapted its famous double-decker bus design for its overcrowded cemeteries.  The British are now burying their dead two deep, one atop the other, as a space-saving strategy.  Here in New Jersey, the fourth smallest and most densely populated State in the Union, we’ve begun to do the same.  And New York, which is no slouch in the population department, is following suite.  I don’t know about you, but if there has to be a strange man atop me, I want him young, good looking, and alive!!!

Traditional funerals also tax the families emotionally, as decisions must be made as to what to place inside the coffin before it is lowered forever into its grave.   The practice of placing items into a sarcophagus initiated in ancient Egypt, with a people who understood fully that human beings spend a lot more time dead than alive.   Into those caskets of old were placed, among other things, baskets of food for sustenance in the afterlife.  Nowadays, I’ve seen a full gamut of merchandise from teddy bears to cigarettes to football jerseys tucked in beside the deceased, making me wonder sometimes if these were wakes or the aisles of Wal-Mart.  The trouble with this practice, however, is that loved ones left do not get to keep and savor those cherished mementos that so remind them of those who have passed on.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the dead were compelled to traverse the River Styx in order to reach the underworld.  In those cultures, coins were placed over the eyes of the dead as a sort of toll: a bribe to the Stygian boatman to ferry his cargo safely across the river.

In this economy, nobody’s willing to part with their hard-earned cash, even for their dead.  But down through the ages, people have inserted some interesting things into coffins.  Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, said fare-de-well with his favorite pipe and tobacco, Wild Bill Hickock took his Sharpe® rifle, and for whatever reason, Rudolph Valentino had a slave bracelet with him.  Elvis Presley was buried with a diamond ring and Andy Warhol’s casket held a bottle of Estee Lauder® perfume.  Rosary beads given to her by Mother Teresa accompanied Princess Diana to her eternal rest.  A California socialite, Sandra Illene West, took along her 1965 Ferrari.  I’m not sure if car itself served as the casket, but this lady obviously went out in style.

Humphrey Bogart had a small gold whistle from his wife, Lauren Bacall, whom he’d met on the set of the 1944 film, To Have and to Have Not.   The whistle was a reference to Lauren’s famous sultry line to Bogie, “If you need anything, just whistle.”

The Italian actor, Bela Lugosi, who never escaped the stereotype of Dracula, was buried with the cape of the character that had made him famous.  I wonder how many people Bela freaked out when he did that!  Frank Sinatra, in keeping with his Rat Pack persona, was buried with a flask of Jack Daniels®.   Although the friend I’d mentioned earlier, the lady who wishes to be cremated, never cared much for Sinatra or his music, she agrees with him about the booze.

One woman I know, proudly of Italian heritage, desires, upon her passing, nothing less than a full-blown Irish wake.  Long ago, she left her best friend a list of the musical selections she would like played at both the wake and the Mass she’s sure her survivors will insist upon.  The song played in church will be U2’s elegant and moving One Tree Hill: an epitaph that Bono wrote for a young friend of the band tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  But the church ceremony, there will be a rousing party with punk rock, hard rock, the blues, “trad” Irish music, and some reggae and salsa tossed just to keep things interesting.

This woman wants her friends and surviving family members to toast her life, not mourn it — with wine, beer, and cocktails.  She wants them to trade stories about her, funny and poignant stories; she does not wish to see them weeping as she looks down upon them enjoying their lasagna!  Most of all, she wants them to realize the brevity of life as well as the fact that one must seek joy on this Earth if one is be truly alive and not, well, the walking dead.

I sincerely hope that family members who bury their loved ones underground or in mausoleums take comfort in the knowledge that there is a physical place they can visit to remember and honor their dead.  As for me, I feel that there is nothing to honor below the ground; the minute that we close our eyes in this life, we open them again in the presence of God (and hopefully not that guy with the horns and pitchfork).  The only things we leave behind “down here” are not things at all.  They are the lives that we have touched, the inventions or sacrifices that have benefitted others, and the charities and other good causes that we have supported; in other words, the love we have given freely from our hearts to those who share our bloodlines and to those who do not.  While our souls continue in the afterlife, these are the things that truly commemorate our spirits and serve as inspiration for others after we have drawn our last breaths. 

Deconstructing Sammy: A Book Review

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A member of Hollywood’s famed Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr. appeared to have it all:  he was a five-tool entertainer.   An extremely talented artist, Sammy sang, danced, acted in film as well as the Broadway stage, and played musical instruments.   Perhaps his greatest feat was to steal the hearts of the American public, who deeply mourned his passing via throat cancer in 1990.  How then, could such a superstar, who earned in excess of $50 million over the life of his career, quit this Earth with the largest tax debt ever owed to the IRS ($7.2 million)?


Matt Birkbeck’s Deconstructing Sammy, examines and sheds light upon the personal and public circumstances surrounding this mystery.   The book’s cast of characters includes spouses and family members Altovise Davis (Sammy’s third wife), May Britt (Sammy’s second wife), Tracey Davis (his daughter with May Britt), and Mark and Jeff Davis (his adopted sons).  No biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., however, would be complete without references to the noted friends, fellow performers, and social and political leaders who figured in his life.  These include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Donald Rumsfeld.   Rumsfeld, perhaps best known for his role in the George W. Bush administration, entered Sammy’s life in his later years.


Earlier on, however, it was another politician to whom Sammy gave his fealty.  During John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in 1960, Sammy performed at various functions and fundraisers in support of Jack; in 1961, the entertainer was invited to Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural ceremony.   While Jack was still campaigning in 1960, Sammy Davis married May Britt: a blonde white woman and a Swedish actress.   The interracial marriage unleashed a slew of hate mail and death threats upon the performer that the nation had so loved before he had dared to cross the “color” Line.   As a result of the death threats or perhaps because of the racially-charge controversy, JFK rescinded his invitation to the Inauguration.   Although Sammy was hurt and devastated by what he had viewed as a betrayal, he went on to align himself with another Presidential hopeful twelve years later.


Sammy believed that unlike Kennedy, Richard Nixon, who took the Presidential oath in 1972, genuinely wanted his support in order to garner a larger share of Black America’s vote for the Republican Party.  Donald Rumsfeld, who had been a member of Nixon’s staff, befriended Sammy and Altovise.   He was a regular visitor to Sammy’s home in the 1980s and remained friends with the family after the actor/singer’s death.


In telling the tale of Sammy Davis Jr.’s financial downfall, Matt Birkbeck intertwines the story with the efforts of former federal prosecutor Albert (Sonny) Murray to reduce the actor’s tax debt and restore Sammy’s estate and legacy. 


Perhaps the story really began with a love unrequited.  Sammy and Altovise had an “open marriage”, which took its toll on her; she used alcohol to cope with the situation.  All she seemed to want was Sammy’s love and affection, but aside from public appearances, he had cut her out of his life.  In the years before his cancer diagnosis, Sammy had a live-in mistress as well as a self-serving staff whose cowardly acts only surfaced as Sammy was dying of throat cancer.  During his illness, his employees stole his memorabilia, jewelry, and artwork.  Altovise, who remained in Sammy’s life as he battled cancer, also helped herself to her ex-husband’s cash, jewelry, and other valuables, which she packaged up and shipped to friends and family members.  After Sammy’s death, she behaved no better than the rag pickers in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carole” as they ransacked the death bed of Ebenezer Scrooge:  Altovise not only took the remaining jewelry from Sammy’s body, before he was buried, she took his glass eye!


Sammy Davis’ live-for-the-moment attitude, overindulgent spending, gambling debts, and association with some unsavory characters who handled his finances, compounded by his non-involvement in key financial decisions, all led to his near bankruptcy before his death in 1990.


The major highlight of this book is Sonny Murray’s courageous, seven-year-long fight on behalf of Altovise Davis and the Sammy Davis Jr. estate to restore the dignity of this American Icon.  Part of Sonny’s contributions was to facilitate Altovise’s entry into rehab for her drinking problem.  Unfortunately, Altovise showed her appreciation for all of Sonny’s work by firing him, but not before he had secured a settlement from the IRS for pennies on the dollar and brokered a major CD deal with Rhino Records.   Over the life of his endeavor, Sonny Murray racked up billable hours in excess of $500,000, for which he was paid pennies on every dollar.


I highly recommend this book and give it an “A.”    Its author, Matt Birkbeck, is an award winning investigative journalist who has written for numerous publications.  To find out more about the author, please visit his Website.

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