A Family from Sicily
Io sono Siciliano . . .” I am Sicilian.
At the age of seventy-one, in the broiling heat of summer in 1987, Frank Sinatra was singing, not so well by that time, in the land of his fathers. “I want to say,” he told a rapt audience at Palermo’s Favorita Stadium, “that I love you dearly for coming tonight. I haven’t been in Italy for a long time—I’m so thrilled. I’m very happy.”
The crowd roared approval, especially when he said he was Sicilian, that his father was born in Sicily. Sinatra’s voice cracked a little as he spoke, and he looked more reflective than happy. At another concert, in the northern Italian city of Genoa, he had a joke for his audience. “Two very important and wonderful people came from Genoa,” he quipped. “One . . . Uno: Christopher Columbus. Due: mia Mamma . . .”
This second crowd cheered, too, though a little less enthusiastically when he mentioned that his father was Sicilian. “I don’t think,” he said wryly, “that they’re too thrilled about Sicilia.” It was a nod to northern Italians’ feelings about the island off the southernmost tip of the country. They look down on its people as backward and slothful, and because, as all the world knows, it is synonymous with organized crime. It is the island of fire and paradox, the dismembered foot of the leg of Italy. Sicily: at ten thousand square miles the largest island in the Mediterranean, a cornucopia of history that remains more remote and mysterious than anywhere in Europe.
The island’s story has been a saga of violence. Its ground heaved to earthquakes, and its volcanoes spat fire and lava, long before Christ. Its population carries the genes of Greeks and Romans, of Germanic Vandals and Arabs, of Normans and Spaniards, all of them invaders who wrote Sicily’s history in blood.
“Sicily is ungovernable,” Luigi Barzini wrote. “The inhabitants long ago learned to distrust and neutralize all written laws.” Crime was endemic, so alarmingly so that a hundred years ago the island’s crime rate was said to be the worst in Europe. By then, the outside world had already heard the spectral name that has become inseparable from that of the island—Mafia.
The origin of that word is as much a mystery as the criminal brotherhood itself, but in Sicily “mafia” has one meaning and “Mafia”—with an upper case “M”—another. For the islanders, in Barzini’s view, the word “mafia” was originally used to refer to “a state of mind, a philosophy of life, a concept of society, a moral code.” At its heart is marriage and the family, with strict parameters. Marriage is for life, divorce unacceptable and impossible.
A man with possessions or special skills was deemed to have authority, and known as a padrone. In “mafia” with a small “m,” those who lived by the code and wielded power in the community were uomini rispettati, men of respect. They were supposed to behave chivalrously, to be good family men, and their word was their bond. They set an example, and they expected to be obeyed.
The corruption of the code and the descent to criminality was rapid. Well before the dawn of the twentieth century, the Mafia with a capital “M,” though never exactly an organization, was levying tribute from farmers, controlling the minimal water supply, the builders and the businessmen, fixing prices and contracts.
Cooperation was enforced brutally. Those who spoke out in protest were killed, whatever their station in life. The Mafia made a mockery of the state, rigging elections, corrupting the politicians it favored, and terrorizing opponents. From 1860 to 1924, not a single politician from Sicily was elected to the Italian parliament without Mafia approval. The island and its people, as one early visitor wrote, were “not a dish for the timid.”
Frank Sinatra’s paternal grandfather grew up in Sicily in the years that followed the end of foreign rule, a time of social and political mayhem. His childhood and early adult years coincided with the collapse of civil authority, brutally suppressed uprisings, and the rise of the Mafia to fill the power vacuum.
Beyond that, very little has been known about the Sinatra family’s background in Sicily. The grandfather’s obituary, which appeared in the New York Times because of his famous grandson, merely had him born “in Italy” in 1884 (though his American death certificate indicates he was born much earlier, in 1866). Twice, in 1964 and in 1987, Frank Sinatra told audiences that his family had come from Catania, about as far east as one can go in Sicily. Yet he told one of his musicians, principal violist Ann Barak, that they came from Agrigento on the southwestern side of the island. His daughter Nancy, who consulted her father extensively while working on her two books about his life, wrote that her great-grandfather had been “born and brought up” in Agrigento. His name, according to her, was John.
In fact he came from neither Catania nor Agrigento, was born earlier than either of the dates previously reported, and his true name was Francesco—in the American rendering, Frank.
Sicilian baptismal and marriage records, United States immigration and census data, and interviews with surviving grandchildren establish that Francesco Sinatra was born in 1857 in the town of Lercara Friddi, in the hills of northwest Sicily. It had about ten thousand inhabitants and it was a place of some importance, referred to by some as piccolo Palermo, little Palermo.
The reason was sulfur, an essential commodity in the paper and pharmaceutical industries, in which Sicily was rich and Lercara especially so. Foreign companies reaped the profits, however, and most locals languished in poverty. The town was located, in the words of a prominent Italian editor, in “the core territory of the Mafia.” The town lies fifteen miles from Corleone, a name made famous by The Godfather and in real life a community credited with breeding more future American mafiosi than any other place in Sicily. It is just twelve miles from the Mafia stronghold of Prizzi—as in Prizzi’s Honor, the Richard Condon novel about the mob and the film based on it that starred Jack Nicholson.
It was Lercara Friddi, however, that produced the most notorious mafioso of the twentieth century. Francesco Sinatra’s hometown spawned Lucky Luciano. Luciano was “without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster,” according to one authority, and “head of the Italian underworld throughout the land,” according to a longtime head of the Chicago Crime Commission. One of his own lawyers described him as having been, quite simply, “the founder of the modern Mafia.”
Luciano, whose real name was Salvatore Lucania, was born in Lercara Friddi in 1897. Old marriage and baptismal registers show that his parents and Francesco Sinatra and his bride, Rosa Saglimbeni, were married at the church of Santa Maria della Neve within two years of each other. Luciano was baptized there, in the same font as Francesco’s first two children.
In all the years of speculation about Frank Sinatra’s Mafia links, this coincidence of origin has remained unknown. Other new information makes it very likely that the Sinatras and the Lucanias knew each other. The two families lived on the same short street, the Via Margherita di Savoia, at roughly the same time. Luciano’s address book, seized by law enforcement authorities on his death in 1962 and available today in the files of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, contains only two entries for individuals who lived in Lercara Friddi: one a member of his own family and the other a man named Saglimbeni, a relative of the woman Francesco Sinatra married. Even if the Sinatras and the Lucanias did not know each other, Luciano’s later notoriety makes it certain that the Sinatra family eventually learned that they and the gangster shared the same town of origin. Kinship and origins are important in Italian-American culture, and were even more so in the first decades of the diaspora.
As a boy, Frank Sinatra could have learned from any of several older relatives that his people and Luciano came from the same Sicilian town. He certainly should have learned it from Francesco, who lived with Sinatra’s family after his wife’s death and often minded his grandson when the boy’s parents were out.
Francesco, moreover, survived to the age of ninety-one, until long after Luciano had become an infamous household name and Frank Sinatra an internationally famous singer. Sinatra himself indicated, and a close contemporary confirmed, that he and his grandfather were “very close.” Late in life, he said he had gone out of his way to “check back” on his Sicilian ties. And yet, as we have seen, he muddied the historical waters by suggesting that his forebears came from Sicilian towns far from Lercara Friddi
That the Sinatra family came from the same town as a top mafioso was not in itself a cause for embarrassment. The reason for the obfuscation, though, may be found in the family involvement with bootlegging in Frank Sinatra’s childhood and, above all, in his own longtime relationship with Luciano himself, the extent of which can now be documented for the first time.