Frank Sinatra's reaction to tabloid photographer

September 02, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

It was once my privilege to be challenged to a public duel by Frank Sinatra.

He was upset because I questioned the wasteful assignment of several Chicago cops to guard his hotel suite while he performed this city.

In doing so, I made a fleeting reference to what appeared to be his splendid hairpiece.

Angered by the suggestion that his tresses had been purchased, he sent a lunk over with a letter in which he called me a pimp and offered to let me pull his hair.

The deal was, if the hair moved, he would pay me a large sum of money. But if the hair held firm to his scalp, he would punch me in the mouth.

The challenge was intriguing. Even if I lost, I could probably charge admirers of Ol' Blue Eyes a fee to examine or photograph my split lip. And if he knocked out one of my teeth, I could sell it to a collector for a small fortune.

But I declined because I thought that a bout of hair pulling and mouth punching would not be dignified behavior by two supposedly mature persons. And if he punched me in the mouth, I probably couldn't resist asking for his autograph, which would be even less dignified.

However, I did auction off his signed letter to the highest bidder and turned the proceeds over to a worthy charity, so some good came out of the foolish flap.

As a proud veteran of a Sinatra tiff, I believe it is my duty to defend him in his most recent altercation with the press.

If you are a reader of a sleazy tabloid called the Globe, you know about this incident. But if you read the Globe, it's unlikely that you read a respectable paper, so I'll tell you about it.

The big headlines shrieked "Ol' Blue Mouth," and "Screaming Sinatra threatens GLOBE photog with a big stick -- and here's the pictures to prove it."

A sequence of pictures did indeed show Sinatra losing his poise. They showed Sinatra and his wife coming out of a restaurant; the wife gesturing for the photographer to go away; Sinatra getting angry; Sinatra looking in a Dumpster for a weapon; and finally Sinatra glaring at the photographer while brandishing a piece of broomstick.

The story said that Sinatra told the photographer: "Come here, you [bleep] rat [bleep]. I'll break your camera, you low-life [bleep] scum."

Then, the account said, Sinatra flung the broomstick at the cameraperson before his wife and daughter persuaded him to get in the car so they could go home.

And what was this photographer's reaction to the incident? Had he been honest, he would have said something like this:

"I was thrilled out of my shoes by Sinatra's furious reaction. I knew that if I just kept clicking, I would have a spread of sensational photos for this cheap, sleazy tabloid, and my sleazy editors would be delighted and might give me a bonus for my sleazy efforts. Had Sinatra just smiled and waved at the camera, I would have been crushed. Who needs friendly photos, for Pete's sake? But he rose to the bait. What a great guy."

Instead, the photographer, Mike Ferguson, was quoted as saying: "If the scene wasn't so laughable, it would have been tragic. Here's a 78-year-old man threatening me with a broomstick. It was pathetic."

What ingratitude. What an ungracious remark. Pathetic? I will tell this camera-clicker what strikes me as being pathetic.

We live in an incredible world, full of amazing sights. The sun rising over snow-capped mountains. Beautiful birds flitting through exotic trees. The tragedy of war and famine, crime and punishment, the miracle of birth, the sadness of death.

All these sights and thousands of others waiting to be captured on film by a sensitive and courageous photographer.

But what does this bozo do with his journalistic talent? He spends an evening lurking outside a Hollywood restaurant so he can stick a camera in the face of a 78-year-old show business legend and irritate him into cranky behavior. Now that is pathetic.

I'm sure this photographer was once a newborn baby, as most of us were. And his proud parents looked at him with joy and wondered, as parents will, what he would do with his life. Become president, a hero, a great athlete or artist?

How would they have reacted if that little tot had looked at them and gurgled: "I am going to grow up to be a photog for a sleazy supermarket tabloid, and I am going to skulk outside of Tinseltown restaurants and pop flashbulbs in the faces of an elderly singer, his wife and daughter after they have finished dinner, hoping he will get angry and threaten me. It is my destiny."

Why, they surely would have thrown that baby out with the bath water, and who could fault them? Then they could have sold the story to the Globe.

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