A Fight For The Gold

Hundreds Of Lawmakers Would Like To Award Frank Sinatra The Congressional Gold Medal, Citing His Beautiful Music. Celebrity Biographer Kitty Kelley Votes No, Citing What She Calls His Ugly Past.

April 21, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Frank Sinatra and Kitty Kelley are at it again, locked in a bitter squabble that has all the makings of a grudge match: pugnacious, press-hating crooner vs. celebrity-stalking biographer. He sued her even before she pulverized him in print.

This time, though, their battle is being played out in the halls of the Capitol, where "Old Blue Eyes" has no shortage of fans. His admirers are rushing to honor the ailing, 81-year-old singer with a Congressional Gold Medal before the final curtain falls on his half-century career.

"It's an act of love," declares Rep. Jose E. Serrano during a break from buttonholing colleagues on the House floor. The New York Democrat has already collected about 280 of the 290 co-sponsors he needs to bring the legislation up for a final House vote. "Sinatra's music brought romance to my life," he explains.

Offering the lone public voice of resistance is Kelley, the author of the scalding best seller "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra." Citing research from her book, she argues Sinatra is too "tainted" by unsavory ties to organized crime to receive the same medal as George Washington, Thomas Edison and Bob Hope.

"The Congressional Gold Medal is the most prestigious honor Congress can bestow," Kelley says. "I think it should be reserved for giants -- not someone whose best friends were Matty the Horse and Jerry the Crusher."

Sinatra's defenders think she's just being spiteful.

"It's sad that somebody would be so mean-spirited," says Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, a New York Republican who whisked the Sinatra medal bill through the Senate in February on a unanimous voice vote.

The senator takes quick and thunderous umbrage at Kelley's charges that Sinatra is not qualified for the medal because of his alleged business and personal dealings with reputed Mafia don Sam Giancana. According to Kelley, the two shared a mistress with John F. Kennedy while he was in the White House.

"I find that characterization offensive," D'Amato says, creating a small scene in the middle of his office. "I don't know anything about that. I think it's an easy thing to go out and trivialize those kind of things, and do great damage to people and their reputations. Obviously, Kitty, whoever she is, just doesn't give a darn. She's more interested in generating publicity."

Kelley is a Washington-based author who has made a fortune out of lurid chronicles of the lives of not just Sinatra, but Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan. She denies that either grudge or profit have anything to do with her objections to the Sinatra medal.

"Frank Sinatra filed a lawsuit against me before I even finished the book, but I'm grateful to him; he gave me a very colorful life to write about," she says in a telephone interview. "The book was number one on the best seller list and sold over a million copies."

Though she has written two essays -- published in Newsweek and the New York Daily News -- opposing the Sinatra medal, Kelley insists: "This is not a campaign. I just have a difference of opinion with Senator D'Amato."

Popularity counts

Opinion is about all that matters in the selection of gold medal recipients. There is no criteria beyond popularity. Technically, Sinatra could get one even if he'd been a Mafia don himself.

About 200 people have received the Congressional Gold Medal. The first was awarded to George Washington in 1776 for "wise and spirited conduct" in driving the British out of Boston as commander of the Continental Army. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the gold medals went mostly to military heroes.

Eventually, though, the medal evolved into the civilian equivalent of the Medal of Honor, which is bestowed only for military achievement. By the late 1800s, medals began going to philanthropists, inventors and explorers. In this century, the list has expanded dramatically to embrace scientists, aviators, musicians, artists, authors and entertainers. Among the diverse collection of Americans honored are Walter Reed, who discovered the cause of yellow fever, composers George and Ira Gershwin, Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, painter Andrew Wyeth, poet Robert Frost, civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and Lady Bird Johnson.

A handful of non-Americans have also received the medal, including Elie Wiesel, leading spokesman for victims of the Holocaust, and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Only a few politicians have rated the tribute, among them Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy.

The most recent recipients were evangelist Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, who were voted the honor last year.

Not all those awarded congressional gold medals have led sainted lives. In fact, a number have been quite controversial. But their dirty laundry wasn't aired before they received the medal.

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