Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Frank Sinatra and The Mob

An Offer He Couldn't Refuse

Young Frank Sinatra (CORBIS)
Young Frank Sinatra (CORBIS)

Like the fictional character Johnny Fontane in Mario Puzo's The Godfather, young Frank Sinatra found a paternalistic Mafia godfather in New Jersey gangster Willie Moretti, a.k.a. "Willie Moore." Born in 1894, Moretti, who used the alias "Willie Moore," provided the muscle for his longtime racketeering partner, Longy Zwillman. At the height of his power, Moretti controlled a gang of 60 vicious enforcers who would break bones—or worse—on his command. Besides contract murders, extortion schemes and illegal gambling, Moretti was heavily involved with narcotics trafficking, and he often worked in cooperation with New York mobsters Lucky Luciano, Joe Adonis and Moretti's childhood pal, Frank Costello.

Based in Bergen County, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, Moretti had interests in several gambling casinos, or "dice barns" as they were known at the time, which usually featured nightly entertainment for the customers. Moretti had heard the young crooner from Hoboken, and he was impressed with Sinatra's talent. Sinatra had already appeared on the popular NBC radio show Major Bowes and His Original Amateur Hour with a singing group called the Hoboken Four in 1935, but now he was trying to make it as a solo singer. Moretti took him under his wing, hiring him to perform at his casinos, most notably the Riviera on the Jersey palisades overlooking the Hudson River. Sinatra soon became a regular at the Rustic Cabin in nearly Englewood Cliffs where a local radio station broadcast his live performances.

Tommy Dorsey (AP)
Tommy Dorsey (AP)

Sinatra's popularity grew, and in 1939 he signed on with trumpeter Harry James to front his big band. Sinatra was unique in his ability to "talk" a lyric and make listeners feel as if he were speaking directly to them. Teenage female fans—known as "bobbysoxers" at the time—fell in love with the skinny crooner, and they came out to see him in droves. Nationally known band leader, Tommy Dorsey, who was admired for the mellow tones of his trombone, saw Sinatra's remarkable drawing power and asked the young man if he'd like to join his band as a featured singer. It was an offer Sinatra couldn't refuse, and James graciously let Sinatra out of his contract so that he could have his shot at the big time. Just twenty-four years old, Sinatra was giddy with his newfound success, which is why he agreed to the onerous terms of Dorsey's contract. To join the Dorsey band, Sinatra would have to pay Dorsey one-third of his earnings for life and an additional 10 percent to Dorsey's agent. By the terms of the contract, 43 percent of Frank Sinatra would belong to Tommy Dorsey and his agent forever.

Sinatra had several smash hit records in the early '40s, including "All or Nothing At All" (which he had recorded with the Harry James Band) and "I'll Never Smile Again." He was heard on live radio programs like Your Hit Parade, and his face was on every major fan magazine in the country. Sinatra's popularity seemed to have no limits, and he soon came to resent his contract. Naturally Sinatra wanted to be his own gold mine, not Tommy Dorsey's.

In 1943, Sinatra's representatives tried to get him out of the contract, offering Dorsey $60,000 to rip it up. Dorsey, who had a reputation for being tough, refused. By some accounts, hard negotiation eventually convinced the bandleader to take the offer, but other accounts say that Sinatra's godfather, Willie Moretti, convinced Dorsey to see the light. Sinatra himself consistently denied that Moretti had anything to do with it, but Moretti bragged in private that he and a few associates paid an unannounced visit to Dorsey in Los Angeles. Moretti allegedly jammed the barrel of a gun into the trombonist's mouth and got him to release Sinatra from his obligations in exchange for one dollar. In 1951 Dorsey talked about the incident to a reporter from American Mercury magazine, describing his meeting with three men who, according to Sinatra biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, "talked out of the sides of their mouths and ordered him to 'sign or else.'"

It should be noted that the widely held belief that Sinatra's godfather leaned on Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, to force him to cast Sinatra in the wartime drama From Here to Eternity is untrue. Unlike the cantankerous producer in Mario Puzo's novel, Cohn never woke up to find a severed horse's head in his bed. In reality, Sinatra lobbied hard to earn the role. Actor Eli Wallach was being considered for the part of Maggio, an Army private, but in the script the character is described as small and skinny. A pivotal scene in the movie is a fight between Maggio and a large bully of a sergeant played by actor Ernest Borgnine. Maggio is beaten to death by the sergeant, and Cohn ultimately felt that Wallach wouldn't be a convincing victim since he was quite well built at the time. Sinatra fit the bill perfectly. Besides being an Italian-American like the character, he was physically slight, a stark contrast to Borgnine's hulking presence.

It was Sinatra's 29-inch waistline and his natural acting talent rather than mob strong-arm tactics that landed him the role for which he earned an Academy Award in 1954.

Ava Gardner (AP)
Ava Gardner (AP)

Moretti kept an eye out for Sinatra through the 1940s and on at least one occasion scolded the singer for stepping out of bounds in his family life. When Sinatra fell head-over-heels in love with sultry actress Ava Gardner, it was widely rumored in the press that he would soon be leaving his first wife Nancy to marry Gardner. When Moretti got wind of it, he shot off a telegram to Sinatra: "I AM VERY MUCH SURPRISED WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING IN THE NEWSPAPERS BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR DARLING WIFE. REMEMBER YOU HAVE A DECENT WIFE AND CHILDREN. YOU SHOULD BE VERY HAPPY. REGARDS TO ALL. WILLIE MOORE."

By the late '40s Moretti's mental health had started to deteriorate as a result of untreated syphilis. He became delusional and extraordinarily talkative for a Mafioso, and his fellow mobsters worried about what he might say to the wrong people. Some wanted him rubbed out, but his old friend Frank Costello arranged to have him moved to a secluded spot on the West Coast where his ramblings presumably wouldn't do any harm. After a period of rest and relaxation, Moretti seemed to have recovered and was allowed to return to New Jersey, but the improvement was only temporary.

Estes Kefauver (CORBIS)
Estes Kefauver (CORBIS)

When called before the U.S. Senate committee on organized crime headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, Moretti chattered like an old lady, essentially saying nothing of substance but taking a long time to do it. When he was finally through with his testimony, the committee thanked him for his candor, and he invited them all to drop by his house "down the shore" if they were ever in the area. High-ranking mobsters were not amused with Moretti's antics. They feared that the next time, he would say something that would really hurt them. Vito Genovese led the movement to have the Jersey boss taken care of—permanently.

On October 4, 1951, Moretti was gunned down gangland style at a restaurant, Joe's Elbow Room, in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. He was 57 years old.

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