Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist

 

Frank Sinatra and Julie Lyma as a little girl
Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Frank's Kind of Girl

Julie Lyma was 53 when her mother told her that her father was Frank Sinatra. Then, as a lifetime of clues about her true paternity seemingly fell into place, she began her quest to meet the man who never knew she existed. By Douglas Thompson.

The last time I met Frank Sinatra he was 68,
showed no signs of retiring, and was preparing to fly from California to play the Albert Hall in London. He was by then wearing someone else's hair, but the thrice-weekly facials and the daily massages had kept the skin tight and clear around his cheekbones. His blue eyes still sparkled, in a very similar way to the eyes of the woman sitting opposite me right now, in Sedona, Arizona. She's tanned and weatherbeaten, and the deep creases in her face suggest a far from easy life. Yet her blue eyes shine with... something. It's not just her eyes, it's the shape of her face, the way she holds herself as she talks, the ever-present cigarette as a prop -the resemblance is uncanny.

The last time I met Frank Sinatra he was 68,
showed no signs of retiring, and was preparing to fly from California to play the Albert Hall in London. He was by then wearing someone else's hair, but the thrice-weekly facials and the daily massages had kept the skin tight and clear around his cheekbones. His blue eyes still sparkled, in a very similar way to the eyes of the woman sitting opposite me right now, in Sedona, Arizona. She's tanned and weatherbeaten, and the deep creases in her face suggest a far from easy life. Yet her blue eyes shine with... something. It's not just her eyes, it's the shape of her face, the way she holds herself as she talks, the ever-present cigarette as a prop -the resemblance is uncanny.

She is, she says, the daughter of Frank Sinatra. Christened Julie Ann Maria Lyma, she changed her name by deed poll to Julie Sinatra on June 1, 2000. This means nothing in itself - anybody can change their name; but for Julie it was a defining step in her long campaign to prove that she is indeed the daughter of the man she never met but now constantly refers to as 'Dad'.

To spend time in Julie Sinatra's company is to be drawn into a compelling account of her attempt to establish her true identity. It is a story replete with loose ends, uncertainties, contradictions; a story that, at times, seems too far-fetched to be true, until you look at her and are taken aback by how she seems to have Sinatra DNA inscribed all over her.
And despite the fact that all the evidence is circumstantial (Sinatra is dead and DNA testing on siblings cannot be ordered by the courts in California, as it is deemed too intrusive) in December 2002 the Frank Sinatra estate awarded her $100,000 in the probate of his will.

All I ever wanted was my identity,' Julie says at her temporary home - a ranch in Sedona that she is caretaking for a friend. She sips thick stove-top coffee, and chainsmokes Sky Dancer cigarettes. The sadness is that I knew who my father was but I was prevented from meeting him before he died. That still hurts. The money was never an issue with me. When I realised who I was, it explained so much about my life, gave me answers which were wealth in themselves. All my life I was lost, now I feel like a proper person.'

Julie has no doubt that Sinatra is her father, but it took more than 50 years for her mother. Dorothy Bonucelli, to tell her so. Growing up, Julie believed that her father was her mother's first husband, Tom Lyma, a womanising travelling salesman (Italian wine and foods) servicing more than the hotels and restaurants along the California-Nevada border. This information had been all but beaten into her by Dorothy, who, according to Julie, over the years metamorphosed from a sweet, smiling Hollywood starlet into an alcoholic, domineering diva.

It was at the then-Mafia-linked Riverside Inn in Reno, Nevada, in 1938 that Lyma met Dorothy, a shapely cocktail waitress. They began an affair at the Inn even though at the time Lyma was married with a young wife and daughter. When Dorothy met Sinatra two years later, in October 1940, Lyma was working in Sacramento in central California. At the time, Sinatra was a career-obsessed twig of a man appearing with Tommy Dorsey's band; he was in Los Angeles to sing with Dorsey at the Palladium Theatre and in the movie Las Vegas Nights. He was married to Nancy Barbate and had a four-month-old baby girl. Dorothy was also a film extra (her stage name was Alora Gooding), who had worked in the gambling hotels in Nevada as cocktail waitress, cigarette girl, hat-check girl, and for the celebrated mobster and founder of Las Vegas, Benjamin 'Bugsy* Siegel. When Sinatra arrived in town Dorothy was working as a daytime greeter at the Garden of Allah hotel. She wore a neat uniform and velvet gloves so as not to get fingerprints on the chrome handles of the arriving limousines. She and Sinatra had met on the set of Las Vegas Nights (she was Sinatra's 'audience' for his solo /'// Never Smile Again). They flirted, and she told him about her other job at the Garden of Allah, on a corner of Sunset Boulevard. He turned up there and booked in for one night. It wasn't long before the couple were living together at the Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, a fast drive by Buick from the Palladium Theatre.

'When Mom opened the car door she caught Frank Sinatra's eye,' Julie says of that night at the Garden of Allah. 'She knew why he was there. He didn't just drive in there by chance. He took her photograph. Then she took one of him. It was decades later that my mother showed me the pho¬tographs - they were dated October 1940. She kept them in her lingerie drawer. It's so sad; as she got dressed every day she would go to that drawer. Every day of her life after meeting Frank Sinatra [she died aged 87 in 2002] she looked at these pic¬tures and must have wondered what might have been... I was so involved with my own hurt I never thought about my mother until I saw these pic¬tures, and I cried.'

It was the start of a long, on/off, difficult affair. In My Way, Kitty Kelley's biography of Sinatra, there is a suggestion from the entertainer's personal manager, Nick Sevano. that Sinatra wanted to divorce Nancy and marry Dorothy: 'He was crazy about her, really in love with her. She was his first brush with glamour and he was mad for her. The affair lasted a few years and Frank even tried to leave Nancy because of it, but Dolly [Sinatra's mother] put the pressure on and wouldn't let him get a divorce.' Kelley goes on to say that by the time Sinatra returned to his wife and baby in Jersey city, he was 'besotted' with Gooding (Dorothy) and car¬ried her picture in his wallet. His wife found it and confronted him, but Frank said it was just a fan who had given him her photograph.

On February 10, 1943. Dorothy gave birth to a daughter, some months after she and Lyma were married. Lyma was told he was Julie's father, but he and Dorothy were divorced not more than a year later.
Dorothy's romance with Sinatra continued all over Hollywood, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. But it created complications that, Julie now under¬stands, forced her mother to keep the identity of her daughter's true father secret. And Julie believes that Dorothy blamed her for a lifetime lived in the shadows rather than the spotlight of a glamorous Hollywood career. 'I grew up frightened of my mother and thinking she hated me. There were always put-downs and threats. If I got out of line I got hit. Not badly hurt, but there was a time at a horse show in Santa Barbara when Mom just lost it; she tried to choke me. So yes, there was physical abuse but it was the emotional stuff that really left marks. I didn't know what was going on, what was sending her off the deep end. But, goodness, she was terrifying when she took off.'
Throughout her upbringing, Julie says, there were clues - hints, suggestions and incidents that made her question her paternity- She is certain her motner s lamily Knew who her real father was, but because of the prevailing moral climate Dorothy sought to make everyone else believe that Julie was Lyma's daughter. 'My mother had this strange obsession with my hair. She made desperate attempts to alter my appearance by getting me these hideous frizzy perms. Some people have bad hair days. I had a bad hair childhood. I had straight silky hair and ached to wear it long, but I was never allowed to. I realised early on that what my mother was doing to me was a disguise of some type. I was just never told why. Now I know - it was to make me look more like Tom Lyma.' Julie doesn't remember meeting Lyma until she
was seven years old. 'Before that, my mother had never mentioned Tom Lyma or that he was my father. That was astonishing. My mother, irrational as she was with the drinking, clearly saw me look¬ing more and more like my real dad as I got older - and tried to disguise me. I think that's why she brought Tom Lyma back into our lives. She didn't care for him. She didn't go after him for money; she took S20 a month from him after the divorce. She just wanted him to be the man who was my father, it gave her a future, gave her a chance.'

The day they met, Lyma bent down and kissed Julie on the lips, saying he had waited a long time to meet her. 'I was horrified by this. He had tight curly hair. After this, he came around often, but he never stayed longer than a day or so. Mom always referred to him as Mr Lyma.' By then her mother was married again, to Harry Misfeldt, a chemist in Carmichael, California. Julie recalls him as a kind man who bought her a pony. She says her mother's resentment of her mystified the new man of the house, who was often obliged to act as a mediator.
There were other clues, moments when her life did not seem to be the way her mother wanted to dictate it. 'Once, while playing with my cousins at my Aunt Iva's house when I was 12 or 13, Iva called me in from the backyard. She sat me down and said, "I'm going to put on a record of Frank Sinatra. You should at least hear his music, Julie."
The song was Witchcraft. When I got back home I told my mother that Aunt Iva had played a Frank Sinatra record for me. "What did Iva say about Sinatra?" she demanded. I told her Aunt Iva had said, "That's my Frankie!" My mother tossed her head back and huffed: "Her Frankie!"'

'My mother went berserk when I held it up in front of her, telling her what I named it. "You named that animal Francis just to mock me! Didn't you, Julie?" I feebly attempted to defend what made no sense for me to defend. "How can naming a stuffed dog Francis mock you?" She walked away fuming. I dismissed the incident as her craziness, put it down to her drinking. My mother drank Jack Daniel's. So did Frank Sinatra.'
Some years later, they were living in Long Beach, California, where Dorothy's third husband, Carroll Hunter, had bought a petrol station (Harry Misfeldt had died of a heart attack in 1954). 'I was home in Long Beach in 1960 for my Christmas break from San Jose State University,' Julie recalls. 'Like most young girls at the time, I was infatuated with John F Kennedy, and mentioned that I wished I was old enough to vote for him. That set my latest stepfather off in a rage. "You're a pinko like your father," he shouted at me. "Tom Lyma never uttered a word of politics that I can remember," I said. Then Hunter dropped the bombshell. He said, "Lyma wasn't your father. Your father's that pinko singer who's a friend of Kennedy."

'Singer? I thought to myself. My real father is someone who sings in a bar somewhere? Before I could say this to Hunter he spat out, "That's where your mother is now. I can't understand why she's still having an affair with him after all these years!"

'My mother suddenly came through the front door. I should have gotten to the bottom of it right then and there, but I didn't. I was frightened. I had witnessed enough violent fights between this cou¬ple. Once, when I arrived home from high school earlier than usual, my mother, believing I was Hunter, opened the door and pointed a Luger at me. She quickly dropped it, and said, "Oh! I didn't know it was you, Julie", and walked away. But you didn't cross this woman without paying a price. Knowing what my loaded question would likely set off, I put it aside for a time.'
Later, when Julie attempted gently to make sense of the revelation, her mother and stepfather clammed up, writing it off as a 'misunderstand¬ing'. 'Every time I brought the subject up with my mother it was like trying to get a crocodile out of a tree: she just started biting. There would be a tirade, frightening in its ferocity. So I got on with my life and let the matter drop.'

In those days, Julie was barely aware of Frank Sinatra - she was too busy hanging around the folk-singing circuit in Long Beach. She had bought a guitar and found she had a voice that worked in the emerging era of Bob Dylan. She was 19 years old in 1963 when she met Tom Brown, a folk singer. They married and had a son, Dan, then they split up. Now 42, Dan is a property valuer in Chicago. He says he was a difficult child who gave his mother a hard time after his parents separated. For a while he went to live with his grandmother, Dorothy.
For Julie, three more husbands came and went: her second was John Penn, a Vietnam veteran and another musician; her third Barton Rightmire, a businessman in Sacramento. Her fourth marriage, to Jim Speelman, a park ranger, ended in 1989 - as did her 26-year tangle with matrimony: 'I learnt my lesson. I'm happier with four-legged animals.' She left California for Arizona horse country.

One day in June 1996, when Julie was living in
Cave Creek, Arizona, she turned on the television. It was tuned to CBS, a biopic mini-series on Frank Sinatra. It hooked her attention and, as she tells it now, explained everything. There was a sequence involving a starlet, a beautiful girl who posed in a very particular way. That coquettish come-on, Julie says, strongly reminded her of her mother: it was Dorothy's trademark for the guys, the tem¬plate of her availability. Sinatra himself had endorsed the mini-series (he was executive pro¬ducer and his daughter Tina was co-producer).

'I came into the show when a very young and ambitious Frank Sinatra was agreeing to an all-or-nothing-at-all contract with Tommy Dorsey, who then took him to California to record a solo for a movie being made by Paramount. They were ready to record the song on an empty soundstage when Frank said he needed an audience to sing to. A glamorous young starlet standing in the back¬ground was motioned to come and sit in a chair in front of the stage. She sat down and crossed her legs, and dipped her chin slightly as she looked up at him with a demure smile, which was incredi¬bly familiar to me. A prominent photograph of my mother, taken before I was born when she worked as a hostess at the El Rancho, a fancy lounge in early Las Vegas, flashed through my mind, a photograph in which she posed on a chair in the same way, young and glamorous and dressed up to the hilt.'

Sinatra was on the set of the biopic and Julie steadfastly believes he posed the actress in just such a way, like the lover from his past. Clearly this story sounds very far-fetched, but Julie insists that this was her eureka moment, the occasion when all the clues from the past crystallised in her mind.

She confronted her mother the next morning on the phone. 'It was the first time we had talked in ages. I told her about the mini-series and how I'd recognised her in the starlet.' Amazingly she responded as if it were old news. "'Frank will remember me as Dorothy. I was Dorothy Lyma at the time," she said. The matter-of-fact admission took me by surprise. I was expecting to have to go through walls of denial and pry it out of her, but she just plopped it right on the table.
'I'd always suspected that my mother had lived a glamorous life during the 1940s. She was very beautiful back then, and for years afterwards had a dusty, forbidden closet full of glittery, expensive party dresses and shoes, none of which I ever saw her wear. It was no surprise that she crossed paths with a lot of famous people. However, she never specifically mentioned that she knew Frank Sinatra. Then again, she never specifically mentioned much of anything regarding those days.'

Julie asked Dorothy if Frank Sinatra was her father. 'She said, "Yes." That was it. A simple yes. Nothing more. It was both exhilarating and infuri¬ating. I asked why I was never told. Mom's painful silence softened my anger, so I offered her an out: "Was it to protect me or something?" She said, "That's right." Then she told me, "We used to cel¬ebrate our birthdays together. Frank's is December 12. Mine is December 9." Then my mother turned coy and realised what she had done and said, "Cancel this call." She had told me who my father was 53 years too late and then tried to control the information. But by then I was on my quest.'

Bit by bit, the story came out as Julie extracted information from her mother. Why, she wanted to know, had she had to keep it so secret? When Dorothy discovered she was pregnant, Sinatra was touring with Tommy Dorsey; Dorothy thought her lover might be home on a break in New Jersey, and phoned there to tell him she was going to have his baby. Frank's wife Nancy took the call. She had met Dorothy, she knew the score. Dorothy told her she was pregnant with Frank's child, and Nancy immediately contacted Sinatra's controlling publicist-manager, George Evans. Nancy wanted to protect her marriage, Evans his livelihood.

Julie thinks that her mother naively believed that Frank would leave Nancy for her. But it was Evans who called Dorothy back, not Sinatra. 'Evans wanted to stop it all in its tracks. He told my mother he would be her agent, that she had a career ahead of her. With one essential condition: "Mr Sinatra is not to know that this is his baby."
'Evans said, "Dorothy, there's a morals clause in the Hollywood studios; you're an extra right now but you'll have a real career as long as Tom Lyma is the father of your baby. If you're known to have a child out of wedlock there'll be no career.'

In Kitty Kelley's book there is a quote from Ben Barton, a business associate of Sinatra's: 'God, how George tried to keep Frank and Nancy together! He did everything he could to bust up Frank's outside romances. George was like a father to Frank, and he rode him hard about playing around with other women. He did everything he could to keep him with Nancy. He said his fans wouldn't tolerate him seeing other women when he was a married man, and they'd drop him cold if he ever got a divorce.'

Dorothy was a cute girl. If Julie's paternity was known it would have killed Sinatras career ami Dorothy would have ended up selling cigarettes from a neon tray at the Riverside Inn. By hiding Julie's true paternity, she could carry on her love affair with Sinatra, and have a career. Dorothy wanted to be a star. 'So she went along with that deal but circumstances stamped on her dream of life with Frank Sinatra.'

As the pieces of her life began to fall into place. Julie decided to take action, to make contact with the Sinatra family. It was a frustrating business. Instead of being immediately brushed off, it was almost as if the Sinatras knew who she was and had been waiting for her to surface. And they were prepared to fight. With Frank Sinatra sick and dying, there was a wall of lawyers in her path, each one seemingly aware of her claim from the moment she called their office. 'I was trying to beat the clock, to see my father before he died. She attempted to recruit her son Dan to help her. 'He looks like his grandfather, and sounds just like him, especially when he sings. However, Dan begged off: "This is your thing, Mom. It's not about me.'"

On the phone from Chicago, Dan Brown is circumspect. This Sinatra thing was scary shit. My mom had a tough time - in reality she brought me up alone. She's a pragmatic person - she just gets on with things. She's not given to fancy. Which is why she took me so aback with the Sinatra thing. It just seemed so out of the ballpark to me. I thought she had a chemical imbalance, maybe she was menopausal. I didn't want to be part of the X Files. But she persevered in her quiet way. Even given all the evidence I can't be 100 per cent sure. Who could be without direct Sinatra DNA? But my mother certainly had those lawyers in LA scared.'

Julie was thwarted at every turn. 'Tina Sinatra fired the first shot with a "cease and desist" order, essentially telling me to buzz off. That left me with no other option but to go to court.' Julie knew she needed more than her mother's private confession to make a case. She studied stories that mentioned Sinatra taking up with a beautiful starlet in the early 1940s, one who was given bit-parts in his movies. (Dorothy appeared in five.) 'I started look¬ing at Sinatra films from that period. I spotted Mom performing as a background extra in a number of them - always in a scene that included Sinatra. She was credited as Alora Gooding. I found photographs of my mother with Sinatra -never holding hands or in clinches or anything, but at the same place, same time. In one picture she's sitting next to Ava Gardner. When I showed her the photo she recoiled in a rage and pointed to a set of jade earrings Ava was wearing. Mom pulled a matching pendant from her jewellery box and screamed, "The skinny bastard gave her the rest of the set!"'
In her search for the truth, Julie hired lawyers who in turn hired private investigators. One quizzed Julie's mother at her home in Sacramento. Dorothy, then 82, attempted to deny everything. But her age was against her, and things would spill out. Pushed, she admitted to mentioning that Sinatra's birthday was close to hers, then wistfully added, 'We used go to the Springs together.'

'I think Mom sensed she was saying too much and turned on me: "You ruined my life when you were born. I couldn't go to the resorts any more. They were even talking about making me a singer because I was Italian. They thought all Italians could sing."

The investigator asked my mom if anyone else knew her story. She smiled. "We've outlived every¬body. Frank and I are the only ones left.'"

Later, that day Julie's mother told her, 'I never benefited from knowing him. To the contrary. He brought a lot of heartache into my life, things I can never say. Things that you'd never understand.' '"I need to know, Mom," I said, starting to cry. "You owe me that." "1 don't owe you anything," Mom insisted. "I never benefited, and I don't want you to either! Give this up for your own good. You'll never beat them. You should just think of him as a ditch digger and move on with your life. Go ride your horses and be happy.'"

Julie and her lawyers continued to press the
Sinatra estate for answers. Julie wrote a letter to Tina Sinatra, and included photographs to show her physical resemblance to the rest of his children and especially her likeness to Frank. Everything was sent back. Sinatra's son, Frank Jr, was curious enough to return a few of Julie's calls. She says he was the only one who treated her with a measure of compassion. Frank Jr told Julie her calls and letters were 'upsetting the family' and said the issue would have to be settled in court. He declined Julie's offer to meet with him in person, and refused a DNA test. He closed the conversation by saying, 'Good luck with this identity thing.'
A few years later, as Julie's quest dragged on, Frank Jr remained so fearful of a DNA test that Julie says he sprinted away from her during a chance meeting in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel where he was performing.
In the middle of Julie's fight, Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998. 'I knew he was ill, and I knew 1 was in a race against time. All 1 wanted to do was talk to him, touch his hand, and tell him that I understood, that I had survived and was OK, and that I didn't blame him for anything that happened. But they wouldn't allow it. They seemed to be so terrified of me.'

His death threw the Sinatra family into years of turmoil over his lucrative estate. Sinatra's last wife, Barbara, began battling with his children over the multi-million-dollar inheritance.
For Julie, there was a period of homelessness, and a long battle against multiple sclerosis. She was restless, and she was sad. 'Frank called his daugh¬ter Nancy every day no matter where he was in the world or what he was doing. He never knew I existed. That's painful for me. It would be for anybody, whoever their real father was.'
Julie is insistent that Sinatra knew nothing of her existence, though this may be because she can't bear to face the possibility that he never sought her out. She has, understandably, a rose-tinted view of a man who was one of the most charismatic but ambiguous icons of the 20th century.

On September 30, 2002, Julie attended the Los
Angeles Superior Court for a hearing of the on¬going proceedings involving the probate of the Francis Albert Sinatra Estate. She had no legal representation; this was a hearing attended by some of the Sinatra family and their lawyers with a view to closing probate. She had previously written a letter to the court, and she stood up and said, 'I am Julie Sinatra and I object to these proceedings.'

'When I announced in court that I was Frank Sinatra's daughter you should have seen their (aces, Here I was, this western cowgirl who'd spent her life outdoors with horses, standing up to all these bound to bring some professional advantage to her musical aspirations. In December 2002, shortly after her appearance in court, she was billing her¬self as The Blue-Eyed Daughter of OF Blue Eyes' at a performance of her own material 'and a few of my dad's songs' in Sedona.

Although she never reached him before he died, Julie believes that she met Sinatra when she was 11, when she was on a trip with the man she had thought was her father. She had been taken by Tom Lyma and his third wife. Marguerite, to the Cal-Nevada Inn: 'I was in the lobby while they were in the bar. A thin man wearing a deep-blue suit that matched his eyes emerged from an office door, walked across the lobby and spotted me. He said, "Hello, little girl. What are you doing?" I told him I was standing with one foot in Nevada and the other in California. The carpet in the lobby changed designs at the border, so you could do that. He asked me where my parents were and I told him my mother was home, and my daddy, meaning Harry, my latest stepfather, had recently died.

' "Who are you with now?" he asked. I told him I was with Tom and Marguerite Lyma. The man seemed ruffled by the name Lyma. It must have told him right away who my mom was. He straight¬ened up and said, "I've got to go to work now."

'Although it was brief and inconsequential to me at the time, I've always remembered that encounter. I'm sure it was Frank Sinatra. It was my father.

1 guess God wanted to give us that moment, and wanted it to stay with me. I have to believe that for it gives me something to hang on to.'

It's a strange story, and it gets stranger. While
Julie was trying to find her identity, a woman named Joan Malvino was trying to find her.
Tom Lyma died in 1959. At his funeral, Julie had met his daughter Joan, by his first wife, Bernice. 'Julie was 16 when I met her,' recalls Joan, now 71. 'I was nine years older. An aunt said to us, "You girls are sisters, you must keep in touch." But I had a busy life, eight children before I was 27, and I let it drift, but I often thought of my half-sister. I, and all the rest of the family, believed she was my dad's daughter. She was always in the back of my mind. I wondered where she was.'

Joan eventually tracked Julie down to a PO Box address in Arizona. Julie had moved, but the new owner of the PO Box knew her and called her. 'Then she tells me she's not my half-sister after all.' Joan says. 'I was devastated. I don't have any living siblings so it was a disappointment for me. She thinks my dad knew she wasn't his child but I don't believe that. He certainly talked about her as if she was his child. When he died he didn't leave her anything different than he left me.'

Last year Joan Malvino went to a DNA test centre, and her and Julie's DNA samples were sent to Long Beach Genetics in California. On August 6, 2004, the company reported back to Joan Malvino that she and the woman she had always thought of as her half-sister shared no genetic markings. The letter said: The probability that Julie Sinatra and Joan Malvino are not related is 99.22 per cent.'

Julie Lyma
Julie Lyma