Barbara Sinatra, a onetime model and Las Vegas showgirl who was the fourth and final wife of singer Frank Sinatra and who founded a center for abused children, died July 25 at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 90.
The death was confirmed by John E. Thoresen, director of the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in Rancho Mirage. The cause was not disclosed.
Sinatra, who was married to Sinatra for almost 22 years – longer than any of three previous wives – was considered a steadying force in his life and was at his side as his singing career had a remarkable resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s.
They had their first encounter in 1957, when she was working at the Riviera casino in Las Vegas. Sinatra, at the height of his fame, was at the bar with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and other members of his fabled Rat Pack.
“I heard someone say, ‘Hey, Blondie! Come over here. Join us!’ ” she told the Telegraph newspaper of London in 2011. “But I just kept walking. One of the girls with me said, ‘Do you know who that was? That was Frank Sinatra.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t want to deal with drunks.’ So we left.”
Two years later, she married Zeppo Marx, once a member of the Marx Brothers comedy team, who was 25 years her senior. They settled in the show business enclave of Palm Springs, California, where Sinatra also had a home.
Sinatra once asked her to organize a doubles tennis match at his house for one of his former wives, movie star Ava Gardner – “I think he held a torch for Ava his whole life,” she told the Palm Springs Desert Sun in 2015 – but she otherwise spent little time with the singer until the early 1970s.
She was still married to Marx when she and Sinatra, by then divorced from his third wife, actress Mia Farrow, became more than casual acquaintances. (Sinatra’s first wife and the mother of his three children, the former Nancy Barbato, is now 100.)
“I think anyone who met Frank Sinatra would have to have sparks,” Barbara Sinatra told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “Because he is a flirt. That’s just part of his makeup. And there’s no way to avoid that flirtation. No way.”
By the time her divorce was final in 1973, she was already Sinatra’s steady companion, accompanying him on worldwide concert tours. It took hours for him to unwind after his performances, and he enjoyed the company of other people and strong liquor.
“Fortunately, I could match Frank drink for drink and still know what I was doing,” Sinatra wrote in a 2011 memoir, “Lady Blue Eyes.” “But he insisted that I give up smoking – even though he was a chain smoker himself.
“If he ever caught me with a cigarette, he was quite rough on me. But he rarely yelled at me because I was one of the few who’d yell back.”
Sinatra proposed by placing a diamond engagement ring in a glass of champagne, and the couple married in 1976. An hour before the ceremony, the bride-to-be was presented with a prenuptial agreement, which she signed.
In her memoir, Sinatra described her husband as “very romantic” and obsessed with cleanliness: He would shower and shave several times a day.
His late-night drinking buddies often included actors John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Glenn Ford and director Orson Welles. If anyone got hungry, Sinatra would cook pasta, “then mix it with two eggs and Parmesan cheese – a perfect 4 a.m. meal,” Sinatra wrote.
She managed to get her husband to moderate his drinking in his later years, as he launched a musical comeback. He returned to the recording studio in 1980 for the first time in years and continued to appear in concerts until three years before his death at 82 in 1998.
Barbara Blakeley was born Oct. 16, 1926, in Bosworth, Missouri, and moved with her family to Wichita, when she was 10. Her father was a butcher.
After moving to California in the 1940s, she won a beauty pageant and began working as a model. She later ran a modeling and charm school in Long Beach, California.
Her first marriage, to an aspiring singer named Bob Oliver, ended in divorce. They had one son, Robert, who later took the last name of Marx, although he was not formally adopted by Zeppo Marx. Sinatra’s survivors include her son and a granddaughter.
A devotee of the golf course, tennis court and swimming pool, Sinatra “became the ultimate insider of Palm Springs society,” the Los Angeles Times once noted. In 1986, she founded a center for abused children that now bears her name. Her husband raised millions for the center through benefit concerts and golf tournaments.
Sinatra was at home when she received a telephone call from Gardner, Sinatra’s second wife.
“She said, ‘Hello Barbara, this is Ava,’ ” Sinatra told the Telegraph in 2011. “And then she said, ‘Tell me one thing, are you and Frank really happy?’ I said, ‘All I can answer for is me. I’m very happy. Frank’s in Las Vegas and here’s the number, why don’t you call and ask if he’s happy?’ “