I sat in the game room at my Uncle Roberto’s interest compound in Finger Falls, California. He was on the phone to Detroit (the whole city – party line) and asked me to keep an eye on his guests who were shooting some pool – keep their cigarettes and drinks off the table and such. As his guests included Frank Sinatra (Chairman of the Bored), Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr., I was at a loss as to what influence I could exert over such prestigious show businessmen. As it turned out, none at all.
Finger Falls is an eccentric place. Outside of Palm Springs, it is considerably north of South Thumberland, which has no relevance to this but is still a great place to mention. That’s all. And that’s been accomplished. While Palm Springs is noted for its appeal to people who like dry sweltering heat, low desert desolation and extremely high prices, it is also known as a golfing Mecca, which gets a little strange when people in outlying areas stop what they’re doing and pray toward it 5 times a day.
Our group ordered a late lunch one time at the Finger Falls Region Club, and when the opening bell rang (signifying the beginning of prayer – unlike the popular single prayer system elsewhere, in Palms Springs it’s pay-to-pray all the way), the entire wait staff dropped down to pay their respects, our order but ten feet from the table, my turkey club and fries sitting there on the floor getting room temperature while our waiter praised the seventh green for five minutes. Not without call, mind you, it is a fine green. But, come on.
Uncle Roberto had attained some esteem in the local underworld scene and as a sign of respect was given the honorary title of Grandfather. Now a Grandfather isn’t as powerful as a Godfather, but still more powerful than a regular father – especially a stepfather – and is able to poke fun at Queen Mothers without repercussion any time on Father’s Day. During the Fly Fishing Crisis of ’57, Roberto had supplied local crime middle manager Big (Little) Gordo Poquito a Clouser Deep Minnow Streamer during the semi-finals, with which he pulled a 17-pound steelhead out of the South Chatahootchy River to reel in a first-place for his team, the Codfathers of Sole. This act of aquatic regard ingratiated Roberto with the Lou Crazy Crime Family (featuring the Lou Crazy Dancers) and set Roberto on the road to becoming one of the biggest criminal underworld figures in the entire lower desert region. And Needles. He was big there too.
Roberto was called Capo De Tutti Fruti, boss of all fruits, including compote, preserves and marmalade, though with only regional influence over tomatoes, radishes and Liberace. A fairly prestigious position which allowed him power in certain circles, trapezoids and the occasional rhombus, he found triangulation difficult and unpleasant. Owing to his many associations, Bob, as we called him, often came into contact with shady, nefarious and glamorous characters, some of whom would come around and steal the silverware. That’s how I met Frank Sinatra.
My earliest memories of Frank will always be associated with the clicking of silverware in his pockets, the telltale Rub-N-Buff burnishing on his sleeve. No one ever called him on it – he was Frank fucking Sinatra – and most just wrote it off as the price of associating with showbiz royalty, basking in the smarmy narcosis of reflected self-importance. Some people, knowing he was coming, would actually purchase a set of something that he would like, for him to steal, as a sign of respect. I remember talking to him one time for a good 15 minutes as he adjusted a sterling silver tea service in his trousers. A very odd man.
At that time Frank was in full comeback mode with the Rat Pack, upgraded from the Large Mouse Pack after Bogie died. Several years earlier, Marlon Brando had secured him a role in From Hair to Eternity by making MBM studio head Louie B. Crab an offer he was reluctant to refuse. It wasn’t long after that Brando stopped equivocating and really hit it big.
Roberto ran the Finger Falls Rotary Club (FFRC) – since renamed the Finger Falls Push Button Club (FFPBC) – to significant success, minimal grand jury indictments and occasional hilarious consequences. Hester Penniwinkle, Mayor and cheap Comptroller of Finger Falls, had a special relationship with Roberto that included collusion, kickbacks and butt sex. During long nights of sodomy they would kickback and collude in their plot to invade Palm Springs with their Fore Army, and, of course, occupying the key position to comptrolling Palm Springs, Wristville.
I remember Frank, Dino, Peter and Sammy, cute little Sammy, would come around and schmooze Roberto for gigs at the FFRC, much coveted because it was the only one nationwide that actually rotated. Counterclockwise at random – often at high speed. No one could explain it, at least without laughing, and the weird word of mouth made it the sought-after venue in the low desert. Roberto had the stepladder performers used to get on stage at the Rotary, so performers, especially short ones, were always coming around to borrow it. Owing to the fact that Frank and some of his other rodent buddies would hang around the FFRC, it developed a reputation for hard drinking, fast living and family values. Many would see a contradiction in there, but for some families, hard drinking and fast living is highly valued.
Roberto had initially met Frank at the Silts Casino in South East Las Vegas in the mid ‘50s. The Silts, unlike the Sands, or the Dunes, or even the Piles, wasn’t a very popular casino, with good reasons. Many felt that if they had actually built it in Vegas proper instead of out where the government did all those bomb tests, they would have had a better go at it. As it was, the only road to the place was all but impassable and the guests had to be ridden in on donkeys, which made it particularly hard for the ladies in gowns and drag queens, so a brisk valet industry built up around the Silts and the other local casino, the Clods. Roberto ran the Bob’s Best Burro Valet & Livery and was noted for his first rate service and well groomed ass.
The idea of naming casinos after topographical features is fairly unoriginal as most people you’d want to spend any time with wouldn’t plan their vacations around places called the Sink Hole, Satan’s Fallen Arches or The Stinky Trees. It’s a promotional dead end. And The Silts lived up to its name as probably one of the filthiest places in the hole of Nevada, which is saying a lot, as Nevada is such a shithole that the USA Government has nuked it hundreds of times, just because.
Henry Silva, Silt owner and all around strange looking guy, had convinced pal and Ocean’s Eleven costar Frank Sinatra to come in and croupier baccarat at the grand opening. Frank agreed, with no practical knowledge of the venue, and his night there forever soured his relationship with Henry. It finally exploded during the filming of The Manchurian Candidate in an entirely unscripted fight between the two, all caught on camera, that left Sinatra with a broken hand and Silva with 16 stitches, curiously each one on a different part of his body.
Frank arrived (that was one unhappy donkey) to discover that the Silts didn’t even have a baccarat table and they were playing on three folding card tables they had duct taped together, all the lines on the tops drawn with lipstick. Which really upset Ava Gardner (beyond the ride in) because they had used her lipstick – I think it was chartreuse. Sinatra, amazed and infuriated, put an end to that in a hurry. He made a couple of phone calls and within the hour they had helicoptered in a real table and even restocked the bar and brought Ava some proper lipstick. He was a guy who got other people to get things done. And style – even covered in dust and donkey slobber (he rode in on Pedro, who had some serious congestion), he looked sharp.
The ride back to civilization ingratiated Frank to Roberto as Pinky, the donkey he rode with Ava, threw a shoe, and only through Roberto’s quick thinking and animal cruelty was a celebrity disaster averted. To further cement their bond, Roberto rode Frank out on his back, then afterward, Ava out on his front, to much applause and caterwauling. The Silts went belly up, that first night actually, and Henry was compelled to continue working in films, strangely miscast as people he bore no physical resemblance to, though his turn as Gypsy Rose Lee was compelling.
Years later after Roberto took over the Finger Falls crime scene and Dairy Queen, Frank and the Pack would come and perform as a favor to him and for all the Finger Falls trim. The uptight conservative women of Finger Falls were always ready to put out faster than the uptight conservative women of Palm Springs, and the Pack preferred women who held no performance expectations of their lovers. Conservative men didn’t bother with all that mutual gratification nonsense; that was the chump’s road. Sex to them was as business: get as much from your competitor* as you can for the least amount of personal expense, time, or effort, then praise your impressive savvy for besting the fool that went up against you. If conservative women had needs beyond that, well, that’s why they invented tennis instructors and pool boys.
*Conservative thinking demands that everything exists in perpetual competition.
Now Finger Falls’ heyday had passed. July 14, 1965. It was a helluva day. But the Pack had unpacked, by and large, and were doing TV or working Vegas where the real action lived. By late ’68 the low desert was nowheresville. Daddy-o.
Finger Falls had fallen off the map, which to this day makes it all but impossible to find, and Roberto’s mob connections had moved into banking, where they could really make a killing off of people’s gullibility, fear and greed. And owing to Roberto’s newfound banking connections, he had become the go-to guy in the low desert for high interest/no-questions unsecured loans, which led to the Pack’s visit that night. Bringing us around to the beginning quite nicely.
Things were getting tense at the Compound. “We killed her…” Peter Lawford was drunk and getting a trifle sloshy. Dino had gone back to L.A. (made it in 3 pages, very swift) and Roberto was on the phone to Chicago but nobody was picking up – it was late. Frank shot the 14 ball into the right side pocket then, shaking his head, looked at Peter with distaste, “You’re drunk. Again.” Sammy was interested and glanced at me as if he wanted my help in getting Peter to continue. He needed no prompting.
“No, I mean it. We ruined her fucking life and then killed her. And for what? Pussy. We ate her up and spit her out.” He was sloppy and dramatic.
This intrigued Sammy. He hadn’t heard this one, though Peter did get going when he had a snootful, which had become increasingly often since Bobby took the hard fall. Since the Kennedy murders, Peter had come to imagine they would come for him next. He knew many secrets of powerful men, though he was himself not a man of power, merely a man of interest.
Frank wanted none of it. He had no love for the Kennedys after Jack snubbed him in ‘63, which sent him squealing over to the Republican side, though like many of us he felt that painful stab that comes when our fragility is revealed in such grotesque public displays as political assassination. The President being blown away and the Governor badly winged in the same wild volley of shots, in the light of day, reminded each of us how easily death could be dispensed, anonymous and remote, smitten as if by God Itself.
Frank stared at Peter, displeased, “Listen kid, she was part of the game and the game eats us all and spits us out, sooner or later. Get over it.” Peter stared at him. Their relationship had been strained for years over the Jack visit – Frank had built a fucking helipad to accommodate his presidential chopper, but Bobby decided Frank was too mobby, so Jack instead vacationed with Bing Crosby. After that, Peter was packed off. He had fallen from grace. He had lost Frank’s affinity. In fact most had come to believe they never spoke again but as the following (and preceding) story will prove beyond any doubt, that very well could be the case. Had I not been there to observe these events, they would be lost to posterity.
“You know. You know the whole sordid story…” He pointed with his cocktail at Frank who stood by the pool table, holding his stick and looking at Peter in amazement. Looking at Sammy and me, he shrugged.
“Does everybody need to know? You know what happens to people who know too much. We all do…So drop it.” But he wouldn’t drop it. He was holding a lot of anger toward Frank and it was making the room a trifle edgy. “Thas easy for you to say, with your praetorian guard and mob back-up. Not all of us are so connected. Made…”
This pissed Frank off. He was there reluctantly from the beginning and Peter was becoming fairly obnoxious, his tone shrill. After Jack was killed, Frank was emotionally torn, as any man who loses someone he loves but is temporarily infuriated with must be. He hated Jack, but that hate only carried resonance because he loved Jack. We can only hate in accordance with our love. A stranger’s betrayal is distressing, a friend’s is unconscionable. The snipers’ bullets offered resolution: Frank would never make up with Jack; he could never forgive Bobby. Peter was his closest link to the family so he directed his ire there. But when Bobby went down, he softened toward Peter, accepting that he had even less pull with Jack than Frank did, because he had less celebrity power. It had taken two murders for Frank to see this. Now Peter was pissing all over it. “Ya know. I’m getting’ a little tired a-this, Pete. I cut you a break and you start wallowin’ in this shit. Not cool. Not cool.”
“Well, you’ll forgive me Franko, but we’re fairly curious over here.” Sammy was so pleased that I finally gave him some dialogue that he included me in his plead. He joined me on the sofa, lighting another cigarette. “I mean come on, how couldn’t we be?”
“Marilyn. We all fucked her and threw her to the wolves. Now Bobby’s dead. Who’s next?”
Peter looked over at us, gesturing with his drink, sloshing it all over his hand and sleeve. Frank shook his head. Tossing the cue stick on the table for emphasis, he grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair he’d hung it on and very sternly fixed Peter with a glare. “It ain’t gonna be me, pally. You’d do everyone a favor just by droppin’ it.” Draping his jacket over his shoulder he made for the door. Sammy stood up and called after him, “We’re all friends here, Frank.”
“Yeah, well, friends don’t let friends talk stupid. See ya kid.” He waved to me as he left the room whistling “New York, New York.” As he got farther down the hall he snatched a sterling silver ashtray off an end table. He started singing, “Now I’m king-a the hill, top-a the heap…” Peter became thoughtful. Frank was right, the body count was getting higher and included presidents, senators, activists and movie stars. Circumspection was in order. Sammy jumped in again, happy with his newfound dialogue, but being a little selfish as to mine. “So Peter…This sounds like something we should know about.”
But Peter had turned the corner. He sat in his chair staring ahead and sucking the dregs from his tumbler. “No. No, Frank is right. Frank is always right. If they can take out our leaders without repercussion, then what chance do we have?” Sammy was ready but I controlled the keyboard:“To power, our collective silence is our approval.”
Peter looked at me. He knew I was right. But he knew Frank was right too. And in the short run of a life, especially a life of privilege, the wise keep quiet where not silent as to not disrupt the benefits such a life provides. I spoke of an abstract, social justice, something that has never truly existed upon this Earth among human species. Frank spoke of a reality, a bullet to the head for rocking the boat enough to upset the comfort of those in the best seats. In reality the bullet always trumps justice because it can be directed. Justice must be widespread, ubiquitous; it cannot exist for one as it must exist for all.
Bullets were easier to understand and manipulate, firearms a lingua franca all their own. That’s why I had come to Finger Falls. Roberto was also the local arms merchant running the Itchy Trigger Finger Falls Light Arms Emporium.
If I could not have justice, I would at least exert a little control.