Growing up in Fort Lee in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, I was weaned on stories about the mob, and stories about Frank Sinatra. It’s no secret that the mob had a powerful presence in Fort Lee (Anastasia, Adonis…) because of, not despite of, the fact that it was a really small town. However, not just any small town; a town filled with many exits--the George Washington Bridge, New Jersey Turnpike, Route 80, Palisades Interstate Parkway, and Route 46. No doubt about it-- Fort Lee was a great place to make a quick get-away from, which is why (I believe) many notable mobsters chose to live there.
Then there was Frank Sinatra who bought a house for his mother, Dolly, on Abbott Boulevard in Fort Lee. My Uncle Joey, who had been a professional baseball player, was often invited to Dolly Sinatra’s elaborate parties. I used to eavesdrop on his stories about the eclectic group of people Dolly regularly gathered together; I particularly enjoyed hearing about the men who made a profession out of having no profession. Now, I’m not suggesting that Dolly Sinatra was “connected” but those who were connected wanted to connect with her in order to connect with her son, and that gave me access to their world vis-à-vis my Uncle Joey.
In fact, Uncle Joey, along with a lot of the local guys and made men, used to drink with Frank’s father, Marty, down at Frank’s Cozy Bar -- a neighborhood hang-out that discreetly sat on Palisade Avenue in Fort Lee just at the edge of “The Palisades,” which was, and still is, the swankiest section of town. As bars went, I was never fond of Frank’s, although Gloria his barmaid was aces with me; kids annoyed Frank and that annoyed me. Anyway, I was more of a Krieger’s or Yellow Front Saloon girl.
Like I said, Uncle Joey was invited to many parties at the Sinatra’s house and I loved listening to him as he unearthed the details to Grandma while sitting at her kitchen table with the plastic floral tablecloth. He spoke of mod, starch-haired women with brightly painted turquoise eyes thickly outlined in black liner wearing sequined mini-dresses who would pile their furs onto Dolly’s King-sized bed making the bedroom look like a pile of fresh road kill, albeit, very expensive road kill; thick-necked, scar-faced men dressed in coffin-lined silk suits doused in expensive cologne who drank nothing but single-malt Scotch in cut-crystal bourbon glasses; the ladies’ mammoth diamond rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings sparkling like a swarm of neurotic fireflies, their brilliant flames flickering and leaping onto and off of the gleaming porcelain bodies of the Catholic saints that filled the empty spaces of Dolly’s ornate living room. These characters that peopled Uncle Joey’s stories became for me the Prince Charming’s and Cinderella’s that other girls dreamed of.
As I inconspicuously listened to Uncle Joey’s Johnny Walker Black-tobacco-chaffed voice tell these tales, I would close my eyes and pretend that it was me elegantly glittering in my sequined dress sipping Asti-Spumante from a delicately carved crystal champagne flute laughing as Dolly Sinatra whispered closely held secrets about Frank into my ear.
At the age of four-years old I knew I was living an exciting life. I mean, what other kid my age heard men tell stories that the mob allegedly favored the southern perimeter of Palisades Amusement Park because the screams from the Cyclone roller coaster drowned out the sound of people getting whacked? What other pre-kindergartner knew from an original source, who drank Crown Royal with Ava Gardner while Frank performed at the swank Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, that Ava was a first-class come si chiama who was prejudiced against Italians? What other pre-kindergartner poured whiskey sours for retired World War I veterans while standing on a red plastic milk crate behind the bar at the V.F.W.???
But my exciting life was coming to a swift end. The state sentenced me to Kindergarten and I was expected to turn legit. Can you believe that? How could I possibly go from mixing cocktails to mixing paints?
(To Be Continued)