After Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"
Frank Sinatra slipped off his mask to sip his bourbon. Tucking the elastic bands back behind his ears, he stared at the patrons strung out around tables placed at six-foot intervals across the dance floor of the private Beverly Hills club. When one of his songs came over the speakers, no one got up to dance.
Sinatra, silent and still, as if conserving energy, let his recorded voice speak for him, serenading the club with silken strains.
That Sinatra was ill was obvious to everyone in the unventilated room. The two blondes who’d sidled up to him at the bar were shifting on their stools. They’d caught sight of the famous blue eyes hovering above the mask: pale and watery, without their usual spark.
Both blondes wore face coverings coordinated with their monochrome attire. The club had recently adopted an “honor system”—if vaccinated, you didn’t have to mask. Probably neither had gotten the jab, though you never could tell. The blondes hadn’t cared much about honor systems before the health crisis.
Sinatra had been too busy, so he claimed, to go get the shot. Rumor was he hated needles. When he ducked his head to sneeze, one of the blondes gestured to the other, and they slipped away.
The singer sat glumly at the bar in his immaculate suit. He was the victim of an ailment so common that, were it not the middle of a pandemic, most people would consider it trivial. Frank Sinatra had a cold.
Beneath his mask, Sinatra sniffled. His eyes were lakes of stormy blue. Twice they paused on a young man near the pool table. When Sinatra looked again, it was clear there was going to be trouble. Everybody knew the kid wasn’t vaccinated. It didn’t matter that Sinatra wasn’t either. The guy was unmasked; he was breaking a rule.
“Hey, kid!” Sinatra called over the clack of billiard balls. There was a raw edge to his voice; though muffled by the mask.
When his target didn’t respond, Sinatra addressed the man nearest him instead: “What kind of mask is that? N-95?”
The man nodded and, sensing a fight, moved off. Sinatra swaggered closer to the kid, and the room went quiet, billiard balls, for the moment, still.
“Hi, where’s yours?”
“Look man, I donno.” The kid shrugged him off. Then, perhaps noticing the sickly glint in Sinatra’s eye, frowned and took a step to the side. “Is there a reason why you’re talking to me?”
“Is there a reason you’re not wearing a mask?”
“Sorry, man,” the kid snatched an idle cue from the wall and held it between himself and Sinatra. “But no one tells me what to wear.”
At this point, one of Sinatra’s men stepped in. “Com’on, kid, get the jab or go home, ok?”
Someone else went for the manager, but the kid eventually left, mumbling something about his first amendment rights. At which point an assistant manager showed up.
“I don’t want anyone in here without a mask,” Sinatra told him.
Sinatra with a cold is Brady without a ball, Trump without Twitter. Robbed of his fleet-footed voice, the singer becomes surly, initiating what one writer has called a “psychosomatic nasal drip” through his personal staff of 75, his family, his friends, his flunkies—those who depend on him for their personal welfare. A sick Sinatra had, in the past, sent small tremors through the entire entertainment industry. People came running, ready to restore him to health. But Sinatra with Covid? The nasal drip was real.
The press manager who’d sat next to him at dinner stopped by CVS for a rapid test. The woman who looked after Sinatra’s 60 hair pieces for 400 bucks a week was out with a fever. Her grandkid’s school went back online. His daughter Nancy felt a little under the weather, but like many of her generation, was already vaccinated (she’d been working on her father). Everyone worried about his valet, who had a pre-existing condition. Testing sites around Beverly Hills were filling up in Sinatra’s wake. The lines were astronomical.
Because the singer traveled by private plane, there was less concern his illness had spread outside these close-knit circles. But within them, circumferences grew. While many had said they’d kill for Sinatra, no one wanted to die because they’d caught Covid from him.
One thing was clear: Sinatra would need to be tested before recording his next show—a performance he’d been looking forward to for weeks. Plenty of planning and over fifty rapid tests had gone in to ensuring the event would be safe. The 43-person orchestra was reduced to 21 musicians fronted by plexiglass. The director and his staff were also behind glass, enclosed in a control booth overlooking the orchestra and stage. Camera crews, technical teams, and security guards all wore masks. The Budweiser ad men had been banished to the parking lot, and the secretaries from other parts of the building, who might have otherwise left their desks to watch, were all working from home.
Despite these precautions, at rehearsal the following Monday a current of unease rippled through the orchestra.
Frank Sinatra might have Covid.
Rumor was he’d agreed to the test. Apparently, the run-in with the unmasked kid had scared him. Now the whole world seemed to await the results (it was a PCR test).
Finally, there was a stir from inside the control booth: the test was negative. An audible sigh coursed across the studio, followed by a collective intake of breath. Sinatra had arrived.
He was, as yet, unwell. Instead of his usual tailored suit he wore a cozy gold sweater. His shoulders slumped, and his face was ashen. When, on his way to warm up in the rehearsal room, he glanced into the studio and saw the stage and orchestra platform were not close together, as he had specifically requested, Sinatra turned a shade paler. From the next room you could hear his hoarse shouts, as he pounded the top of a piano.
The director came down from the control booth to explain the safety measures that required the extra space between the singer and his accompaniment in the airtight studio. A sullen Sinatra took the stage.
After a few songs, his voice had lost its silken quality to a noticeable rasp. Following a rendition of "I Did It My Way"—during which Sinatra’s voice cracked noticeably, twice—there was a long silence from the control booth.
Sinatra shifted in his well-polished shoes. “What the hell are you doing up there, anyway?” he demanded at the darkened glass.
“You having a party up there or something because there’s limits these days on how many you can have in a…”
The intercom crackled to life, and the director’s voice could be heard, sounding loud and sure over the failing vocal cords of the talent. “Okay, Frank.” It wasn’t working; Sinatra could hear for himself.
They didn’t want him in the control room, so someone tossed him headphones. Arms crossed, Sinatra glared up at the dark glass of the booth as he listened back, wincing at occasional intervals. Then he ripped off the headset and stared at a large monitor, where a voiceless mime of himself continued to sing soundlessly.
Turning his back to the image, the singer fixed a wounded, glassy gaze on his orchestra. Some of the musicians had accompanied him for twenty-five years. “I know what you boys have been thinking,” Sinatra sniffed. “But what you got there,” he nodded at the screen, “is a man with a cold.”
After ordering the day’s work destroyed, Sinatra left the studio.
Word of the botched recording spread like the pandemic itself, down Sinatra’s staff, throughout Hollywood and across the nation. Speculation about the singer’s vaccination status circulated widely.
Sinatra disappeared for a while. It was 21 days before he declared himself ready to record.
He strode into the studio a new man. He was still impeccably dressed, and he still wore a mask. But his eyes danced in a way that told you there was a smile below. The troubled waters had cleared. As he resumed his place on stage, the musicians, from a distance, raised their instruments in silent salute.
Frank Sinatra had been vaccinated.
Jodie Noel Vinson holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College. Her essays and reviews have been published in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and Electric Literature, among other outlets. She lives in Providence, where she is working on a book about creativity and chronic illness.