Today in SF History: Harlan Ellison stands up to a bullying Frank Sinatra

In the past I've reamed Harlan Ellison for a number of things, ranging from the frequency with which he screams "Plagiarism!" to the inappropriate comments and actions he's frequently delivered to fellow writers. But all that said, he is flat-out one of the best writers in SF. His The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective is among the most re-read books on my bookshelf and a must-read for anyone who worships at the short story altar.

But while Ellison's personality has frequently delivered him into wrong-headed situations, it's also part of what made him a SF legend. As proof of this, witness the time he stood up to a bullying Frank Sinatra.

The episode occurred well before Ellison was famous, back when he was only 22. The story is related in "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," a profile of Sinatra by Gay Talese which was published in Esquire. The profile is considered "one of the seminal works of New Journalism" and can be read in its entirety here.

The set-up is such: Gay Talese has been trying to land an interview with Frank Sinatra but has been unable to do so. So instead, he follows Frankie Boy to a local Beverly Hills club, where the prima donna acts like a jerk to pretty much everyone. Then he encounters Ellison.

As mentioned, at this time Ellison was almost an unknown — he'd written one screenplay so far for the movie The Oscar, but the film hadn't yet been released. Anyway, Ellison and his friends are at the club, playing pool and ignoring Sinatra. But Sinatra can't stop looking at Ellison, or more specifically, at Ellison's Game Warden boots. Even though Talese describes Ellison and his friends as a cool group of young actors and writers, obviously Sinatra doesn't like how they — and in particular Ellison — are dressed. 

Here's the article from that point:

Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.

"Hey," he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. "Those Italian boots?"

"No," Ellison said.

"Spanish?"

"No."

"Are they English boots?"

"Look, I donno, man," Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.

Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra's shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: "You expecting a storm?"

Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. "Look, is there any reason why you're talking to me?"

"I don't like the way you're dressed," Sinatra said.

"Hate to shake you up," Ellison said, "but I dress to suit myself."

Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, "Com'on, Harlan, let's get out of here," and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, "Yeah, com'on."

But Ellison stood his ground.

Sinatra said, "What do you do?"

"I'm a plumber," Ellison said.

"No, no, he's not," another young man quickly yelled from across the table. "He wrote The Oscar."

"Oh, yeah," Sinatra said, "well I've seen it, and it's a piece of crap."

"That's strange," Ellison said, "because they haven't even released it yet."

"Well, I've seen it," Sinatra repeated, "and it's a piece of crap."

Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, "Com'on, kid, I don't want you in this room."

"Hey," Sinatra interrupted Dexter, "can't you see I'm talking to this guy?"

Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed, and his voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, "Why do you persist in tormenting me?"

The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges Harlan Ellison left the room. By this time the word had gotten out to those on the dance floor about the Sinatra-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club. But somebody else said that the manager had already heard about it -- and had quickly gone out the door, hopped in his car and drove home. So the assistant manager went into the poolroom.

"I don't want anybody in here without coats and ties," Sinatra snapped.

The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.

Again, I recommend people read the entire piece. But for my money, nothing beats how Ellison, as a then-nobody, refused to let the biggest star of that day push him around simply for wearing clothes which got up Frankie Boy's butt. And I love that Gay Talese was there to capture the incident for posterity.

For previous "Today in SF History" items, go here.