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by Harry Spencer
The Frank Sinatra Jr. Kidnap
I had the opportunity to meet with Frank Jr. at his last Reno appearance we talked about his famous kidnap and I gave him a series I had written about his father. My part in the kidnap...
The jangle of the telephone around midnight usually is the precursor of bad news. When the phone rang for me at that time it was a cold wintry night with a storm in the mountains. As usual the caller was Walter Ramage the Manager of the Mapes Hotel. He began by asking me if I could get down to the hotel right away. When I asked him if it couldn’t wait until the morning he said, “No it is important!” I had received a similar call from him some three years earlier when he had asked me to come down right away. At that time it resulted in our scurrying over to the Holiday Hotel (now the Renaissance Reno Downtown Hotel) and snatching the two front men for “The Misfits” film company that was scheduled to come to Reno that year to shoot the majority of the picture. Walter had convinced the two that he could give them a better deal than the Holiday. It led to the entire company staying at the Mapes for the better part of 1960. The two men were Doc Erickson the Chief Financial Officer and Tommy Shaw the Assistant Director.
The phone call I referred to in the opening of this piece came on December 9, 1963, a scant three weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. As I left the warm confines of my bedroom I grabbed an overcoat and headed the few blocks to the hotel.
When I got there I found Ramage nervously pacing inside the front door. I asked him what was up and he said he had received a call from Bill Raggio the District Attorney of Washoe County requesting a room for Frank Sinatra, whose son had been kidnapped from South Shore Lake Tahoe on that evening. He added that Raggio had met Frank at the airport and they had tried to reach the lake but all roads were closed because of the storm. He also said that Charles Mapes had authorized Frank to check into his (Mapes’) private suite at the hotel.
Once we had ensconced Frank senior in his rooms we set up a hotline for Frank’s personal use. The first caller the next morning on that line was the Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy. Frank also received many personal calls from the East and Hollywood but mostly the line was kept open for word from the kidnappers. At the suggestion of the FBI agent who was in charge of the case I took a room in the hotel so that I would be immediately available on the fastbreaking story.
This was not the first time I had met Frank Sinatra. The initial occasion occurred in 1953 when I was the editor of a statewide weekly newspaper, the Nevada Register. I received a call from Frank Johnson, a good friend who was a reporter at the Nevada State Journal. He excitedly told me that he had an offer from the United Press wire service that would pay him $25.00, a princely sum in those days, for a picture of Frank Sinatra. I asked him what that had to do with me. He informed me he would split the fee with me if I would talk to one Eddie O’Dowd, who was also a good friend and the PR man at the Riverside Hotel where Frank was set to appear that evening. I was to ask O’Dowd if we could take a picture of Frank and thus publicize the Riverside. The assignment was extra special because when Frank had arrived at the Reno airport that morning he was accompanied by Ava Gardner. At the airport in one of his famous tantrums Frank smashed the camera of a wire service reporter named Ed Olson. This was the reason for the request to Johnson.
I got hold of O’Dowd and convinced him it would be national publicity for the Riverside if we could take Frank’s photo there. He said he would talk to Frank that afternoon at rehearsal and call me back. True to his word he did and told me that Frank would be available for a photo between shows that evening. I buzzed Johnson back and told him it was all set but that we would have to use his camera instead of mine just in case Frank was in a camerasmashing mood. At the appointed time Johnson and I went to the Riverside Showroom where O’Dowd guided us to a booth where Frank was sitting at the back of the room. Next to him was a beautiful young lady in a lowcut red dress. O’Dowd introduced us and Frank asked, “Is it okay if Ava is in the picture, too?” We replied, “Certainly,” and snapped the photo. Frank was sporting a wispy mustache at the time. Johnson called me later that evening and said because Ava was in the picture he had sold it for twice as much money.
At other times such as his opening at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas, his first appearance with the Rat Pack when he owned Cal Neva, and several daytime meetings at the Cal Neva with him and Bill Raggio, I had enjoyed Frank’s presence.
Back to 1963, early in the A.M. of the next day Frank’s personal publicity man Jim Mahoney was quick to arrive on the scene. I had met Mahoney previously when I traveled to L.A. on the possibility of joining his PR firm which fortunately did not happen.
The wire services were crackling with the news of the kidnap and this brought some 20 or 30 of the World Press to Reno, many of whom had been doing follow up stories in Dallas on the assassination. The kidnapping was rated the number one news story in the United States for several days. In addition to the World Press there was a sizeable contingent from Reno itself and the Bay Area. It was decided by the FBI agent in charge of the case that we would hold a daily press conference in the hotel and keep Frank senior incommunicado. Since I was well acquainted with the Reno and Bay Area press, Mahoney decided to return to Hollywood and leave it up to me to run the press conferences. The conferences themselves went well since we issued statements from the FBI and answered questions about Frank’s state of mind.