On the plane
About a week before the Sinatra comeback date, I called Peter Epstein one last time to make sure we were doing everything that was expected of us. Epstein said, “Say, Harold Gibbons and I are taking the four o’clock flight over to Cleveland Thursday to catch the show there. Why don’t you come with us?” I’d been planning to go up there anyway, to get a first-hand look at how this organization wanted their shows done, but this was even better. On the plane for an hour and a half with these guys, I figured, I would get to hear some of the inside scoop. I might get a peek at the real balance of forces in the entourage, and even at the widely-rumored role of the mob in all this.
“Great idea,” I agreed, trying hard to match his enthusiasm. “I’ll get a ticket and go up with you. Pick me up at my office, will you?” Two days later I was sitting with Epstein in the back seat of his enormous black Pontiac. As the Chicago tenements flashed by, Epstein told me he had sold his home and was selling his business. “We’re moving into a house in Palm Springs, right near where Frank Iives,” he said, wide—eyed. “So that’s your next move, huh?” I said.
“You ought to come along next time Frank takes a trip to Palm Springs,” he said. “You could maybe get on the plane, even. Bring your wife.” That might be fun, I agreed.
It was in fact a very dangerous move Epstein was making, because he was not quite in the inner circle in Sinatra’s throne room. He was still only in the second tier, and the contours of the court changed all the time. I stared at him as he chattered on. This man was living his whole life in the shadow of somebody else’s fantasy.
We boarded the plane with Harold Gibbons and a third man I don’t remember well, a groupie-in-training from the oilfield supply business. This was his first invitation into the inner circle and he was patently thrilled to be included. He wasn’t saying much, just grinning and nodding.
To my disappointment, the only two subjects discussed on the plane were status and women. As the flight wore on, I heard nothing about Sinatra’s people or any other questionable characters. Epstein and Gibbons went on at length about who was going to be at the concert, who was traveling with Frank on his plane, who had got in to see him, who would get to go back with him to California, where in the pecking order they fit, and where they might end up.
There were people who just got to the ramp of Sinatra’s airplane, and there were those who got to go aboard. On the plane itself, there was an even finer set of distinctions. No women were allowed, except those currently being used by one of the men in the inner circle. There were some men who got to ride in the plane but sat in the front. Then there were those who evidently had unlimited entree. There was no question that Gibbons, the former radical labor leader from St. Louis, had that.
They carried on about women until I was just embarrassed for them. I was neither a prude nor an emancipated man, by today’s standards, but the way these men went after the stewardess would have been enough to make a Bob Packwood flinch. I said nothing. I just wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.
Grasping for a way to get them to shut up, I turned to Gibbons. “So, Harold,” I broke in. “Heard from our mutual friend Sid Lens lately?” Gibbons turned so white I thought for a moment he was airsick. He didn’t ask what that meant, and he never did find out — not from me, at least. Old leftist connections were no small embarrassment to Gibbons. He was running the St. Louis joint board, he was Jimmy Hoffa’s number two man, he was beginning to play a national role in “liberal-labor” glamour politics, and he was part of the Sinatra entourage; all these interlocking things made him a far cry from the Harold Gibbons who founded one of the more dynamic warehouse unions in the country. I sat there quietly for the rest of the flight, enjoying his shaken expression.