When the singing legend died last week, America lost arguably the greatest performer of the 20th century

By EW Staff
May 29, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

It might have been better, when Frank Sinatra died, if nobody had said anything at all. That had always worked perfectly at Sinatra’s concerts: When the applause for his opening act subsided, all you’d hear was the crackling electric-energy sound of nervous coughing. Then, suddenly, you’d feel an airless force all around you — the literal vacuum of several thousand people gasping in unison. You’d fix your eyes ahead, and as the theater erupted in a riotous ovation, you’d see the aging singer strolling alone from the wings to the center of the stage, unannounced. No drumroll, no fanfare, no ballyhoo. What could anyone say — then or last week, when Sinatra got his final ovation — that could come close to the impact of the man himself? Ladies and gentlemen…the voice of the century?…the chairman of the world? Any effort to enshrine Sinatra’s place in pop-culture history, no matter how earnest or accurate, inevitably sounds like hype. But television, the Internet, and the publishing industry plunged ahead anyway, clicking into full gush mode within hours of the announcement that the 82-year-old entertainer had succumbed to a heart attack in Los Angeles at 10:50 p.m. on May 14. The instant onslaught of tributes — both major (a comprehensive Nightline special) and minor (a makeshift altar on the site in Hoboken, N.J., where Sinatra was born) — reminded millions of us that his voice was the background music of our lives.

No American since JFK (the Sinatra of presidents) seemed to have received such a grand media memorial, effusive in its praise of his talent and celebratory in its recollection of his life. Contrition, perhaps, for the decades of relentless, often hostile press coverage? From the day he quit the Harry James band in 1940, virtually every move Sinatra made, publicly or privately, sparked headlines, whether it was real news (his career collapse after the war, his 1953 comeback with From Here to Eternity, his 1971 retirement, and his triumphant final return) or gossip (his tempestuous love life, his mobster pals, his Rat Pack shenanigans, his bitter feuds).

The media were surely prepared for his death, with reports of mysterious hospital visits and rumors of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease swirling around Sinatra after he suffered a heart attack in January 1997 and retired with his fourth wife, Barbara, 67, to Palm Springs, Calif. His kids — Nancy, 57; Frank Jr., 55; and Tina, 49 — waged a vigorous happy-face campaign, while stories surfaced that Barbara and the trio were squabbling behind the scenes over Sinatra’s estimated $200 million estate. (Reportedly, Barbara will inherit his real estate holdings, his children will get his lucrative music catalog, and a big chunk of money will go to a child-abuse charity, the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, founded by his wife in 1986.)

If his family kept Sinatra cocooned in his last days, they were protecting a treasured image of resilience. Wan and spiritless, according to accounts that leaked after his death, the once-scrappy Sinatra appeared ready, almost eager, to die. ”Fight, fight!” his wife prodded him in vain, having rushed to his side at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from a dinner with friends at a Beverly Hills restaurant. (Fortunately, traffic was light, with so many people at home because of the Seinfeld finale.) Before long, reports said, Sinatra pulled off his own life-support systems. A last blast of defiance, or a moan of submission?