Two of the 20th century’s most accomplished performers were born in the same year—1915. Don Budge, a prodigiously talented tennis player, won back-to-back championships at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in the tense pre-war years of 1937 and 1938. In 1938, he then became the first tennis player to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year, a feat matched by only four players since. The tall, redheaded Budge pioneered the power game in tennis and became one of sports’ greatest figures. During Don Budge’s rise to celebrity status, a band singer named Frank Sinatra became a household name, with hit after record hit and sold-out performances at Paramount Theatre in New York City. Frank Sinatra did not invent pop vocal crooning—Bing Crosby did that—but Sinatra raised the male vocal to an art form. To hear Frank and Bing together at their best, view their duet “What a Swell Party This Is” from the 1956 film High Society.
Both Don Budge and Frank Sinatra loved the after-event party, and they made their connection through the great bandleader Tommy Dorsey. With Frank on the Dorsey bandstand at the New Yorker Hotel, Don arrived to party after winning a tournament at the sold-out Madison Square Garden. There is a story that Budge once came to the New Yorker’s Manhattan Room at midnight and that Tommy Dorsey turned the band over to him for the rest of the night. Since Budge had been an amateur drummer since age 12, it can be believed that he could lead the band. In addition to the Dorsey brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, Budge had other bandleader friends like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. He also partied with sports celebrities of his era like Sugar Ray Robinson at the famous Billy Goat Inn in Chicago. There is no need to document Frank Sinatra’s propensity for after-event private parties. And there is evidence that whenever Frank and Don Budge were in the same city, they got together. When Don played charity matches at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, where Frank, Bob Hope, and Kirk Douglas were long-time residents, they must have renewed their social friendship. In the Los Angeles area, the brother of my father-in-law managed a very popular nightclub where the stars came to party.
Frank Sinatra’s party clan was called the Rat Pack and included singers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., actor Peter Lawford, and comedian Joey Bishop. The Rat Pack appeared together on the Las Vegas stage and in feature films in the early 1960s. Their major movies were Oceans 11, Sergeants 3, and Robin and the 7 Hoods. Associate members of the Rat Pack were the most beautiful women in Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Juliet Prowse, and Shirley MacLaine were welcome as were celebrity male pals from show business and sports.
Dom Giallanza told his older brother Sal that he often closed his nightclub to the public for the sole purpose of hosting Frank Sinatra’s private Rat Pack parties. He especially enjoyed the fun of being around Sammy Davis, Jr., the celebrated singer, dancer, and actor whose color prevented him from being universally welcomed in a still segregated America. With Sinatra, Sammy was accepted as one of the leaders of the pack.
The Giallanzas had homes in the French Quarter of New Orleans and were major vegetable merchants prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Sal, my father-in-law, then went to the docks of New Orleans as a stevedore, while his brother Dominick sought his fortune in California. Dom’s club must have been central to the Budge and Sinatra after-hours parties because in friendship, Don Budge gave Dominick Giallanza his pocket watch. The watch came to Sal about 1970 on the death of his brother and thus to me on Sal’s death in 2006.
The watch is a working gold Waltham 17 jewels, shock-resistant, antimagnetic, large numeral, two-inch diameter pocket watch, with a separate circle for the second hand, and attached 19 1/2-inch gold chain with 3/4-inch gold-letter linking charms that spell out the name “Don Budge.” What hours this watch must have recorded during the years of America’s greatest generation.
Although I never saw Don Budge on the court, I have seen some great tennis players. I once had
an all-access press pass to see my fellow Virginian Arthur Ashe in a semi-final at Wimbledon. He remains the only black man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. I also attended a U.S. Indoors tournament as a journalist and went into the locker room with players like Ilie Nastase and Stan Smith. I once saw the legendary Pancho Gonzales, who was the world’s top player for eight consecutive years (1952-1960) play doubles with partner Pancho Segura against Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase in an exhibition match to open the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Florida. Don Budge toured with Gonzales in 1950-51, so they obviously had mutual respect.
I also saw Martina Navratilova play a match from a courtside box at a 1984 Virginia Slims tournament stop in New Orleans. Sports Illustrated has named Serena Williams as the number one women’s player of all time, but Martina, with 18 Grand Slams and 167 titles, still gets my vote. After all, I was once so close to her that I could have handed her a towel between sets. The closest I ever got to Frank Sinatra was in July 1975. I had been included in the Savalas family party who gathered in Las Vegas to celebrate Telly’s opening night cabaret act at the Sahara Hotel and Casino. As a movie star and lead actor in the top-rated television detective show Kojak, Telly Savalas was one of the most popular celebrities in show business. When the wives in our party decided that they wanted to see Frank Sinatra’s show at Caesar’s Palace, even our high rollers with the pit boss connections could not get us a table. We had waited too long. It was Sinatra’s last night, and the show was sold out. One of the younger guys in our party group asked if he might try to get us into the Sinatra show. The older men (who had failed) raised eyebrows, but they did not discourage him. Being the day before the actual concert, what were his odds of getting all of us in? The men were dumbfounded when the miracle was announced. Our wives went wild! Caesar’s Palace must have moved a lot of tables closer together at the right center of the stage to accommodate our last-minute oval for ten. The quarters were tight, but who cared? We were ringside. When Frank moved across the stage and sang, he was often standing within ten feet above us. Frank was still in his vocal prime, and his performance was electrifying. How had our new friend gotten the table? He would not be specific. The fact that he was the son of Robert Strauss, then Chairman of the Democratic Party, might have been a clue.
For me, there will always be a link between Don Budge and Frank Sinatra. I have the pocket watch of the one and the timeless image and recordings of the other. My only regret is that I never got to hear the stories that Dominick Giallanza might have told me about Don and Frank.