Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

At holidays, take a tip from a gift to Sinatra

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:29 AM EST, Sun December 8, 2013
Frank Sinatra crouches to kiss his daughter Nancy on a train platform around 1942.
Frank Sinatra crouches to kiss his daughter Nancy on a train platform around 1942.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: In 1940's, Jimmy Van Heusen, Phil Silvers gave personal gift to Frank Sinatra
  • He says it was song "Nancy With the Laughing Face" for Sinatra's daughter. He prized it
  • Greene: Mulling a good holiday gift? Consider homemade: letters, a photo album
  • Greene: Nancy Sinatra said her dad moved by gift his whole life. The best gifts are like that

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Attention, holiday shoppers: Put away your wallets and credit cards.

If you're looking for a gift that will please someone close to you, there's one that won't cost you a cent, and that you won't find on any store shelf.

This thought occurred the other day when, on a visit to the west coast of Florida, I was walking through a crowded outdoor mall and the familiar voice of Frank Sinatra wafted out of the loudspeaker system:

"If I don't see her each day I miss her. . . ." I recognized the song immediately.

"Believe me, I've got a case,

"On Nancy, with the laughing face. . . ."

It's one of the songs Sinatra cherished most.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

And what does that have to do with the most meaningful present you can give to a loved one this holiday season?

There's a story behind the song: a story with a lesson.

In the early 1940s, when Sinatra was a relatively young man, he and his wife were having a birthday party for their firstborn child, Nancy. Among the invited guests were two good friends of Sinatra: the wonderful musical composer Jimmy Van Heusen, and the brilliant comedic actor Phil Silvers.

Van Heusen and Silvers wanted to bring a gift. But what could they purchase that Sinatra himself could not provide for his daughter?

What the two men did was revise a song they'd been working on. Van Heusen had written the melody; Silvers was the writer of the lyrics. (He would go on to immense fame in the 1950s playing Army Sgt. Ernest Bilko on CBS television, but his talents extended to many fields.)

Their song, in an early version, had featured the words "Bessie, with the laughing face," referring to the wife of a colleague. Now they worked some more on it, and fashioned the lyrics for Sinatra's young daughter.

Mia Farrow's paternity bombshell
Paul Anka on writing 'My Way'

They played and sang it at the birthday party. Sinatra adored it; by some accounts, he was so moved by the gesture from his friends that he began to cry. Talk about a gift for the man who has everything: What are you going to give to Frank Sinatra that he will remember? A tie? A car? A bottle of liquor? He needed nothing.

But that song, and the effort his two friends had put into it, touched him so deeply that, until his dying day, it signified something achingly personal to him.

And now it's the holiday season. We've all read about the mobs of people at door-buster sales, the fights in the aisles of stores. Yet there is a way that each of us, if we are willing to invest the hours, can come up with a gift that will mean more than any flat-screen television or video game.

If you're good with words, write the best and longest letter you've ever written to a family member who maybe doesn't know just what he or she means to you. That letter will be kept, and treasured, long after gifts bought in a store have worn out or been thrown away.

If you're artistic, paint a picture with a special significance that the person you love will understand.

If you're the organized type, gather family photos from over the years, select them carefully, and put them together in an album that will mean everything to the person who receives it.

If you're musical ... well, do for the person you care about what Phil Silvers and Jimmy Van Heusen did for Frank Sinatra and his family.

Will the effort be time-consuming? Yes, and that's the point. It will certainly be time better spent than standing in line for hours before some big-box store opens its doors for midnight bargains.

Because I'd heard about the Sinatra story for so many years, I called his younger daughter Tina the other afternoon to ask her about its veracity -- and its meaning to her family.

"All of it is true," she said.

She said that her dad, Silvers and Van Heusen were dear buddies who loved to spend time together: "There would be New Year's Eve parties where they'd set up a stage, and play charades games. Everyone had to participate. They just liked being around each other."

When the two men presented the song at the birthday party, she said, "It was done out of pure friendship." Her father and her mother -- whose name was also Nancy -- couldn't have been more moved by the personal nature of the gift. Tina had not yet been born, but the reason she is certain of this, she said, is that her dad talked about it, from time to time, for the rest of his life.

And for him, the song -- and the memories of his friends who wrote it -- never diminished in emotional power. She recalled one time in Paris when her dad was in a brittle mood over some things that were going on in his life. He was angry and irritable; at a concert, as he worked his way through his song list, his agitation was evident to everyone who knew him.

But then he got to "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)".

"His entire physicality changed," Tina said. 'He relaxed. He calmed down. The gentleness of the song, and the meaning of the story behind it, did that to him. You could see it. He went from being tense and on edge to being like an at-ease sergeant."

The gift from his buddies did that for him, all those years later.

The best gifts are like that.

Here's hoping you'll find the right one.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT