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Jackie Mason, 9 June 1928 – 24 July 2021: the jew who got under Sinatra’s skin

Vale Jackie Mason then. 

A rabbi-turned-comedian whose sarcastic shtick amused and outraged audiences for more than half a century, Jackie Mason has died in New York, aged 93

Fired by a fierce individualism, Mason’s acerbic and forthright brand of standup and witty, dazzling, unapologetically un-PC repartee wasn’t for everyone — indeed, he took great delight in winding up liberal sensibilities with routines that were unabashed in their portrayal of racial stereotypes.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t not love this henna-haired provocateur, even if he did get under Sinatra’s skin… repeatedly.

He was a diamond dude to me too.

Let me tell you a story…

Other than an impromptu quizzing of Coldplay’s Chris Martin in Berwick Street Market for Q (or was it Mojo?), Jackie Mason, the great Jewish scythe of comedy, was the only person who let me interview him as we actually walked to our destination. In this instance it was London’s Oxford Street as we were heading to Selfridges one crisp grey afternoon in 1999. 

He was playing the London Palladium that night, in fact. 

When Frank Sinatra married the boyish 19-year-old Mia Farrow — 30 years his junior — Mason couldn’t resist setting himself up as one of the veteran singer’s most vocal tormentors, making jokes about the couple’s nightly ritual, however imagined: 

“Frank soaks his dentures and Mia brushes her braces… then she takes off her roller skates and puts them next to his cane… he peels off his toupée and she unbraids her hair.” 

Not best pleased by the age-related mocking, Sinatra even came to see Mason’s Vegas act one night with a group of associates and started heckling. Jackie started abusing him back. “I said if you need attention so much, you should be seeing a doctor, not my show.” 

The crooner and his cronies walked out.

Sinatra was so enraged by, as the lyrics to My Way illustrate, having his “share of losing” forced upon him in public he sent a couple of thugs to Mason’s dressing room to tell him to knock off the wisecracks or else. Bold as brass and twice as ugly, Jackie told the thugs to fuck off, and kept telling the thorny jokes at Ol’ Blue Eyes’ expense. 

It probably wasn’t a wise move. One night in November 1966, Mason received an anonymous call telling him that if he valued his life, he should consider changing his material. When he failed to follow the friendly advice, three shots were fired through the glass door of Mason’s hotel room, the Aladdin on the Las Vegas Strip. 

Conveniently, Nevada police said they saw no reason to pursue an investigation.

“I knew that Sinatra owned Las Vegas when the detectives there made me the prime suspect and asked that I take a lie detector test,” said Mason, before quipping, “I have no idea who it was who tried to shoot me. After the shots were fired, all I heard was someone singing, ‘Doobie, doobie, doo’, ” referencing Frankie’s contemporaneous hit Strangers In The Night.

Three months later, the vendetta with the Chairman of the Board became even more serious, and Mason will have his nose and cheekbones broken, again by complete strangers.

On February 13, 1967, two thugs wearing brass knuckles warned Jackie to stop the Sinatra jokes and then beat him to a pulp, shattering his nose and jaw.

But, as was usually the case, the comedian ended up getting in the last word. After he had his face wired back together, he added a new Sinatra joke to his routine: “Frank Sinatra saved my life one night. He said: ‘Boys, that’s enough’.” 

All those years later, it fascinated me why Jackie kept doggedly going for Ol’ Blue Eyes, and, chasing a bit of tail, I couldn’t resist bringing the recently departed entertainer up.

Here’s the best bit:

“Why were you always slagging off Frank Sinatra? Didn’t you like his music or something?”

“No, no, no. I LOVED his music. But as a man, he stunk. In Vegas, everybody would pay homage to him like he was the Pope. 

It was all ‘Yes Frank, three bags full, Frank.’ He was like a dictator. What he said went. 

But I’m not the subservient type. If I’m in a room with someone and I can’t be an equal I don’t wanna know them. It’s as simple as that. That okay for ya, kid? Put it there.” 

That last bit about not being interested in anyone unless we can be on an equal footing I’ve never forgotten.

I find it almost impossible to fawn and fluster over celebrities, finding large swathes of fandom incredibly demeaning and reductive.

Are they human, or are they dancer?

The answer, my friend, is both. But more the former, obviously. I’ll wager Jackie Mason was about as good a dancer as yours truly, and I’m totally two-left-feet atrocious.

The moral of this story? Mason’s inadvertent advice became my mantra so much so that when I had a sit down meeting with David Bowie in Dublin for what turned out to be the last time later that same year, I struggled so bloody hard to bite my tongue when I sniffed him talking bullshit, bitching about a newly published biography by David Buckley and talking up his legacy, even if it meant veering into the worlds of fiction.

To be continued… in a book about Bowie very very soon.

Steve Pafford

Diva Las Vegas is here

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