Episode 668: Frank Sinatra's Mug : Planet Money When you die you can pass on your money, your house. But your image--what you look and sound like--that's trickier. Today on the show: How Frank Sinatra made his image, and maybe yours, last forever.
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Episode 668: Frank Sinatra's Mug

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Episode 668: Frank Sinatra's Mug

Episode 668: Frank Sinatra's Mug

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Stacey, let me play you a bit of tape. And I want you to picture what this guy sounds like you.


OK, Sonari.


BELLA LUGOSI: (As Dracula) I am Dracula.

DWIGHT FRYE: (As Renfield) It's really good to see you.

LUGOSI: (As Dracula) I bid you welcome.

GLINTON: OK, so do me a favor and describe what Dracula looks like to you.

SMITH: OK, Dracula - very pale, black hair, cape, pointy teeth, obviously, tuxedo.

GLINTON: Yeah, widow's peak.

SMITH: Widow's peak for sure, yes.

GLINTON: That's how most people would describe the fictional character Count Dracula. But that is not how the author of "Dracula," Bram Stoker, described him. Stoker wrote that Dracula was a tall, old man with a long, white mustache. Sounds like Dracula, huh (ph)?

SMITH: That's not going to sell a lot of movie tickets, I don't think.

GLINTON: Yeah, the Dracula you're thinking of - the one you described - he's really the actor who played him, Bella Lugosi. The widow's peak, the jet black hair - that's Bella Lugosi's face, his likeness.

SMITH: What about the Dracula voice? The, I want to drink your blood. Was that Bella Lugosi?

GLINTON: That's Bella Lugosi too.


GLINTON: He originated this icon. It was him. And when he died - you know, they actually buried him with his cape - his family couldn't control the Dracula image. And everyone ripped off Bella Lugosi's face. There were Dracula masks, Dracula lunchboxes, Count Chocula cereal - the family got nothing. And they tried to sue at the time, but the court said, hey, look, Bella Lugosi's dead and so is his face, so nobody owns that face anymore. And this is the way it might have stayed but for the help of a man with a very famous blue-eyed face and with the help of his powerful Hollywood attorneys, who said, I want to pass on my famous face to my children. The man - Frank Sinatra.


FRANK SINATRA: I'm going to live till I die. I'm going to laugh instead of cry. I'm going to take the town and turn it upside down. I'm going to live, live, live until I die. They're going to say...

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton. When you die, you can pass on your money to your kids.

SMITH: You can leave them your car. You can leave them your house. You can leave them your tropical parrot collection.

GLINTON: But your image, your likeness, what you look like, what you sound like - those are trickier issues. Obviously, your actual face dies with you. But what happens when your image is the most valuable thing you own?

SMITH: Today on the show, who owns your face...

GLINTON: ...After you're dead. It's the story of how Frank Sinatra, his family, and their lawyers, of course, helped make his image - and maybe even yours - last forever.


F. SINATRA: I'll be a devil till I'm an angel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for this podcast and the following message come from Stamps.com, who want you to know that with the holidays fast approaching, the post office is getting busier by the minute. Avoid the hassle and use Stamps.com instead. With Stamps.com, you can buy and print official U.S. postage for all of your letters and packages using just your computer and printer. Sign up for Stamps.com, and use the promo code "money" for a four-week trial and special offer, including postage and a digital scale. Go to stamps.com, click on the microphone, and type in "money."

GLINTON: So, Stacey, every day, I drive past Frank Sinatra Enterprises on my way to work.

SMITH: No way.


F. SINATRA: (Singing) Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum.

GLINTON: Now when you walk in the door, to be honest, Stacey, it's kind of startling.

SMITH: Yeah.

GLINTON: It's kind of like walking into a Sinatra museum, but it's like everything is Sinatra. There's Sinatra books on the table. There's records on the walls. There is dolls. There's an artistic rendering of Frank Sinatra's mug shot that's the size of a wall. Sinatra ended up in jail for, you know, seduction. But the reason that I came was to see his daughter...


F. SINATRA: (Singing) Tina.

GLINTON: ...Tina.


F. SINATRA: (Singing) Tina, nobody else but Tina, that's the little lady's name.

GLINTON: Her father was nicknamed the chairman of the board, so you can consider Tina to be the CEO. She runs her father's business and has for nearly 40 years. And since his death, she's been the head Sinatra in charge. The natural question is, though, it must be kind of strange to constantly work under the gaze of your deceased father.

TINA SINATRA: It's with me every second of every minute of every hour of every day because it's too embedded. It's too visceral. I can't separate myself from it. And as for feeling that he's always with me, too, is that's part and parcel of because wherever I go, I hear him and also because I miss him.

SMITH: Immediately after Frank Sinatra's death, Tina and the family decided to lay low for a bit and think long-term about the future. And they decided that they would pick a few times to honor their father, 10 years after he died and his 100th birthday. And this is a busy time for the Sinatra family. Frank Sinatra would've turned a 100 years old this month, and the marketing machine is in high gear. CBS and the Grammys had a special concert.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And this holiday season, the Grammys will honor his 100th birthday.

GLINTON: And Jack Daniel's introduced a special blend, Sinatra Select for $240 a bottle.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On stage every night, three rocks, two fingers and a splash of water. He's even buried with a bottle of it.

SMITH: This 100-year anniversary is the moment Sinatra's family has been planning for since his death. He's getting a lot of attention right now.

GLINTON: And stain in the public awareness, which is part of how his family makes their money.

SMITH: And in a weird way, Frank Sinatra sensed this when he was alive. In fact, the story of how Frank came to own his face started in the 1970s.

GLINTON: Frank Sinatra was still very much alive and a long way from dying, but something happened that focused Sinatra's and all of Hollywood's attention.


DAVID BRINKLEY: Good evening. Elvis Presley died today. He was 42. Apparently, it was a heart attack.

GLINTON: If you listen a little further to David Brinkley's report, you'll see what caught Frank Sinatra's attention.


BRINKLEY: The end at an early age of one of the two most spectacular careers in the history of American entertainment, the other being Frank Sinatra.

SMITH: It's almost like he's saying, Frank, you're next.

GLINTON: That's definitely what you can imagine a 60-something-year-old Sinatra thinking when a 42-year-old Elvis dies. Think about it. Elvis's death is kind of a watershed event in celebrity culture. People went off their rockers. They went nuts. There were vigils. Elvis took on even more of a cult of personality in death than he had in life. And two things really happened. The money started rolling in, and Elvis's face showed up on everything, every kind of cheap tchotchke you could imagine.

SMITH: Right? I remember those clocks that have, like, the swinging Elvis hips. Tina Sinatra remembers that people were selling sandwiches that had supposedly been partly eaten by Elvis and vials of his sweat.

GLINTON: This was making Frank Sinatra and Hollywood notice.

T. SINATRA: The notion that people were getting on coffee mugs and T-shirts scared the crap out of Pop. He didn't want that at all. He saw it happening. It was happening.

GLINTON: So, Sinatra calls his family to, you know, a famous Hollywood restaurant, Chasen's, and he says to them, I want to make a plan for when I'm gone.

T. SINATRA: He sat us down and said, I want you guys to be around. I want you all to protect me when you can, and I pick you guys. And that's how it started.

SMITH: And the way the story goes, Frank Sinatra told his family in super blunt language, do not put my face on a coffee mug.

GLINTON: Actually, with typical Sinatra flair, he said it really, really bluntly. I do not want to end up on a [expletive] coffee mug.

SMITH: (Laughter) That sounds more Frank. This was in the 1970s, 1980s, and technology was getting better and better and so was marketing. And it was getting to the point where you could put a dead person's face on anything you wanted.

GLINTON: Tina remembers the Sinatra family lawyer, Bob Finkelstein, telling stars and others about what could potentially happen.

T. SINATRA: Bob explained that - I hate to say it - was it Debbie? No.

GLINTON: Oh, yes, it was.

T. SINATRA: Yeah, yeah, there was a film something, "Debbie Does Dallas" (laughter).

SMITH: "Debbie Does Dallas."

GLINTON: Yes, that's a famous porn film from the '70s.

T. SINATRA: And Bob said, your husband could be substituted as Debbie. They can do anything in the future once he's not here to speak for himself. So I mean, that's pretty crummy.

GLINTON: And Bob Finkelstein's suggestion to Frank Sinatra and his family was, look, let's just try to change the law. Let's not fight in courts.

SMITH: I love that that's, like, Frank Sinatra's lawyer. It's like, listen, you don't like the law, let's change the law.

GLINTON: (Laughter) One of the things Frank Sinatra had in his career was really, really powerful lawyers. And they wanted law that would protect people like Bela Lugosi and Frank Sinatra. So they went to the California Legislature and said, look, we want to protect this really valuable asset of Hollywood celebrities, their faces.

BOB FINKELSTEIN: And we put together a group of people and went to the California Legislature, worked with the various senators, assemblymen in California, and introduced a right of publicity statute in the state of California.

SMITH: They made a business argument. They said, listen, if corporations can get patents on their big ideas and their products and their trademarks and their logos, rich and famous residents of California, famous celebrities, deserve to be able to make money off of their likenesses, money off of their face.

GLINTON: And it passed, in part because, well, it's California and lawmakers have a really big incentive to protect the entertainment business.

ZIA MODABBER: If you want to be specific about it, it's in California's Civil Code and it's section 3334 or 3344.1 for a person who's no longer alive.

GLINTON: Zia Modabber has been the lawyer for many a famous face - Lance Armstrong, Stephen Tyler and most iconically, Michael Jackson.

MODABBER: And essentially what it says is that you can't take somebody's name, or their likeness, or their signature or their voice, and use it for commercial gain without permission from that person. And if you do that, you're liable. You can be sued, and you can be forced to pay damages and have some other bad things happen to you.

GLINTON: This helped create the world that we see today. T-Shirts with Michael Jackson's face on them? You've got to get a license, and you've got to give some of that money to his estate. That [expletive] coffee mug? If they're from California, at least, you've got to pay to put a dead person's face on it.

SMITH: So Frank Sinatra and his family had a plan. They had a newly minted California law.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is a special report from ABC news.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Frank Sinatra, the romantic balladeer, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.

GLINTON: It turns out that while Frank Sinatra did leave an ironclad will, he did not leave a ton of money, at least by Hollywood standards, which is - if you know anything about Frank Sinatra, makes absolute total sense because he spent money like he was, I don't know, Frank Sinatra. (Laughter) He had a private jet. He had a huge posse that he was always taking around. And he was always buying gifts or paying for someone's hospital stay. But what Frank Sinatra did leave for his family was himself in the form of three companies. It's kind of like the Sinatra family Trinity. One - most importantly - for his music, one for his movies and one for his image. Tina Sinatra eventually combined all those companies. And she says having a company for her father's image was crucial.

T. SINATRA: People were ready to start to rip him off. And when we sort of showed up and put a sign outside the door, it sent a message. And they didn't screw with us as much as they were screwing already with other estates, living or dead.

SMITH: Sonari, it definitely seems like Frank Sinatra could not have picked a better person to guard his image than Tina Sinatra. She seems so tough.

GLINTON: Oh yeah, she tough.

T. SINATRA: I have his temperament. I think I do. That doesn't mean it's good, but it's - it was his. And I got it.

GLINTON: Sinatra's temperament is almost as famous as his voice. And Tina's decision for the image of Frank Sinatra was to play the long game, do what he would have done. Keep it simple, and most importantly, keep it classy. So giant Sinatra bobble heads, no thank you.

T. SINATRA: Well, they were very big. And his head just didn't stop moving. And it was - wasn't he a little gray-haired?

GLINTON: So essentially, no tchotchkes, no dolls, definitely no bottles of Sinatra's sweat. Okay, now, Tina Sinatra has definitely been in charge of the family business. But that doesn't mean she hasn't gotten in some, you know, fights with the other family members. That famous Frank Sinatra mug shot that's plastered all over the office, that was a bone of contention. Tina wanted to put them on T-shirts and blow it up and put it in the background of the Sopranos. And the rest of the family was like, no way. We do not want our dad associated with being a criminal. But Tina Sinatra swayed them because it's Frank Sinatra, and he was arrested for seduction, Stacey, seduction. I mean, come on you, can't get much better than that.

SMITH: That's true. That seems like the most Sinatra of all possible crimes. And essentially, the Sinatra family has tried to turn Frank Sinatra into an upscale, lifestyle brand. There is a satellite radio channel. There's a Sinatra-themed restaurant in Las Vegas, which is very classy. And there are books.

GLINTON: And, Stacey, as I was, you know, reveling in the Sinatra-ness of Frank Sinatra Enterprises, I saw a few things that might not have met the high standards of the chairman of the board himself. There was a doll that, you know, he'd seen in his life and didn't like. And, Stacey, let me tell you a crazy thing. One of the things that the Sinatra estate has produced? Frank Sinatra mugs. There have been Frank Sinatra mugs.

SMITH: No, that was the one thing he asked them not to do.

GLINTON: Exactly. And Tina Sinatra was a little embarrassed when I asked her about it.

He did end up being on a coffee mug.

T. SINATRA: Well, he ended up on a coffee mug because when you do live theater, you've got to give something in memorabilia and merchandise. And you have to make it affordable. So we were stuck with hats, coffee mugs - it's a running gag, don't tell Tina, but we've got to do coffee mugs. And they sell, they're gone...

GLINTON: ...How more explicit, though, can you be than don't put my face on a coffee mug? I mean, do you think, like, do you think he'd understand, or -

T. SINATRA: I don't think one has anything to do with the other. And I'm going to come over there and smack you, no.

SMITH: Sonari, did she do it?

GLINTON: No, she didn't smack me. But I couldn't have written that line if I wanted to. That is a very Sinatra response. Frank knew what he was doing when he picked Tina to run his business because she's come to understand this thing about her father, his relentless drive to get to the top and stay on the top. And, she says, it's about following in his footsteps.

T. SINATRA: I shared him with that drive all my life. We were second, career was first. Why would I not continue to do that for him now? If he didn't ask me to do it, I'd be doing it. I think it would be - it's necessary to do it.


F. SINATRA: (Singing) You took the part that once was my heart. So why not take all of me?

SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of the show. Please send us comments or questions, PLANET MONEY at npr.org. Or you can tweet us, @planetmoney. Our program today was produced by Nick Fountain with production help from Jacob Margolis.

GLINTON: Special thanks to Colby Wallace for helping out with some of the legal stuff. Thanks also to NPR's Justin Richmond, our intern, Sindhu Gnanasambandan and our former intern, Darian Woods, who came up with the story idea in the first place. Thank You. If you're looking for some more Frank Sinatra tunes, I have a couple of playlists on Spotify.

SMITH: And after you check out those playlists, check out another show from NPR called "Mic Check", it's our hip-hop podcast. Hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad from "A Tribe Called Quest" and Frannie Kelley talk to the biggest names in hip-hop. You can find "Mic Check" at npr.org/podcasts or on the NPR1 app.

GLINTON: I'm Sonari Glinton.

SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.


F. SINATRA: (Singing) Take my arms. I'll never use them. Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry. How can I go on, dear, without you? You took the part that once was my heart, so why not take all of me?

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