Frank Sinatra will always be Terry O’Neill’s favorite study. From the moment they first met in 1967 to their collaborations decades later backstage and in concert at the end of the star’s career, the photographer was given unrivaled trust and access to Sinatra’s life and work. It was no accident that O’Neill found himself inside Sinatra’s private circle. The photographer had befriended Sinatra’s ex wife Ava Gardner, who lived in London, and often took her out to his favorite jazz clubs. One night, he told Gardner he was flying to Miami the next day to photograph a new star called Raquel Welch, who was cast opposite Sinatra in a Tony Rome movie called Lady In Cement. The actress, who still had a hold on Sinatra, wrote a letter and gave it to O’Neill. “Give this to Frank,” she said.
“This was the moment I first met him. He hadn’t seen me yet, and he came around the corner striding across the boardwalk with all his bodyguards and his body double. It was really intimidating. I was walking up the Miami boardwalk to the Fountainebleu Hotel where Sinatra was staying. He was filming by day and doing cabaret by night. I hadn’t a clue how I was going to get past security-this was the biggest star in the world and nobody could get near him. Suddenly, he appeared from around the corner, walking with his entourage to the film set, and I just grabbed the opportunity. First I took a photograph-probably my most famous shot ever-as he walked towards me, and people gawped as one of the most famous men in the world walked by. Then, I just reached out with the letter in my hand and he took it. He opened it, read it, crumpled it up in his pocket and turned to his security men and said, ‘this kid’s with me.’ I never found out what Ava said to him in that letter. But I knew he was still crazy about her. She had a power over him long after their marriage had ended and I found out later he loved her till the day he died. From that moment on, I was part of his inner circle. Nobody questioned me, nobody stopped me taking pictures and Frank just behaved as if the camera wasn’t there. It was the greatest compliment he could pay me- and the greatest trust. He never, ever said, ’no pictures’; never, ever said ‘put your camera away. He was the coolest, most enigmatic and charismatic man I have ever met or photographed. When he walked into a room, time stood still. He didn’t have to act, what you saw on stage or in the movies was the man himself.”
View a large version of Frank Sinatra, On the Boardwalk, Miami, 1967: 40 x 60 silver gelatin print.
View Terry O’Neill’s show at Gallery 270 in Englewood – “It was 50 Years ago Today”