French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso recalls Special Relationships including Sinatra & Rizzo and Lawrence & Gorme

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Jilly Rizzo, Frank Sinatra & Jackie O — Photo: KPA/Zuma

Jilly Rizzo was always with Frank Sinatra. They were best buddies, had great respect for each other for 25-plus years, and were loyal to the end. The French Connection’s Sonny Grosso, who knew them both, says that loyalty and honor was something they all learned in their Italian-American neighborhoods in New York.

Rizzo owned one of Manhattan’s fanciest and most famous establishments, Jilly’s Saloon. Sinatra, like many of the big stars, used to hang out at Jilly’s — it was one of the places to be seen. Grosso knew Jilly before he met Sinatra and then he ended up working with the Chairman on three movies including Contract on Cherry Street (1977).

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Sinatra and Grosso on the set of Contract on Cherry Street

Grosso recalls that because Sinatra was such a big attraction, he would get hit up by all sorts of people for tickets — other celebrities, politicians, and even wiseguys, who used to own many of the nightclubs across the country where guys like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and all the greats performed. Frank couldn’t and wouldn’t be bothered with all their demands and requests, so they all had to go through Jilly, who took care of all the details. Grosso says, “Jilly knew everybody who was everybody and he didn’t mind doing favors for people. But you can’t get their noses out of joint ’cause you never know how they’re going to react. It was a fine line that he had to tread.”

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Rizzo & Sinatra, all dressed up with places to go

Grosso, himself, had a few first-hand experiences going through Jilly — one time he got the retired NYPD detective, and then a budding producer, primo tickets to see Sinatra perform at Carnegie Hall. And Grosso had wanted to totally impress his new lady friend from Boston by taking her. But we all know about the best-laid plans.

Grosso, who helped make the famous French Connection case which was turned into a five-time Oscar-winning movie, chuckles as he tells his Sinatra/Rizzo story:

“I thought I was the cat’s ass. It was my lady friend’s first time visiting New York. She was so excited being a huge Sinatra fan. I pick her up, she’s all decked out looking great. We arrive at Carnegie, hand the tickets to the collector who tears them in half. I then give the usher a nice tip and she escorts us to our row. She shines her flashlight to where we’re supposed to be sitting but there’s another couple there. But I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. . .not right away, anyway. The usher says to the guy, ‘Sir, I think you’re sitting in this gentleman’s seat.’ The guy replies, ‘Well, I don’t know, they just put us here, saying these were our seats.’ The usher asks to see their tickets but the guy can’t find them.

“But we had arrived close to the curtain call, and I’m thinking this guy must’ve seen two open seats and took them. So it wasn’t looking good for them and I’m sure there’s a little smug grin on my face. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, enough already, just get the heck out of here!’ When they couldn’t find their tickets, I finally said, ‘Look, I don’t want to make no problems but just have them get up and give us our seats.’ But the guy finally finds his tickets, hands them to the usher and she asks to see ours. No problem, and I hand them over.

“By that time, everyone has seen this little drama going on. Then the usher says to me, ‘Excuse me, sir, but your tickets are for tomorrow night!’ I was floored. I checked our tickets myself and I felt like such an ass. Can you believe it? But I always hated losing and I had to think quick on my feet. I didn’t want to disappoint my date. But the concert was sold out and all they could offer was standing room at the back. I say, ‘Listen, can you get a hold of Jilly Rizzo for me?’ I’m figuring I’m really going to impress my date with, “Watch me straighten this mess out.” Before you know it, Jilly comes out. I introduced him to my lady friend, told him what happened, that we’d come the wrong night, that it was kinda stupid but they wanted us to stand and watch the performance. Then I pull Jilly aside and say, ‘Jilly, you got to help me out here. I’ve got this special lady with me.’ He says, ‘Look, I’ve got some headaches at the door, I’ve got to take care of. But I’ll be right back.’ So I look over at my friend and wink like, ‘I got it covered, alright.’

“But he never came back. I was really disappointed. So we left. But my friend didn’t care, she was great, like she always has been, and never made a beef. But we did come back the next night for the show. So when I saw Jilly, I said aside, ‘Some friend you are. I’m standing there trying to make an impression with this girl who just came from Boston.’ He said, “Sonny, I’m sorry. You know how I feel about you and how long we’ve known each other. But you have no idea what goes on with these shows. These wiseguys come and they ask to speak to me. Now these are important guys, in their own field, if you know what I mean. They want to see the show and they got their girlfriends and all. You can’t just tell them to go screw themselves. But they drive you crazy with all their demands. But, I can’t go to Frank and tell him, I’m not going to do this. He depends on me to take care of these things for him and not to get anybody pissed off.’

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Sonny Grosso and Christina Krauss at Rao’s
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Rao’s Royalty — Judge Eddie Torres, NY Rangers legend Rod Gilbert & Sonny Grosso with Phil Ramone (center) who produced Sinatra’s “Duets” record
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Steve and Edyie, friends of Sinatra and Grosso

Grosso says that’s “how it was for Jilly because he was so loyal to Frank.” The retired detective, who went onto a successful career as a movie and TV producer with Christina Avis Krauss at his side as casting director, recalls the last time he spoke to Sinatra, while at Rao’s restaurant:

“I was in Rao’s with Chrissy, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Chris’ favorite song was ‘Go Away Little Girl’ and Steve sang that to her in the restaurant and she was fainting all over herself. Then Steve says to me, ‘When was the last time you saw the old man?’ I replied, “You know, I haven’t seen him for awhile.’ He says, ‘You want to talk to him? Because I think it would do him some good as he’s not feeling so great.’ Steve asked Chris for her cellphone. Steve calls Frank’s wife Barbara and asks her, ‘Where’s the vampire?’ He called him the vampire because he was usually up all night. He got him on the phone, said hello then turned Chrissy’s phone over to me. I said hello to Frank and it was very special to me because I got a chance to maybe cheer him up a little. But it was also very special for Chris, and now, she had him talking on her own phone. After that, Chris couldn’t wait a minute to call her father and her whole family that ‘We called Sinatra on my phone!’ She wanted to have her phone bronzed after that. And, to see the smile on her face was something else. You know, there was nobody like Sinatra and there will be nobody ever like him again. He fulfilled everybody’s fantasy. Girls wanted to be near him, guys wanted to be him. What a guy!”

Check out one of Sinatra’s last interviews on Larry King.

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.

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