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How Leon Charney Outsmarted Sinatra

NEW YORK POST celebrity columnist Earl Wilson was running scared. The day his tell-all book, Sinatra: An Unauthorized Biography, was published in 1976 it enraged Ol’ Blue Eyes. No surprise there. The volatile crooner, known for his combativeness with photographers and reporters, called the book “false, fictionalized, boring and uninteresting.” When his blood pressure settled down he instructed his lawyer to sue for $3 million.

Leon Charney with Tim and Nina Boxer at Bet Hatfutsot gala in New York, December 2015

Earl was in shock. He had considered himself part of Sinatra’s world, a professional fan, always boosting him in his widely syndicated column. Now he was crying, “I need a lawyer!”

Being his resourceful assistant, I offered to call a personal friend, Leon Charney, a confidant to Hollywood stars and Washington insiders.

Leon told me later that he formed a strategy whereby he had the right to take Sinatra’s deposition. “My feeling was that Sinatra would not make himself available because, in a sense, we could ask the same questions he was suing Wilson on. He was saying that Wilson made statements that were not true. I would ask what is true. I would ask whether he was in love with Ava Gardner or not, plus questions concerning his relationship with Juliet Prowse and Mia Farrow. I had my doubts that he would sit for such an interview. His answers would explode into a media sensation.”

Leon flew to Los Angeles to meet the singer’s lawyer, the invincible and fearsome Mickey Rudin. They rode in Rudin’s Rolls Royce to Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs.

Singer/actor Mike Burstyn and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Leon Charney’s longtime friends, attend a Charney memorial service in May at the Park East Synagogue in New York. Wolf, a CNN news anchor, was interviewed on The Leon Charney Report on cable.

Photo by Nina Boxer

On the way he kept wondering if his strategy was going to work. “Rudin sounded like a teamster from Hoboken,” Leon said. “He kept a cigar in his mouth. I told him I hate cigar smoke and could he please put it out. He glared at me. It’s his car and who am I to tell him what to do. Then he put the cigar down.”

At that moment Leon knew he had won the case.

“Because,” he said, “if Rudin did not really want to accommodate me, he would have dropped me in the middle of the desert and tell me to take a cab.”

Sinatra settled. “The terms are secret,” Leon said, “but all agreed that the beneficiary would be Hebrew University.”

A year later, Leon served as best man at my wedding with Nina. As attorney for the Concord Resort Hotel, he arranged for me and my bride to celebrate many a Passover seder in the Catskills.

Tzili and Leon Charney

Leon, the real estate billionaire/attorney/author/philanthropist/diplomat (who founded the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa), died in Manhattan on March 21 at age 77, leaving his wife Tzili, a former Israeli theatrical costume designer, and twin sons, Mickey and Nati.