The world-renowned painter, Anthony Benedetto, better known as the singer Frank Sinatra called “the best in the business—the one and only, Tony Bennett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016—passed away on July 21, 2023, at his home in New York City that overlooked Central Park just two weeks before his 97th birthday. Just as the title of his 1963 hit song said, Tony Bennett did indeed live “The Good Life.”
Tony amassed many accolades throughout his career, including 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree, and he sold more than 50 million records worldwide.
He was a master at singing bittersweet ballads like “From Rags to Riches,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Who Can I Turn To,” “When Joanna Loved Me,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Frank Sinatra may have been the “Chairman of the Board,” but Tony Bennett was the one who could bring us to tears. There was no bluster in his singing, he was all heart. His distinctive style of interpreting the lyrics and breathing life into a song made him a beloved icon.
The first time I met Tony Bennett I was in my early twenties. I had just quit my job as an international flight attendant for TWA and moved from New York City to the Entertainment Capital of the World, where I got a job as a photographer, aka a “camera girl,” at The Sahara Hotel, where Tony Bennett was performing. Besides taking photos of the audience, who were there to see the show, the camera girls were often called backstage to take pictures of the celebrities with their family, friends, or members of their fan club.
In December 2007—five months after Tony married his third wife, Susan, a public school teacher 40 years his junior, who he began dating in the late 1980s—I interviewed him for my five-page Q & A celebrity column “Up Close and Personal” that appeared monthly in Luxury Las Vegas Magazine for ten years.
These two photos were taken when I went backstage after Tony performed at Caesars Palace, and I gave him a copy of the magazine with his article in it. I wish I had thought to take off the green backstage pass that’s on my coat. Tony autographed another copy of the magazine for me, and I showed him the photo of us together back at The Sahara years before.
My Interview with Tony
Here is a link to my eleven page interview with Tony Bennett, who grew up in the projects in Astoria, Queens. He talked about his father, who died when he was ten; and his mother, who worked as a seamstress in a sweat shop earning a penny for each dress she made during the Depression in order to support her three children.
He credited Bob Hope with changing his name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett in 1949.
He talked about being a pretty wild boy when he was young, and how as he got older wisdom set in, and he learned from his mistakes and was able to pull away from any naughtiness and negative behavior in his life.
He talked about his children, and how he met his wife, Susan, whose family happens to be fifth generation San Franciscans.
We talked about who he would trade places with for 24 hours; what he was most passionate about; what five people he would invite to a dinner party.
He talked about the hate-filled rant he experienced while he was a 19-year-old soldier stationed in Germany during World War II, when he was caught socializing with a friend, who he had sung with a musical group a few years earlier in high school, who was black. Punishment for blacks and whites associating with one another in the Army could be severe.
“I couldn’t get over the fact that they condemned us for just being friends, and especially while we served our country in wartime,” Bennett wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “The Good Life.” “There we were, just two kids happy to see each other, trying to forget for the moment the horror of the war, but for the brass it just boiled down to the color of our skin.”
That incident turned Tony, a lifelong Democrat, into a pacifist and a civil rights activist, who marched with his friend Harry Belafonte from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve become a pacifist. I’m completely opposed to war. Every war is insane, no matter were it is or what it’s about.”– Tony Bennett
He talked about his landmark 2006 “Duets” album, and the artists he sang with— the Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks), Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Juanes, Elton John, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, Tim McGraw, Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Michael Bublé, Sting, Bono, John Legend, and George Michael.
The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts
In 1999, Tony and his wife Susan Benedetto, who had been a social studies teacher at Manhattan’s prestigious public school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Art, were inspired to start a public high school for young artists. They dreamed of a school that would integrate the arts with rigorous academics, require a commitment to community service, and help students cultivate a life love of and dedication to their artistic passions and crafts.
In my interview with him, Tony talked about his favorite painters, and he acknowledged James MacWhinney, a junior high school art teacher who lived in the same building as him in Astoria.
“I wasn’t in his class, but he saw me sketching on the street and he said, ‘I paint every Saturday, would you like to come with me to Rainy Park,’ which overlooked the East River to New York City. I was only 12 years old, but I never forgot how beautifully he pained. To this day, whenever I touch the canvas or the watercolor paper with my brush, I think of him. He and his wife, who taught English, exposed me to culture. They took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and to my first Broadway play, “Carmen Jones,” with Pearl Bailey. It affected me for the rest of my life.”– Tony Bennett
Over the next years, Tony and Susan received invaluable assistance from the NYC Department of Education and local leaders as they endeavored to turn their dream into reality. In 2001, the school opened in temporary quarters for 250 students. The school was named Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, as a tribute to Tony’s best friend and colleague.
According to Tony’s son and manager, Danny Bennett:
“Sinatra was like the Rolling Stones and Tony was like the Beatles. Sinatra was on a pedestal for Tony. He named the school that he founded after him. I battled with him on that! I’m like, ‘That’s your legacy!’ And he said, ‘No, this is what you do. You honor your mentors.’ He was always very humble.”
With the help of many friends and supporters, in 2009 the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts opened its permanent home at the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex, in Astoria, Queens, Tony Bennett’s cherished hometown.
It should be noted that three of Tony’s paintings, including “Central Park,” are part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington D.C. His paintings are also at the National Arts Club in New York City, New York, and the Butler Institute of American Art Museum in Youngstown, Ohio. He was also chosen as the official artist of the 2001 Kentucky Derby for which he created two original paintings. And the United Nations commissioned him for two paintings, including one for their 50th anniversary. That’s impressive. You can see some of his paintings by clicking here.
Like a fine wine that gets better with age, Tony has stayed forever young. According to Tony’s son Danny Bennett, who became his dad’s manager in 1979 and oversaw one of the great comebacks in music, Tony had a fourth act with Lady Gaga that lasted ten years. They performed in Las Vegas together, recorded songs together, and taped a Radio City Music Hall TV special together on his 95th birthday.
Danny Bennett spoke with Variety about his father, who he, like everyone, called “Tony,” and is celebrating as well as grieving. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
“Doing the final special with Gaga at Radio City Music Hall two years ago was nerve-wracking. We’re finishing this documentary called “The Lady and the Legend,” which is going to be on Paramount+ in September 2023 that chronicles their 10-year relationship.
What you see in this documentary is not what you saw on the special. You’re seeing backstage, where people are like, “He has no idea where he is.” And Gaga, rightfully, was like, “Is this the right thing to do?” But I just knew that when he hit that stage, it was going to all come back. It went so well that I actually got accused of saying that he had Alzheimer’s as a publicity stunt, because people didn’t believe it. I was nervous, but I thought, “I see it in his eye. This is how he would want to go out. This is what he needs.” And I’m very proud that we were able to do that for him.
“We’re kind of following Tony’s wishes. He was very low-key with all that. Everyone stay tuned. We’re just trying to stay true to him. His wife, Susan, was just incredible, 24/7. We’re all a little dazed right now, but we have plenty of time to figure that out.
“This was a broad shot heard around the world. With the outpouring of love for this man, I knew that he touched a lot of people, but with the comments I’ve been getting from people who are calling me from over the decades, I’ve been very, very overwhelmed. … I’ve never been starstruck, but I’m certainly heartstruck.”
In a joint statement with Tony’s son, Danny, his wife, Susan, said:
“Thank you to all the fans, friends and colleagues of Tony’s who celebrated his life and humanity and shared their love of him and his musical legacy. From his first performances as a singing waiter in Queens to his last performances in 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, Tony delighted in performing the songs he loved and making people happy. And as sad as today has been for all of us, we can find joy in Tony’s legacy forever.”
“Benedetto, his family name, which I made my own when we married, means ‘the blessed one,’ and I was most certainly blessed to have Tony in my life.”– Susan Benedetto