Turning a Sharp Lens on Ol' Blue Eyes
SINATRA: The Life
By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
Knopf. 576 pp. $26.95
Over the course of six decades, Frank Sinatra managed to be both the diamond and the rough. There was never much mystery about him: Sinatra lived his life and spun his song in a glaring spotlight that made him one of the 20th century's most famous, and most complex, men. He was lover and lout, philanthropist and bully, standard bearer for style and elegance but also symbol of vulgarity, violence and excess. The king of ring-a-ding ding, he was sidekick to presidents and mob bosses alike, Chairman of the Board and of the Bad. Seldom alone, he always seemed lonely.
Sinatra both courted and despised the press, the vehicle through which people came to know the broad details of his life, first as he lived it and later as legend. For most fans, there was no clear division, no significant difference between the public Sinatra and the private one. After all, Sinatra first became a target of Hollywood gossip columns and celebrity magazines in the '40s, when those mediums wielded greater power, and were far more combative, even slanderous, than they are today.
As far back as 1938, when he was still learning his trade, as a singing waiter at New Jersey's Rustic Cabin, he managed to get into enough trouble with a married woman that after he was arrested, a local paper ran a story headlined "Songbird Held on Morals Charge." Though the charge was dismissed, the incident made possible the iconic "Prisoner No. 42799" mugshot that is one of the oldest items on the Smoking Gun, a popular Web site that exposes the foibles of the rich and famous. It was also, perhaps, a sign of things to come.
Still, after apprenticeships in the late '30s with the big bands of Harry James and, in the early '40s, Tommy Dorsey -- the trombonist's long, relaxed solos deeply influenced the singer's fabled legato phrasing and elegant articulation -- Sinatra emerged as the first true American Idol, earning the adulation of a largely female teen audience dubbed "bobby soxers." As Bono put it when Sinatra was given a Grammy Legend Award in 1994, he was "the big bang of pop," from the big band era and the reign of swooners, crooners and belters through the late '50s and '60s takeover of popular culture by rockers and rollers, and on into the '80s. His repertoire mostly remained anchored in the sophisticated songwriting that emerged in the '20s and '30s. Sinatra became the champion of American Popular Song, and as Bono noted, "the singer who makes other men poets." It's why Sinatra matters and why he's remembered as the preeminent popular vocalist of his century.
Even though the Sinatra dichotomy -- unassailable artistry/questionable character -- was never much of a secret, Kitty Kelley's His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (1986), nonetheless proved a shock to many, with its unsparing portrait of the arrogant artist as a constant abuser of women (and the press) who surrounded himself with mobsters and sycophants and maintained lifelong connections, and a sense of indebtedness, to the Mafia. Kelley based her gumshoe biography on more than 850 interviews and three years spent chasing paper trails. She catalogued in dispiriting detail Sinatra's tumultuous marriages, countless affairs, drunken brawls, nefarious business dealings and, occasionally, his triumphs in music, film, radio and television. His Way left the Sinatra legend in tatters.
Well, hello Kitty, meet the next generation of Sinatraphobes.
Anthony Summers, a former BBC journalist and author of several bestselling and controversial biographies (Marilyn Monroe, J. Edgar Hoover), and co-author Robbyn Swan spent four years researching Sinatra: The Life . They interviewed more than 500 people (but, like Kelley, no immediate family members) and gathered what must be a tractor-trailer's worth of documents (FBI files of Mafia-related material, transcripts of wiretaps and secret testimony, criminal and civil lawsuits, etc.), as well as reams of contemporary print media, 58 Sinatra books (including the recent salacious exposé Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra , by George Jacobs, his longtime valet) and scores of biographies and autobiographies by Sinatra associates in the arts world and the underworld. One can't help thinking of Hercules cleaning up the Augean stables.
Written in crisp, somewhat deadpan prose, what's being billed as the first fully documented biography since Sinatra's death in 1998 is certainly that. Sinatra consists of 389 pages of text and 142 pages of notes and sources, as well as a 36-page index and six pages of acknowledgments. The text appears to be set in 9-point type, the endnotes in 6-point type; otherwise the page count would be much higher. The question is how many readers will spend time matching information in the text to its sourcing. It makes for awkward reading, unless one shares the authors' apparent prosecutorial zeal.
Sinatra is as relentless an indictment as His Way . Both are prime examples of "pathography," a term Joyce Carol Oates introduced in 1988 while reviewing a biography of writer Jean Stafford that focused more on Stafford's alcoholism and prolonged mental and physical debilitation than on her work. There is a longstanding medical definition for "pathography": "the retrospective study, often by a physician, of the possible influence and effects of disease on the life and work of a historical personage or group." But Oates's notion proved so trenchant that it now sits below that definition in The American Heritage Dictionary, described as "a style of biography that overemphasizes the negative aspects of a person's life and work, such as failure, unhappiness, illness, and tragedy."
Like Kelley, Summers and Swan seem quite willing to cede discussions of Sinatra's art to such musical and cultural analysts as Will Friedwald, Pete Hamill and Bill Zehme. What they're interested in is sex, violence and Sinatra's tangled relationships with the Mafia and the Kennedys. Also getting a lot of play: the FBI, whose Sinatra file was rumored to be the largest ever compiled on an entertainer, much of it seeming to confirm his involvement in mob-related schemes and activities throughout his adult life. Again, this is hardly revelatory.
Sinatra details the Mob's many timely assists, from helping Sinatra land that job at the Rustic Cabin and extricating him from a usurious contract with Tommy Dorsey, to coercing Columbia Pictures' head, Harry Cohn, into delivering Sinatra the ultimately Oscar-winning and career-reviving role of Pvt. Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." This was after the married but philandering Sinatra had been dropped by Columbia Records and fired by MGM Studios, a case of no more hits after too much swinging and too many misses. While the Mob was apparently unable to stop Sinatra's habitual career slides, he apparently felt they were the only ones who didn't forsake him during that first lull after the bobbysoxers' screams died away.
And thus we continue traveling through the major incident reports of Sinatra's life, laid out in great detail, some of it new (including extensive explorations of the Sinatra family's roots in Sicily), but most of it familiar. The music? It doesn't figure large. A two-year stretch in the late '50s, in which Sinatra recorded the classic singles "Only the Lonely" and "Come Fly With Me" (also the year's two bestselling albums), made a half-dozen films, did scads of concerts and television appearances and became "the highest paid performer in the history of show business," warrants only a few paragraphs.
On the other hand, Summers and Swan seem to revel in recounting Sinatra's myriad encounters with stars, starlets and prostitutes, some of them surfacing for the first time in 50 years with their tales of joy and pain. They recall him as a crude, abusive, insensitive womanizer given to affairs with friends' wives, a man who fostered numerous abortions and proposed marriage as often as he did mischief -- again, nothing really new beyond the level of detail. Naturally, the authors devote much ink and many endnotes to Sinatra's turbulent romance with his second wife and eternal obsession, Ava Gardner. Their marathon conflicts are gleefully recounted and contextualized by never-before published interviews that Peter Evans conducted with Gardner before her death in 1990.
Sinatra is certainly thorough, a massive undertaking that nonetheless falls curiously flat. Sadly, it doesn't sing. And it's unembarrassed about retelling scabrous stories, followed by such disclaimers as "while these stories are hearsay" or "none of the rumors were supported by facts." The authors sometimes offer multiple versions of events, or possibilities, but generally favor the unflattering ones. Inverting the words of Johnny Mercer, they accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, dispatch the affirmative, and don't mess with Mr. In-Between.
Frank Sinatra deserves better. ·
Richard Harrington writes about music for The Washington Post.