Frank Sinatra would have been 100 years old by the end of this year (Dec. 12) and already the commemorations have begun — an exhibition at the New York Public Library, a two-part documentary on HBO and the reissue of several books. The music endures, but so does the dirt.
Of the dirt, there is plenty. Sinatra was lousy to his first wife, Nancy, publicly cavorting with Ava Gardner while still married. He associated with and clearly admired the wise guys, but while the tale recounted in the “Godfather” movies is not true — he did not get the part of Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” via a horse’s head deposited in a studio chief’s bed — he did associate with the fellas and do them the occasional favor.
He could be despicable to journalists, including The Post’s Maxine Cheshire, and he punched out the Hollywood columnist Lee Mortimer, whom you could say (I can’t) had it coming. “He was a nasty, mean man, a poor reporter, a worse writer, and the king of the blind item,” Pete Hamill says of Mortimer in his wonderful book “Why Sinatra Matters.” Still, Sinatra was such a putz that the Hollywood Women’s Press Club gave him its “Sour Apple Award.”
Sinatra drank too much, talked too much, slept with too many women and even cheated on Gardner, whom he loved, once telephoning her when he was in bed with another woman. Gardner stuck with him for a while. “He was good in the feathers,” she once explained.
But he could sing. His voice was like no other and he studied the interior of a song the way an architect studies a building. He had a reverence for the lyric, a first-generation American’s awe of the miraculous English language. He worked on his phrasing and his breathing. He observed the way the trombonist Tommy Dorsey swiped air with the corner of his mouth and he noticed, he told Hamill, the way Billie Holiday “lived inside the song.” (April 7 , by the way, is Lady Day’s centennial, but as a black woman in a racist age, she was nowhere near the star that Sinatra was.) Even with a familiar song, you heard it for the first time.
It’s hard to reconcile the various Sinatras — it’s harder still because his personal life got all wrapped up in his public one. He became the swinger, leader of the Rat Pack, the all-night marathon boozer. He was also a political progressive and one of the first show-business personalities to protest the Jim Crow policies of early Las Vegas. He backed Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, but then Bobby Kennedy banished him from Camelot. Sinatra had too many Mafia friends for RFK’s comfort.
A person’s conduct is important to me. Bullying is not permitted. Even the threat of violence is repugnant. (Read Gay Talese’s magical article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” to see what I mean.) But the publicness of Sinatra’s private life is one reason he endures. When he went from bobby soxer idol to the man Ava Gardner had left behind, the heartbreak oozed out of him. You could hear it in his voice, in the songs he chose — “I’m a Fool to Want You” and all those quarter-to-three saloon songs. Hamill points out that Sinatra evolved from having a female fan base to a male one. At night, staring at the ceiling, every man thinks he did it his way.
By then, Sinatra’s theme was loneliness. All men are lonely, created for some reason mute about their feelings and fears. The more Sinatra surrounded himself with flunkies and hangers-on, the more you could sense loneliness. And loneliness is a kind of death. It is shivering cold, like the grave.
It takes time for some public figures to shed their personal lives and emerge as great. Ernest Hemingway played a joke on himself with all his macho nonsense, but his work tenaciously resonates because it is, upon rereading, terrific. With Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, the accusations are too fresh and revolting; they taint the work.
I cannot quite forgive Sinatra. But I can appreciate him. Little by little, I am reconciling the boor with the artist. I play the music. I listen to what he does with the lyric. I sometimes think of Ava — so beautiful, so bawdy, so unhappy — but all of that is so long ago, a past so distant it fades to black and white. Still, somewhere it is always Sinatra time. Somewhere it is always quarter to three.
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