A massive biography follows the phases of Frank Sinatra, an alternately appealing and appalling of popular songs.
By Stefan Kanfer
November 13, 2015
Sinatra with Ava Gardner in 1951
Sinatra: The Chairman, by James Kaplan (Doubleday, 979 pages, $35:00)
Bob Dylan’s latest album pays homage to Frank Sinatra, a man who couldn’t stand his music. That didn’t deter the folk/rock icon. His predecessor, Dylanobserves, is “the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there.” To underline the point, all 10 songs onShadows in the Night were first recorded by Sinatra. For more than half a century, scores of singers have attempted to ascend that alp. But as James Kaplan observes in The Chairman, Volume Two of his monumental Sinatra biography, no one has yet reached the summit.
The reasons are manifold. Frank, a band singer par excellence, came along at precisely the right time—the Depression, when his pugnacious Hoboken diction, underweight physique, and plaintive tenor made him a teenage favorite. Musically illiterate, he worked his way from the Big Band era to the postwar epoch with an amalgam of intelligence, acquired taste, and implacable ambition. He made records, movies, and scads of money. Then came the 1950s and the emergence of a new kind of popular music, which Elvis Presley would soon exemplify. The Sultan of Swoon suddenly found himself a back number. Others would have quietly retired with their press clippings. Not Frank; unlike his rivals, he had powerful friends in the media and the mob.
His career resurgence actually began in 1954, when Sinatra received an Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity—an episode magnified (and falsified) in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Kaplan’s second volume picks up the narrative at this point, tracking his subject from the days of booze and roses and on beyond the moment when youth-culture dissenters like the Doors’ Jim Morrison conceded of Sinatra, “No one can touch him.”
How did Frank, the mainstream singer/actor of Kaplan’s Volume One,The Voice, become Sinatra, the legendary Chairman of the Board—producing hit films, recording platinum LPs, and making headlines wherever he appeared? According to Kaplan, the metamorphosis resulted from another amalgam—of vulnerability, arrogance, and calculation. When Sinatra wooed and won Ava Gardner, he became something of a schizoid, beside himself with joy and assailed with guilt for leaving his first wife and three children. His tone gave the up-tunes a fresh lift, but the bel canto ballads revealed a new melancholy, which intensified when Gardner left him. Their split went public, and he never got over it. No one, listening to albums like In The Wee Small Hours (“that’s the time you miss her most of all”) doubted that the tenderness was raw and authentic, and that the man behind the microphone understood the pain of his fans when their own romances went south.
Alas, there were many other Sinatras, and these could be abysmal—though they were also merchandisable. There was the Sinatra of the Rat Pack, a group of superannuated swingers, among them Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, and Shirley MacLaine. Las Vegas was their stomping ground, and their alcoholic binges and rude behavior were carefully leaked to columnists, giving their reputations a Day-Glo luster.
Then there was the Sinatra in pursuit of his lost youth, glomming onto Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior. The couple married in 1966, against the advice of his friends and her family. Kaplan quotes Mia’s mother, 54-year-old Maureen O’Sullivan: “If Mr. Sinatra is going to marry anyone, he ought to be marrying me.” A snapshot of the newlyweds shows a gamine and a father figure, her hair cut shorter than his toupee. “I always knew Frank would wind up in bed with a boy,” said the still-glamorous Ava. In trouble from the altar onward, the marriage broke up shortly after his film, The Detective, bombed at the box office, and her film, Rosemary’s Baby, became an international blockbuster. There was only room for one star in the House of Sinatra.
Sinatra’s fourth and last wife was Barbara Marx, ex-wife of Zeppo, the unfunny Marx brother who became a powerhouse Hollywood agent. Kaplan portrays her as a social climber who steered her new husband into big-time engagements that were good for his image—and hers. Finally, there was the volatile luminary, a macho celeb who traveled with an entourage he alternately abused and overcompensated right up to the end, in 1998. It’s revealing that The Chairman’s index has three entries for “Sinatra, generosity of.” Under “Sinatra, violent temper of,” there are 49.
As Kaplan demonstrates over the course of nearly 1,000 pages, these disparate figures comprised the Sinatra everybody heard and nobody knew. But where is it written that influential artists have to be nice people? Pablo Picasso was porcine in his treatment of women; Marlon Brando, by his own admission, was flat-out mad; Ernest Hemingway was a manipulative ingrate; et cetera, ad nauseam. In this, the centennial of his birth, Frank Sinatra is remembered more for his work than for his life. Still, it’s impossible to understand the former without investigating the latter. And there is no better place to begin than James Kaplan’s alpine monument to the monstre sacré of the American Song Book.