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Some Very Good Years

Frank Sinatra was America's first rock star. But Sinatra: The Life doesn't help explain what all the fuss was about.

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Frank Sinatra made his way, like a figure out of a 19th century novel, from Depression-era Hoboken to become one of the finest interpreters of American popular songs who ever lived. Frank Sinatra's death in 1998 brought to a close one of the great American soap operas. He made his way, like a figure out of a 19th century novel, from the rough Italian neighborhoods of Depression-era Hoboken to the heights of musical popularity in wartime New York, crashed and then recreated himself in 1950s and '60s Hollywood and Las Vegas. Along the way he won Academy Awards and Grammy Awards, consorted with gangsters and several presidents (and helped elect one), had countless amours and sub-amours with movie stars and hat-check girls alike, and became one of the finest interpreters of American popular songs who ever lived.

This last fact gets lost in the shuffle in Sinatra: The Life (Knopf), by veteran British investigative biographer Anthony Summers and his wife, Robbyn Swan. This first major biography of Sinatra to appear since the singer died in 1998 steers resolutely for the dark end of the street, stopping in every figurative dive along the way.

Summers, whose 1980 Conspiracy is still one of the best books on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, has spent most of his career writing expose-minded biographies of troubled Major Americans, usually containing new information about their shadow sides. Among them have been explorations into Richard Nixon's substance abuse problems, J. Edgar Hoover's transvestitism, and Marilyn Monroe's involvement with the Kennedys. Exhaustively footnoted, the texts tend to have a swampy quality to them, managing to be sensational and tedious at the same time.

Sinatra: The Life is no exception. Here the prize, if it is a prize, is a cache of information about Sinatra's ties to organized crime that has come to light since the publication in 1986 of the last major Sinatra expose-bio, Kitty Kelley's His Way (which the singer sued, unsuccessfully, to have withdrawn before publication). The authors of the present book have found information establishing for the first time that Sinatra's father came from the same Sicilian town as the uber-gangster Lucky Luciano, and they had access to reams of information gathered during decades of FBI monitoring of Sinatra's Mob-related activities. Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, his mistress Judith Campbell Exner, Joseph Kennedy, mobsters Joe Fischetti and Jimmy Alo, Luciano himself, and many other familiar figures in the Sinatra drama swim through the narrative like menacing fish in a murky tank.

The authors trace Sinatra's rise through the rough-and-tumble nightclubs of Hoboken to the big-time dance bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and then to the famous mid-1940s solo engagements at New York's Paramount Theater, where his bobby-soxer fans screamed themselves into hysteria. During this rise Sinatra was befriended by characters with Mob connections, but that will be no surprise to anyone who has either read Kelley's book or who knows anything about the nightclub business. The exact nature of the relationships is still unclear, though, and the empty spaces between connections are filled with innuendo.

The book gets somewhat more interesting as Sinatra's career encounters turbulence in the early 1950s and his involvement with the Mob, apparently, deepens. Reports of clandestine meetings in Cuba and Miami rely heavily on FBI documents, and there is a fair amount of information to support the idea that the Mob was instrumental in landing Sinatra his career-reviving role in From Here to Eternity, which won him an Oscar upset in 1954.

The 1960 presidential election, in which Sinatra campaigned heavily for JFK, is powerfully and disturbingly summoned; the authors show Sinatra to have been an indispensable link between JFK's campaign and Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, who apparently delivered crucial votes for Kennedy. The sense of betrayal that Sinatra felt when the Kennedys dropped him after the 1960 election is convincingly rendered, too, and casts light on the singer's 1970s switch from supporting Democrats to Republicans. Throughout all these long tracts of the book, chapter titles like "A Handshake in Havana," "An Assist From The Boys," and "The Candidate and the Courtesan" help lend the proceedings a pulp-novel aura.

The other part of Sinatra that the authors find interesting is the tortured roller coaster of his romantic life. There are long chapters on his long, painful, on-again, off-again relationship with Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1951, and whom he apparently loved his entire life. We also get views of his relationships and not-quite-relationships with Lauren Bacall, Gloria Vanderbilt, Juliet Prowse, Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich, Jacqueline Kennedy and countless others, including Mia Farrow, whom he married in 1966 when he was 50 and she was 21. None of this material is particularly new, except for some extended interviews that the authors conducted with Sinatra's longtime mistress Peggy Connelly, which give a more vivid sense of the man than almost anything else in the book.

In fact, for such a heavy book Sinatra: The Life feels oddly thin. There are facts aplenty, but for the most part they hit the page DOA. The authors seem to be trying to insulate themselves from the radioactive implications of their material by covering it, and their own posteriors, with footnotes, which take up roughly a third of the book. Although every offhand remark, sneeze and curse is duly footnoted, Sinatra as a complex, living person gets lost in the mix.

A major part of the reason is that all the information is given more or less the same relative weight in the text. Quotes from important, newly opened FBI files and primary-source interviews get equal standing in the body of the book with press-agent-concocted quotes from Cosmopolitan, Movie Stars Parade, Photoplay and other pulpy venues. The effect is to undercut a reliable sense of perspective; without consulting the back-of-the-book notes, one rarely knows if a quote or a fact is from a reliable source, a semi-reliable source or a delusional source.

And, too, while the book is plainly not meant to focus primarily on Sinatra's music, it seems a serious flaw that his main claim on our enduring attention is all but absent. Sinatra was one of the most influential performers of the postwar years, and a serious and conscious artist. The present volume allots one chapter to Sinatra's music: "A Triumph of Talent," which looks at his 1950s albums for Capitol Records, generally considered the peak of his musical achievement. It takes up a grand total of 8 pages, out of almost 400 pages of text. As Sinatra sang countless times at the end of "Angel Eyes," one of his favorite songs, "Excuse me while I disappear." Sinatra's life had a kind of poetry about it -- part epic, part lyric, part dirty limerick -- but Sinatra: The Life is a flavorless prose translation.

Tom Piazza's most recent book is the novel My Cold War.

ZUMA PRESS
  • ZUMA Press

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