The Book Club

Does Sinatra Finally Have the Biography He Deserves?

Thanks for joining me to discuss James Kaplan’s new Frank Sinatra biography, Frank: The Voice. The technical term for a book like this, if I’m not mistaken, is door-stopper. The thing is big; I nearly got a hiatal hernia schlepping my galley around town. It’s 800 pages long, and it covers less than half of Sinatra’s life, from his birth in Hoboken, N.J., in 1915 to the 1953 Oscar win for From Here to Eternity that kick-started his mid-career comeback. In other words, this book is as long as Anna Karenina, and it doesn’t even get us to In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (1956) and Come Fly with Me (1958) and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958)—the Capitol Records masterpieces that stand as the summit of Sinatra’s art. Presumably a second volume, the size and weight of a convection oven, will arrive in bookstores one of these years.

I’ll say this for Frank: The Voice: The title gets things right. There is no other major popular musician—no 20th-century artist of comparable stature—who’s been so ill-served by the vast literature devoted to him. Generally speaking, Sinatra books fall into two categories: 1) prurient, sensationalist, and malicious and 2) prurient, sensationalist, and worshipful. In the former category, there’s Kitty Kelley’s His Way, a foul exercise in character-assassination. * Then there are things like Bill Zehme’s The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’and Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, which are more than a little too enamored of the hardboiled Sinatra mystique—the booze, the broads, the snap-brim fedoras, the Rat Pack antics.

What all these books miss is, indeed, The Voice: the instrument that brought unmatched style and intelligence and feeling to the singing of popular songs.When friends ask me what they should read about Sinatra, I direct them to the short appreciation our friend and colleague Robert Christgau wrote in 1998 for Details, which says more about Sinatra’s art and legacy in five paragraphs’ than a shelf of hatchet jobs and hagiographies. But what we really need is a biography that deals critically and comprehensively with Sinatra’s life, work, and the intersection of the two. It’s a story, incidentally, that takes in just about the whole 20th century American story: the immigrant experience, the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley and jazz, the civil rights movement, the triumph of rock ’n’ roll, Camelot, Vegas, the mafia, the Reagan years. The Sinatra saga even has a disco sidebar.

I had high hopes that Kaplan would deliver that opus. I think he halfway has. He does a fine job telling the story of Sinatra’s Hoboken childhood and relationship with his fierce mother, Dolly. He chronicles Sinatra’s show business rise, correcting the record and dispelling myths along the way. (Contra The Godfather, Sinatra was not cast in From Here to Eternity because of a beheaded horse.) Kaplan is good on the subject of Sinatra’s musical collaborations: his apprenticeships under bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and his work with songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen and arranger Nelson Riddle. And Kaplan writes exhaustively—exhaustingly, sometimes—about Sinatra’s turbulent romance with his second wife and eternal muse Ava Gardner, a Sturm und Drang epic encompassing infidelities and abortions, screaming matches and torrid makeup sex, not to mention the stormiest doomed-love ballad in the Sinatra canon, “I’m A Fool to Want You.”

Kaplan has done his research; his accounts of key episodes in Sinatra’s career are the best I’ve read. He’s excellent on the bobby-soxer frenzy that greeted Sinatra’s early 1940s performances at New York’s Paramount Theater—the young singer’s “rock star” coming out. I, for one, didn’t realize the extent to which “Swoonatra” mania was a PR achievement. Sinatra’s publicist George Evans hired young women to scream and faint on cue—an old vaudeville song plugger’s stunt given an erotic twist—and instructed Sinatra to “make love to the microphone.” For Kaplan, Sinatra’s sexiness, rooted in earthy ethnicity and expressed through virtuosic vocal technique, was the key, the thing that set him apart from Bing Crosby and the suave singing stars of the previous generation. “He didn’t sound remotely like anyone else,” Kaplan writes.

Even that Hoboken accent was a part of his arsenal. While Bing’s power was his cool warmth, Frank’s was his unabashed heat. … Suddenly, in the land of Crosby sound-alikes, in the year of our lord 1940, when Americans heard their president speak on the radio in godlike aristocratic tones, when they heard American movie actors declaiming in indeterminate English-y accents—here was something new: a warm Italian boy. A boy with a superb voice that was also a potent means of communicating all kinds of things that white popular singers had never come close to: call it romantic yearning with hints of lust behind it, or call it arrogance with a quaver of vulnerability. In any case, it was absolutely irresistible to blindsided females—not to mention to impressed males, who very quickly began using Sinatra as background to their wooing.

Kaplan is right, of course: No one who’s heard the throb of “All or Nothing at All” (1939) can doubt that The Voice’s message was Sex. But it was also Pain. The difference between Sinatra and his 1920s and ‘30s predecessors was not merely temperature—”a warm Italian boy” versus cool crooners—but depth. Crosby and Rudy Vallée and Russ Columbo were sleek but glib; their singing harnessed vulnerability as a stylistic flourish and a tool of seduction. Sinatra’s vulnerability was deeper, his emotions rawer. Like his heroine Billie Holiday, Sinatra sang in the voice of a man who had scraped bottom. And with Ava Gardner, he had. “It was Ava who taught him how to sing a torch song,” said Nelson Riddle.

Among other things, this was a breakthrough in pop-music gender roles. Before Sinatra, torch singing was women’s work. Torch songs were tough-minded, masochism-tinged ballads that dramatized the malaise of the Great Depression through the figure of the wounded woman, battered by cruel fate and callous men. Sinatra showed that a fella could hurt as deeply—could love as masochistically—as any dame. “I’m a fool to want you,” he sang, “To want a love that can’t be true/ A love that’s there for others too.”

Sinatra’s torch flickered even on his most ebullient, up-tempo records. He called himself an “18-karat manic depressive,” and his songs lurched from ecstasy to despair, often in the space of a single verse, in the quick of a subtly-shaded vocal phrase. “Come fly with me,” Sinatra exulted—but he knew what goes up must come down. That jet bound for Acapulco Bay was doomed to crash land in a lonely town.

I’ll wrap up in a sec, Ann, but first some misgivings about this by-and-large admirable book. One problem is the prose itself. Kaplan is a fluent stylist, but like a lot of guys who write about Sinatra, he swaggers around, filling his pages with hepcat-speak and, more often than is comfortable, outright sexism. His description of George Evans at one of Sinatra’s Paramount shows is creepy: “The air in the great auditorium was vibrating, both with ear-splitting screams (FRANKIEEE!!! FRANKIEEE!!!) and with the heat and musk of female lust. Evans could smell perfumes, BO, the faint acrid tang of urine … and something else. They were like a great herd of female beasts, he thought in wonderment, all in heat at once.”

But Kaplan’s worst sin is poetic license. He is a novelist, and he writes like one, in a way that arouses suspicion. Frank: The Voice opens with Sinatra’s birth in a Hoboken tenement: “The kitchen of the cold-water flat on Monroe Street is full of women, all gathered around a table, all shouting at once. On the table lies a copper-haired girl, just nineteen, hugely pregnant. She moans hoarsely: the labor has stalled. The midwife wipes the poor girl’s brow and motions with her other hand. A doctor is sent for. Ten long minutes later her arrives, removes his overcoat, and with a stern look around the room—he is the lone male present—opens his black bag.” And here is Kaplan in the book’s curtain closer, describing Sinatra alone in a parked car on the night of his From Here to Eternity Oscar victory: “Sitting under a streetlight, he picked up the statuette and held it. He looked at it, ran his hand over its cool smoothness, turned it in the light.”

If Kaplan has evidence to support the details in these scenes, he hasn’t provided it in his footnotes. The truth is, Kaplan cannot know if the women in the Monroe Street apartment on Dec. 12, 1915 were shouting or whispering. He doesn’t know that Dolly Sinatra’s moan was hoarse; he has no idea what the midwife did with her hands. The stern look on the obstetrician’s face is imaginary—as is the play of light on Sinatra’s Academy Award. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of these fanciful flights scattered through the book. They make Frank: The Voice a more ripping yarn but less trustworthy. For a biographer, that’s a fool’s bargain.

But what do you think of the book, Ann? Does Kaplan’s scholarship pass the smell test? And what about the Sinatra we meet in these pages? Do you like the guy? For your day job, you keep close tabs on the musical present. Where do you hear Francis Albert Sinatra in 21st-century pop?

Easy does it,

Correction, Nov. 22, 2010: This article originally misspelled Kitty Kelley’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)