The Book Club

What Sinatra Learned from Ava Gardner


That’s a great point about how Sinatra never assumed a caricature of the black self. I wonder, though, whether one way he managed this was to develop another, more subtle cartoon self. It took a while to perfect. Kaplan writes:

The cover of Sing and Dance [With Frank Sinatra, the swooner’s last LP for Columbia] had shown a hatless Frank (with a full head of hair), looking neat and collegiate in a striped necktie and light-colored jacket, smiling amiably against a bouncy pink background, complete with a couple’s dancing feet. The cover of Young Loversestablished a new, infinitely moodier Sinatra: against a dark background, the singer, in a dark suit and fedora, stood under a lamppost, a lonely figure with a cigarette, looking meditative while a pair of couples promenaded by. Sinatra and the young lovers were in separate universes—he was their serenader, not their friend.

Songs for Young Lovers announced a new era in Sinatra’s artistic life—the rightfully much-lauded Capitol Years. In this period, which we can assume Kaplan will discuss in greater detail in his next doorstop, Frankie made maturity his subject—a decision that not only allowed him to age gracefully, but also to become historically relevant in a new way.

As Kaplan suggests in prose that beautifully mirrors the mood into which the singer tapped, alienation was the key to Sinatra’s big leap. “He was not their friend”—no longer is Frankie the big-eared boy the girls could claim as their own; now he stands apart, a pundit of love, or a rumpled angel like the one Wim Wenders would invent for his great late cold-war love letter Wings of Desire. Or … a noir detective. Kaplan never presents Sinatra, an avowed reader, pawing through a copy of The Big Sleep;yet the image and approach to singing he’s developed by this volume’s end connects as deeply to the postwar existentialist mood that overtook America as does Raymond Chandler’s perennially beat-up detective.

I’m not the first to connect Sinatra with noir: Here’s Terry Teachout doing it by way of quoting Pete Hamill. * What I’m thinking about is how fleshing out noir’s central figure of the damaged, shady, deeply alienated “normal” American male allowed Sinatra to avoid the kinds of minstrelsy that Elvis and so many others wrestled with. Noir took as its subject that dominant figure—made a little crazy, now, by a depression followed by a war, and surviving by a rule of law that he’s realized may be rotten at its core.

Sinatra’s subject as a singer was love but also violence. “Same old pounding in my heart whenever I think of you,” he sings in one song Kaplan discusses at length, making each word arrhythmic and a little troubling. Frank’s early Capitol recordings, made possible by arranger Nelson Riddle’s own hard-boiled strategy—”when he’s moving, get the hell out of the way”—showed how the principles of noir could work within music and, specifically, within love songs. The wet longing of his early material gave way to something sharper, harder: the constant acknowledgment that, with the slightest turn of phrase, a lover could be gone on the summer wind.

Viewing the making of Frank Sinatra, noir anti-hero, as one strong narrative thread within Kaplan’s story line makes me like his tough-guy prose better. At first, I admit, I was put off by all the mentions of bimbos, broads, and “the sack”—what was this, I thought, some kind of prehistory of The Situation? But if you view The Voice, instead, as a prehistory of Sinatra’s true flowering at Capitol, on the Vegas stage, and in films like Guys and Dollsand Pal Joey, all the swagger makes sense.

So does the focus on the Ava affair. I spent a lot of time after she first entered Kaplan’s scene staring at the photos he’d licensed, trying to see the devastation Sinatra saw. To me, her face seems a little horsey and her form, gangly. But hey, we all have our notions of the feminine ideal. And Kaplan makes the case that Hollywood was panting as hard as Frank did for his personal femme fatale.

I also ended up buying Kaplan’s argument that all the pots thrown and car backseats sullied in the torrid Ava-Frank affair did work some kind of alchemical magic on Sinatra. In order to become the spokesman for polka-dots-and-moonbeams romance in the era of its ultimate destruction (an era we’re reliving, as I previously mentioned, in the Sinatra-flavored Mad Men), he had to lose the illusion of its ability to redeem and embrace love as a precarious existential state. He had to feel Kierkegaard’s dread, Sartre’s nausea. Ava gave him that gift.

How she did it was by insisting on the forms of independence and freedom that would later be associated with feminism. Sexual liberation was a big part of it—those toreadors, those leading men who’d take the opportunities that drove Sinatra to his Jack Daniel’s—but equally key was Gardner’s desire to work and to remain her consort’s equal as a public figure. Kaplan mentions this key fact only briefly: “The reality was their relationship was impossible by definition. They were competitors as well as lovers.” Then he goes on to hint at Sinatra’s potency problem, before turning back to the flying crockery.

Gardner and Sinatra, like many old Hollywood couples, tried to create something like a contemporary companionate marriage, honoring each other’s ambitions and finding support in the places where they met. It didn’t work, spectacularly. That tragedy says as much about the times, and the conventional gender roles Frank and Ava played to the hilt in their art, as it does about their personalities. It’s one old-fashioned I’m glad I don’t have to drink.

A little something from Cartier?

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