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Frank Sinatra and the Scandalous but Scholarly Biography

30 November 2015

From The New Yorker:

Having come out of the closet, or the casino, not long ago, as an unqualified Frank Sinatra idolater, I approached the second volume of James Kaplan’s biography of the singer (“Sinatra: The Chairman”) with what our critical mothers and fathers would have called immense trepidation, since the book would have to deal not just with the great man’s best records but with his messy entanglement with the mob and his sad, stultified later years. (I saw him perform once, toward the very end, at Madison Square Garden, and it was like seeing the dead El Cid mounted on his horse to lead the Spanish Army: noble but undeniably stiff.)

. . . .
The ugly, scuttlebutt version of Sinatra is as a bad guy with a big voice. Kaplan shows that the bad-guy stuff was, in truth, pretty bad, about as bad as one had imagined and a lot worse than one had hoped. He did hang out with and cultivate mobsters, real killers, though more in a semi-hostile, semi-affectionate fraternal manner than with the pitiful, feudal devotion pictured in “The Godfather.” (There seems to be no truth in the rumors that the mob bullied Harry Cohn into casting Sinatra in “From Here To Eternity,” not least because Cohn was plenty mobbed-up himself.)

Worse, Sinatra beat people up, or had others beat them up for him, often in shameful acts of bullying—picking on casino employees or less successful, dependent entertainers. (This happened to Shecky Greene, who emerges in the biography as a far more interesting and volatile man than one could have ever imagined, and, weirdly, to Jackie Mason, who had shots fired at him, apparently for dissing the Chairman.) Kaplan even offers veiled, worrying hints that Sinatra might have been implicated in an actual murder. (A man with whom he had an altercation was killed in a mysterious traffic accident a few weeks later.) These instances were sporadic and counterbalanced by his many acts of charity, some impulsive, and some systematic—touring for the benefit of children’s hospitals and the like.

Sinatra’s character flaw isn’t hard to name. He lived in daily fear of humiliation, and in its (often imagined) presence his temper tipped over in an instant. This was followed, usually, by remorse, once he had sobered up and stopped seeing red. But, in the interim, real damage was done to real people: he threw a telephone at a businessman once at the Beverly Hills Hotel, fracturing his skull and very nearly killing him. The other cause of his rage may be oddly taboo to tell. Sinatra was a bad, mean drunk, and, since he was often drunk, he was often bad and mean. (John Lennon was a bad, mean drunk, too, and when he got loose long enough to show it the author of “Imagine” and “Julia” could do similarly violent things.) Despite everything we ought to have learned, we still make a ballad out of alcohol. It was Jack on the rocks, not crack from a bag, and so we somehow think that it’s not so bad. The other sad truth Kaplan illustrates is that demons rage in the rich and famous as much as they do in the poor and unknown—and maybe rage still more, since, having defeated the usual demons of worldly failure that haunt the rest of us, the famous are left alone with the remaining, inexpungible ones, grinning up evilly at them from inside.

. . . .

Sinatra, he shows, had an astonishing musical intelligence, of a subtlety and soulfulness still unequalled. He was a master of understatement and narrative so complete that he could still spellbind audiences after his voice had gone, and he was even more of a legend among other musicians than among his fans. Nor is Kaplan simply an idolater. He sees how genius sits in a fortunate network, offering character sketches of Sinatra’s arrangers, who were as essential to Sinatra’s art as George Martin’s production was to the Beatles. They’re captured as more than names: the saturnine Nelson Riddle, the last-minute genius Billy May, and the old-fashioned Gordon Jenkins, not to mention supporters as gifted and forgotten as Milt Bernhart, who played the indelible trombone solo on Riddle’s transformed version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

. . . .

And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker
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Non-Fiction

18 Comments to “Frank Sinatra and the Scandalous but Scholarly Biography”

  1. This was a great article by Gopnik. Must as artists want to be judged by their work and not themselves, he recognizes that the art springs from the artist. This should mean that it’s fine to appreciate Sinatra’s artistry, while recognizing that he was a sad, creepy, violent man.

  2. Love the song link at the bottom. I had that album on vinyl, so it was a lifetime ago. His voice sounds so young, very different from when I heard him near the end of his career.

  3. THOSE WHO kept sticking Sinatra out in public for the money, were indecent, same as displaying reagan and also heston after both were no longer there-there. Exhibiting people who are no longer mentally fit, is beyond cruel. And for money? That is in fact, hideous.

  4. kennedy, shriver, sinatra, sammy d., dean martin, the players at vegas and the italian/jewish mafia… monroe, black dahlia, movie moguls, it was a tangled time of gluttony, demeaning and marginalizing of many. Many strings pulled for sinatra. He was a stylist, but there were many who were. Opportunity is what his connections gave him, and a strong arming of competition. Dont think a singer/crooner today would survive today with such a foreground.

    • USAF – Maybe, maybe not. Having criminal friends does tend to kill a lot of rappers, but it doesn’t kill their career.

      Of course, in Japan there’s only one guy controlling almost every formal venue and even some tiny ones, and he is hand in glove with the Yakuza as well as the recording industry. This is why Japanese idol-singers and bands don’t get too far in the rest of the world, despite the worldwide popularity of J-Pop. (It may also be why Vocaloids are so popular, as it allows songwriters to avoid the Yakuza.)

  5. Devoured the first volume and I expect to do the same with this one (although 900 pages! Frank Sinatra and the Deathly Hallows!) I’ve been obsessed with Frank since high school in the mid-eighties (when it definitely wasn’t cool to be obsessed with Frank). I’ve always compartmentalized the man from his music, and will continue to do so out of necessity, but I think it’s important that the whole story be known.

  6. This was an interesting piece.

    Does it belong here?

    I’m 34-years old and Sinatra died when I was 16-years old, in 1998.

    How is he relevant to me?

    He’s not.

    Now, I can’t complain too much because it should be obvious to many that this is a curation site that focuses on old people.

    It’s run by an old person and most of the content is by older people. Rarely do we see content that will help us sell more books, which younger authors want. Overwhelmingly we get content that decries changes, points out dying industries, and does just about everything to placate older authors.

    There’s not much that’s appealing to me on this site these days.

    I’m sure others will jump on me for saying that, but it needs to be said.

    I hope the owner of this site thinks about that.

    • Maybe when you grow up you will realize everything isn’t about you and isn’t there to meet your needs. If you don’t find value in a site, why visit it?

      • Heh, surprised he didn’t whine about the pretty vacation pictures — or all those silly quotes … 😉

    • Greg, where on earth are you getting the idea that this is a marketing blog? Nowhere in the blog’s title or the description does it mention marketing or selling.

    • As an older person/author, I enjoy the variety of discussions on this site. And I appreciate that PG keeps the discussion open and civil.

    • I’m 33 years old and I adore Frank Sinatra’s music and this article was very interesting to me. Go take your cranky comments elsewhere, please.

    • Greg – TPV is what it is – my thoughts about authors, self-publishing and traditional publishing, expressed mostly through excerpt selection and sometimes via my commentary.

      TPV consciously breaks a lot of rules about blogs and social media, so don’t expect it to fall into a particular category or follow a conventional pattern.

      TPV is definitely not trying to be all things to all authors. There are plenty of other online resources that follow more accepted practices that may suit your needs better than this one.

      The New Yorker article was an extended review of an exhaustive biography about Sinatra. For me, it was interesting because of the author’s approach to illuminating a unique and still-controversial artist.

      Sinatra’s story is one that tracks the flame-outs of artists and other celebrated figures that came before him and those who will continue to appear over and over in the future.

    • I’d say amongst men, a tin horn is sent to shovel offal, that is wet slop in the corrals that stinks bad… for insulting people without necessity. Or run off the ranch to go whine in the mines where the old timers would as soon leave them in the cart head first, lol, as bring them back up to blue sky.

      Really, Id like to know, man to man. What makes you Greg, take the time to be foul toward human beings here who have done nothing to offend?

      The article is about a book and an author and a subject. This is a blog about same. Assume you have a keyboard and can scroll on track pad, right on by anything you like. But setting all that aside..

      what were you hoping for in response by writing screed and squeezing it out here? I’d like to know. Otherwise your remarks are quite muddled/puzzling.

  7. I never really “got” Sinatra or Elvis, like a lot of people did. I know they were musical geniuses, but something just didn’t click with me. Not to say that I didn’t appreciate a lot of their music, but I never got the hero (or near-hero) worship.

  8. Shakespeare died in 1616, so he must be irrelevant to me. Now excuse me while I go find some college campus where I can whine about all those micro-aggressions screwing up my life.

    Dan

    Oh, wait.

  9. I read TPV every morning with my wake up coffee. I enjoy the articles, and if I find one or two that don’t interest me, I just scroll down to the next one. Does that make me old? No, and by the way, Ageism is a form of discrimination, so let’s not insult people over 34 in this group. PG, love your site.

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