His Way

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at the Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, February 1960
AFP/Getty Images
Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at the Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, February 1960

The Frank Sinatra centenary has brought forth an inevitably immense array of monuments and keepsakes. These have included Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, a four-hour documentary by filmmaker Alex Gibney; a comprehensive multi-CD survey of his broadcast performances, Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air, 1935–1955 (Columbia/Legacy), including many previously unissued tracks, along with a good deal of promotional blather and forced banter from the Golden Age of Radio; two illustrated volumes, Sinatra 100 (Thames and Hudson), with text by Charles Pignone, and an almost dangerously weighty limited edition called simply Sinatra (ACC Editions), which between them unload an archive’s worth of Sinatra as photographic object, a revealing study in itself of just how, seemingly without effort, he could project a fully formed identity in almost any shot, and how multifarious are these identities when laid side by side, a whole population of alternate Franks.

There is also a deluxe edition, likewise limited, of Gay Talese’s celebrated Esquire profile Frank Sinatra Has a Cold (Taschen), which achieved classic status in describing not the man head-on (Sinatra had declined to be interviewed) but the atmosphere surrounding him, a roundabout method of realizing the most elegantly acute of portraits; and the poet David Lehman’s engaging, playful, deeply personal, and elegantly concise tribute Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, published by Harper this past October—to cite only a few of the tie-ins, whether new or newly reissued.

Contemplating all this evidence of what Sinatra left behind leaves open the question of what remains of him a century after his birth. What will he come to signify for those born too late to have experienced how thoroughly he pervaded the culture, not only as a singer and actor but as a presence all the more powerful for the contradictions he so flagrantly embodied? Looking closely at Sinatra doesn’t make the pieces of his life cohere any better. By casting his book in the form of a hundred disparate observations, Lehman acknowledges how Sinatra’s singular image tends to break apart into separate facets, describing him as

a wounded swinger who could consort with gangsters but also liked to paint, won a Grammy for album design, took quality photographs of a ballyhooed prize fight for Life, and treated a popular song written for the masses as if it were a sonnet meant for patrician ears.

Listening to Sinatra at his peak singing “Close to You” (1956) or “Angel Eyes” (1958), you can have the illusion that nothing exists but his voice and the instruments that frame it, a closed universe of warm feeling, with an undertone of hurt made uplifting by the precision and grace with…



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