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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Press Association/AP Images
Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh attending a dinner at the Empress Club, London, December 1951

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice is authentically a page-turner, a strident tabloid epic constructed out of facts—or more precisely out of the disparate and sometimes contradictory testimony of scores of participants in Frank Sinatra’s early life. There is certainly enough testimony to choose from; pieces of Sinatra, variously skewed and distorted, are scattered all over the latter part of the twentieth century. But they hardly converge into a unified portrait: confronted with the multitude of Sinatras that one must attempt to resolve into a single plausible person, there is a gathering sense of unsettling dissonance quite at odds with the perfected harmonies of his greatest recordings.

Kaplan limits himself to the first third of Sinatra’s trajectory, the rise and fall and resurrection preceding the long run of now-classic albums for Capitol, the raucous heyday of the Rat Pack, and the final enthronement as Chairman of the Board. His book is thus a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—following Sinatra at close range up to the moment when he retrieves a faltering career by winning the supporting actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity—except that the subject refuses to sit still long enough to provide a stabilized image.

The broad plot line has the advantage of an arc of compelling simplicity: a young man emerges out of nowhere driven by limitless desire to succeed, gets everything as if by magic, comes close to losing it all, then gets it back with interest. In outline it is a triumphal narrative with the same appeal as the life of Caesar or Napoleon, with the further advantage that in the realm of show business such a story can have a happy ending, concluding not with exile or assassination but with a legacy’s eternal perpetuation, as The Voice continues to permeate the world through reissued recordings.

When a columnist refers to Sinatra as a “demigod,”1 the facetiousness may mask a genuinely worshipful emotion; Sinatra’s stature as emblem of uncontestable supremacy and durability continues to make him a mythic hero. It was not nothing to have occasioned the ubiquitous unattributed bit of wisdom: “It’s Sinatra’s world, the rest of us just live here.” The conscious aim of his existence may well have been to become the only individual who could elicit such an encapsulation. Being the best singer ever wasn’t the half of it; Sinatra as folk hero is the man who remolds the world according to his own desires, breaking all rules and laying down new ones at whim, and finally, with the supreme self- indulgence of one who cannot be touched, epitomizing and even mocking his own cliché in endless encores of “My Way.”

But triumph is not precisely Kaplan’s subject. He wants to get inside the headlong rush of Sinatra’s career, and find the inner connections in a life ranging from unparalleled lyrical expression to unpredictable violent explosiveness; he tries to slow down the familiar show-biz montage long enough to wrest some sense of actuality from anecdotes many of which have been told and retold many times over. What he gets to—by means of a piling up of day-to-day, night-to-night detail that yields an almost neurological realism—is a core of discomfort and anxiety, whose outward manifestation as often as not was a barely restrainable impulse to control, if not to attack. Sinatra, a solitary who ruled crowds by seductive magnetism and surrounded himself with courtiers, had once been an adolescent alone in his room listening to Bing Crosby on his Atwater-Kent, and imagining how he would conquer the world through the power of his voice. Even he, though, could hardly have imagined the riotous effect he would have on the teenage girls of America, or that it was his fate to usher in the era of a new sort of mass idolatry.

Kaplan shows the young Sinatra as an almost infinitely ambitious neat freak whose sense of order ultimately extended to every aspect of his life, present and future: “Virtually every move he made in his life had to do with the furtherance of his career.” The smallest uncertainty made things uncomfortable both for him and for those around him: “When he was afraid, he liked to make others jump.” The power of the talents he discovered in himself—the talent for singing and the far greater talent for selecting, understanding, and interpreting what he sang—was harnessed to a mass of suspicions, resentments, and self-protective rages. In the recording studio he would savor the disciplined release of an unfathomably powerful force: a perfectionist who often enough achieved something like perfection, he made it his business to create a situation as close as he could get to total control. Elsewhere discipline was erratic and situations often got out of hand. “Frank’s entire life,” Kaplan sums up, “seemed to be based on the building and the release of tension. When the release came in the form of singing, it was gorgeous; when it took the form of fury, it was terrible.”

The book’s tone often approaches the melodramatic, but it is melodrama honestly come by. This was a life lived, at least in these less guarded early years, as if to leave just such a gaudy record behind, as the producer Mitch Miller (one of many colleagues whom Sinatra finally put firmly in his place) once suggested:

Frank was a guy—call it ego or what you want—he liked to suffer out loud, to be dramatic. There were plenty of people, big entertainers, who had a wild life or had big problems, but they kept it quiet. Frank had to do his suffering in public, so everyone could see it.

If Sinatra, despite many striking screen performances, from Eternity‘s Maggio to The Manchurian Candidate‘s Major Marco, never quite created a movie persona equal to his gifts, it was because his real movie was his life, a spectacle whose excesses, emotional swings, casual cruelties, and hair-trigger outbursts went well beyond anything Hollywood was likely to attempt.

And he did not live it alone: while the book’s central focus might be taken as the difficulty of being Frank Sinatra, it was, by Kaplan’s reckoning, clearly not much easier being Tommy Dorsey (“ever restless, insatiably ambitious”) or Buddy Rich (“volatile, egomaniacal”) or Lana Turner (“an empty shell of a human being”) or Nelson Riddle (“a dour, caustic, buttoned-up Lutheran”) or Jimmy Van Heusen (“foul-mouthed, obsessed with sex and alcohol”) or, least of all, Ava Gardner, who when she enters the scene takes over the book pretty much the way she seems to have taken over Sinatra’s psyche.

We find ourselves—not for the first time, and surely not the last—deep in the phantasmagoric realm of twentieth-century stardom, wandering among dream-fabricators whose own lives seem dreamed. Frank Sinatra dances with Lana Turner and stares at Ava Gardner (freshly divorced from Artie Shaw following her earlier divorce from Mickey Rooney) while she dances with Howard Hughes. Among all these adepts of self-invention, Sinatra triumphs by the consciously directed energy and single-minded calculation he brings to the task—until (in the legend that his life has become) he comes up against the insuperable Ava. That at least is one way to read the evidence; the other would be to imagine Sinatra maneuvering always on the edge of chaos, as bewildered as any onlooker by the gale force of his early trajectory.

Kaplan starts the story straight out of the womb, with Sinatra’s difficult birth, a birth that left permanent scars and deformities (a misshapen left ear) and that both he and his mother evidently barely survived: “They just kind of ripped me out and tossed me aside,” he once confided to a lover, still nursing resentment at being neglected by the doctor who was struggling to save his mother’s life. The trauma of birth is succeeded by the trauma of an alternately abusive and coddling mother-and-son relationship—she liked to dress him in Fauntleroyish clothes when not beating him with a stick—that Kaplan sees as the “textbook” source of Sinatra’s “infinite neediness, an inability to be alone, and cycles of grandiosity and bottomless depression.”

We are given a quick and monstrous sketch of Dolly Sinatra, who is made to loom implicitly in gargoyle fashion over all her son’s subsequent doings, having implanted in him, by her tyrannical capriciousness and relentless manipulation, a permanent distrust of intimate relationships. Within her Hoboken community, as midwife, sometime abortionist, local operative of the Democratic party, hanger-on of mob-connected bootleggers at the bar she opened with her husband Marty in the 1920s, she displayed the same ferocity of ambition that Sinatra would bring to bear on a grander scale. Marty Sinatra, by contrast—an illiterate Sicilian-born prizefighter whose fighting career petered out early—impresses most by his absence and silence. “I’d hear her talking and him listening,” Sinatra would recollect. “All I’d hear from my father was like a grunt…. He’d just say, Eh. Eh.”

However tough Hoboken may have been, Sinatra, thanks to his mother, enjoyed a fairly privileged status: he had a charge account at a major department store, an extensive wardrobe, and, at eleven, his own bedroom and his own state-of-the-art radio. By his own account he had, as well, access to a different kind of privilege: “Late in life Sinatra told a friend that as a child he had heard the music of the spheres.” That inner concert was supplemented before long by the big-band jazz that was flowering just as he entered adolescence. He was permeated by the work of all those musicians—by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Tommy Dorsey, and perhaps most importantly Billie Holiday—just as later on (after being impressed by Jascha Heifetz’s violin technique) he would soak up the classical music that he collected and, it seems, listened to with the same fanatical attention to detail he brought to everything musical. (His musical knowledge was acquired by ear, and though he made recordings as a conductor he never really learned to read music.) He did not finish high school; he made no serious attempt to work at anything other than singing, and claimed to have had from the start an absolute conviction that he would succeed. After his triumphant opening at New York’s Riobamba club in 1943 he told a young reporter: “I’m flying high, kid. I’ve planned my career. From the first minute I walked on a stage I determined to get exactly where I am.”

Stories like this often gain some of their dramatic effectiveness from the recounting of early obstacles and setbacks, but in truth Sinatra’s career at its outset has the monotony of what in retrospect seems like nearly unopposed success. He did the requisite scuffling, but by nineteen he was already appearing on Major Bowes’s radio amateur hour as a member of the short-lived Hoboken Four, and then touring under the major’s aegis; at twenty-three he joined Harry James’s band (insisting on keeping his own name when James wanted to call him Frankie Satin); the same year he left James for Tommy Dorsey, of whom he said: “The only two people I’ve ever been afraid of are my mother and Tommy Dorsey.” In 1940 he had his first number one record (“I’ll Never Smile Again”) and in 1942, having in turn left Dorsey, he made what turned out to be a legendary opening as a solo act at the Paramount. Jack Benny, who introduced him on stage, described what happened: “I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in. I never heard such a commotion…. All this for a fellow I never heard of.”

  1. 1

    Bob Shemeligian, “Rat Pack Made Copa Room Special,” Las Vegas Sun, August 5, 1996. 

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