Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.