Tuesday, November 3, 2015

LIZ SMITH: Sinatra: The Chairman

by Liz Smith

James Kaplan's New Book — "Sinatra: The Chairman" Tells All (Or as Much As We Can Possibly Know! ) About That Guy From Hoboken Who Became Leader of The Rat Pack, and The Greatest Male Singer — Ever!

"WHEN SINATRA walks into a room, tension walks in beside him ... and if he's tense, he spreads it," said the film director Stanley Kramer of Francis Albert Sinatra, arguably the greatest male singer/interpreter of lyrics of the 20th century. (And I've heard no one in the 21st century capable of taking up his mantle.)

That quote comes from James Kaplan's new book "Sinatra: The Chairman."
WHEN Kaplan's book landed on the couch of my office, with an impressive thud — it is 800-plus pages! — I wondered why there was another great big bio of Frank? Hadn't there just been one, a couple of years back? I'd written of it, for sure. What more could be said? I'd also written about Sinatra personally in my memoir "Natural Blonde" in 2000.

Then I realized that I'd read "Frank:The Voice," which was author James Kaplan's similarly massive first volume on Sinatra. It had ended with Sinatra winning the Oscar for "From Here to Eternity," and signing on with Capitol Records where he would come to his peak as a mature singer.
Sinatra and Donna Reed with their Oscars for "From Here to Eternity."
I'd found the ending of Kaplan's first book abrupt. Then I thought it over, and felt it had concluded just where it should have. "The Voice" had revealed so much about Sinatra's vulnerabilities, the aggressiveness and over-emotion that sprang from his insecurities, the messiness of his decline, his constant need for validation and a perpetual tone of victimization. Also, his naked ambition — he was as ruthless and determined in his climb as those much criticized "divas" Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Madonna. But, as a man, he escaped being branded unflatteringly for getting what he wanted. (The press found other ways to torment him.)
SO "The Chairman" picks up with a triumphant Frank re-inventing himself to an unparalleled height. There are the great songs, the hit movies, the power of his personality that totally wiped away the years of a cracking voice, his trotting after Ava Gardner, generally being "washed-up."
BUT under all the machismo and press battles, flirtations with mob-life, the almost accidental creation of the Las Vegas-centered Rat Pack, he was still a man driven to prove himself, lift himself above his Hoboken beginnings. He was still vulnerable beneath the cruelty he could display, still stunned when his reputation got thrown back in his face. (As with Edith Mayer Goetz, with whom Frank conducted one of his many friendly affairs, which usually led to a proposal of marriage that neither party took seriously. Alas, Edie Goetz took it less seriously than even Sinatra expected: "Why Frank, I couldn't marry you" declared the society matron — "You're nothing but a hoodlum!" They did not remain friends.)
Frank and Edie Goetz.
P.S. Nor did he remain friendly with Lauren Bacall, who did take his proposal seriously!  A gossip column item ended their romance, which had begun, most people believe, prior to the death of Bacall's husband Humphrey Bogart.
Sinatra and Bacall.
KAPLAN does something that too few biographers bother with. He understands, particularly when dealing with a life and career and personality as large and complex as Sinatra, that everybody has a different tale, some vary wildly, some are pretty close to established facts — or facts as "established" as possible. He compares other biographies and the stories told by the myriad players in Frank's life. He'll settle on the most likely version, but with an eyebrow cocked to mythology, personal vendetta, plain old bad memory. As Tennessee Williams once put it: "Truth is at the bottom of a bottomless well."

And so the memoirs of such figures as George Jacobs, Sinatra's loyal valet (discarded during the Mia Farrow marriage), or the autobiography of Judith Campbell Exner, who figured so prominently in the life of Sinatra, gangster Sam Giancana and President John F. Kennedy, are not taken at face value.
Nor are the recollections of Nancy and Tina Sinatra. Most everything and everybody is examined. Such care makes for fascinating reading. (I would take issue with some of Kaplan's observations about Ava Gardner and particularly Marilyn Monroe — believe me, if Sinatra really proposed to MM and she refused him, it wasn't because she was "saving" herself for re-marriage to Joe DiMaggio. But in the face of the rest of this compelling book, that's real nit-picking.)
AS WITH Kaplan's first book, this is an unalloyed treat for serious admirers of Sinatra's music. The book is packed with detail, pages and pages devoted to particular recording sessions, certain songs and how they were performed, etc. I will admit, as much as I love the Sinatra vocals, these sections tended to lose me after a bit. I'm no musicologist, just a fan, amazed at what Frank could do with a lyric — even a bad lyric!
Click to order "Sinatra: The Chairman."
I DIDN'T want Kaplan's first volume, "The Voice" to end.

However, with "The Chairman" — written with equally brilliant, passion and understanding — there came a point where I did want the inevitable conclusion. Frank never really changed. He was always an essentially lonely man in a crowd. And his loneliness left him somehow shortchanged as a human being. "There wasn't enough of a human being," one lover told Kaplan.

As the coarseness sets in, as the vulnerability hardens into something sour, as he battles middle and old age, marries Mia, you don't want the story to go on. (George Jacobs says pointedly of Mia "Oh, God ... she was a child. She was a make-believe. She always had these little stories ... she had a great imaginary mind.") And then the last wife, Barbara Marx and a life, finally, far quieter and constrained than one thinks is fitting for Sinatra.

You don't have to like Frank Sinatra. In fact, many who love the artist didn't or don't care for the man. And, of course, many loved every aspect of him — his art, his many women, the ring-a-ding lifestyle and his almost undying detestation of the press. But you never want to feel bad for him.
Frank and Mia.
Frank and Barbara.
So I did feel bad toward the end, even by the middle of "The Chairman." One tumultuous event upon another, and the man himself never quite took responsibility. Or, as in the case of being frozen out by the Kennedy's, he genuinely and naively did not understand ruthless self-preservation of the kind he'd practiced all his life. (His hatred of the Kennedy brothers became towering, and many felt it was responsible for turning Frank into a "conservative" despite his famously liberal leanings. Although when angered he could fall into the worst kind of racist language.)

And of course, there was always the haunting promise of Ava returning. The one that got away and the one for whom he carried an almost tragic torch. Frank and Ava made Burton and Taylor look like pikers in the can't-live-with-or-without-him/her sweepstakes.
BUT — I read "Frank: The Chairman" right to the end, and I recalled my own rapprochement with Sinatra, and how he had retained and could use, with devastating effect, that oddly boyish charm.

I think James Kaplan's two volume set is the definitive word on Frank Sinatra, as definitive as any biography of any public figure can be. It's jammed with something juicy on almost every page. It has been written with integrity and affection. It neither sugar coats or demonizes. It presents what all stars are — ordinary mortals with ordinary cares, writ large by fame, and in Sinatra's case, a peerless talent. Sinatra concocted a towering life on the American landscape. If he was not a towering human being all the time, well — take a listen to Nancy Sinatra's poignant "Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad." This song is the briefest, most personal and concise biography of Frank.
He lived and died a boy from Hoboken, trying to make good, lift himself up, be respected, be feared, and most of all, to be loved. He got it all, but I don't think he ever really believed it.

Contact Liz Smith here.