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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 14th, 2005


 

Sinatra: The Life

by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Here is a subject for a great American biography. Frank Sinatra is, along with Cary Grant, the most sublime American performing talent produced in the twentieth century. He utterly and permanently transformed American song; for three decades he was a central, and often driving, force in the entertainment industries -- radio, gambling, records, and movies; he was both emblematic of and a vehicle for organized crime's reach into nearly every aspect of American public life; he was the single most important model of masculinity for two generations of Americans. The popular culture, politics, gender relations, and style (in every conceivable aspect) of the American century can't be fathomed without him. He was also an exquisitely complex personality. The public always knew the basic contradictions: Sinatra was vicious and sweet-hearted; he hated racial and religious bigotry and consorted with killers; he was a man of easy elegance and he was a lout. But while those paradoxes contributed to his mystique, they never defined it. Indeed, in what endures as the most adroitly drawn portrait, the 1966 Esquire article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Gay Talese observed Sinatra as he awed, cowed, and beguiled his circle and those outside it, and revealed how Sinatra's bullying and charm and vulnerability shaded into one another, and so let readers discern Sinatra as a man, even as Talese made plain that Sinatra's charisma remained impenetrable. With quiet authority Pete Hamill's elegant 1998 meditation, Why Sinatra Matters, locates its subject in the wider social and cultural currents of his times, but Hamill maintains that Sinatra "matters" chiefly as an artist. And while his slim book is the smartest, most precise, and most moving assessment of Sinatra's music, especially his greatest work (the incomparable Capitol Records albums of his early mature years), it is by definition an incomplete picture (which is deeply unfortunate; no writer can navigate as nimbly through Sinatra's world of politicians, mobsters, immigrants, musicians, and starlets as Hamill, who knew Sinatra well -- a fact that probably explains his reluctance to write a full biography).

Until now that has left the reading public with Kitty Kelly's sensational 1986 scandal sheet of a book, an unreliable but not necessarily false work, though one devoid of insight. Regrettably, Summers and Swan's chronicle is a more or less tarted-up version of Kelly's. True, the authors employed a band of assiduous researchers, and they've mined the scant FBI and other government files now available. Their evidence suggests not merely that Sinatra palled around with and aided the Mafia (especially and most crucially in its relationship with John F. Kennedy) but that he was its creature. But here, as in so many other areas of Sinatra's life, the authors string together (often previously published) assertions, usually without corroborating evidence. The authors do confirm an already overwhelmingly persuasive picture of JFK as brutally coarse, doped up, and mobbed up (the survival of the Camelot myth is truly one of the world's incomprehensible mysteries), and they've added colorful detail to what was already an elaborate picture of some aspects of Sinatra's private life -- his marriage to Ava Gardner, his kindness and cruelty to his hangers-on, and his energetic and soulless philandering. But although Summers and Swan have laid some important groundwork for the considered and sprawling biography their subject merits, this slackly written, cobbled-together book is third-rate Vanity Fair fodder, not a biography (in fact, the heavily and deftly reworked excerpt in that magazine is far better than this book). The authors devote a mere handful of pages to what was, after all, the one constant in and the main preoccupation of Sinatra's life -- his music. A man often barely in control of himself, Sinatra was nevertheless indisputably a careful, obsessively committed, and hardworking artist. And when the authors do very briefly touch on some aspect of Sinatra's music (a paragraph on his fanatical attention to his transcendent phrasing, for example), they usually depend on quotations from authorities or other writers to make the point. Now that some valuable legwork has been done, an enterprising editor should ask Hamill to overcome his scruples and take another shot.


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