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The Wee Small Facts

The first good book about Frank Sinatra, like the latest not-so-good one, was titled after the deftly singularizing nickname attached to Sinatra by his early press agent, George Evans: “The Voice.” Published in 1947, the original book was a hard-cover repackaging of a longish profile written by E. J. Kahn, Jr. for The New Yorker near the end of the war-era hysteria over Sinatra as a bobbysoxer heartthrob, and its approach was retrospective. Kahn, in The Voice: The Story of an American Phenomenon, looked back in mordant wonder at a musical sensation whose time was widely presumed to have passed. The new book, the first of a planned pair of volumes on Sinatra by James Kaplan, the magazine journalist, sometime short-story writer, and co-author of books by John McEnroe and Jerry Lewis, is something of a repackage job, too. Kaplan, in Frank: The Voice, draws heavily on previously published biographies—especially Kitty Kelley’s 1986 His Way, as well as the books on Sinatra by Earl Wilson, Will Friedwald, Tony Sciacca, Sinatra’s daughters Nancy and Tina, and others—and he presents once more all the elements of the standard narrative of Sinatra’s early career, most of which were hardened into tropes at the time of Kahn’s book. Francis Albert Sinatra, boney hothead from Hoboken, mama’s bambino, blessed with a voice of exceptional warmth and beauty, capitalizes on the emerging technologies of recording and broadcast, as well as the vast wartime audience of lonesome girls, to establish a new paradigm for pop stardom, only to fade from favor—and to rise again, transformed into a serious adult artist through his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, all while bedding countless starlets and Ava Gardner, and while chumming with hoods.

The challenge of writing intelligently about Sinatra is clear in the use of the term for the instrument of his art, the voice, as the title of a book about his life. With no artist in any art is the life the work, exactly; still, each informs the other, in ways often complicated, and illumination of the dynamic between them is the serious work of biography in the arena of creative lives. In Sinatra’s art—and his singing of popular songs, at its best, is art rich and fine—much of the artistry lies in Sinatra’s extraordinary ability to blur distinctions between the work and the life, the song and the singer. Kaplan addresses this gift of Sinatra’s well in one of several sections that discuss Sinatra’s music perceptively. Although Sinatra worked in an interpretive form, the singing of words set to music by a professional class of songwriters, Sinatra’s sensitivity to the meaning of those words—more accurately, his skill at communicating convincingly what the lyrics meant to him, and that could differ considerably from the writers’ intentions—was such that he seemed to be engaged not in interpretation but in spontaneous expression. His records sounded like autobiography.

Yet they weren’t. Everyone familiar with Sinatra since the 1940s has known that his life off-microphone was a sordid tale of bullying, womanizing, and bad temper, mixed up with advocacy for social justice and good deeds done for friends. (When my older sister was undergoing treatment for cancer at Sloan-Kettering in New York, a forgotten big-band singer, whose name I have duly forgotten, was dying in the same wing, and one of the doctors whispered around that Sinatra was covering all the old trooper’s bills. Innumerable stories of Sinatra’s secret benevolence are probably better known than the fact that Danny Thomas prominently funded an entire hospital.) How can we reconcile the exquisite delicacy of, say, Sinatra’s performance of Rodgers and Hart’s prayer of amorous repentance, “It Never Entered My Mind,” with the fact that Sinatra, late one night at Jilly’s, walked over to the table where a columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune was sitting, pulled off the writers’ fedora, spat into it, and neatly placed it back on the fellow’s head?

A school of Sinatra devotees, among them the well-intentioned Jonathan Schwartz, have argued that the tawdry details of Sinatra’s private life are irrelevant to his music: The voice is all. Meantime, another school of Sinatra detractors, including the biographers Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, define Sinatra largely by his piggish behavior: The voice goes unheard. To me, the potency of both points of view—and, more significantly, the tension in their elemental irreconcilability—seems the secret of Sinatra’s uniqueness and enduring appeal. It is virtually impossible for the mind to hold, simultaneously, the conflicting realities of Sinatra’s crudeness and his sensitivity, though we know them both to be real. A brute murmurs of the promised kiss of springtime. We wander through a meadow to a door marked “nevermore” in the company of a rat. The facts of Sinatra’s biography do not nullify his art, but contradict it; and there’s something compelling, even poetic, in that contradiction.

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice does nothing to undermine the effect of those irreconcilable forces at play. The book is a readable, if far from intellectual, rehash of the known facts of Sinatra’s life, combined with a troubling amount of material that is clearly not factual, along with some bits of genuine new material—notably, some fascinating correspondence to Sinatra from Columbia Records executive Manie Sacks. Kaplan, who has published some good naturalistic short stories, understands the literary value of atmospheric and behavioral detail, and his determination to provide such detail is undeterred by lack of access to the relevant facts. Throughout the book, Kaplan presents vivid descriptions of activities for which Kaplan apparently had no access to first-hand accounts or documentary records such as film footage or photographs. In a section about the Hoboken Four, the vocal quartet that Sinatra sang with early in his career, Kaplan describes the group’s national debut on Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio show. “Frankie peeped out through a crack in the curtain—the audience gazed up at him as if he were Jesus Christ himself. It hit him: Every goddamn sound that went into that big square mike was emanating out to the whole goddamn country.” But...Kaplan has no apparent grounds for his description of Sinatra peeking out from the curtain as a moment of revelation. He provides no sourcing, no endnotes here or in many more passages of evident speculation or obvious embellishment in the book.

Frank: The Voice is littered with ostensibly literary imaginings, most of them trivial in substance but substantial in the indifference to accuracy that they represent. When Sinatra visited Atlantic City, he “flared his nostrils and inhaled the salty air.” Bandleader Harold Arden (not to be confused with the composer Harold Arlen), “gave the (club) owner, Harry Nichols, a lemon-sucking look. Nichols took out his cigar.” In a meeting between Sinatra and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer over Sinatra’s dalliance with Lana Turner, “Mayer glared at him. What was all this? Frank shrugged. It was just a personal matter. Mayer studied him coldly through the rimless spectacles that rode his hawk nose.”

Remember my description earlier of how Sinatra assaulted a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune? I made it up. Does it seem like something Sinatra might have done? Absolutely. Could have I illustrated the same point with a factual example? Certainly. Would it have been so vivid? Perhaps not. Readers of this piece who are peeved by my having fabricated the details of an event, however well it may symbolize something genuine, would find considerable offense in Frank: The Voice. If Kaplan was going for mimetic effect, he is too taken with the irreconcilability of Sinatra’s work and the facts of his life.

David Hadju is music critic at The New Republic.