Glamorous days and nights in a privileged bubble with the Chairman of the Board.
Sinatra’s memoir begins engagingly, as the former Barbara Ann Blakeley recalls her hardscrabble Midwestern childhood, her early modeling career in California and her showgirl days in Vegas, where she first encountered Frank and his Rat Pack. The author details her bumpy marriage to Zeppo Marx, who introduced her to the leisurely life in Palm Springs, where Frank was a neighbor. Flirtation with the singer, then in the midst of a brief early-’70s “retirement,” turned into an affair after an assignation in Monaco, depicted here with admirable honesty. Unfortunately, after recounting Frank’s ardent courtship, her divorce from Marx and a protracted march to the altar (finally triggered by Barbara’s ultimatum) in 1976, the book turns breathless and the prose gets mauve. The author drops big names by the dozen, recalling an endless whirl of globetrotting concert appearances, charity events, lavish dinners and late-night hijinks. She also catalogs every glittering Cartier bauble the singer ever purchased for her. Though she considers Frank’s hot temper, pugnacity and oft-boorish behavior, the author dutifully soft-pedals his worst transgressions and sidesteps the sensational elements. Sinatra’s dealings with mobsters are foisted off on his late pal Jilly Rizzo, while the shadowy connections of fixer Sidney Korshak are left unmentioned. However, the author is unable to resist a dig at former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whose relationship with Sinatra was much whispered about. After a couple hundred pages of rapturous encomia, the book gains some force in the late going as Sinatra’s increasing infirmity and death in 1998 are poignantly delineated. Ultimately, readers learn little about the complex inner workings of the driven, very private entertainer.
A sometimes diverting and funny yet unsatisfying book about what it was like to be, in the writer’s words, “the luckiest girl alive.”
What a perfect match: the world’s greatest “saloon singer” eulogized superbly by the author of The Drinking Life (1993). Hamill knew Sinatra, nearly co-authored the singer’s autobiography, and in preparation for that never-to-be-written volume, the duo had many long conversations. But this slender volume, an essay really, is not the collection of revelations and self-justifications that a ghosted autobiography might have been. Rather, it’s an unusually thoughtful contribution to the growing body of literature of appreciation of Sinatra as an artist, a supreme interpreter of the great American popular song. Hamill has a good journalist’s finely tuned antenna for the Zeitgeist. In his recounting of Sinatra’s career (the author limits himself tellingly to the rise to stardom, the disastrous fall in the early 1950s and the comeback shortly after), Hamill’s antennae get a useful workout. More than almost any other of Sinatra’s critics, he understands the centrality of the immigrant experience (both Sinatra’s parents were born in Italy), Prohibition, and the Second World War to Sinatra’s career and his meaning as an icon. At the same time, Hamill is savvy enough to know what he doesn’t know; like any good reporter, he relies on well-chosen expert testimony to fill in the blanks, here mostly in technical matters of music-making. And while Hamill is clearly not an entirely objective observer, a point he addresses with candor, this is anything but a bronzing. The essay touches on Sinatra’s failings with frankness (no pun intended), and if the author dismisses the stories about Sinatra’s Mob ties a little too quickly to satisfy some carpers, he does so with a deft intelligence that brings us back to the most important point: “In the end only the work matters. Sinatra’s finest work was making music.” Despite its brevity, Why Sinatra Matters belongs in any collection of important books on American popular music of the 20th Century.
For better and worse, this ambitiously epic biography of Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) reads like a movie biopic.
Over the course of nearly 700 pages, biographer Kaplan (co-author, with Jerry Lewis: Dean and Me, 2005, etc.) brings his subject up to 1954, when his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity revived a career that had been on the skids (with the likes of Eddie Fisher and Perry Como far exceeding his popularity). So, is there anything new to say about ’Ol Blue Eyes? Not really, as the author draws heavily from—and frequently provides commentary on—many previous Sinatra biographies, as well as those of other crucial figures in his life, including Ava Gardner, Lana Turner et al. The distinguishing features of Kaplan’s narrative are its psychological focus on the domineering mother who shaped the singer’s psyche and its attempt to craft a literary style that echoes Sinatra’s. Thus the author describes Gardner in her first encounter with Sinatra as “curvy, fleshy in just the right places” and later as “a sexual volcano [who] ruled him in bed.” The inscrutable smile of Nancy Sinatra, the singer’s first wife, “reminded him of that chick in the painting by da Vinci.” His response to the passing of FDR: “death was such a strange thing: it gave him the creeps.” And his reaction to the playback of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” his revitalizing triumph with arranger Nelson Riddle: “'Jesus Christ,’ he breathed, almost prayerfully, his eyes wide and blazing. “I’m back! I’m back, baby, I’m back!’ ” Whether readers find that such stylistic flair enhances the narrative or compromises its credibility, Kaplan humanizes his subject, illuminating both the insecure man and the artistic genius.
Far from stale gossip and bureaucratic tedium, this is a carefully edited and annotated compendium of FBI files on Sinatra, made public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Two years after Sinatra’s death, this abridged version of his 1,275-page dossier is a historian’s hoot for what it reveals about Hoover and his FBI. There are no new revelations about Sinatra, however. Initially considered little more than a seducer of naïve teenaged girls, Sinatra became a concern to the FBI as he grew into his role as the century’s most popular male entertainer—one who befriended (and possibly even cuckolded) US presidents. Beginning with an overlong biographical preface about Sinatra, this parade of letters, internal documents, and transcripts (many with names blotted out by the FBI’s censors, most adorned by caustic comments from Hoover and his cronies) show the Bureau as a greedy collector of lies and worthless innuendo that, when investigated, ended up telling Hoover precisely what he didn’t want to believe (namely, that Sinatra was not a Communist and that he had legitimate medical reasons for being deferred from military service during WWII). In fact, Hoover learned that he had much in common with his nemesis: fierce patriotism, an explosive temper, an inner sentimental streak, and a tendency to remain loyal to friends in low places. By the time Hoover had enough evidence to nail Sinatra on his organized crime connections, Sinatra had become the public champion (and private pimp) of John and Bobby Kennedy. Far from controlling Sinatra, Hoover actually came to the singer’s aid on several occasions, helping to investigate the kidnapping of Frank Jr. and sending his agents on various fool’s errands for him (such as the time he conducted a four-month investigation of the crank who had threatened to blind Sinatra by hitting him in the eye with a poisoned pickle).
The brothers Kuntz (Tom is a New York Times editor, Phil, a Wall Street Journal reporter) use journalism as a kind of noble rot: musty memoranda, under their careful sifting, ferment into a historical morality fable in which celebrity conquers all. (8 b&w photos, not seen)
An adoringand at times vexingly detailedlook at one of pop music's most enduring and controversial icons. Friedwald (Jazz Singing, 1990) has collected enormous amounts of information on ``The Voice's'' career: interviews with Sinatra peers, discographic background, and an intimate familiarity with the entire Sinatra canon. Sorting all this information is a challenge at which Friedwald only partially succeeds. Most events and analyses of songs are treated in chronological order; Sinatra's various arrangers define phases of the singer's career, as evidenced in chapter titles such as ``With Axel Stordahl, 19431948.'' Friedwald is at his best when describing, with some technical depth, how a particular arranger colored Sinatra's music. Musicians will appreciate the author's informed appraisals, while lay listeners will glean enough not to get lost. Arrangers are often unsung heroes, and Friedwald gives greats like Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins their due. And many of the small details included will fascinate Sinatra fans: ``Fly Me to the Moon,'' for example, was the first music ever heard on the moon. However, at times Friedwald waxes on as if he were one of Frank's bobby-soxer fans, heaping praise on each syllable of Sinatra's phrasing and slowing the narrative turntable to a nauseating 16 rpms. The author's starry eyes miss much of Sinatra's bad behavior. And when he does recount some notorious outbursts, such as his punching out columnist Lee Mortimer in 1947 or calling an Australian journalist a whore in 1974, the author makes excuses for his hero. Reputed mob connections are only briefly alluded to. Sinatra! will appeal to those already under the master singer's spell but will probably not enlighten those with only a passing interest in Ol' Blue Eyesthe book reveals its subject without transcending it.
This collection of 18 essays (including a 1945 plea for racial harmony by Sinatra himself), 13 of them new, is a mixed bag of superb musical and technical insight, interesting cultural studies analysis, and pure blather. In his concise and well-judged introduction, Mustazza (English and American Studies/Penn. State Univ.), the author of two previous books on the Chairman, makes a case for Sinatra as “an iconic hero” and promises a volume that will explore “the factors that led to the sculpting of the iconic Sinatra, and the nature of the changing culture that fashioned it.” The best (and longest) essay in the collection, written by Sinatra archivist Charles L. Granata, is a fascinating detailed recounting of Sinatra’s recording history, showing how he developed his mastery of song and the studio; rather than an academic analysis of pop culture, this is music history at its most sophisticated and, unlike most of the other contributions here, genuinely illuminates the art on which Sinatra’s reputation is based. By comparison, everything else in the book pales, but there are some notable offerings. Perhaps the most convincing and offbeat is Roger Gilbert’s essay placing Sinatra in the context of other —50s icons of troubled masculinity, Marlon Brando, Jackson Pollack, Robert Lowell, and Miles Davis. Although he has too little space here to completely develop the notion, Gilbert makes an interesting case for Sinatra as “the classic embodiment of fifties culture [who] fully articulated [the] contradictions, anxieties and ambivalences” of maleness in that decade. Those contributors who focus directly on the music—Will Friedwald and Richard Iaconelli among them—have the most to offer. Other essays border on the embarrassing; the worst is a stunning piece of self-aggrandizement by psychiatrist Lloyd L. Spencer. The Granata essay is almost worth the price of this volume. If he ever writes a Sinatra book, it will be one to look for.
Levy shifts the focus from one of show business’s great egotists, Jerry Lewis (King of Comedy, 1996), to entertainment’s most hedonistic gathering of narcissists, the Rat Pack. Most of its members were larger than life—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford. Joey Bishop wasn’t, of course, but that was his charm. They gathered in Las Vegas in 1960 for the shooting of the less-than-immortal film Ocean’s Eleven, an event that turned into one huge party, a lengthy day-and-night celebration of booze, broads, and bucks. With this lunatic extravaganza as its pivot point, the book traces the rise and fall of this quintet of famous men, trying somewhat vainly to explain their hipper-than-thou attitudes as some part of the Zeitgeist that produced the wretched excesses of the Kennedy White House. As Levy himself notes in the acknowledgments to the book, the lives and peccadilloes of these men are amply documented in dozens of books. We are treated to a snappily written retelling of Sinatra’s rise from working-class Hoboken, NJ, fueled by his mother’s high-octane shoving, to his success as teen idol and band singer, his catastrophic fall from grace in the early ’50s and no less meteoric return with the film From Here to Eternity and a series of classic recordings for Capitol Records. Levy embroiders on the story of Martin’s even more improbable success, which he touched on in the Lewis bio. Indeed, except for the material on Joey Bishop, which is (surprisingly enough) downright delightful, there isn’t much that is unfamiliar—the Rat Pack’s dalliances with the Kennedys, ties to the Mob, decline and fall. And although Levy’s take on all this is suitably critical, there is something creepily voyeuristic about the relish with which he peddles these tales. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)
Publishers Weekly review editor Rotella (Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria, 2003) presents an affectionate survey of the Italian songs and singers that have distinguished American popular music, with a particular focus on the period bracketed by World War II and the rock ’n’ roll revolution.
Frank Sinatra looms large in the narrative, along with contemporaries such as Dean Martin and Vic Damone, but the author devotes equal attention to largely forgotten stars, including Russ Columbo, a heartthrob to rival the great Sinatra; Nick Lucas, the first populizer of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”; and Julius La Rosa, who was infamously fired, on the air, from patron Arthur Godfrey’s program. Rotella offers a brief biographical sketch of each performer, along with insightful analyses of their varying styles, descriptions of their biggest hits and breakdowns of their particular constituencies. Along the way, he reminisces about his own experiences as the son of Italian immigrants and discourses on the traditional Italian values that informed the singers’ heady combination of macho swagger and gooey romanticism. Contemporary music fans may have trouble engaging with many of the Italian songs as described here, however, as the relentless lyrical focus on moon/spoon/June infatuation and heartbreak tends to blur the individual compositions into an undifferentiated mush. Chapters on such easy-listening stalwarts as the terminally laid-back Perry Como and vanilla crooner Jerry Vale are as bland as their subjects, and the reader longs for more material on the wild antics of Louis Prima, or fabled bad boys like Sinatra, Martin and Dion DiMucci. These cavils aside, Amore is a breezy, useful reference for those interested in exploring the subject. Rotella conducted interviews with many of the surviving subjects of the book, and his encounters with the likes of falsetto-wielding Lou Christie and doo-wop titan Johnny Maestro are full of charming anecdotes and period flavor.
A fine general overview of one of the richest veins in American popular music.
A debut novel by critic and showbiz historian Kashner (Hollywood Kryptonite, 1996) that portrays the inner life of a demented Frank Sinatra fan. Everyone knows that the really big stars never read their own fan mail, but that hasn—t stopped a soul from writing. Certainly it hasn—t stopped “Finkie” Finklestein, a New Jersey sales rep for Weiss & Rifkind window shades, from keeping up a regular—if entirely one-sided—correspondence with Sinatra for more than 20 years. Not content simply to flatter his idol (—Believe you me, Frank, Marriage on the Rocks has a lot going for it—), Finkie keeps him posted on how business is these days (—Levelor Blinds . . . is a tide that rises all Finklestein boats—), and what’s up on the home front in Fort Lee. A husband and father—who names his daughter Nancy Ava—Finkie’s not quite a skirt-chaser on the level with Old Blue Eyes himself, but he’s had his share of trouble, including a nasty divorce and a second marriage that ends in utter disaster. Frank is the still point of his turning world. So, naturally, when Finkie hears that Sinatra is going to retire, he makes it down to the Music Center for the farewell concert and tries to pay his respects in person by making a trip backstage after the performance. That’s when the miracle strikes: Sinatra’s bodyguards catch Finkie in the wings and beat him to a bloody pulp: “Before the night of June 14, 1971, I had spent over twenty years trying to come up with ways to meet you by accident,” he says. Sinatra, shaken by the potential bad publicity, pursues Finkie—and offers him a job on his entourage to keep him from pressing charges. Will Finkie ever wise up? O ye of little faith! He couldn—t have written a happier ending himself. A weirdly affecting portrait of innocence verging on monomania.