Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: Frank - The Voice, By James Kaplan

Reading any biography of Frank Sinatra is dicey. When you love Mr. S as much as I do, a real biography that explores both his genius and his demons can be disconcerting. The genius is so undeniable - and, now that Sinatra has been dead nearly 20 years, it only grows larger - that thoughts about his darker side are much easier to avoid if not forget completely.

To his credit, James Kaplan covers both the genius and the darkness in his two-part biography.  Today's review is part one of that biography, from 2010, Frank Sinatra: The Voice. My main complaint about Kaplan is that his writing is sometimes crude - perhaps intentionally so, to reflect the rough and tumble vernacular of the subject. But snippets like, "Dolly [Sinatra] was holding the Sinatras' fortunes together. Imagine her delight at having to take in a slow-witted cripple" are both unnecessary and insensitive - even back in 2010.

For Frank Sinatra, Kaplan argues that the trauma of his birth - the bloody story is chillingly recalled in the text - forever shaped Sinatra's view of the world.  After Sinatra was violently removed from his mother, Dolly, he was laid - bleeding severely from the ear - by the kitchen sink [he was born at home] while doctors worked to save Dolly's life.  Sinatra was left, "feeling like they didn't care about him and were only interested in saving the life of his mother."

On the subject of his mother, Sinatra was terrified of her. She once pushed him down a flight of stairs, knocking him unconscious. As Kaplan notes,  "Sinatra would feel ambivalent about women until the end of his days. He would show every lover something of what Dolly had shown him. Sinatra was scared of his mother until the day she died."

In addition to Dolly, Kaplan points to Bing Crosby as another great influence on Sinatra. He took to dressing like Bing, singing like Bing [eventually, of course, developing his own sound], smoking a pipe like Bing, and Kaplan concludes, "Crosby's influence on Sinatra cannot be overstated."

Kaplan argues that Sinatra's New York accent and turns of phrase were almost as important to his early success as the beautiful sound he created with his voice. In 1940, Kaplan writes, "when Americans heard their president speak on the radio in godlike aristocratic tones, when they heard American movie actors declaiming in indeterminate English-y accents - here was something utterly new: a warm Italian boy. A boy with a superb voice that was also a potent means of communicating all kinds of things that white popular singers had never come close to: call it romantic yearning with hints of lust behind it, or call it arrogance with the quaver of vulnerability. In any case, it was a formula absolutely irresistible to blindsided females - not to mention to impressed males, who very quickly began using Sinatra as background to their wooing."

Sinatra's success with Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra is well documented by Kaplan.  Indeed, if Dolly and Bing were major influences in his early life, it was Tommy Dorsey who soon became Sinatra's idol and ideal. Kaplan writes, "It's not enough to say that from the moment Sinatra joined the Dorsey organization he deliberately set out remaking himself in the bandleader's image: the process was both conscious and unconscious. Tommy Dorsey was the most powerful male figure Sinatra had ever encountered - everything the younger man wanted to be, the strong father he never had."

Yet if Dorsey was a mentor, Sinatra soon was champing at the bit to record on his own. His leaving the Dorsey organization mirrored, Kaplan writes, a common theme in Sinatra's life: "The story of Frank Sinatra's life is one of continual shedding, both of artistic identities and of associates and intimates who had outlived their usefulness."

Whenever discussing Sinatra and Dorsey, the Mario Puzo The Godfather angle must be covered [and revisited ten years later with From Here to Eternity].  Kaplan sides with those who argue that the truth of the Sinatra-Dorsey breakup is probably not as exciting as the fiction. What is known is that Sinatra gave Dorsey notice in February 1942 that he was leaving the band.  At that point, there were still ten months left to run on Sinatra's three-year contract. According to Kaplan, Dorsey felt betrayed by Sinatra. "This was a wound that would stay with [Dorsey] till the end of his days."

Where it gets cloudy is in what transpired next: According to Kaplan, there was "a sit-down between [Sinatra], Dorsey, and Dorsey's agent Leonard Vannerson, a meeting in which each side felt, not quite accurately, that it was holding a hand full of aces. In exchange for Sinatra's release, plus an advance of $17,000  (at least $225,000 in 2010 dollars) to start his solo career. Dorsey and Vannerson had Frank sign a piece of paper - one can almost smell the sulfurous fumes rising from it - that made Dorsey his manager, and guaranteed not just a 10% agency fee to Vannerson but also 33.3% of Sinatra's gross earnings to Tommy, either (by some accounts) in perpetuity or for the next 10 years."

Although Sinatra signed the document, obviously the terms were outrageous. Sinatra himself had no intention of fulfilling the contract's obligations - so why he signed it at all is not clear. In the end, Kaplan believes the contract situation was resolved peacefully. That being said, though, he concedes, "Whether other, darker forces were brought to bear - and if they were, whether Sinatra knew anything about it - are questions that will forever remain unresolved."

When discussing the 1940s and Sinatra, World War II is another topic that must be addressed.  Sinatra registered for the draft in December 1940, but - as a new father -  he received an exemption from service. By fall 1943, however, such deferments were abolished.  In October 1943, Sinatra reported to the local board examining physician in Jersey City and was declared fit for service. In early December 1943, however, Sinatra was inexplicably reexamined by another army doctor and this time was declared 4-F.

Soon thereafter, the FBI investigated a rumor that Sinatra paid $40,000 for the 4-F classification. Very quickly, however, they closed the case, finding no basis for the rumor.  The press, however, did not close the case.  Sinatra was soon being labeled a "draft dodger" and was subjected to a great deal of harassment, particularly from males in the armed forces. Indeed William Manchester in The Glory and the Dream wrote, "It is not too much to say that by the end of the war Sinatra had become the most hated man [among those] in the armed services." Kaplan also pointed to the ethnicity factor: "None of America's editorial writers were getting on John Wayne's case for not enlisting. But then Wayne wasn't Italian or liberal." Kaplan also argues that the reason for Sinatra's 4-F - the perforated eardrum suffered during his violent birth - was a valid reason for receiving a 4-F classification in 1943.

By 1944 Sinatra was reading quite a bit and had become interested in a number of liberal causes.  He was particularly intrigued - and angered - by the issue of bigotry against minorities.  While the issue was sincere to Sinatra, his management looked at fighting for tolerance as a way for Sinatra to make people forget that he had been an 'draft dodger'.  The result was a short-film and song in 1945 entitled The House I Live In. Sinatra would receive an Oscar for the scene in the short-film where he explains to a group of kids why it is important to respect differences and appreciate that our varied backgrounds accounts for the success of the United States. Kaplan says that, "The man in The House I Live In is Sinatra's best self, twenty-nine years old and beautiful and solid and thoughtful. This self existed, not just on celluloid."

But, with Sinatra, periods of light were often followed by a dark episode. His infamous four-day trip to Cuba in February 1947, where he was in the company of Mafiosi is a perfect example.  He was photographed on the tarmac of the airplane after it landed carrying a bag that looked a lot like a sack of cash [although Sinatra would always deny it].  There were many theories as to why Sinatra would be carrying cash [rumored to be in excess of $100,000] for the Mafia, but nothing was ever proved.  As for the trip to Cuba, Kaplan writes, "Even giving Frank the benefit of the maximum benefit of the doubt, it would seem that he made some very bad decisions at a very sensitive time in his personal life and his career. This was his walk on the wild side with the Mob, with the men he had come to admire for all kinds of reasons, both inexcusable and understandable."

By mid-1947, Sinatra's career was in trouble. Americans' musical tastes had changed with the end of the war.  The ballads that were a Sinatra staple and been replaced with novelty songs; sadness and longing replaced by gaiety and a desire to "forget the war". As such, crowds started dwindling at his performances. Writing of one poor turnout for his show at the Capitol Theater in New York, Kaplan writes, "It was no fluke: the wheel really had turned. The relentless bad publicity couldn't have helped; still, the cold fact was that Frank's core audience, those nasty little chits, that sexually excited jailbait, were growing up and moving on. Throughout the year, despite Sinatra's unprecedented number of studio sessions, his record sales had slipped badly; his discs spent just twenty-six weeks on the Billboard charts in 1947, as compared with ninety-seven the year before."

By the end of 1948, if it seemed Sinatra's life had become unmoored [his recording career and live performances were almost nonexistent] it would soon take a further jolt, one that nearly led him eventually to suicide yet would eventually allow him to tap into a reservoir of sadness and longing that would fuel perhaps the great career turnaround in history. Not to mention produce some of the most beautiful music in history.

Ava Gardner.  Those two words alone sum up the new turmoil in Sinatra's life.  Of Gardner, Kaplan writes, "Frank found a true partner in the opera that was his life. All his other women had been supporting players; Ava was a diva. Like Frank, she was infinitely restless and easily bored." Kaplan also argues - in a classic Freudian analysis - that the similarities between Ava and Dolly were strong. "Frank must have found the similarity to the first woman in his life [Dolly] unspeakably exciting. Some part of him was still that little boy, not knowing if he'd get a hug or a rap with the nightstick."

Sinatra's reading by the early 1950s included From Here to Eternity and he became enamored of the character of Maggio. When it was announced that the book would be made into a movie, Sinatra knew that he was Maggio and began a full-court press with the movie's producer - Harry Cohn - to get the role. Here The Godfather reenters the picture [pardon the pun].  The story was that Cohn refused to even consider Sinatra until someone made him "an offer he couldn't refuse". Kaplan argues this is horseshit [as opposed to a horse's head, which -in The Godfather movie - is what the fictional producer Jack Woltz gets in his bed].  For one thing, Kaplan argues, unlike the Woltz character, Cohn himself actually liked Sinatra a great deal.  He simply thought Eli Wallach would be better for the role.  Wallach's agents, however, were demanding more money than Cohn was willing to pay. Sinatra offered to work for scale. The decision was made to give Frank a screen test.  He did fabulous and - after checking one more time with Wallach's agents to see if they would come down in price [they wouldn't] - the part was given to Sinatra.  End of story.

The success of the movie From Here to Eternity is joined with Sinatra's signing with Capitol records on March 13, 1953 as the two cornerstones of his rising from the dead. Paired with Nelson Riddle, the music Sinatra would make for Capitol would be among the greatest in the world.

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