Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: Sinatra - The Chairman, By James Kaplan

The final installment in James Kaplan's two-part biography of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: The Chairman, weighs in at 883-pages. Volume I, Frank: The Voice [2010] was a not-too-shabby 800-pages. Yet, of 1,683-pages, a mere 35-pages cover the years 1973-1998. While I'm not advocating that Kaplan should have done a three-part tome, perhaps a little less Mafia, fewer whores, and a few less Sinatra temper-tantrums might have allowed him to devote say, 100-pages to the last 25 years of Sinatra's incredible life. 

Clearly, by 1973, Sinatra was firmly established as a legend and - had he died that year - would have still gone down as one-of-if-not-the-greatest of all time.  Still, there is much, much more to mine out of Sinatra's last quarter-century than 35-pages. While Kaplan touches on some of those moments [the great comeback from 'retirement' in 1973; hitting the pop charts at age-64 with "Theme from New York, New York"; his marriage to Barbara Marx; and his declining health], there's more depth available there.  For one thing, the relationship between Frank and Barbara could be a volume in and of itself. The man who had been 'The Chairman' was - during much of his marriage to Barbara Blakely Marx - simply second-in-command.  By the end, he was her prisoner [if you believe Tina Sinatra's memoirs].

Still, having lodged that lengthy complaint, let me say that Sinatra: The Chairman is still every bit as valuable to Sinatriography as Kaplan's Frank: The Voice.  The second volume opens in the spring of 1954. By this time, Kaplan argues, Sinatra had grown up, "[in] his own particular way. His oaken baritone on the Capitol recordings, rich with sad knowledge - or, on up-tempo numbers, with swaggering authority - was a sea change from the tender Voice that had soothed America through the war." And Ava Gardner, "would be his muse for years after they broke up - specifically and crucially, the great Capitol years. 'Ava taught him to sing a torch song,' Nelson Riddle famously said. 'She taught him the hard way.'"

Among many troubling accounts in the book are the rumors of Sinatra's relationships with underage women. The first was in 1954 with the not-yet-16-year-old Natalie Wood. On this one, Kaplan isn't so sure. "God only knows what went on..." between them, he writes. "Wood appears to have been something more than a conquest where Frank was concerned.  He was a man on the cusp of middle age, almost certainly nostalgic for the days when he had made all those bobby-soxers swoon. Surely on some level, Natalie Wood reminded him of those girls and their idolatry."  Kaplan concludes, "A complex emotional bond formed between them, one that would continue as Frank and Natalie stayed friends, and now and then lovers, until she died at age forty-three in 1981. The second instance of such sordid activity occurred in 1968, when Sinatra dated a 15-year old stripper named Diane McCue. This one, Kaplan says, has multiple confirmations.

Not to suggest that Kaplan lingers just in the tawdry. Indeed, Kaplan carefully delves into the good and bad.  Kaplan writes, "With Frank Sinatra, the sublime and the ridiculous, the exquisite and the coarse, alternated so quickly and frequently that it's useless to try to reconcile them. He wasn't one thing or the other; he was both, and then a moment later he was something else again. The man who went to significant expense and effort to send a Sicilian-style message in granite to Dorothy Kilgallen [Sinatra sent her a real tombstone with her name on it after she wrote a negative column], the man who, when human relations called, periodically had his valet dial him up some professional company, was the same man who envisioned a new album that would combine Nelson Riddle's unparalleled arranging gifts and the rich and delicate sound of the classical string quartet [the Hollywood String Quartet] Frank had come to revere [resulting in the album Close to You]."

Perhaps the greatest gift of the two volumes - this second one in particular - is Kaplan's meticulous detail of all of Sinatra's recording sessions and the singles and albums that resulted, up to his 1971 'retirement'. A sampling: "No Sinatra album [before In The Wee Small Hours] had set an emotional ambience so strongly as this one would. The first two albums of his Capitol period, Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy! had each sustained a mood, but more simplistically: you could call them concept albums, if you wanted to cite concepts like 'romantic' or 'upbeat'. In the Wee Small Hours was a far more complex piece of work." Frank would later call it his "Ava [Gardner] album".

'The Rat Pack' was actually not originally the grouping we now think of [Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop].  The first Rat Pack was born in the mid-1950s, and began in the living room of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Sinatra idolized Bogart. When Sinatra had been down on his luck, Bogie and Bacall took him in and made him a part of their circle. One night, with a group that included Bogart, Sinatra, Judy Garland, David Niven, Spencer Tracy and others, Bacall famously said, "I see the rat pack is all here." Bogart loved it and proposed they form a club, the Rat Pack. Bacall, in her memoir, recalled, "In order to qualify [for membership], one had to be addicted to nonconformity, staying up late, drinking, laughing, and not caring what anyone thought or said about us." On December 15, 1955, the New York Herald Tribune reported on the formation of the Holmby Hills [the Bogarts' neighborhood] Rat Pack, and that officers had been elected: Frank was Pack Master; Garland first vice-president; Bacall was Den Mother; and Bogart Rat-in-Charge of Public Relations, etc.

Shortly thereafter, Sinatra began a habit that he'd repeat over the next decade-and-a-half: bedding the widows of his friends. In perhaps the most famous case, Sinatra began a relationship with Bacall shortly after Humphrey Bogart died in 1957. He would do similar 'duty' with the widows of dead friends more than a few times over the next 15 or so years. The relationship with Bacall was serious enough that - after his divorce from Ava Gardner became official in mid-1957 - Sinatra and Bacall were engaged. He wanted to keep it secret, however; when she confirmed it to a reporter, he broke off the engagement and didn't speak to her again for years.

No Sinatra book would be complete without an analysis of his relationship with the Mafia [addressed in Volume I as well].  But, Kaplan cautions, "The myth has arisen that Frank Sinatra's unfortunate reverence for the Mafia...meant that he was all but a made man. In fact, while his mother's North Jersey connections had helped get him a couple of singing jobs early in his career, and a few of his wiseguy friends steered some work his way during his down period [but only some; not enough to turn his fortunes around],  Sinatra's Mob associations had far more to do with mutual admiration than affiliation. The gangsters liked his singing, his flash, and [at times] his unrepentant unruliness; he liked their power, their toughness, their swaggering style.  Growing up in an era when power was largely in the hands of white Protestant men, a time when Italian-Americans were just a half-step up the social ladder from African-Americans - and, like black people, were seen as simple, happy, and musical - Frank viewed the Mafia as a kind of unelected elect, an alternate aristocracy. He idolized them all his life, much as a small boy might idolize cowboys or soldiers."

The second Rat Pack - the one we know- actually preferred to be called The Clan [despite the racist proximity to 'The Klan'].  The first Clan was Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine from the set of their movie, Some Came Running [the first of nine Sinatra/Martin movies] in summer/fall 1958. Then, in October 1958, Dean and Frank spontaneously walked from the audience up to join Judy Garland on-stage in an unrehearsed act during her performance at The Sands. Kaplan writes, "The evening had all the hallmarks of the Rat Pack era to come: genial sadism and coerciveness, combined with boozily uncertain entertainment value that shimmered away the morning after, leaving only the dull ache of a you-had-to-be-there hangover. And Sinatra was always in charge." Indeed, Kaplan, writes, "this second Rat Pack was a cult that grew around a man [Sinatra] who welcomed worship and demanded fealty."

According to Kaplan, the idea of the Rat Pack, "was born at a hinge of time in the American consciousness, a moment between the conformism of the 1950s and the chaos of the 1960s, an eye blink when the horrors and heroism of World War II were still in recent memory (and nuclear fear underlay every diversion), when compensatory excess, in the form of sex, alcohol, and cigarettes, was winked at and 20th century ideals of manhood had not yet been subverted by the androgynous aesthetic of rock 'n' roll."

Yet it was an act. Sinatra and Martin were not a team off-stage. Kaplan writes that, while there was mutual affection, "Sinatra and Martin...weren't teaming up on the golf course or in after-hours hijinks - but the act took an instant and powerful hold on America, or at least that part of America that paid attention to star behavior, which was much of America." The relationship between Sinatra and Sammy Davis was more intricate. Frank loved Sammy and vice-versa, but Kaplan points out that there was a clear pecking order - "Frank was the sun and Sammy the moon. Frank was the leader, Sammy the acolyte. This had partly to do with Frank's age and unexampled status in show business and partly to do with his domineering personality, but it was a function of Davis's personality as well."

So, Kaplan concludes, "The Rat Pack was an idea, even more than it was a reality. And though Frank, Dean, and Sammy were three real men, their respective myths tend, to this day, to jostle reality aside. Throw in Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford as window dressing, or ballast, and you've got a sharkskin-suited, skinny-tied, chain-smoking, chain-drinking, Dionysian parade float."

The unbelievable chapters detailing the John Kennedy-Sam Giancana-Judith Campbell Exner-Bobby Kennedy-Marilyn Monroe saga are extremely troubling. They could also fill up a week's worth of blog entries.  In a nutshell: Joseph Kennedy asked Sinatra to have Giancana pour enough money into the JFK campaign to secure the election for him; Sinatra complied and Giancana and his organization came through; Joe Kennedy's stroke in late-1961, however, put Bobby Kennedy in a powerful position within the Kennedy, family and Bobby hated Frank Sinatra; Sinatra eventually fell out of favor with both the Kennedys and Giancana - the latter very nearly contemplated taking out a contract on Sinatra's life. But Sinatra's voice saved his life, Kaplan writes, "And Frank knew it. And so he could continue to rub shoulders with Giancana and other hoodlums, doing small favors for them when it was convenient and doing nothing for them if he preferred. Sinatra's relationship with the Mob was a transaction, conducted in the counterfeit currency of the underworld: the gangsters got to bask in his aura, and he in theirs; each side pretended to do things for the other, and neither did much." As for the rest of the tale, well, a lot of people had sex - and I haven't even touched Marilyn Monroe [which might make me the only one who didn't].  Camelot indeed.

Perhaps the most disturbing story in either volume comes from a tale in mid-summer 1962. It involved a cocktail waitress at Cal-Neva that Sinatra used to date, Toni. She had gone on to marry a deputy sheriff, Richard Anderson, after her relationship with Sinatra ended. Even though she was now married, Sinatra still would make moves on her. Anderson finally told Sinatra to stay away from his wife. One night shortly thereafter, Anderson was waiting to pick up his wife and was standing in the kitchen when Sinatra came in, leading to a fight where Anderson hit Sinatra so hard that the performer could not go on for the next couple of days. Kaplan writes, "In retaliation, Sinatra had Anderson suspended from the police force. Two weeks later, the deputy sheriff and his wife were driving to dinner when a car moving at a high speed in the oncoming lane forced them off the road. The Anderson's car smashed into a tree, and Richard Anderson was killed instantly. His wife, thrown from the car, suffered multiple fractures. The other car - a maroon convertible with California plates, according to an eyewitness - never stopped, and the driver couldn't be traced." Sinatra was never officially implicated in the accident.

Kaplan does a fabulous job in analyzing Sinatra's relationships with many of his arrangers - Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, etc.  But Kaplan argues that Sinatra was tighter with Quincy Jones than with any of the others. "Tightness with Sinatra almost invariably came about at his initiative, on his terms, and as a result of his needs. In this case, the intimacy indisputably had to do not on only with Jones' formidable skills and genuine personality but with the color of his skin. Ever since Sinatra was an unknown singer prowling the jazz clubs of 52nd Street, he had been crazy about the style and the genius of the great black musicians he'd seen and heard there....Now he [Sinatra] was in the same league as his [black] idols, but some part of Sinatra would always remain both an aspirant to blackness and an outsider.....Because of Sinatra's fascination with black culture and jazz, and because of Quincy Jones' gift for agreeableness without sycophancy, the arranger was able to work with Frank on a nearly even footing and to be a friend as well: an unprecedented situation, and one never to be duplicated."

Kaplan argues that Sinatra saw the rise of rock-and-roll with hatred and disgust: first because it effected his album sales and then because it effected his ability to relate to a larger and larger segment of the public, record-buying or otherwise. It explains, Kaplan argues, his relationship and marriage to Mia Farrow, as well as a change in his wardrobe from tuxedoes with monogramed cuff links to Nehru suits with beads, among other accommodations to the changing times.

The desire to once again reach the top of the charts led to one of Sinatra's most famous songs, "Strangers in Night" - a tune he absolutely hated but recognized immediately as a potential number-one hit. And Sinatra hadn't been to those heights on the charts in 20 years [with "Five Minutes More"] when he cut "Strangers" in 1966. Sinatra had always been someone who was more successful with albums rather than singles. But he hadn't even had a top-10 single since 1956 [with "Hey Jealous Lover!; another song he hated]. Yes, in 1966, Sinatra wanted a hit single. And "Strangers" did it. In July 1966, it overthrew The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" and Frank had his number one single.

But another problem with rock-and-roll for Sinatra was that the songwriters he had come to rely on were no longer producing as they once had. This led to Sinatra [and others in his genre] turning to popular music for tunes to record.  In some cases, the results were wonderful because it was Sinatra.  But, in others, not even a Sinatra or an Ella could save the end result.

One example of greatness, though, was Paul Anka's "My Way", written specifically by the songwriter for Sinatra.  Yet, for all the success Frank enjoyed with it, Sinatra was always ambivalent about the song,  Sinatra once said, "really ["My Way"] had nothing to do with my life whatsoever, I know it's a very big hit - and I love having big hits - but every time I get up to sing that song I grit my teeth; because no matter what the image may seem to be, I hate boastfulness in others. I hate immodesty, and that's how I feel every time I sing that song."  Even so, amazingly, Sinatra recorded it in just one take.

By early 1971, Frank was tired. And in pain; his right hand was the subject of numerous surgeries to try to correct a condition that made it very difficult to grasp a microphone.  So, on March 23, 1971, Frank Sinatra announced his retirement. It did not last. Two years later Frank announced he was coming back.  This led to one of the great examples of Frank's ability to make [or remake] his image. The title of his comeback album in 1973 was Ol' Blue Eyes is Back. Yet, Kaplan writes, nowhere in the mounds of his research of newspapers before 1973 can he find Frank Sinatra ever referred to as "ol' blue eyes." It didn't matter - overnight Frank Sinatra was ol' blue eyes, because he said he was. 

Sinatra's marriage to Barbara Marx on July 11, 1976, is clear demarcation in Sinatra's life. His daughter Tina - and, to some extent his daughter Nancy and son Frank Jr. agree - argues that it was Barbara Sinatra that had her husband performing concerts around the world long past the time he should have been in order to generate money to keep her in the style to which she'd become accustomed. As such, Sinatra did more than 1,000 concerts between 1976 and 1990. Even then, though, he was not done. He did 65 concerts in 1990; 73 in 1991; 84 in 1992, and 48 in 1994.  His last concert was February 25, 1995.

As to the quality of Sinatra's work over those final two decades, Kaplan writes, " the early 1980s the great voice began to alter and deteriorate. The cave-of-winds depths were still there, but the phenomenal breath control, the nearly freakish ability to sustain long notes, was not. The intonation, so glorious for so much of his career, now wavered. What he retained, what would stay with him almost until the very end, was his unparalleled feeling for lyrics, his way around a song's story...his sense of a song's essence was absolute."

In conclusion, the two-volume biography is very good, but not always pleasant reading. By page 1,683, however, you'll have a great appreciation for the life of Francis Albert Sinatra, whether you call him The Voice, The Chairman, or Ol' Blue Eyes.

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