book review: Frank
by james kaplan
home
portrait of Deuel
the boss, his wife and julie
the receptionist
Columbia West College

The Sinatra books keep coming—the
good, the bad, the more than bad.  The
latest is
Frank by James Kaplan, who
has written a bio of Martin and Lewis,
so this signals a return to familiar
turf—the era of the forties and early
fifties, before TV and Rock and Roll
when the drug of choice was the
martini and you tended to leave the
house at night not looking like a slob.

This is a big book—652 pages,
massively researched and a pleasant
surprise for someone like myself who
thought I knew all the Sinatra stories
but now it turns out I was wrong. Ill
get to that.

The book divides into 3 parts—the
formative years, breaking in as a
singer in New Jersey and then catching
on with the Harry James band.  Part 2
describes the rise to fame, the early
forties when he became  The Voice—the
teenage throb, pulling down $20,000 a
week (in 40’s dollars)--and also,
coincident with the war, viewed with
phenomenal hatred by the military
because he managed to slip the draft
and concentrate instead on the banging
of starlets over at MGM.

There is a  photo, taken during  an
engagement at the Paramount Theatre in
New York, of sailors winging tomatoes—
or maybe rocks—at a huge billboard
cutout of Frank installed above the
marquee.

Then its on to Part 3, the period of
the slide, following the war when the
musical tastes of the country began a
shift, as they tend to do, away from
one particular style and over to some
other, in this case something known as
the “novelty” tune that achieved its
highest expression with an immortal
ditty called
How Much Is That Doggy In
The Window
, sung by Patti Page,
complete with barking.

Part 3 is also the period of Ava
Gardner and its this part of the book—
the meeting, the affair, the marriage,
the collapse of the marriage—where the
book seems to shift into a higher gear—
to get the readerly juices flowing.

Ava Gardner was the woman Sinatra left
his wife for and as his daughter Nancy
said—watching Ava emerge from a
swimming pool in a leopard bikini: “I
could understand why”

She was the sex goddess type, a type
that operates best at a distance, up
there on the screen—beyond reality,
but Ava Gardner transcended this type.
From time to time she crossed path
with writers, including Hemingway and
Robert Graves—and impressed both in a
particular way that had little to do
with sex. It was some other thing--an
energy, a spirit—an attitude. She was--
as Kaplan puts it—"a beautiful
nihilist".

Many people marry who should never
have married and specifically not to
each other and at the top of the list
is Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
Why?  Because marriage  works bests
between grownups and neither frank nor
ava qualify here.  The definition of a
child is: the inability to wait for a  
need to be satisfied—the concept of
instant gratification. The opposite is
life as an adult: delayed
gratification.

Delayed gratification had zero appeal
for Frank Sinatra. When Frank  wanted
something he wanted it now and if he
didnt get it there was hell to pay.   
He was an only child, the prince type,
the apple of Dolly Sinatras eye and
normally when you are raised in this
way the path to adulthood presents
some unwelcome surprises—even shocking.

But Frank was Frank. He was Sinatra,
the fame arrived early, an
extraordinary fame, and in this way
the princely existence continued
without missing a beat.

And Ava Gardner was the same. In her
words: “I was the baby of the family
and I am still the baby”.

So there you have it: two babies, also
celebrities of the first magnitude,
also without a faithful bone in their
body, also with furious tempers that
could ignite in the blink of an eye,
married to each other. Did I mention
they both liked to drink?  The line,
had Vegas put one out, on the survival
of the marriage, would have been 10-1.


Some stories.

Sinatra and Ava Gardner were holed up
in Palm Springs following the third or
maybe fifth time he had been kicked
out of the house. For both these two
the thing most feared was: to be
bored. So on this night the unthinkable
happens and to thwart this evil moment
they pile into the car, hammered to
the gills, and find themselves in the
town of Indio—blissfully asleep at 4
AM—and Frank retrieves his 45 and
starts popping traffic signals.

He pops two or three signals and the
cops appear on the scene and he is
collared and its off to the station
where he rings up George Evans, his
publicist, the least enviable of all
the jobs in Hollywood at this time and
says: George: we’re in trouble.

Geroge Evans say: how can I be trouble
when I have been home lying in my bed
all night?

Sinatra was down, the gigs were drying
up and he was dropped from his label--
Columbia. He did a small favor for
George Jacobs, chauffeur for Irving
Lazar—the agent, and George Jacobs
mentions this kindness of Frank and
Lazar says: of course he’s nice. Hes a
loser
. Losers have the time to be nice.

Sinatra made a movie with Shelly
winters—Meet Danny Wilson. The movie
proceeded and as it did the stars
developed a profound loathing for each
other. Sinatra was a hard case but he
had nothing on Shelly Winters. Some
day they will get around to
establishing a Hollywood Ballbusters
Hall of Fame and the first three
women to be enshrined will be Barbra
Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly
Winters.  The script called for a
scene with Shelly Winters in the
hospital and Sinatra arrives to
comfort her—a tender moment. He bends
over to whisper some sweet sentiment
into her ear but he strays from the
script to whisper instead a vicious
crack and she grabs a bedpan and
whacks him over the head.


Sinatra was under contract to MGM and
of all the miserable films to emerge
from the studio at this time
Miracle
of the Bells
(featuring Frank as a
priest) was the stinker of stinkers.
Sinatra despised the film, felt he
deserved better and was in no mood  to
go on the road--to San Francisco—to
promote the film. They put him up in a
suite at the Fairmont and again the
unthinkable happens: he is bored. He
is with the guys, Hank Sanicola and
Jimmy Van Heusen—also known as The
Varsity--and its that time of
night—3AM--and Frank calls the desk
and says: this is Frank Sinatra. Did
you know there is no piano in my room?

There is a pause and the clerk mumbles
something and now the manager is
summoned, a phone call is made, more
people are roused from their beds and  
a piano is delivered to Franks room.  

The next day he goes shopping and buys
$1200 worth of cashmere sweaters for
he and The Varsity and everything,
sweaters plus piano, goes on the
studios dime.


When Sinatra was with the Tommy Dorsey
band the drummer was Buddy Rich. Frank
had a temper but he wasnt a
psychopath.  

In the beginning the two men got along
and even roomed together because Buddy
Rich had to admit that when Sinatra
was up there on the stand something
happened that wasnt happening before.  

But two high strung prima donna types
are bound to tangle and tangle they
did, a few punches were thrown, that
failed to land, and bloodshed was
avoided—for the moment.

Some weeks later Buddy rich is leaving
rehearsal, walking to his car and two
guys appear who, in Buddys words,
“proceeded to give me an efficient,
professional beating”. This means a
beating sufficient to get the point
across without maiming you for life.  

Sinatra was behind it, as Rich well
knew and some years later queried
Frank on the incident, no hard
feelings you understand, and Sinatra
said: yes.


Some observations

He was a man who had to keep moving.
He thrived on actionand if he couldnt
get good action he would take bad
action because bad action is better
than no action at all. He was happiest
on the road—doing the act, playing
cards with the boys, ringing room
service to send up a hooker. As Kaplan
says: ”Even at home he was on the
road”.


Clothes were important. There were a
lot of rules around the Sinatra house,
all Dolly’s and at the top of the list
was: looking sharp. Of the many
thousands or  hundreds of thousands of
pictures of Frank Sinatra you will
never see an untucked shirttail or
shoes in need of a shine or a hat that
isnt perfect, perfectly worn—or the
tie perfectly tied or the cuffs on the
shirt perfectly shot. He looks at all
times ready for a fashion spread in
Esquire or Vogue for Men.

He visited Ava Gardner on location in
Africa, filming
Mogambo, and ventured
into the bush wearing loafers,
gabardine slacks, freshly pressed, and
an orange alpaca cardigan--the Sinatra
version of roughing it.


Sinatra had two obsessions: his career
and women—in thatorder. It was close
but the career always came first.
Nothing could be allowed to interfere
with that—and never did. The press was
a problem. He hated the press. But it
was a hatred that had to be sublimated
from time to time whenever the career
hit a snag and the press was required
to demonstrate a positive attitude.


The book wraps in 1953, the year
Sinatra won an acadamy award for the
role of Maggio in
From Here to
Eternity,
signaling the end of the
slide and a resurrection of the
career—a phenomenal resurrection. He
went on to a new fame, a different
fame, greater than the earlier fame
extraordinary though it was.

This is the Sinatra I remember—circa
1955--from the great recordings on
Capitol with Nelson Riddle conducting
and writing the scores.

The voice is different. Its the same
voice with that particular vibe--the
Sinatra vibe--that wraps itself around
the tone and the consummate phrasing
and a trace of the earlier sweetness
that was so appealing.

But a dimension has been added, an
emotional power, a greater depth of
feeling. Call it: another 10 years of
living.

And this is what we remember when we
remember Sinatra: not the whoring and
drinking and the abusive and bullying
behavior--the mobster wannabe--that
does him little credit. Instead we
remember the voice. He was The Voice.
When you have said that you have said
it all.