Book Review

SinatraBookSINATRA: THE CHAIRMAN

By James Kaplan. Hardcover. Doubleday. 992 pages.

Review by Francis DiMenno.

For the first time in over a year I have foregone sleep to finish reading a book – namely, Kaplan’s brand new three-pound Sinatra biography, spanning the years 1954 to 1998. (The compelling first half, covering the years up to 1954, is called Frank: The Voice, and came out in 2010.)

Here is where most amateur reviewers might insert some anecdote of how deeply touched they were by the Old Man’s songs. About the first song of His they ever heard, maybe, and how old they were. They might even gush over the fact that the man was known as “The Entertainer of the Century,” and blather on about what a towering figure he was, and how meaningful and important his career was.

Here’s a secret. I don’t admire the man’s music. I never did. It has always mostly left me cold. Maybe it’s a generational thing; maybe not. Anyway, I am not hypnotized by, nor do I have any sentimental attachment to “The Voice.” I do not revere “The Chairman,” whose career trajectory has always struck me as a story of ruthless ambition yoked to thuggish behavior. So why did I bother to read both the first, and this, the second half of his biography?

I read it voraciously, and with great enjoyment, because in the center of it all is a fascinating exploration of the territory comprising the crossroads of the mob, American politics, and popular entertainment; particularly in the Kennedy portions of the book. Kaplan doesn’t shy away from the worst of it – he mentions, albeit in passing, an incident at the Cal-Neva lodge which occurred about a week before Marilyn Monroe’s death, in which a drugged-up Marilyn was being ridden like a horse by Sam Giancana –while Frankie snapped photos. The author even has the balls to twit acclaimed Johnson biographer Robert Caro for never once mentioning an allegedly crucial fact – or conjecture – regarding Johnson and Kennedy – namely, that Kennedy picked Johnson for VP because LBJ and Hoover were extorting him via potential scandals such as “womanizing,” etc. Of course, Caro is a serious and high-minded historian respected by academics; Kaplan is more along the lines of a smart and super-competent journalist who has seen and assessed every Sinatra motion picture, as well as having heard and ranked every Sinatra album virtually song by song (though I don’t know how he could have left out Sarah Vowell’s prescient and hilarious condemnation of “My Way”: “[It] pretends to speak up for self-possession and personal vision when, at base, it only calls forth the temper tantrums of 2-year-olds or perhaps the last words spoken to Eva Braun.”)

On top of all that, Kaplan has read just about everybody else who has ever written about Sinatra: From supportive gossip columnist’s Earl Wilson’s early (1976) biography to Gay Talese’s snarky but risible April 1966 Esquire essay Frank Sinatra Has a Cold; from Kitty Kelley’s scandalous and scandal-filled 1983 hatchet job His Way, to Anthony Summers’ conspiracy-minded Sinatra: The Life (2005); from Randy Taraborrelli’s gossipy Sinatra: Behind the Legend (1997) to Tom Santopietrio’s entertaining Sinatra in Hollywood (2009). Kaplan, in fact, is such a Sinatra expert and close reader of all things Sinatra that he can almost seamlessly balance certain aspects of the Sinatra legend (his world-spanning charitable work; his generous moral and financial support of individuals) with certain less-savory aspects of the man’s behavior (his hatred of critical journalists; his well-known inclination to nurse lifelong vendettas; his mobbed-up associates; his famously volatile temper).

It’s a thinking man’s biography; but it essentially gives short shrift to Sinatra’s career in the 1970s and practically ends with 1981, and the release of his final album for Reprise, She Shot Me Down. Perhaps Kaplan is sentimental and prefers not to focus too closely on the decline of Sinatra’s talent in his sunset years; more likely, it was a mercenary editorial decision which was taken to edit the book to a manageable length. To be sure, angling for a Part Three – arguably a necessary component – would have been pushing it. Not a commercially viable decision.

Then again, in other places the book might have profitably been shortened, particularly in Kaplan’s account of the years 1954-1965, by omitting the seemingly interminable lists of Sinatra concert attendees, Sinatra party attendees, and Sinatra girlfriends, who notably included Gloria Vanderbilt, Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak, Anita Ekberg, Juliet Prowse, and Judy Garland. And Judith Campbell, whom he shared with mobster Sam “Momo” Giancana and pimped out to none other than the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. (Small wonder Jackie Kennedy regarded Sinatra as, at best, a boorish nuisance and, at worst, a certified menace.) But such lists, I suppose, were a part of Kaplan’s always painstaking research, and perhaps he was loath to jettison them. Besides, Sinatra, who famously hated to be alone, was very much a social animal, and such accounts of his pals and gals help to define him as a social creature.

Kaplan, in addition to quoting every Sinatra authority out there, also seems very much inclined to rely extensively on accounts by people who are Willing to Talk; most notably, Sammy Davis Jr.; estranged Sinatra valet George Jacobs (whom Sinatra charmingly called “Spook”): and legendary comedian Shecky Green, source of the famous Sinatra-related quip (cited in print by Wilson): “Sinatra saved my life in 1967. Five guys were beating me up, and I heard Frank say, ‘That’s enough.’ ”

What ultimately emerges from this biography is a picture of a complex, contradictory man, which Kaplan shows us examples of time and time again, so that even the most unrepentant Sinatra-hater (or idolater) must surely get the picture: That there is far more to Sinatra than meets the eye. The man was both admirable and contemptible. Many people don’t even know themselves; how can they presume to know what truly rests in the heart of another? Kaplan tries, and, to his lasting credit, he comes about as close to unraveling the history and mystique of Sinatra as anybody I’ve read.

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