In 2010’s Frank: The Voice, James Kaplan, in rich, distinctive, compulsively readable prose, told the story of Frank Sinatra’s meteoric rise to fame, subsequent failures, and reinvention as a star of live performance and screen. The story of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” continues with Sinatra: The Chairman, picking up the day after he claimed his Academy Award in 1954 and had reestablished himself as the top recording artist. Sinatra’s life post-Oscar was astonishing in scope and achievement and, occasionally, scandal, including immortal recordings almost too numerous to count, affairs ditto, many memorable films (and more than a few stinkers), Rat Pack hijinks that mesmerized the world with their air of masculine privilege, and an intimate involvement at the intersection of politics and organized crime that continues to shock and astound with its hubris. James Kaplan has orchestrated the wildly disparate aspects of Frank Sinatra’s life and character into an American epic—a towering achievement in biography of a stature befitting its subject.
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Eleven days after winning the Oscar for From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra sat down and typed a note to a friend, clearly in response to a congratulatory letter or telegram. The note, on Paramount Pictures stationery and in Frank’s customary, too-impatient-to-press-the-shift-key style, began,
april 5, 1954
my paisan mr sinatra is still on cloud nine and the bum refuses to come down…
That bum—“mr sinatra”—was so thrilled, the note continued (still all lowercase, still in the third person), that he was “ridiculous.” And then, after a final thanks to the recipient, came the signature: “maggio.”
It’s a charming letter and a fascinating one. Throughout his life, Sinatra employed secretaries who answered his voluminous mail, often signing his name themselves. From time to time, though, when the spirit moved him, he penned or typed his own missives, and the letters are him, revealing his restless intellect, his sense of humor (always more spontaneous in personal circumstances than onstage), even a literary sensibility. And why not? As a great singer, he was a great storyteller; why should that faculty switch off when he was away from a microphone? In this note, he is writing in character, as PFC Angelo Maggio, the role that won him that Academy Award, and the voice is perfect: “the bum refuses”; “he’s so thrilled he is ridiculous.” From the moment he’d first picked up James Jones’s blockbuster novel, Sinatra had completely identified with Maggio, the feisty little private from Brooklyn who speaks in a kind of Damon Runyon–ese. He had campaigned, hard, for the movie role by barraging the filmmakers—Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn; producer Buddy Adler; director Fred Zinnemann; screenwriter Daniel Taradash—with telegrams touting his perfect suitability for the part, and he had signed every wire just as he’d signed this note: “Maggio.”
Frank Sinatra had identified so powerfully with the character not only because Angelo Maggio was a skinny, streetwise Italian-American from Brooklyn—like Sinatra’s native Hoboken, close geographically to Manhattan but oh so far away—but also because Maggio was one of the world’s downtrodden, a little man who drank to ease his sorrows and spoke truth to power with wisecracks. When Sinatra first read From Here to Eternity in late 1951, he was feeling considerably downtrodden himself. His records were no longer selling; he was having vocal and financial problems; the IRS was after him. He had become infamous, pilloried in newspapers across the United States, after leaving his wife and three children for Ava Gardner. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had recently terminated his movie contract, and he would soon also be dumped by Columbia Records, as well as by his talent agency, the Music Corporation of America.
“He’s a dead man,” the talent agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar declared in 1952. “Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town.” Maybe not, but Frank Sinatra could. Literally overnight—after the Academy Awards ceremony on March 25, 1954—Sinatra brought off the greatest comeback in show-business history. And he had done it all in Hollywood, a ruthlessly Darwinian company town that reviles losers but has the sappiest of soft spots for a happy ending. His Oscar underlined the fact that he was also a freshly viable recording artist with a new contract at Capitol Records, where he and a brilliant young arranger named Nelson Riddle had begun creating the string of groundbreaking recordings that would revolutionize popular music in the 1950s.
And quite suddenly that spring, without a shred of embarrassment about its fickleness, the entire entertainment industry began throwing itself at his feet. “The whole world is changing for Frank Sinatra,” Louella Parsons wrote in her syndicated column of April 19. “Today he has so many jobs offered him he can pick and choose.”
Parsons was talking about movies, although television, radio, and nightclubs were also calling. Among the film possibilities offered to Sinatra: a supporting part alongside the hot-as-a-pistol young Robert Mitchum in the medical melodrama Not as a Stranger; the second lead in a Warner Bros. remake of Four Daughters, the picture that had catapulted John Garfield to fame; a co-starring role alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 20th Century Fox musical Pink Tights, even though Monroe soon dropped out when she heard how much more the studio was offering Sinatra than her. And, lo and behold, MGM—where Louis B. Mayer had personally fired Sinatra in 1950 after he made an impolitic joke about Mayer’s mistress (and where Mayer himself was now history)—wanted him back, for the long-discussed St. Louis Woman, alongside Ava Gardner.
This was distinctly problematic for several reasons. For one thing, Gardner, who’d been outraged that Metro had dubbed a professional singer’s voice over hers in Show Boat, was determined never to make another musical. For another, she had come to hate Hollywood with a passion. She was living as an expatriate, cohabiting in Spain with the charismatic and brilliant bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, the darkly handsome torero whose rivalry with his brother-in-law Antonio Ordóñez would later inspire Ernest Hemingway’s long Life magazine piece The Dangerous Summer. Most important of all, however, she was about to file for divorce from Frank.
While the Hollywood of 1954 bore some similarities to today’s entertainment capital, it was altogether a sleepier, more rustic town. Not a more virtuous one by any means, but more tightly bounded. The studios still held sway; their publicity departments controlled access to stars and information about them, even when it came to police matters. There was a certain code of conduct for the press and other prying outsiders when it came to celebrities.
It is, for example, impossible to imagine any major star today living, as Sinatra did in the spring of that year, in a garden apartment, albeit such a glamorous one as Frank’s five-room bachelor pad in a redbrick complex at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Glen. A decade before, when he had first come to Hollywood, he had resided in a pink-walled stucco mansion in Toluca Lake. It was a mark of both his change of fortunes and his maturity (not to mention the change of times) that Sinatra no longer had to ward off hordes of bobby-soxers, or hordes of any kind. In the spring of 1954, he was approaching thirty-nine—lean and balding, not settled by any means (his defiant hedonism and overweening ego would guard against such a fate for a very long time), but 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.
But the secret was that he was still yearning. (He would always yearn, even after he had gained all the world had to offer.) He had spent the previous Christmas and New Year’s in Rome, where Gardner was shooting Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, desperately trying to hold on to her, even as she was edging away, already in love with the bullfighter. Ava loved Frank too—she always would—but her passion for him had ebbed, diminished in good part by his plummet from success, which had coincided with her own rise to stardom. He had drained her scant reserves of patience and sympathy. Unknown to her, just before she left for Europe the previous November, he had made a serious suicide attempt, cutting his left wrist in the New York apartment of his close friend the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen: he would have bled out had Van Heusen not returned and found him.
And Ava smelled his desperation and hated it even as she loved him. She was heedless and restless and easily bored, and she was in love with another man.
The gossip columnists (Sinatra read them as closely as any fan) cobbled up a sweet fantasy: Gardner would come to the Oscars that March—she herself was up for Best Actress, for Mogambo—and the couple would reunite. But she stayed with her lover in Spain.
If Frank himself had harbored any fantasy that his renewed fame would bring her back, he was rudely disappointed.
“One night we went to Frank’s for a dinner party,” recalled the lyricist and screenwriter Betty Comden, “and we saw that one of the rooms was filled with pictures of Ava, and around the pictures were lit candles. It was like the altar of a little church.”
Yet another night, Gardner’s biographer Lee Server writes, Swifty Lazar, who lived in the same apartment complex as Sinatra, came home late and saw that Frank’s door was open.
Wondering if there was a problem, he stuck his head through the doorway and saw Sinatra by himself, evidently very drunk, slumped in an armchair, holding a gun. Cautiously Lazar stepped inside and as he did he saw that Sinatra was aiming his gun—an air gun, it turned out to be—at three large portrait images of Ava he had propped up on the floor. The three faces of Ava were full of pellet holes where Sinatra had been shooting at them—all night long, as it appeared.
If Gardner had been Delilah to Frank’s Samson while they were together, she would be his muse for years after they broke up—specifically and crucially, the great Capitol years. “Ava taught him how to sing a torch song,” Nelson Riddle famously said. “She taught him the hard way.” On May 13, 1954, Sinatra—with Riddle conducting a twenty-nine-piece orchestra—recorded three songs that could have been addressed directly to his wandering wife: “The Gal That Got Away,” “Half as Lovely (Twice as True),” and “It Worries Me.” On the last, Frank sang,
Just what did I do—was I mean to you?
Taken as autobiography (which to some extent it must be), the lyric may look disingenuous—of course he had been not just mean but brutal to her, and she to him, on innumerable occasions. But listened to, the line, sung with exquisite tenderness, is meltingly lovely. In fact, Frank in his new middle period was every bit the ballad singer that Frankie of the Columbia years had been—and then some. He had lived more, suffered more.
On June 12, 1954, Ava Gardner arrived in Lake Tahoe to begin the six-week Nevada residence required for her divorce from Frank Sinatra. Las Vegas, where she had sojourned while splitting from her first husband, Mickey Rooney, was out; Frank was in town, playing the Sands, and Vegas was a small place in those days. (And, extraordinarily enough, both Rooney and Gardner’s second husband, Artie Shaw, were also appearing at casinos along the Strip: a constellation of exes.)
While in Tahoe, Ava and her maid, Reenie Jordan, stayed in a lakefront house provided by her inveterate suitor, the epically weird, immensely wealthy oil and aviation magnate Howard Hughes. Hughes, a control freak to the nth degree and a paranoiac master of intrigue, especially when it came to affairs of the heart, had a habit of installing girlfriends—both current and prospective—in rented houses, sometimes in proximity to each other, the better to monitor their comings and goings. For years, he had been trying to reel in Gardner, to bed or to wed, without success. He showered her with expensive gifts, jewels and fur coats and convertibles; she accepted his presents and laughed in his face.
Now he sensed an opening. Her marriage was ending; perhaps she needed a shoulder to cry on. But the emotionally tone-deaf Hughes needed data to press his campaign. He had the rented house bugged and retained a fancy Washington, D.C., investigator named Robert Maheu to surveil the premises while Ava was in residence.
Maheu, whose specialty was high-level cloak-and-dagger work (in later years, he would be intimately involved in a CIA-backed plot to assassinate Fidel Castro), was understandably loath to make a long trip for what was plainly a jealous-boyfriend job. He subcontracted the work to a local private detective, who quickly ascertained that Hughes’s competition was Ava’s never-say-die, soon-to-be ex.
One afternoon that summer, Frank showed up at the Tahoe house, no doubt with reconciliation in mind, and managed to persuade Ava to take a boat ride with him. Unwisely, the local detective elected to follow them in another boat. Sinatra quickly spotted him and gave furious chase; the detective just managed to make it back to shore and hightail it into the woods. Any hint of romance thoroughly spoiled, Frank left Tahoe without swaying Ava.
Romantic history: first as tragedy, then as farce.
At the end of July, she failed to show up for her court date for the divorce. She had asked him to repay the not inconsiderable sums she’d lent him when he was down-and-out; he had bridled at the request. They were at an impasse: still legally married, though apart. He would never get her out of his system, nor would she ever truly get him out of hers.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with James Kaplan
On the cusp of Frank Sinatra's 2015 centennial, seventeen years after his death, the movers and shakers of digital era pop still cloak themselves in his mantle. Consider Sean Combs, whose music cable network, REVOLT TV, describes him as a "modern-day Sinatra, more dapper and even more debonair," selling vodka with a video in which he leads a Rat Pack of millennials through a bacchanalian Las Vegas evening, to the soundtrack of Sinatra's inexorably swinging "Luck Be a Lady Tonight." Or Shawn Carter, who drops lyrics like "I'm the new Sinatra" and "Since I've made it here, I can make it anywhere" on "Empire State of Mind," and guests with Justin Timberlake on a Nasir Jones–Timbaland track called "Sinatra in the Sand."
In appropriating Sinatra's persona as an "I did it my way," mobbed- up, tough-guy entrepreneur who made his mark in multiple arenas of the entertainment business, these hip-hop moguls focus, as vocalist Kurt Elling put it recently, on his "example of what to do with super-stardom once you have it." Less prominent in their narrative, though, is his voice, an unparalleled instrument that bedrocked Sinatra's mega-celebrity.
"Sinatra had a natural phrasing that set the standard for all who followed," Elling remarked. "His breath control and ability to maintain an enveloping tone across all frequencies and volume settings made him a master. He understood and paid attention to the importance of tempo settings and the dramatic use of dynamics. As a performance study, it is fair to say that Sinatra embodied the songs he chose to sing. His sense of quality control - - over his singing, the material, his musicians, the arrangements he used never seems to have wavered."
Fellow practitioners Michael Bublé and Jamie Cullum, very different artists, share Elling's predisposition to uphold Sinatra's aesthetic values, delivering ballads and swing to sizable audiences with considerable flair. In a separate conversation, Cullum reinforced Sinatra's visceral appeal as "suited and booted, woman-killer, talented, rich and powerful" and spoke articulately of his musical craft, honed during a lengthy apprenticeship as band singer with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey during the golden years of radio, and as a solo artist during the nascence of television, when it was impossible to foresee that MTV, Autotune, sampling, and deejay aesthetics would devalue the mass market currency of his otherworldly chops and interpretative acumen.
"Sinatra was able to take this incredible bel canto technique, like a great opera singer, and deliver it artistically, on the money, razor-sharp, with an incredibly casual attitude," Cullum said. "Through Sinatra, I understood that singing is actually training your voice and preparing your breath, that preparing your body for singing is like preparing for an Olympic sport. He led a life of excess, in some ways, but that excessive life of love and laughter and sadness came through in the medium. It's funny he hated punk and rock and roll, because he always seemed to me the epitome of rock and roll. He epitomizes the ability to tell your story through music, and to make it accessible to the listener. For a male singer learning standards, his interpretations are a bit like going back to the Bible if you're a Christian."
It is perplexing that the most visible and accomplished vocalist- entertainer of the twentieth century did not inspire a single serious, historically contextualized, well-written general biography until the 2010 publication of James Kaplan's Frank: The Voice, covering Sinatra's first thirty-nine years. Kaplan weaves together, in clear, vivid prose, both the tabloid-friendly and "inside baseball" aspects of his legend. With convincing psychological acumen and exhaustive knowledge of the cultures of the music and film businesses in which Sinatra operated, he traces the formation of the young artist's character and craft, his meteoric rise, equally dramatic fall, and subsequent "redemption" through the Oscar- winning role of Private Maggio in From Here to Eternity.
Five years later, Kaplan's Sinatra: The Chairman portrays the second act of Sinatra's life and times the inexorable course of his singing and acting careers; his marriages, high-profile romances, and Herculean feats of womanizing; his lucrative business endeavors; his relations with politicians and mobsters; his boozing; his volcanic temper; his hair-trigger mood swings; his extreme generosity and good works. Again, Kaplan never allows the novelistic array of human foible on display to weigh down the narrative or to distract us from his subject's extraordinary musicianship, without which we wouldn't care. Ted Panken
The Barnes & Noble Review: Ten years after you embarked on the project, we have a two-volume, 1,700-page biography of Frank Sinatra. Is this what you envisioned at the beginning of this journey?
James Kaplan: I had no vision of it. My initial contract said, "A life of Frank Sinatra, 352 pages." I was like the blind man feeling the elephant as I groped my way into the contours and the dimension of this project. But the more I worked, the more I realized how much I was writing about not just the full dimension of Sinatra and his life, every component of which touched upon the cultural history of America in the twentieth century, but an incredibly complicated guy, who was a genius and so frequently got in his own way. As Pete Hamill said, his shortcomings were regrettable. But the more I worked, I felt more and more strongly that here was a man of Mozartian gifts, with a deep artistic consciousness, an unbelievable ear, and great intelligence, who is constantly portrayed as a thug and a bully.
BNR: You had worked on collaborative autobiographies with John McEnroe and Jerry Lewis but had never written a biography.
JK: No, I had never written a biography, and first time out I take on the biggest possible subject. It was pretty nervy. But I had written well over 100 profiles as a journalist, which is a different medium, but a form of biography a running start, if you will. I knew I was a good writer, good at writing about people, good at interviewing, good at doing research. I knew I had a very good musical ear. I grew up in the culture that Sinatra permeated; it didn't feel alien in any way.
Still, terror was a daily event the whole way through. Walking into the project, I couldn't have named ten of Sinatra's albums. I knew nothing. I began to read everything. I listened to everything. Educating myself took a couple of years. Then, when I began to write, it quickly became apparent that to do any justice to this story, I would have to write a lot more than 352 pages. As I wrote, it stretched into something sizable, and as I was coming up to the 1954 Oscars, I had 700–800 pages. I realized that was a natural break point. I also knew that there was no way I could get to the end of Sinatra's life, given my time frame and the amount of money I could hope to put together. So I held my breath and sent the manuscript to my agent.
BNR: The Voice contains a fair amount of omniscient narrator speculation about Sinatra's thoughts and feelings.
JK: Yes, and a lot more of it came out from the first draft. One reason I wanted to write the book this way has to do with my background as a novelist. I didn't want to write a dry biography. I wanted to impart the narrative power of fiction without making anything up. Did I take some leaps? I took some leaps. I got called out for them. Some people call me out for them still.
Also, I loved writing about America in the first half of the twentieth century. I wanted to give the book a voice consistent with the slightly overheated quality of gossip columns and journalism then, the more hyperbolic way people talked. Even though it wasn't exactly Sinatra's speaking voice. I wanted it to feel like his voice, his soul, and his times, up through the Swing Era into the early postwar period. The second book became a very different item.
BNR: In the first two chapters of The Voice you establish a psychological profile of Sinatra that you maintain and evolve through both volumes as you develop your portrayal of his character.
JK: I've been taken to task for writing psychoanalytically, too. I didn't set out consciously or mechanically to do so. It's a way of thinking that permeates my household, thanks to my good wife, who is a psychologist, and thanks also to my development as a fiction writer. It's the way I write. I took the measure of the man and thought and thought about him, as I do anybody I'm writing about, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Why was he being so defensive at this moment? Why was he lashing out at another? Why was he using his fists, or speaking in such an ugly way to somebody he seemingly was superior to that made him appear to feel inferior to that person at that moment? Why was all this going on?
BNR: The epigraph to The Voice is a quote from Kierkegaard: "What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music . . . And men crowd about the poet and say to him: 'Sing for us again soon'; that is as much to say: 'May new sufferings torment your soul.' " There's a classical rise-and- fall structure, which you emphasize by titling the final two sections, "Icarus" and "The Phoenix." The epigraph to The Chairman is: "If you want to know a man, give him power," attributed to the nineteenth-century Lubavich rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Is this the notion around which you framed that volume?
JK: In a lot of ways, the first book is a romantic story, the formation of a romantic young troubadour. The second book is a story not only of great artistic achievement but of power. He becomes a tycoon. There was no leaving out the emotional repercussions. Everything that he set out to get for himself power and money and fame he got. Hence the section title "Midas." It made him happier in some ways. It made him miserable in other ways.
I was even more intimidated beginning the second volume than the first. For one thing, this is all the stuff everybody thinks they know about. But also, I knew I had to fit in twice as much to navigate an increasingly complicated America in the nuclear age. Sinatra began this incredible rebound in 1953, acquired enormous power, and became in many ways a much darker character than he had been in the first book.
BNR: The omniscient narrator is less present in The Chairman.
JK: It's a darker, tougher book, and there is less speculation. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I had more witnesses to talk to. A couple of people turned me down, not that many. I reaped the benefit of the quality of The Voice; people like Mo Ostin, for example, had read it and thought, OK, this guy is not the second coming of Kitty Kelley, he's not shallow or exploitative, this is a real biographer, a serious biographer, and I'll talk to him.
There are all kinds of myths floating around. One, for example, is of the Rat Pack as a happy, roving gang of pals with their arms around each other's shoulders, cavorting into the wee hours and just having a blast. There was a certain amount of that. But I always thought and the more I looked into it, the more I found it to be true that a huge amount of darkness and disconnection and anger and ugliness was involved with the so-called Rat Pack. These were not guys who were good at intimacy.
I felt that the relationship of Sinatra and John F. Kennedy had never really been written about at length and cogently. Sinatra's relationships with women had been spelled out, but I don't think they'd been seen with as much dimension. Similarly, his relationship with members of the Mob. They were mobsters, monsters, but also human beings, and Sinatra had very difficult human relations with them. Sam Giancana was a fascinating character, a fascinating monster. I portrayed this with more detail and context than anybody had before.
BNR: What was the essence of Sinatra's attraction to Mafia figures and tough guys? He was in bed with them business- wise.
JK: Yes, he was. It bit him in the ass. He had to give up his license.
BNR: He always did seem to land on his feet, though.
JK: Yes, he did. He had something pretty good to fall back on. He idolized these guys. The persistent, enduring and seductive myth about organized crime, about mobsters, is that these are people who are able to live life on their own terms and without reflection, regret, or guilt. It's a very powerful, seductive myth, and Sinatra fell into it. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, when Italian Americans were a despised and diminished minority in the United States. These Italian Americans were men of power and, in Sinatra's view, men of honor. So Sinatra idolized them the way a small boy idolized cowboys or soldiers. They were strong men; Sinatra thought of himself, deep down, as a small and weak man. One of his lovers, Peggy Connolly, described how physically small he was except for his schlong, of course. But he was a short guy, with narrow wrists and artistic hands. He could box a bit, but when it came to a fight, he always had the guys with thick necks who would take care of business for him. He felt highly vulnerable, physically and emotionally vulnerable. His oversensitivity was key to how vulnerable he felt.
BNR: Was Sinatra's increasing megalomania as he acquired more power a consistent throughline?
JK: I think it was a rising curve, if you will. As his power increased, his sense of entitlement and high-handedness increased. But I maintain strongly (although this is subjective, and there's no way of really knowing it) that his inner chaos and sense of himself as inferior really never left him. He didn't think that he was physically attractive. He didn't think that he was intellectually sufficient. He worked very hard on educating himself, but therewas some part of him that would always be the tenth-grade dropout that he was. He was high-strung and oversensitive to the end, though he liked to give out the opposite that he was a tough guy.
BNR: Sinatra and women. In a Slate "Conversation" about The Voice in 2010, Ann Powers wrote: "If pressed, I'll bet Kaplan would agree . . . that Sinatra's hunger was more romantic than priapic. He sought that proverbial floating 'place for us' that lovers can create, and which is also all tied up in the idea (and realities) of family, a huge element of this biography." Does Ann Powers win that bet?
JK: I don't know. It's like mind and matter. What is mind? It doesn't matter? What is matter? Never mind. Is it the hardon or is it the heart? Certainly sexual conquest was incredibly important to him, and yet Tina Sinatra said (I am paraphrasing) said, "My father was a deeply feeling man who could not achieve or maintain an intimate relationship." So intimacy was an ever- receding goal for him. It was something he sought and was emotionally unequipped to retain. The sexual conquest became a kind of placeholder for intimacy. Unfortunately, he had the wherewithal to constantly move on to the next lover. He could be romantic, and then, in the next second, quite brutally cold and dismissive once he got bored. That was another thing his incredible, pathological, infantile impatience. If anything, impatience is the main throughline in his life. It had to feel terrible to him.
BNR: That trait also had a lot to do with his not achieving as much as he might have as an actor.
JK: Yes, that's true. Tom Santopietro's book Sinatra in Hollywood was a very important source toward convincing me of Sinatra's importance as a movie star and, occasionally, now and then, as an actor. In most of his movies he was playing himself, with a few notable exceptions. A couple of important people in Hollywood, Billy Wilder being one of them, said that had Sinatra had the patience to stick with it and concentrate, he could have been one of the greatest actors around. When it came down to it, he could really only do the one thing.
BNR: You include a great anecdote from Racquel Welch, who brought Elia Kazan, not a fan, to see Sinatra perform in Miami. A few tunes into the set he Kazan says: "My God! This fuckin' guy is the best actor I've ever seen in my life. He's completely naked up there . . . He's a genius." To what extent was Sinatra the singer, acting?
JK:To a great extent. He always wanted the band or the orchestra around him, not to be in an isolation booth. Almost without exception, he wanted audiences in his recording sessions. It was a performance in the recording session and onstage, and it was an incomparable performance, of the highest charismatic power. These great songs that he sang were stories that he learned from the inside out before he ever sang them. Then, once he sang them, he lived them. Sinatra gave the impression of actually having those thoughts and feelings as he was singing. That is what draws you in and makes the identification so strong.
BNR: The tabloids have recently taken notice of The Chairman. There are numerous Google links to Sinatra's offer of marriage to Marilyn Monroe to "save" her, and many more to your assertion that he could not possibly be Ronan Farrow's father.
JK: I think it's extremely unlikely that Sinatra was Ronan Farrow's father. Sinatra was wearing a colostomy bag. He was having a lot of problems with impotence. I think that Mia Farrow is infinitely vengeful against Woody Allen, and this is just a way of twisting the knife.
BNR: Your portraits of Mia Farrow and Barbara Sinatra are not sympathetic.
JK: They are very different people. Mia Farrow is an extremely damaged woman of great intelligence and sensibility. Her memoir is terrific. Her descriptive powers are extremely impressive. I think that her ability to maintain an intimate relationship was highly compromised from the word go by this strange and damaged family that she came from. By all accounts, her father, John Farrow, was a terrible man, a hard-drinking, persistently unfaithful, yet extremely intelligent guy (he wrote a book about Thomas More). He dropped dead when Mia was extremely young, and for the rest of her life she had this Daddy thing about hooking up with and making babies with famous men - - with Frank and with André Previn and with Woody Allen.
Barbara Sinatra is a different quantity altogether.
BNR: You portray her as wearing Sinatra down.
JK: Yes. I think she did. She was much younger then he. Maybe there was some love. There was certainly sexual attraction, electricity at the beginning. But as the early romance, what there was of it, died away, it turned into more and more of an arrangement. Sinatra's sexual powers were failing. He wanted somebody to take care of him, and she wanted the ultimate brass ring, and so they each got what they wanted. Barbara Sinatra was the ultimate gold digger who hit the ultimate mother lode.
BNR: Race is an interesting subtext of The Chairman on several levels. It's interesting that once Sinatra forms his own record company, Reprise, he spends six or seven years really embracing African-American musicians, particularly Basie and the members of his band, and Quincy Jones. He even records with Duke Ellington. His relationship to African-American musical culture is crucial in his artistic path.
JK: First of all there's identification. Often, among Italian Americans, this twists itself into rage against the similar other, against blacks, because they're too close on the social ladder in the early twentieth century. But I think that Sinatra felt identification. And then, he got this education on Fifty-second Street. He saw that these people were geniuses, and his ear and his brain were too highly developed not to know that, like him, these were kings and queens.
BNR: Those recordings are frequently referenced these days when pop culture addresses Sinatra. Why does he endure?
JK: Ultimately, what makes Sinatra endure is simply the sound of that voice. It's not like any other voice; it has visceral powers beyond description that make us feel so deeply when we hear him sing. We can be transported by other singers. But there is something about Sinatra that gets to our midnight souls, to the deepest part of us. I think that's what's going to carry him forward in time more than any other singer.
November 26, 2015