A swingin' affair
BIOGRAPHY: Frank: The Making of a LegendBy James Kaplan, Sphere, 786pp. £25
THE SINATRA STORY has become so familiar as to have assumed the elements of myth (it is a nice measure of James Kaplan’s acute new biography, which ends in 1954, that the final two sections are entitled Icarus and Phoenix): the forceps birth that marks the child and sets him apart; the domineering, indulgent mother, Dolly (“She scared the shit outta me. Never knew what she’d hate that I’d do”) and the ineffectual, absent father; the solitary young man with the impossible dream (to be Bing Crosby); the ascent from talent-show victory with The Hoboken Four to break-through with Harry James ( All or Nothing at All) to national stardom with Tommy Dorsey ( I’ll Never Smile Again); the days and nights of triumph at the Paramount Theatre (not a dry seat in the house); coronation as the troubled, dark, overtly sexual anti-Crosby; the wild and unrestrained adulation of the women of the United States; the first flush of movie stardom (On the Town); the tempestuous second marriage to romantic nemesis and she-Sinatra Ava Gardner; and then the long fall from grace, as younger, hilariously inferior contenders outstrip him (Eddie Fisher! Perry Como! Frankie Laine!); public dismay at his abandonment of Nancy and the kids; the terrible records ( Mama Will Bark!); the terrible films ( Double Dynamite!); the terrible TV shows; the debt, and the despair (over work, over love, over the money he spent like a drunken sailor); losing his voice, live on stage; the suicide attempts (at least one for real); and then, at the lowest ebb, defying all his enemies (“Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town,” scoffed Swifty Lazar), the great climb back: Maggio, in From Here to Eternity; I’ve Got the World on a String, with Nelson Riddle (“Jesus Christ, I’m back. I’m back, baby, I’m back!”); Young at Hearthitting the top 10 (“Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you . . .”); and, finally, the ultimate Top-of-the-World-Ma moment as Frank wins the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Still only 39, and the best was yet to come.
Although there have been excellent books about Sinatra, notably Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Mattersand Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art, there has been no adequate biography; we may know the facts, but what the life has lacked is an appreciative but dispassionate chronicler. In his acknowledgments, Kaplan makes no bones about where he stands: “Here was a genius and a great artist, a man who had changed – shaped – the twentieth century, and I owed him his due.” Kaplan goes on, with reason, to identify condescension and idolatry as the twin snares that have undermined the work of his predecessors.
Maybe it’s a kind of tribute to the way Frank made it all sound so easy, the condescension, verging on contempt, with which so many Sinatra biographers have treated their subject and his work. Maybe they thought it was easy, these journalists and writers-for-hire with no seeming interest in or regard for music or acting or songwriting or art or anything, it seemed, beyond their own philistine incomprehension and fabricated moral outrage. You could be forgiven, reading Kitty Kelley, or Summers and Swan, for wondering, apart from cheating on his wives and running around with gangsters and having people beaten up, just what it was this Sinatra fellow actually did. Almost as tiresome on the other side are the defenders, the idolators, never short of a children’s charity Frank endowed or a sick pal’s hospital bills he paid, as if good behaviour could launder the bad. Kaplan walks a steady line, and gives us a clear-eyed picture of a complicated, mercurial, restless, often monstrous man, but, most importantly, he gives all the antics a context – and the context is the singer’s art. At last, Sinatra has the biography he deserves – and so do we.
“I take the sheet with just the lyrics. No music,” Sinatra said of his approach to a song. “At that point I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words . . . his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words, so I can experiment and get the right inflections.” The legendary phrasing, the ability to sing a line like he had written it himself – yes, these were gifts, but they were enhanced, transformed by close study and a growing awareness of who he needed to become.
When he played Maggio, a line like “Man, what I would not give to have this character in the corner poolroom in my hometown,” had a Runyonesque street poetry the singer both recognised instinctively and adopted as his own, just as he had already incorporated elements of Billie Holiday’s raw emotional intensity and Bogart’s tough-guy world- weariness. “Maggio freed him to become himself,” as Kaplan puts it.
For the most part Kaplan sits above the action, deliberating between conflicting versions of events and delivering the most likely verdict, if one is available. But he occasionally descends into the minds of the principals, New Journalism style, allowing us novelistic access to what they must have thought and felt, a technique that stands or falls on the sensitivity, taste and judgment of the author. Kaplan succeeds wonderfully well, it seems to me, as in this passage where Frank tries to woo back a resistant Ava:
He saw it. He was endlessly intuitive . . . (though he didn’t like the world to know what he knew), and he was, if anything, over-attuned to the love of his life. Early he had learned to watch Dolly closely . . . to figure out whether she was going to hug him or hit him; early he’d learned to watch Ava closely, to see whether she was going to love him or leave him.
She was leaving him.
The brilliantly told account of how Sinatra’s first Capitol sessions with Nelson Riddle were contrived (against Sinatra’s will) is thrilling in itself but also stands as the tantalising prologue to the great masterpieces these two men will create: In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Only the Lonelyand A Swingin’ Affair. Kaplan’s understanding and appreciation of the music here simply set him apart.
There will presumably be a second volume. Let’s hope it doesn’t quite take as long as the second volume of Gary Giddins’s monumental life of Bing Crosby (a clear influence in shape and scope on Frank), which is finally due in 2012 after an interval of 11 years. But, for now, this absorbing, fascinating book will do very well indeed.
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright. His latest novel, City of Lost Girls, is published by John Murray