Frank Sinatra was a bundle of contradictions: a scrawny artist with a tough-guy image, an outspoken liberal turned stalwart Republican, a casual actor who won an Oscar, a notorious womanizer who lost the woman he loved most, and an American icon accused of dodging the draft in World War II.
He led such an eventful, fascinating life that author James Kaplan needs almost 800 pages to cover less than half of it in “Frank: The Voice,” his lively, anecdote-crammed biography of the world’s greatest saloon singer.
The book follows Sinatra from his 1915 birth in Hoboken, New Jersey, to 1954, when his sagging career was revived by a supporting-actor Oscar for “From Here to Eternity.” During those first 39 years, Francis Albert Sinatra embodied the lyrics of “That’s Life,” his 1966 hit about resilience.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race
The only child of Italian immigrants -- his mother, Dolly, was a midwife who moonlighted as an abortionist, his father, Marty, a fireman and former boxer -- Sinatra dropped out of high school to become a singer. He had numerous setbacks -- a jilted girlfriend had him arrested on trumped-up morals charges -- before joining Tommy Dorsey’s popular band in 1940.
Sinatra, who died in 1998 at the age of 82, recorded his first hits with Dorsey before they had a falling out and he left the band in 1942.
Rumors that the Mafia helped Sinatra get out of his contract inspired the famous horse’s head scene in “The Godfather.” Kaplan doesn’t find a smoking gun on Sinatra’s reputed organized-crime connections, though he makes it clear that the singer often enjoyed the company of mobsters. He also recounts an infamous 1947 trip to Havana, where a newspaper columnist reported that Sinatra was hanging out with Lucky Luciano and other gangsters.
In the 1940s Sinatra became the idol of screaming teenage girls known as bobby-soxers, a precursor to the wild crowds that later mobbed Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Kaplan reveals that Sinatra’s publicist would select girls who could scream the loudest and then pay them $5 to stay for multiple shows.
Sinatra hit the skids in the late ‘40s and by 1950; when he damaged his vocal cords during a performance at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, many thought his career was over. The career slump, combined with depression over his rocky love affair with Ava Gardner, led to several suicide attempts, according to the book. (Pinpointing dates is difficult because Kaplan goes long stretches without mentioning the year he’s writing about.)
Then came Sinatra’s phoenix-like comeback, fueled by his gritty performance as the rebellious soldier Maggio in “From Here to Eternity.” About the same time Sinatra started a collaboration with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle that produced some of his finest albums, including “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Only the Lonely” and “Songs for Young Lovers.”
Kaplan, who is working on a second volume about Sinatra, writes with insight and grace about the crooner’s music. He explains how Sinatra worked to improve his voice, how he made the transition from lightweight tunes to adult fare and how his personal experience infused his songs with emotional depth.
He chronicles Sinatra’s troubled first marriage, which produced three children, and his tumultuous relationship with Gardner, whose appetite for liquor and sex was just as strong as Sinatra’s.
Kaplan also writes about Big Frankie, Sinatra’s nickname for his oversized penis. It was so big, Kaplan writes, that he had to wear special underwear to contain it.
“Frank: The Voice” is published by Doubleday (786 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)