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When Frank Sinatra died on the evening of May 14, 1998, the news made the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Many ran extra editions and followed with special supplements. There was little sense of shock; he had been a long time dying. He had also been a long time living, and so the obituaries were full of his life and times.
It was mandatory to chronicle his wins and losses, his four marriages, his battles, verbal and physical, with reporters and photographers. His romances required many inches of type. There were accounts of his fierce temper, his brutalities, his drunken cruelties. Some described him as a thug or a monster, whose behavior was redeemed only by his talent. We read brief charts of his political odyssey from left to right. The shadow cast upon him by the Mob was also an inevitable part of the stories. And there were tales of his personal generosity to friends and strangers and the millions of dollars he had raised for charities. He was clearly a complicated man.
"Being an eighteen-karat manic depressive," he was quoted in many of the obituaries, "and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have perhaps an overacute capacity for sadness and elation."
But much of the language of farewell had a stale, even hollow quality, probably because most of the obituaries had been ready for too many months. Sinatra had been a virtual recluse since 1995, making only rare public appearances. Over the previous year he had been in and out of hospitals. There were reports from California that he had suffered several heart attacks and, with the possible onset ofAlzheimer's, had difficulty recognizing even old friends. Across those final months there was little hard news about his condition; his children insisted he was fine, although cranky and cantankerous, and so the vacuum was filled with rumor and supposition. The truth was probably a simple one. Frank Sinatra, after a life in which too many cigarettes and too much whiskey were part of the deal, was old; and as happens to all of us when we grow old, the parts just broke down. He had abused his body in a way that was special to his generation of American men; that he had survived until eighty-two was itself a kind of triumph over the odds.
There were some peculiar components to the television coverage. Most of it was narrated by people from a much younger generation; as they mouthed words about loss and farewell, the tone had an odd insincerity — they could have been discussing someone from the nineteenth century. They were also prisoners of existing visual images. We saw Sinatra at different ages: a very young Sinatra in bow tie and padded shoulders when he was The Voice; a drawn, emaciated Sinatra, flaring at photographers or wearing a thin, pimplike mustache, during his time with Ava Gardner; Sinatra as Maggio in From Here to Eternity and a grinning Sinatra receiving his Academy Award afterward; clips from his television shows, including a bizarre image of Sinatra standing on two chairs, one foot on each, while singing "I've Got the World on a String"; Sinatra with the Rat Pack, horsing around on the stages of Las Vegas; Sinatra with various presidents, from Roosevelt to Reagan; and, of course, endless versions of "My Way."
It was difficult, reading and watching all of this, to remember why Sinatra mattered to so many people, and why he will continue to matter in the years ahead. The radio did a much better job than print or television, because on radio we heard the music. Not abrupt fragments of songs, not clipped, impatient digests. Late at night, driving through a great city, moving on the dark streets of New York or Paris, Tokyo or London, you could connect more directly to what truly mattered: the music.
The music was the engine of the life. If there had been no music, there would have been no immense obituaries and no televised farewells. To be sure, Sinatra was one of those figures whose art is often overshadowed by the life. In the end, it is of minor interest that Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, that André Malraux flew in combat during the Spanish Civil War, or that Ernest Hemingway shot lions in Africa. In the end, only the work matters. Sinatra's finest work was making music.
Sinatra, however, did matter in other ways. He wasn't simply an entertainer from a specific time and place in American life who lived on as a kind of musty artifact. Through a combination of artistic originality, great passion, and immense will, he transcended several eras and indirectly helped change the way all of us lived. He was formed by an America that is long gone: the country of the European immigrants and the virulent America-for- Americans nativism that was directed at them; the country in which a mindless Puritanism, allied with that scapegoating nativism, imposed Prohibition upon the land and helped create the Mob; a country undergoing a vast transformation from a fundamentally rural society to one dominated by cities; a country that passed through Depression and war into the uncertain realities of peace. They were extraordinary times, and in his own way, driven by his own confusions, neuroses, angers, and ambitions, Frank Sinatra helped push the country forward.
This book is about the accomplishments of Frank Sinatra and why he matters. Some of it is personal, because for a while, I was friendly with Sinatra, talked with him in saloons, in Las Vegas, even for a few days one year in Monte Carlo. At one point he wanted me to write his autobiography; it never happened, for reasons that are no longer important. But in the course of discussing his life, he talked about himself in ways that still had an element of wonder to them; part of him still could not believe that he had become the legend he was. To be sure, we were not friends in any conventional way; I did not visit his home and he did not visit mine. Only a very few intimate friends ever had such access, and I was certainly not one of them. But I liked him enormously.
He was wonderful with children, including my two daughters. He was funny. He was vulnerable. I never saw the snarling bully of the legend. That Frank Sinatra certainly existed; on the day that his death made all those front pages, there were too many people who remembered only his cruelties. But he never showed that side of himself when I was around. On those nights, I was in the company of an intelligent man, a reader of books, a lover of painting and classical music and sports, gallant with women, graceful with men. Perhaps he was just donning a mask in my company, presenting images to a writer so that they would be remembered by the writer in a certain way: a kind of performance. Or perhaps the snarling bully was the true masked character, a clumsy personal invention, and behind the mask there was simply a young man afraid of the world. Or perhaps, by the time I knew him, he had just grown out of his angers, exhausted them, and settled for what he was and the way he was regarded. I don't know. Like all great artists, Frank Sinatra contained secret places, abiding personal mysteries, endless contradictions. On occasion, a curtain would part, there would be a moment of epiphany, and I could see the uncertain older man who wanted to understand what it all meant, the man who said that dying was a pain in the ass. I liked that man very much.
This book does not pretend to be the final word on Frank Sinatra. Several full-scale biographies have already been written, each with its attendant excellencies; more are sure to follow. But there were aspects of this man that should be remembered and honored. In Sinatra's time, his fame as a singer spread from his own country to the world. His turbulent personality, often shadowed by notoriety, seemed inseparable from the style and originality of his art and gave him an essential place on the public stage of the American century. Now Sinatra is gone, taking with him all his anger, cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relieve the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: "Only connect." In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.
Barnes & Noble.com: I like the title of your book very much.
Pete Hamill: Oh, good!
bn: Because most writers seem simply to take it for granted that Sinatra matters, whereas you ask, "Why?" And then, too, there are a lot of people of my generation and younger who don't see it at all, who really do need to have it explained to them why Sinatra matters.
PH: I hadn't even thought of that. I know there's an image that a lot of people have of him that's really based on irrelevant stuff, you know, the Rat Pack, Reagan, the fights, all that. And there have been so many performers over the years who just ate off his plate, so that the confusion between Sinatra and some guy in a lounge singing "My Way" makes people stop thinking about what Sinatra himself really did accomplish. And also, he simply lasted so long.
bn: So you think people have come to take his art for granted in a lot of ways.
PH: Absolutely, and I was struck when he died by how exactly that, the taking for granted of what Sinatra achieved, expressed itself in most of the obituaries—particularly on television, where the assumption was that everyone had the same notion about Sinatra, which was essentially an inaccurate one, in my opinion.
bn: I agree completely—it was all about the myth, the swagger, the egotistic individualism of "My Way" and "New York, New York," which they seemed to assume were the only Sinatra songs anyone had ever heard.
PH: It was one of the impulses behind writing the book, saying, "Wait a minute, there was more to him than that." It wasn't a quarrel, but an amplification, a "Yes, but...." Yes, he was a monster sometimes. Yes, he sometimes behaved badly, or stupidly, as we all do. But there was something else there. It was that eternal question of the great artist who can also be a fool. You know, the Mozart of "Amadeus" is not someone you'd want to have stay around for a week in your house. You wouldn't want to have to put up with Charlie Parker day in, day out. But in the end, you judge any artist on what he or she does with their talent. You don't measure them by their failures, any more than you measure Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa by their strikeouts. You have to look at the thing that was done.
bn: You do something in your book which I haven't seen any other writer do so conscientiously: You not only talk about his individual genius but you also put him very clearly in his social context—World War II, Prohibition, the rise of organized crime....
PH: You couldn't really do somebody like Sinatra, from that generation, without getting into it. You can't write about Babe Ruth without understanding Prohibition, you know? You can't understand why that terrible idea created such popular affection for the rebel without knowing what he was rebelling against. I think with Sinatra, the three historic contexts of Prohibition, the Depression, and the war—combined with the ethnic part of his identity, the position of Italian American immigrants, which was an extremely hard one, as I talk about in the book—they not only shaped his art, they also shaped the audience's response, certainly at first. And that's why I wanted to go back to the beginning and match it with what was happening in the culture at the same time.
bn: What would you say to someone from a younger generation who says, "Well, that's my parents' or my grandparents' music—it doesn't speak to me at all"?
PH: I would say that if you're just looking at the surface of the music and at what you think you know about the time it was produced, and then dismissing it, you're cheating yourself. It's like saying, "I'm not going to read Aristotle, I'm not going to read Flaubert, what the hell, that's got nothing to do with me." You don't know until you read it. If it's the first time you've really heard it, it's new. The first time you read Henry James, it's a new novel. It doesn't matter that it's been around 75, 100 years. It's new!
bn: You know, when I was young, my parents never played Sinatra in the house. They weren't fans. I think my mother, especially, disapproved of his disreputable lifestyle. So when I had my conversion experience later and became a huge fan, there was no nostalgia factor for me. I was a rock-'n'-roll guy—my great heroes were Dylan, Lou Reed, and the Sex Pistols. Actually, when I first started getting into Sinatra, I kind of worried about myself: "I don't really like this Muzaky stuff, do I? It can't be!" At first I was actually embarrassed to play him around my girlfriend.
PH: [laughs] She was gonna think you're going square over in the next room. I think this is not necessarily music for the young. It can be, but it unfolds as you grow. Because one thing that rock 'n' roll does is supply and articulate energy for when you're young. But once you get past that first rush, that need of energy, that explosion of fury, or whatever it is that's found in rock 'n' roll, people can still discover this music and find something valuable in it. Which doesn't mean that you then have to piss on the literature or the music that was important to you when you were 20. But you're just growing along with it, and it begins to articulate other kinds of things.
bn: At one point, you suggest that one of the ways in which he matters is as a teacher about love and loneliness.
PH: Yes. To understand Sinatra, you have to be open to certain attitudes toward loneliness, abandonment, toward the special loneliness of the city. You know, it is music of the city; it's not about vast spaces. The loneliness of Hank Williams is not the same as the loneliness of leaving a saloon at 3 o'clock in the morning and looking for a cab. The feeling might be similar, but the nuances are different.
bn: That reminds me of the wonderful opening scene in your book, of the late-night talk in the back room of P. J. Clarke's in 1970. You were there with Sinatra, Jilly Rizzo, Jimmy Cannon, and the others. The image one gets from that scene is at odds with how I think a lot of people think of Sinatra and his drinking buddies. They come across as cultured, thoughtful men, talking quietly about love, work, books, boxing....
PH: Oh, yeah, they were terrific. Jimmy Cannon, in particular, was a terrific sportswriter, and very smart, which was why Sinatra liked him. He was the one who got Sinatra to read The Man With the Golden Arm, which led to the movie. They all had been shaped by the same things—and I was the youngest of all of them. I was 20 years younger than those guys. They had been shaped by the war, and the Depression, certainly, and to some extent, the older guys, by Prohibition. So they had a common understanding of what was real. And they had a kind of tough humor about it all, a stoic thing, you know, joking about how you're never gonna understand women, and goddamnit, you're always gonna lose out, but you keep trying, like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the mountain even though you know it's going to come down and flatten you. I liked the style a lot—I liked the lack of self-pity. Even though you're wounded, it was all in the way you handled it. It was like the thing in boxing I mentioned in the book, you know, you never knew anything about a fighter until he'd been knocked down. You've got to see if he gets up, see how he deals with adversity. Anybody can be the toughest guy on the block if you never get hit on the chin.
bn: At one point in that scene, they're talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Ernest Hemingway, and somewhat to my surprise, Sinatra votes for Fitzgerald. What do you make of that?
PH: Well, the world of Fitzgerald, particularly of The Great Gatsby, is a world Sinatra understood. He would know a Meyer Wolfscheim [Fitzgerald's mobster figure]; he would know the great estates that were purchased with slightly contaminated money. Also, what he found probably in Fitzgerald was a lyrical strain that would have touched his lyrical, romantic side. Sinatra knew cities and saloons and bootleggers, but he didn't know bullfighters. And the idea of Sinatra going big-game hunting is just funny, you know? It's no accident, I think, that most women, in my experience, have usually preferred Fitzgerald for some of the same reasons, the lyrical quality of Fitzgerald at his best, in Gatsby and some of the short stories. There was a part of Sinatra, a sort of feminine element—which you also find in some great actors as well, like Brando—that allowed him to enter that area that many men, particularly men in the macho era of Hemingway, were afraid to enter. To allow yourself to be that vulnerable—he was able to do that because of the stoic quality that he added to it, you know, "Don't worry about me, I'll get along." "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," you know.
bn: That reminds me of the argument in your book that one of the things that makes Sinatra matter was his presentation of a "new model of American masculinity."
PH: Well, the shorthand version would be the Tender Tough Guy. I don't mean "mean guy." A certain kind of toughness you have to have to get through life, a psychological or intellectual toughness that allows you to take the blows and keep going. There were actors, like Bogart, but among musicians we didn't really have that before him. In the course of writing this, I went and listened to a lot more Bing Crosby than I had in years, and a lot of it is really very good, but it's an insouciant sense of dismissal, somehow, of the hard things in life. Sinatra takes the pain seriously, whereas Crosby never did. That he was able to take that, the kinds of human pain that involve love, loss, families, work, and deepen his expression of it as he got older, particularly into his 40s and 50s, and make something enduring out of it, is an amazing accomplishment in popular music.
bn: Now, you were onboard to ghostwrite his autobiography at one point?
PH: Yeah, he wanted me to write his book. It was never going to be ghostwritten. I wanted to devise a book that would have everything he had to say, but it would be in a context that would have some reporting. The kind of book that was done by Dizzy Gillespie, which is a wonderful book, one of the best music books.
bn: What was the title of that?
PH: It's got a terrible title—it's called To Be or Not to Bop. [laughs] It should have just been Dizzy. Anyway, what Dizzy did was, he would tell a story: "I was in Chicago, and Charlie Parker was there, and he starts pissing on the drapes in the nightclub, and they threw us all out..." and all that. He would tell the story, and then the guy who did the book went out and talked to all the principals, and Max Roach would say, "No, man, it didn't happen like that. Here's what happened...." And that's the sort of book I had in mind when I was talking to Sinatra. But not a word was ever written. One of the reasons was, it was the middle of the Watergate era. Spiro Agnew had left the vice presidency under a plea bargain, and Sinatra, for reasons that I'm sure are absolutely honorable, continued his friendship with him. He never liked Nixon, but he liked Agnew. And he threw a big party in Palm Springs for Agnew after this. And I was thinking, "God, there's a lot of things I'll have to explain to my kids." So I cut off the project, said I didn't think I'd better do this. Later, I think, he talked to Sid Zion about doing the book, but he never did it. It's too bad, because there was a great story to tell, one that needs a real biographer. Even now, there are big holes that I don't think anyone will ever fill, unless he secretly left a lot of tapes with his kids or something.
bn: But you spent several hours talking with him about what would go into the book, yes?
PH: Yeah. In this book I mention some of the conversations. Like when I said, "Look, there are some areas we just can't avoid: One is politics, one is women, and the other is the Mob." And he said, "Hey, the women—I loved them all. Politics, no problem. But if I talk about those other guys, someone'll come knocking at my fuckin' door." And I laughed and he laughed. Then a couple of days later, he called to say, "Well, I thought about it, and, uh, all the guys that I knew are dead anyway. We can talk a little bit about that." So he was willing to talk. But we never got to the next stage, where you sit down and say, "Look, why did you go to Havana?" [In 1947, Sinatra accepted an invitation from gangster Joe Fischetti to fly to Cuba, where he was introduced to Lucky Luciano.] Though he did tell me that was one of the dumbest things he ever did. [laughs] Because it created that mobbed-up image that he was never able to shake.
bn: What was the most interesting thing that he said to you during your talks?
PH: Well, about the music, the most interesting thing was his conception of himself as a musician whose instrument was the microphone. For him to understand that, knowing that just as the jazz musician was taking a tune by Rodgers and Hart and playing it on his alto, he was taking Rodgers and Hart and playing it on the microphone, you know, being able to move the mike stand back and forth for various effects, so that you could sing to the people and not to the microphone. For him to have understood that shows how clearly he thought, right from the beginning, about the artistic possibilities of 20th-century technology.
The most interesting thing he said to me about himself, though, I quote right at the very end, on that long cab ride we took one night, about how maybe all that happens is that you get older and know less. That sense of having reflected on his own life—as peculiar as it was, because the life of that kind of celebrity, being a star since he was 26 or 27, means you're protected from certain things. You're not riding to work on the D train, you know? The kinds of things that might feed your artistry are suddenly no longer there. You've gotten rid of the poverty or obscurity or loneliness—at least physical loneliness—the things that, in Yeats's phrase, "hurt you into art." But to have had the life he had and still be capable of thinking of it as a man still baffled by what time does to you, that sense of doubt, uncertainty, bafflement about what the hell a life is about, what love is about—that was, if not the most interesting, the most touching thing he said, in a way. Because, as we've been seeing on the news recently, anyone who gets smug about love is a goddamned fool.
Edward Hutchinson is a freelance writer. He lives in New York City.
Posted May 19, 2008
No, it's not a thorough biography. You're not going to learn everything there is to know about Sinatra. This is just what the title promises no more, no less: a beautifully written appreciation of the most important singer of the twentieth century by a gifted writer who just happened to be a close confidante of the man. Your appreciation of Sinatra's music and of his achievement will only be deepened by reading this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2005
Why Sinatra Matters is an uncensored realistic book on whom other, Frank Sinatra. The book tells of his life, his friends, family, and most of all his intoxicating voice as a singer. To his late night partying, to his ridiculously famous music, this book gives a background not only to his singing and song writing, but to his complex life behind the curtain. However, through marriages, divorces, relationships and more, his music remained untouched. Music remained a rescue boat in his fast pasted life. One of his good friends Pete Hamill, the writer, talks about their past enjoyment at certain clubs and talking about various topics as boxing, women, and their favorite writers. The book also tells about Sinatra¿s early years and how he came to the road to stardom and how he even paved some of it himself. This book was defiantly something that interested me. Not very many books catch my eye like this book, and that¿s saying a lot. Most books contain too much blain description, but this book had description to the point where I want to go buy the whole Sinatra collection. I would tell others to read book to gain knowledge of how one of the greats lived, loved, and never took it for granted. Frank Sinatra will live in infinity as well as his music, and the way he lived his life. The youth of today as well as the adults, that live in modern suburbia could learn more than one thing of this legend of a man. If I even live one year of my life the way he did, I would die a happy man¿¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 11, 2000
Hamill is one of the great writers of our time. His passions, as they have always been when he is at his best, are beautifully expressed here. Hamill understands and appreciates Sinatra's art as well as is possible. The problem here is, the book is less than half completed. The better parts, are based on two or three meetings with Sinatra in the seventies when Sinatra had asked Hamill to write a biography. They are by defination incomplete and superficial. The rest of this very thin book is background on his family, and a history which has been written about to excess.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 25, 2011
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Posted May 22, 2011
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