Not Entirely Frank
Sinatra: Behind the Legend
(J. Randy Taraborelli)
Though it often feels as if he’s still with us, Frank Sinatra will be 100 on December 16. To celebrate, J. Randy Taraborelli has revised and updated his original biography of the 1990s with considerable skill. Old Blue Eyes was still alive when it was first written and, with age, was getting ever more cantankerous and litigious. Since then, of course, archives have been opened; more people have come forth to be interviewed, and so, even if you have the original book, this is a worthwhile replacement.
Still, I approached Sinatra with the ghost of Kitty Kelley’s effort still hovering in my consciousness, and I want to say up front that in most ways Taraborelli’s is preferable—including the fact that it moves more swiftly through the material. All the shocking revelations that Kelley presented in a totally negative way appear in this book, too: for example, the abortions performed by Dolly Sinatra; the philandering, gambling, and drinking; the psychological abuse of his wives; and the way Sinatra found the Mob and Las Vegas to be the ultimate in glamour.
But instead of being a hatchet job, this biography tries to understand where Sinatra came from, to be sympathetic or to some degree understanding about the weaknesses and foibles of the man, his mother, his friends. Taraborrelli tries to interpret them from the Sinatra point of view over and over again, and his analyses of how Frank or Dolly would have seen them are convincing. His view is more balanced in its assessments and conclusions; this makes for a far more interesting read. Neither an unthinking fan nor a declared hater of Frank Sinatra; he simply chronicles the life in a straightforward fashion, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. I wavered for a while, but in the end chose not to befriend Sinatra, nor risk his befriending me. (I would not wish to have dinner with him at the Brown Derby.) But how I wish I’d attended some of the concerts over the years…
Taraborrelli is also very good at referencing the entire Sinatra discography (from way back with Harry James and the Dorseys right up to the last concept albums) and in explaining how his work evolved over time. We learn about his interpretations of specific songs and the way he put his stamp on them; his interest in and contributions to the orchestrations; and also the input of musicians with whom he liked working. The author deals sympathetically with the dip in Sinatra’s career from 1949 to 1953 and with his unquenchable passion for Ava Gardner and how she helped him get back on track. Sinatra also reveals his inability to control the mood swings and paranoia that made him quick to ditch people if he felt they had betrayed him in any way; and made him perpetually deaf to the other side of the tale.
Taraborelli shows us a talented, iconic and hugely successful entertainer who was also a very flawed, egocentric human being, most likely bipolar. But he also happened to possess two enormous talents; or maybe one should say he was possessed by singing and acting abilities at the highest level.
His role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity helped consolidate his return to the top in the 1950s after a few years in the wilderness as a singer as well; the Capitol and Reprise years are documented in fascinating detail; so are turns in Suddenly; The Man with the Golden Arm; Some Came Running; and The Manchurian Candidate, or even lighter fare: High Society; The Tender Trap; or Ocean’s 11. Sinatra was quite impressive as a producer (but drew mixed reviews when he directed Only the Brave).
The man was a superb, professional and committed show business performer, whatever he chose to turn his hand or his vocal chords to; and that he was very proud of being known as a totally honest singer. Despite his philandering and gambling and psychologically abusive behaviour, he was honest about his personal life, too, and always very open about his thoughts and beliefs; he always seemed to say what he was thinking, even when it was unfair or hurtful. But somehow, when he sang or acted, he managed to suspend his raging ego so that primarily, as a performer, he always served his art.
The weakness of this book, for me, is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mind-set, thinking, or approach of Sinatra the artist. We don’t always get a sense of how he prepared his songs or his roles, or what went into his creativity. There are some hints here and there, but essentially we see his daily life; his love life; his links to the Mob; and his complex personality. One does get a sense of how important Nancy Sinatra Sr and Jr, Tina Sinatra, Frank Junior, all four wives and several of the girlfriends were to him, as well as his closest and longest-serving friends, his lawyers and his agents.
The book is well-written in an easy, journalistic style. Some of the details—like a brief plan to marry Marilyn Monroe and save her from herself—were a surprise. But there are no compelling new insights into what made Sinatra so attractive to his women and his friends; what made him such fun to be with; what his charm was. We are told it existed and we get a lot of tales about its impact. But how this man turned himself into one of the great interpreters of American song of the 20th century as well as, at times, a top- class actor giving Oscar-worthy performances, remains a mystery. And I would also love to have learned what, after a certain point in his life, made him shy away from the kind of intense and harrowing roles he had undertaken in the 1950s. For a while he was clearly striving to challenge himself and stretch his talents; and then His Way turned into the easy way. What was it in his personality rather than just in his fame and talent that attracted the long-term loyalties of such a disparate group of people? That’s a mystery, too, and an impossible question to answer because Frank Sinatra was complicated, but not much given to introspection; neither is Taraborelli.
Still, this is definitely one of the best and most informative Sinatra biographies you can get, and certainly a whole lot less nasty than some of the others. To tell you the truth, and more to the point, it made me want to listen to his recordings again and run the DVDs of several of his films, including those old MGM musicals—even The Kissing Bandit(!). I’m convinced about the talent. I want to experience it anew, and Sinatra will get me going.