Frank Sinatra, reportedly in rapidly failing health, turns 82 on Dec. 12, and his mythic stature now approaches that of Elvis and Marilyn. Famous as they were, those legends haven’t inspired many good books — with the notable exception of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis tome, Last Train to Memphis — and neither, so far, has Sinatra. Only Will Friedwald, in Sinatra: The Song Is You (1995), has dealt comprehensively with the singer’s musical and interpretive genius. And though it certainly wasn’t a work of literature, Kitty Kelley, in His Way (1987), detailed the dark side of Sinatra: alleged Mafia ties, womanizing, gambling.
Three just-published Sinatra books — by J. Randy Taraborrelli, Donald Clarke, and Bill Zehme — add little to the canon. Their publishers hoped, no doubt, the singer would make his final exit in time for the lucrative holiday book-buying season. But Sinatra, it seems, has more staying power than these efforts will have.
Zehme’s book, The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’, is a tongue-in-cheek riff on Sinatra’s style, with photographs, anecdotes, and snippets from the author’s 1996 Esquire interview. The circumstances of the actual interview are mysterious: Zehme says he submitted questions to the singer, who would dictate answers to a secretary as he sat in his plane. (Taraborrelli reports that the singer sold his private jet in 1988.) The quotations may sound recycled, but the stories themselves can be amusing, despite the fact that Zehme is as starstruck as a bygone bobby-soxer. Flashing back to 1964, he writes, ”The man is at his peak of power, which is power like no man has known, because he is Sinatra.” Though he can be snarkily funny, Zehme is so blindly enamored of his hero that he can write of how ”bigotry of any kind turned his blood to ice,” while quoting the singer’s reference to the press as ”a bunch of fags.”
The previous book by musicologist Donald Clarke, Wishing on the Moon, delved adequately into the life (and, to a lesser degree, the work) of Billie Holiday. But the skimpy All or Nothing at All: A Life of Sinatra consists of a tedious rehashing of biography, maladroit musical commentary (one recording, he observes, has ”a nice tune and clever words”), and huffy indignation at his subject’s behavior. Branding Sinatra a ”spoiled brat” with ”appalling judgment,” Clarke informs us the singer ”has fallen down as an artist because his personal motivation has always been instant gratification.”
Sinatra the man emerges most vividly in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Sinatra: Behind the Legend. Taraborrelli (Call Her Miss Ross) provides entertaining but familiar sketches of the Rat Pack’s Romper Room high jinks and of Sinatra’s friendship with mobster Sam Giancana. He also alleges that Sinatra had an affair with Jackie Kennedy. The last chapter deals movingly with the deaths of cronies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jilly Rizzo, as well as the singer’s own physical deterioration.
Unfortunately, though, the book is strewn with the red herrings of fishy biography — long passages of reconstructed thought, decades-old conversation, even clairvoyance. Take this description of Sinatra’s alleged 1951 suicide attempt: ”Turning on the gas oven, he bent over one of the burners to light the cigarette that dangled from his mouth…. He couldn’t help but smell the gas as it seeped from the stove. He inhaled deeply. It smelled good. It smelled like death.” And Taraborrelli’s attempts at analyzing Sinatra’s music are laughable: ”His singing is sensational, the orchestra sounds fantastic,” he writes of one recording.
If you’re looking for the big Sinatra book — one that gives equal weight to the man and his music — you won’t find it here. That one has yet to be written.
The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’: C All or Nothing at All: C- Sinatra: Behind the Legend: B-