Sinatra: Behind the Legend

It’s not news; I tend to lean toward female characters.  No slight to men, but I consider the multi-faceted lives of women more complex and more interesting subjects.  However, when I heard about the revision on the life of Frank Sinatra, I was obsessed.  I’ve loved the man known as “The Voice” forever and I was ready for a little of his swing in my literary life. On the onset, Sinatra seems an easy subject-he’s larger than life.  His music is the great American songbook, his life spans Hollywood, Vegas and Washington.   He’s the little guy from the neighborhood that made it big, but never forgot the little people. Love him, or hate him, everyone has a memory about Ol Blue Eyes.  J. Randy Taraborrelli returns to his 1997 biography Sinatra:  Behind the Legend with new information that exposes the private man behind the public persona.

Frank is a character in the truest sense of the word.  I’m not sure they make men like him anymore.  He’s the toughest of the tough guys, but he’s easily crushed by the weight of passionate love (Ava) and the challenges of his career. To his own detriment, he’s loyal to many, but he’s quick to excise anyone from his life at a perceived slight. He seems callous in many respects, but sensitive to the smallest details of his family and inner circle.  He’s quick to start a fight, but equally unwilling to confront major issues. He’s generous in some areas, but emotionally withholding in others. I was so perplexed by this man. Many times I wanted to scream at the pages “Really, Frank?! Is this really happening?” but I cheered for him just as vehemently when he was down and out.

Mr. Taraborrelli begins by laying out the foundation for life as an Italian immigrant in the early 20th century.  The scene is set as you begin to recognize the components of the Sinatra persona. This preamble is a necessary exercise, as the Sinatra swag was not created in a vacuum: that personality was made in Jersey. When most families in the neighborhood had a fleet of kids, Frank was an only child, enjoying intense individual attention and focus:  a veritable spotlight.  Without siblings to share with he became a pathologically territorial adult.  His mother was a force within the neighborhood, utilizing respect and fear as currency.  This attitude became entitlement as Frank took what he wanted, when he wanted, expecting the answer to be yes to every question.  Dolly Sinatra was an anomaly for her era, using her wit and chutzpah to lead her family higher up the financial ladder. I knew immediately where his attraction to independent, adoring and extremely complex women originated.  He was destined to be different; he was simply born and bred that way. It only took the discovery of “the voice” to push the inevitable into motion.

Although Frank is the lead, I learned more from his supporting characters.  His Hollywood conquests (Ava, Mia, Lauren) always seem to be the headline of his life, but learning about his first wife Nancy was unexpected and rich in content.  All hail Nancy, she was a better woman than I could ever be.   It had to be something more than her Catholic faith, the children they shared or his financial support that promoted her unwavering support, despite the multiple personal slights.  Her love for him spoke volumes about him, as there must have been something of the young Frank from Hoboken that remained for her to continue as his stabilizing force. If she would have given up on him, I probably would have lost interest as well.  Without her, he could have become a hollow caricature of the boy who makes it big and loses his soul. A romantic at heart,  I think Nancy was his soul.  In return, the enduring respect that Frank had for her made me wonder-was Nancy really the one that got away?

The benefit of reading a historian like J.Randy Taraborrelli is the amount of detail that he packs into the pages.  He leaves no stone unturned, flattering or not, but his writing is not lascivious. I’ve always considered his writing in depth, but not indecent, truthful while remaining tasteful.  That line is the difference between authorship and gossip. When the truth is put into its proper context, you are allowed to recognize the shades of gray without gossipy insinuation. It’s a deft technique by a superior writer which allows you to reach your own conclusion about the subject. It seems Mr. Taraborelli actually likes the subjects and respects whom he writes about, but he always remains balanced in his depiction. His impartiality gave me license to experience my own reactions to Sinatra’s equal measure of strengths and shortcomings.

Toward the end, I was still rooting for Frank, even as he began his slow decline.  The man had become the myth and nothing as anthropological as age and years of hard living could possibly bring him down.  Of course, that was not true and I was left exhausted by the time he died.  Like Hamlet, Gatsby or King Lear, those juicy personas that every actor wants to inhabit, he was an intoxicating character cocktail:  he was talented beyond measure, he was charismatic, but ultimately he was heavily and humanly flawed.   When a great star takes a final bow, or a great book ends, you want it all to begin again, hoping to catch that lightning in a bottle one more time.   Once again, Mr. Taraborelli gives us a great character and a great book to enjoy.


Disclaimer:  I am extremely honored and grateful to receive a complimentary pre-release copy of Mr. Taraborrelli’s book. However, my opinions are, and always will be, my own.