New Sinatra Books Trade in Myth and Minutiae
Sinatra: Behind the LegendBy J. Randy TaraborrelliBirch Lane Press, 547 pages, $27.50The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin' By Bill Zehme Harper Collins, 245 pages, $23 "May you live to be a hundred and the last voice you hear be mine."Frank Sinatra, a beaming figure in crisp evening wear, would deliver this toast from the concert stage -- raising a tumbler of his personal water-of-life (Jack Daniels) as the spotlights winked off. Thusly blessed, the members of the audience would troop back to their ordinary lives, humming "Summerwind" as they went, enthralled to have seen and heard someone larger than life. Someone immortal. But the stage is permanently dark now.Sinatra, who turned 82 in December, no longer performs. (Anyone who witnessed his wheezy, wavering 1994 concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion knows why). Frank in 1998 is a man alone. Dino, Sammy, great love Ava, and best crony Jilly Rizzo are all on the other side. Even the Sands Casino has returned to the dust from which, in carefree days long ago, Frank helped it rise. You don't have to believe the tabloid headlines, which already have one of Sinatra's perfectly creased trouser legs in the grave -- "Sinatra's brave final days!" -- to know that, borrowing from the Paul Anka-penned "My Way," the Chairman now faces the final curtain. Perhaps it's this morbid reality that keeps the Sinatra scribes busy.Two more Frank books debuted late last year, following the flurry of Sinatra selections that blossomed around the singer's 80th birthday in '95. There have been photo books, music books, and family-penned bios, but J. Randy Taraborrelli's two-inch-thick tome Sinatra: Behind the Legend is the first weighty "unauthorized" biography since Kitty Kelly's muckraking My Way hit the stands in '86 and caused Sinatra to go ballistic; he sued the "dopey broad" before her effort was even published. The Sinatra camp's roaring silence in the face of Taraborrelli's tell-all speaks volumes about the Chairman's current condition. It begins where the story must: the hardscrabble streets of Hoboken, where we find a scrawny, scrappy little dandy with a chip on his shoulder and stars in his eyes, the only son of a pugnacious part-time abortionist and a taciturn fireman.Sinatra is barely in his teens when one thing becomes clear: Taraborrelli is a hack. A master of gossipy celeb bios (a forest of trees have been sacrificed for his looks at Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Cher), his prose is stilted, his style oversexed. (Why can't someone tell Frank's tale with the evocative insight Nick Tosches poured into his Dean Martin bio, Dino?) Thus, Taraborrelli describes a 22-year-old Sinatra as being on an "orgasmic quest," and spends a couple of pages discussing an aspect of his subject's anatomy that could have succinctly been summed up with the words "Frankie has a big one." (This indelicate subject, er, pops up later when Frank's endowment is reported to have sent bed partner Eva Gabor to the hospital; Taraborrelli, it seems, is campaigning to have Sinatra's nickname changed from "The Voice" to something else.)Prurient priorities set, Taraborrelli follows Frank from the Harry James Band, to Tommy Dorsey, and through the bobbysoxer rage. Along the way Sinatra swaps frisky Jersey girls for Tinseltown starlets, whom he goes through the way the rest of us go through paper towels. The freestyle bed-hopping bogs down only when Sinatra meets Ava Gardner, the green-eyed vixen who, during a bout of self-assessment, said, "Deep down I'm very superficial." Taraborrelli's writing, at best a guilty pleasure, here becomes simply tedious.Picture the most obnoxious, endlessly feuding couple from your college-dorm days. Now picture them possessing Hollywood star clout and Hollywood star bank accounts. Frank chases Ava to Spain; they fight. She follows him to Paris; they fight. Faces are slapped, distraught heads are shoved in gas ovens, and at least one six-carat emerald-and-diamond ring gets flung out a hotel window, never to be recovered.Artistically speaking, some good did come of this globe-trotting antiromance. Sinatra channels the Ava anguish into his lonely, wee-hour ballads (starting with "I'm a Fool to Want You," which he cowrote). And after an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor for 1953's From Here to Eternity) yanks him from the has-been file, Sinatra begins to churn out some of the best music of his career. And as Frank sings himself into history, Taraborrelli keeps the incredulous -- largely unsubstantiated -- nuggets coming. (Typical example: Frank yelling, "Get your fat ass back in your room!" to a nude Marilyn Monroe as she threatens to crash his poker night.)Taraborrelli does have a decade more to chronicle than did Kelly, but Sinatra in the '90s -- holed up behind the curtains of his Palm Springs compound -- does mostly boring, eccentric-old-man stuff: sleeping until the afternoon, eating beans from a can, playing with his electric trains. The amusing moments in Frank's twilight era usually involve houseguests who crash his netherworld. (Imagine, if you can, this drunk-around-the-piano trio: Sinatra, Springsteen, and Dylan.)Ultimately, for all its titillation there's really nothing in this portentously titled examination that Kelly didn't serve up years ago, with sharper fangs. Worse, Taraborrelli often follows his egregious accusations with paragraphs of gratuitous fawning. (See, Frank, I was just kidding ... ) God knows Sinatra is no angel, but in the end, the man's complexity proves too much for Taraborrelli's little pen.In the The Way You Wear Your Hat, Bill Zehme takes a different tack altogether. He has no interest in exposing the man behind the curtain, and he unabashedly parks the legend front and center: Sinatra as the epitome of a freewheelin' hipster. Sinatra might have been a mean drunk, but in these pages he's never an ugly one. Zehme's Sinatra, midway through his daily bottle of Jack, has a straight tie and an immaculate suit. He's the mythic figure -- the Leader -- able at any moment to emerge from the late-night miasma of liquor and Lucky Strikes to croon a visceral "My Funny Valentine" around the corner piano.Zehme, a senior writer at Esquire, first took on the subject for a magazine article a few years back. Fearing that men had "gotten soft," Zehme asked Sinatra to answer a series of lifestyle questions -- questions that could save a guy's life. The responses form the book's backbone. It's Sinatra as Martha Stewart, expounding on his "good things": jauntily cocked hats, gassin' parties, buxom broads, lifelong pals. It's a breezy manual/manifesto on ring-a-ding-ding living. Who did Frank slap on the turntable when he wanted to woo a dame? Nat King Cole. What should a man never do in the presence of a woman? Yawn. What's the worst thing that can happen to a martini? Warm vodka.There is also an intimate look at the entertainers around Sinatra. (And if you worked in Vegas during the '60s and '70s, you have a Sinatra story.) Take Don Rickles, who Frank tossed buck naked from the steam room to the casino pool area. ("So I frightened a few small children," Rickles says. "What did he care?") And there are surprises here too. Dean Martin's license plates might have read drunky, and his stage persona was that of a stumbling, gold-star lush, but he probably drank the least of the lot. Seems Dino would often forgo the wee-hours showgirl and double bourbon so as to be fresh for early-morning golf. (Or, in Frank-speak, "He likes golf-ball thumping like I like humping.")Zehme jazzily weaves it all together: Rat Pack anecdotes, candid photos, saloon stories, sartorial how-to, and mixology pointers. But, alas, something is missing. Indeed, after ingesting both books -- nearly 800 pages of minutiae and myth, gossip and glamour -- the Sinatra story is incomplete. Proceed from the bookshelf to the CD rack. Toss in The Concert Sinatra, the '63 release wherein Nelson Riddle leads a 73-piece orchestra through a collection of Broadway pearls. Track one: "I Have Dreamed." That resonant baritone -- in full, early-60s bore -- seamlessly molds the Hammerstein lyrics around the Rodgers melody. The library of Sinatra literature (good and bad) grows and grows, but this is all one really needs to know about Francis Albert Sinatra.