- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

SINATRA: THE LIFE

By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

Knopf, 26.95, 592 pages

REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS

“Songs For Swingin’ Lovers” is the tops, of course, but if I had to choose one album that captures the essence of Frank Sinatra — the good and the bad — it would be a little-known recording of a show at the Paris Lido in 1962. At the time the singer was in the middle of a charity world tour, devised as a means of burnishing his image and soothing his disappointment at John F. Kennedy’s decision to spurn an invitation to stay at his Palm Springs compound (the much more respectable Bing Crosby got the presidential call instead.) Sinatra, in spite of all his contributions to JFK’s 1960 campaign, had mingled with too many dubious characters to be regarded as a suitable host for the master of Camelot.

In Paris, backed by a nimble sextet rather than a big band, Sinatra gave a stunning display; the result is arguably the best live recording of his career. Yet it is a curiously schizophrenic performance, high artistry combined with heavy-handed jokes and a crass wisecrack, mid-song, about the how the onion soup he had eaten before the show had given him indigestion. At times he seems almost too bored to concentrate on the lyrics of some of his greatest hits, and after an almost unbearably poignant version of “Ol’ Man River,” he brings the audience back to earth with the loudest of thumps: “That,” he explains, “was a song about Sammy Davis’s people.”

Gene Lees, one of the most thoughtful music writers on the planet, goes to the heart of things in Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s new biography when he describes the king of saloon singers as “a strange amalgam of elegance and ugliness.” Even Sinatra’s most devout fans would find it hard to argue otherwise: That ever-present tension between the sensitive artist and the celebrity ego is part and parcel of the man’s mystique.

Sadly, Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan are much too obsessed with the tawdry side of the singer’s career to begin to do justice to his talent. When Kitty Kelley published her scandalous, unauthorized biography “His Way” nearly 20 years ago, she at least managed to rummage through the dirty laundry with the relish of a true gossip-monger. Like it or loathe it, “His Way” was at least a genuine page-turner. This new study, while superficially more sober and responsible, offers little more than an arid trawl through a bloated catalogue of second-hand reminiscences and speculation, rounded off by a list of notes and sources that runs to more than 100 pages.

Sinatra’s virtues are not entirely overlooked. There are references to his fabled generosity — often directed towards fellow-performers, such as Phil Silvers, who were down on their luck. And we are left in no doubt about his courage in standing up for civil rights long before it became a fashionable cause in show business. None of this, however, matters as much to the authors as the star’s connections with the Mafia, an issue explored relentlessly until one hoodlum anecdote blurs breathlessly into the next and you are left with the impression you have wandered into a New Jersey version of the Monty Python sketch about the dreaded “Piranha Brothers.” That Sinatra was dazzled by the allure of gangsters is beyond dispute; nor is there any question that lucrative parts of the entertainment industry intersect with organized crime.

But the endless accounts of phone conversations and bar-room tantrums soon grows tedious, as does the book’s habit of grasping at every passing straw of innuendo. Thus, when it comes to explaining Sinatra’s decision to dump the Democrats in favour of the GOP in the late 1960s, Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan overlook one somewhat obvious explanation, namely that millions of people from Sinatra’s lower-middle class background did exactly the same thing around roughly the same time. Instead they lob in testimony from one of the singer’s old Rat Pack confidantes:

“Another factor may have contributed to Frank’s abandoning the Democrats in favor of the Republicans. Shirley Maclaine was told at the time he made the switch, she said, that he did so under pressure from the mob. The Mafia, she was given to understand, had decided that for them the grass had become greener on the Republican side of the political divide.”

Tell us more, please. Who passed Ms. Maclaine the information? And how exactly would the grass have been greener? Would Sinatra have hosted meet-the-godfather evenings at the White House? Would he have inserted new, Mafia-friendly lyrics into “My Way?” Would “Three Coins In The Fountain,” have become “Three Stiffs in the Potomac?”

But there is no further detail. Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan simply move on to their next story, leaving us to wonder how reliable Shirley Maclaine really can be on this subject. We all know she is an authority on reincarnation, but would you rely on her for an insight into Murder Incorporated? Probably not. Don’t expect to find any enlightenment from those copious footnotes either.

Ultimately, Mr. Summers — whose previous accomplishments include propagating the story about J. Edgar Hoover’s taste in dresses — gives the impression he cares less about sorting fact from rumor than in generating tabloid column inches and serialization deals. He and Ms. Swan tell us next to nothing about Sinatra the singer (for that you need to go to Will Friedwald’s exhaustive “Sinatra! The Song is You!”) and they show little interest in his acting skills. (Typically, the brief account of his career changing role in “From Here To Eternity” centers on whether or not gangsters helped him land the part of Rizzo.) Thanks to all the lurid headlines on both side of the Atlantic, Knopf will presumably reap financial rewards. Whether it was worth undermining the company’s reputation is another matter.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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