- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2010

By James Kaplan
Doubleday, $35 768 pages, illustrated


Here’s Sinatra again, from his birth in Hoboken, N.J. in 1915 to his Oscar in Hollywood in 1954, and the gang’s all here: his domineering mother and ineffectual father, his long-suffering wife Nancy, Ava Gardner, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey (look, look, there’s Lucky Luciano!), swooning bobby-soxers and savage critics.

From the inanity of the movie “The Kissing Bandit” to the artistic heights of “From Here to Eternity,” from the mobbed-up Copacabana in New York to the mobbed-up Flamingo in Las Vegas, we meet the agents, the PR guys, the hangers-on and the endless procession of babes and broads who all catered to the whims of the man his friends - his friends, mind you - called “the Monster.”

We watch Sinatra’s rise, his decline, and then the Great Comeback. Mr. Kaplan has packed into more than 700 pages just about every important fact of Sinatra’s career up to 1954 and analyzed every informed speculation made about him. The book has many strengths. The story, familiar as it is, is told with the kind of page-turning razzle-dazzle that makes a reader want to find out what will happen next, even though he may already know.

The author’s research is thorough, wide and deep, including interviews with people who knew Sinatra in the early days (e.g., singer Jo Stafford). Mr. Kaplan has watched tapes and kinescopes of Sinatra’s television appearances and can tell you the song list and the quality of the singer’s voice on each show. He knows and admires the Great American Songbook, so much a part of the legend of Sinatra, and offers insiders’ views of just how Sinatra and musicians worked together. At the heart of the book is Mr. Kaplan’s belief - which I share - that Sinatra was, above all, a singer of unparalleled gifts and an artist of the first rank.

Writing about a superb recording of “Sweet Lorraine” Sinatra made with a group of jazz all-stars in 1946, Mr. Kaplan addresses the question of whether he was a true jazz singer. No, he concludes, because although Sinatra developed his art “in parallel to jazz, [he was] never in its thrall. He was a representational artist to his core; abstraction never tempted him.”

That is a shrewd, telling and original insight. (Personal note: I once had a brief conversation with Sinatra. He was polite, but not particularly forthcoming as I asked him about famous recordings he had made, but when I mentioned the “Sweet Lorraine” session, those blue eyes widened, he grinned, and said, “Oh, yes, I remember that one!”)

But the book has glaring faults. Mr. Kaplan embellishes his story with touches we would expect in fiction, as if Sinatra’s story, exciting as it is, needs punching up. He tells us what people were thinking, quotes long conversations, and lets us know what Sinatra was feeling at certain crucial moments. How does he know these things?

The book opens with Sinatra’s difficult birth. Mr. Kaplan sets the scene: “A raw December Sunday afternoon … [t]he air smells of coal smoke and imminent snow … [Dolly Sinatra, about to give birth] moans hoarsely . . [t]he midwife wipes the poor girl’s brow and motions with her other hand …” (This passage bears a strong resemblance to the opening of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “Of Human Bondage”: “The day broke gray and dull … there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. [Philip Carey’s] mother sobbed now, brokenheartedly … the … nurse tried to quiet her and presently, from exhaustion, the crying ceased … .”)

The author is addicted to cliches. I started making notes on this sloppy writing habit but finally gave up midway through the book. Here is a short list: not letting the grass grow under his feet … he darkened the doorway … to add insult to injury … moved heaven and earth … he turned on a dime … as phoney as a three-dollar bill. These trite phrases are the literary equivalent of singing off-key.

Just as annoying is Mr. Kaplan’s attempt to associate the life of the saloon singer with the march of history. Writing of “A-You’re Adorable,” a silly recording made by Perry Como, Mr. Kaplan states: “It was perfect pabulum for the masses in a nervous year; in August, the Soviet Union would confirm Americans’ worst fears by testing its first A-bomb.” Sinatra and Harry James made a recording “on Thursday, August 31, the day before the Nazis stormed through Poland.” Oh, the portentousness of it all. Or should that be pretentiousness?

Sinatra, during these years, was an outspoken political liberal. Some of his critics made harsh statements about his political leanings, and Mr. Kaplan does an energetic job of setting the record straight. Fair enough. But unfortunately, he believes the left-liberal cliches about the early Cold War years. What time was it in the 1950s? To Mr. Kaplan, it was “a time of fear and conformity.” There was a “witch hunt” and ” a climate of fear.”

The title of a Bob Hope television show, “Star Spangled Revue,” was, according to the author, ” the frightened era’s equivalent of a flag lapel pin.” As I read this litany of lefty cliches, it occurred to me that we were lucky to get anything done back then because, if Mr. Kaplan is right, we were all paralyzed with fear, except when, all wearing the same conformist clothes, and waving American flags, we were out hunting witches. Ah, those were the days.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.

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