- - Wednesday, October 28, 2015


By James Kaplan

Doubleday, $45, 979 pages

More books have been written about Frank Sinatra than of any American entertainer in history; with the exception, of course, of Ronald Reagan. With “Sinatra: The Chairman” (979 pages), follow-up to his 2010 “Frank: The Voice”(786 pages), James Kaplan obviously aims at ending the genre with a definitive work.

Two volumes on the life of a single entertainer who didn’t move on to become president. How to explain it? The obvious answer is that Sinatra was actually several entertainers wrapped into one: singer, actor, dancer.

Yet, for all that, versatility in itself doesn’t answer the question of why Sinatra captures the imagination of cultural biographers. Singer, actor, dancer, yes, but the same can be said of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Bob Hope, the 20th century’s best-known comedian.

No, there was something clearly sui generis about a performer who confounded Scott Fitzgerald’s overwrought axiom that there are no second acts in American lives.

“Sinatra: The Chairman” takes up the second act in the Voice’s life with Sinatra’s legendary comeback, winning an Oscar for his role as Maggio in “From Here to Eternity.” His early years as the crooning idol of swooning bobbysoxers a faded memory, he’d been written off as a has-been — a loser not only of his lover, Ava Gardner, but even his voice.

“He’s a dead man,” the Hollywood talent agent “Swifty” Lazar concluded. “Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town.” Perhaps not, writes Mr. Kaplan, “but Frank Sinatra could, doing it in a relentlessly Darwinian company town that reviles losers … And quite suddenly that spring, without a shred of embarrassment about its fickleness, the entertainment industry began throwing itself at his feet.”

The year was 1954, a time when Las Vegas was coming into its own as an entertainment capital. It was there, in the neon empire created by the East Coast gangster “Bugsy” Siegel, that the legend of Sinatra as the most powerful superstar in the galaxy of American entertainment took hold.

His voice not only recovered but better than ever — deeper, richer, more emotive — and with the help of the brilliant arranger Nelson Riddle, the “Chairman of the Board,” as he became known, captured a whole new generation of music-lovers with romantic concept albums that stand at the center of the Great American Songbook.

It was also in Las Vegas that the bibulous Rat Pack came into being: a synthetically hip quintet of middle-aged playboys — Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford — with the Chairman as leader of a free-form nightclub act.

All of which members of the millennial generation might posit as a best-forgotten memory of the pre-digital past; except that, thanks to Frank Sinatra’s timeless aura, it’s still with us in George Clooney’s remakes of the original Rat Pack movie, “Ocean’s Eleven.”

That Peter Lawford was included as a member of the pack was due to the Chairman’s higher aspirations. As John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, the English-born actor served as entree to the Washington power circle Sinatra had stood in awe of since his days as a young liberal.

So it was that after putting the Rat Pack to work for JFK in Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, the Chairman served as impresario of Kennedy’s star-studded Inaugural gala. Twenty years later he would do the same for his friend Ronald Reagan.

Sinatra’s conversion from Democrat to Republican, as Mr. Kaplan tells it, was spurred by his visceral loathing of the radical left’s flag burnings and talk of “bringing down the government.” He supported Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential race, but two years later “made a startling announcement: he was joining the campaign to re-elect Ronald Reagan as governor of California … Sinatra, once the movie capital’s Democrat in chief,” writes Mr. Kaplan, “now appeared to be moving rightward.”

Six month later, with Spiro Agnew aide (and Bob Hope’s nephew) Peter Malatesta acting as go-between, the Chairman and Republican vice president struck up a friendship that startled liberal Hollywood even more. Name-dropping alert: As the vice president’s press secretary I came in frequent contact with Sinatra, though as his publicist at the time, Jim Mahoney, once confided, “There’s a side to Frank that neither your boss nor you will ever see.”

Mr. Kaplan covers that dark side — Sinatra’s volatile temper, his friendship with mobsters like Sam Giancana, his tempestuous love life (four marriages, as many near-marriages, a cosmos of affairs) in exhaustive, often lurid detail. But more: What sets both Kaplan volumes apart from other Sinatra biographies is the author’s equally exhaustive detail of the Chairman’s single-minded passion for making the most of his gift.

Mr. Kaplan tells the story of Mafia chief Giancana so angered with his friend Frank that he’s about to put out a contract on his life; but in bed with a showgirl, while listening to a Sinatra album, the thought goes through his head, “Christ, how can I silence that voice? It’s the most beautiful sound in the world.”

So there it is, the answer to why we have so many books about Frank Sinatra. It’s simply, then, now, and for all time, the Voice.

Victor Gold, who served on the staffs of Barry Goldwater, Spiro Agnew and George H. W. Bush, is completing a political memoir, “Adventures in 20th Century Politics.”

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