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'Frank' Did It His Way, And The Story Never Gets Old

American singer and actor Frank Sinatra, during a visit to Britain in 1953.
Ronald Startup
Getty Images
American singer and actor Frank Sinatra, during a visit to Britain in 1953.

It's not that I'm reading still another book about Frank Sinatra; there's nothing embarrassing about that; it's that I know everything it's going to tell me before I read a word.

There's the self-willed rise to stardom, the screaming bobby-soxers, the apprenticeship with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, the marriage with the neighborhood girl, the serial adulteries, the early films with Gene Kelly who taught him how to dance, the volatile relationship with the press (including an occasional punch-out), the endless drinking and partying, the flirtation with organized crime, the night when he opened his mouth to sing and nothing came out, the decline in record sales, the all-consuming relationship with Ava Gardner whom he married, fought with, and pined for as she dallied with bullfighters, the suicide attempts, and then the glorious comeback (again self-willed) when he campaigned for the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, wrested it from Eli Wallach, learned how to play it from Montgomery Clift, and won the Academy Award for it.

And that's where the book I'm reading now — James Kaplan's Frank: The Voice — ends after 718 pages with still more than 40 years of life to go, and I can't wait for volume two even though the writing is at best workman-like, the psychologizing irritating, and I know exactly what is waiting for me — Chairman of the Board, the Rat Pack, Mia Farrow, the kidnapping of Frank Jr., the turn from ardent Democrat to increasingly conservative Republican, the retirement, "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back," the years with Barbara, and "I Did It My Way."

Why? Why should someone who has spent an academic lifetime teaching and writing about John Milton, George Herbert and John Bunyan have a large photograph of a skinny crooner prominently displayed in his study (my father's portrait is off in a corner)?

Part of the answer is to be found in the photograph, taken in 1953 in London. The venue is large, but in the photograph Sinatra is alone in darkness with a large old-style floor-mic. His body leans back; the gaze seeks a far-away horizon. It is the position of his hands that tells the story. His right hand is relaxed, open fingered and caresses the microphone at knee level as if it were a bass or a woman; the left hand is chest-high and is holding on to the microphone for dear life. It would be too easy to say that one hand signifies vulnerability, the other strength and control. Each hand signifies both. The hand that lightly caresses is tentative, yet confident; the hand that clutches is assertive yet desperate.

Sinatra was a man of extreme confidence and extreme vulnerability at the same time, and the presence of both, in this picture and in his music, is what makes his story endlessly compelling, even as you are hearing it for the 40th time. It's like watching an opera; as you see the early struggles and complications, you know that the full flower of love and triumph is around the corner; and when the corner is turned you know that it can't last and that even greater tragedies [and death] await in the final act. He may have done it his way, but his way is so grandly theatrical that it is archetypal, and like other archetypes the Sinatra legend is self-renewing. It is also flattering to the obsessed and serial consumer of the legend who after a while cannot distinguish himself from the object of his fascination.

The real guilty pleasure of reading about Sinatra is the pleasure of imagining yourself to be just like him, just like the flawed and heroic figure whose story you can't get enough of.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

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Stanley Fish