Sinatra, the Life
By Anthony Summers, Knopf, New York, 2005, 575p
By Ted Schmidt
Go into any library and you’ll find many books on Frank Sinatra. Our Toronto Public Library has fifteen choices. They all have their own take, which is not unusual given the many persons Sinatra was. Few would argue that he was the greatest pop singer of the last half of the 20th century. As one who has devoured all the biographies of Francis Albert, I recently picked up the latest by the British journalist Anthony Summers (Knopf, 2005). From my angle his is the definitive version of the man’s life and work.
Summers builds on Kitty Kelly’s delightfully scandalous bio of Ol’ Blue Eyes, His Way (1986). Since then we have had daughters Tina and Nancy’s adoring looks at their father. Then there was the brutal My Life with Sinatra where Sinatra’s ex-valet George Jacobs paints a devastating portrait of his boss as a sex addict. Summers has gone way beyond the aforementioned and has sussed out sources which prove the Mob’s role in Sinatra’s rise to the top.
This book is not for the faint of heart or the Sinatra worshippers. The British author develops a theme many writers have spun before—the dominance of the crooner’s foul-mouthed mother in his life, perhaps a clue to his own mercurial and abusive behaviour to many people. A Democratic ward heeler in Hoboken and the local abortionist, mother Dolly left her only child alone for much of his formative years. As first wife Nancy has said, Frank was never good enough. He grew up a deeply insecure young man who could never express admiration or feel indebted to anyone. The pampered child turned out to be a spoiled adult. A long romance with alcohol (Jack Daniels) often fueled his anger and rage. Sinatra could be especially cruel to friends and relatives alike. Dean Martin died begging for his forgiveness.
Sinatra’s discovery at the Rustic Cabin near Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey by Harry James in 1938 has been well documented. What hasn’t been was his friendship with local hood “Gyp” DeCarlo who became Sinatra’s sponsor; when the crooner joined Tommy Dorsey in 1941 his future was assured. However, Dorsey refused to release him as a solo act–until Good Fella Mr. DeCarlo made the trombonist an offer he could not refuse.
Missing in the book is the role of Torontonian Ruth Lowe’s role in Sinatra’s ascent to the top. The former had lost her husband early in their marriage in 1938 and then penned the now classic “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Sinatra recorded this and never looked back. Lowe also penned another Sinatra classic, his early signature tune “Put Your Dreams Away,” a ballad played at Sinatra’s funeral.
Summers covers territory well known to his legion of fans—his debt to Dorsey and Bing Crosby, the anger of war time males at Sinatra’s 1A classification (he had a punctured ear drum), his doomed affair with Ava Gardner and his suicide attempt, his extraordinary comeback in the 1954 film From Here to Eternity, his many private acts of kindness, and his debt to arranger Nelson Riddle.
It is however in Sinatra’s strange love affair with hoodlums Lucky Luciano, Sam Giancana, Joe Fischetti, and his lying about his debt and relationship that Summers adds to the Sinatra story. He provides ample proof that The Voice had a strange fascination and friendship with these paisans.
Here it is, warts and all—a satisfying look at a troubled, conflicted man who despite his flaws happened to create the greatest oeuvre of popular singing in our time. His human failings are laid bare for all to see but his singing legacy remains undiminished and unparalleled.
Birchcliff resident Ted Schmidt bought his first Sinatra album in 1956.