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Book Review : Sinatra's Sins and Sorrows Magnified

October 22, 1986|DAVID FREEMAN | Freeman is the author of "A Hollywood Education" (Putnam's). and

His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra by Kitty Kelley (Bantam: $21.95)

Frank Sinatra is the nova of American saloon singers. No one has ever had his power of phrasing or subtlety of shading, not Judy Garland, Tony Bennett or Lena Horne. Billie Holiday came close, but her career was brief; Sinatra has been at it for 50 years. He is the standard by which all other popular singers are judged.

Kitty Kelley is not the first to claim that, off-stage, Sinatra has been a sidekick to both gangsters and Presidents, a hater and baiter of journalists and the lover of many women.

Compulsive Reading

With the publication of "His Way," her relentless but compulsively readable indictment-biography, Sinatra also seems to be the apotheosis of the cuff-shooting, finger-snapping, jaw-busting show-biz night bird.

Kelley interviewed 875 people and appears to have examined hundreds of documents relating to Sinatra's life. The people who talked to her are for the most part the ones who were either peripheral to Sinatra or who had been drummed out of his entourage. It's an unreliable bunch, but their unanimity of opinion is overwhelming and hard to discredit.

Francis Albert Sinatra grew up in Hoboken, N.J., the only child of an ambitious, domineering mother and a weak, passive father, Kelley says. Dolly Sinatra was a midwife who, Kelley alleges, performed abortions, accumulated political power and shamelessly indulged her son.

Frank's principal childhood skills seemed to be wearing clothes, getting in trouble and blaming other people.

With Dolly's help, he launched a career that made him the idol of what were then called bobby-soxers, a movie star, a very rich man and, on the evidence here, a humorless lout given to random cruelty and spontaneous kindness.

Two Different Sides

When Lee J. Cobb, who was not a close friend, was sick and broke, Sinatra was amazingly generous with time and money. On the other hand, Peter Lawford recalled a time in Palm Springs when Sinatra "got so mad at some poor girl that he slammed her through a plate-glass window . . . (her) arm was nearly severed."

The only conclusion one can draw from Kelley's account of guilt-producing binges of sometimes violent rudeness and compensatory amends is of a monstrous id, virtually unchecked by what psychologists would call a superego and the rest of us might call human decency. To show his affection to a friend, Kelley reported, Sinatra once said, "Bill, sometimes I wish someone would really hurt you so I could kill them."

There are a few grace notes, but not many. He seems genuinely angry at racial injustice and has worked to combat it. He tried to help break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring blacklisted writer Albert Maltz.

A Record of Abuse

But Kelley adduces an almost lifelong record of bullying the weak, abusing those in his employ and turning his goons on anyone in his way. The man seems to see slights and insults in ordinary behavior, she implies, his skin as thin as he himself once was--in the days when his press agents talked about "Swoonatra."

There is so much cruel, actionable, semi-rational behavior recounted here that a reader can't help wondering if there isn't another side. Won't someone close to the man make a case for him? Won't he speak for himself? But Sinatra tried to sue to stop this book (the First Amendment prevailed) and apparently instructed his current friends and associates to keep silent.

He has chosen only to sneer and turn his back--acting like a ring-a-ding-ding Coriolanus--on the book that, despite efforts by his daughter and others, will surely stand as the public record for the foreseeable future.

The most compelling parts of "His Way" are about Sinatra and the Mafia, and about Ava Gardner, the one grand passion among all the women he has loved. When the lightning of romance first struck, Frank and Ava drove into the desert, to Indio, and shot up the place, firing bullets from their convertible--little steel harbingers of the explosions to come. His flunkies had to gather up $30,000 in cash (this was 1948) and hurry to Indio to spread it around and hush the whole thing up, Kelley says.

Gardner was his match, the second of his four wives, and when she traded him in for a couple of Spanish bullfighters, he toyed with suicide and seems never to have gotten over the heartbreak. Nelson Riddle said it was the loss of Gardner that "taught him how to sing a torch song. . . . She was the greatest love of his life and he lost her."

Gangsters and Politicians

Evidence of Sinatra's involvement with gangsters and politicians--some of it taken from FBI files, crime commission reports and transcripts of wiretaps of Mafia phone conversations--is all here.

The friends that move in and out of Sinatra's life include Sam Giancana, head of the Chicago mob; Lucky Luciano (Sinatra visited him in Havana in 1947, Kelley says, very likely carrying a large amount of cash for the exiled gangster); J. F. K.; Agnew, and the Reagans.

No one else in the history of our country has ever cut a similar social swath. Whatever else he is, the man is an original.

No one expects an artist to be a Boy Scout or a member of the Chamber of Commerce, but it is astounding to consider that a man capable of evoking such ache and longing through his music could be so cruel and insensitive.

Think of his recording of "I've Got You Under My Skin"--you don't even have to play it, it's embedded in our collective psyche so that just the mention of it is likely to evoke gooseflesh and sweet memories.

There's not much praise for Frank Sinatra in this book, but between his sins, all of which are traced and pinned down here, the sound of that troubled, smoky voice insinuates itself; no matter what else he's done, the man and his music loom over this book and the popular mindscape, always larger than low-life.

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