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The Leader of the Pack

The Rat Pack embodied 1960s cool, doing as they pleased, mixing with girls, gangsters and governors in the glare of the press and the Las Vegas sun. But one star shown brightest – New Jersey boy Frank Sinatra...

He was born scrawny, and the doctor’s forceps mashed his ear and his cheek.  He was spoiled and lonely and stood watching from his front steps as the rougher boys played.  He was embarrassed by his preening, bossy mother, yet he took after her more than he did his affable, loaf-about dad.  He never fit in.

But he possessed steel and drive and charm and a talent unlike anyone’s ever, and he was fortunate in his opportunities and in his timing, and eventually the skinny little kid with the strange last name became a giant bestriding the earth on the strength of his nerve and instincts and taste and connections and, above all, his magisterial voice and manner.

For more than fifty of his eighty-two years, Frank Sinatra stood atop the Mount Olympus of American popular entertainment, as singer, actor, entrepreneur, personality, and icon of masculinity and cool.  And it was entirely unlikely that such a thing should happen.

He had been born, without any special promise, to working-class Italian immigrant stock in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915, and by the time he gathered around him the claque known as the Rat Pack he was a millionaire many times over who conquered the musical, film and concert worlds, ran businesses including casinos and movie and record companies, bedded the most desirable women alive (and scores, hundreds, of others), and consorted openly with the President of the United States and the boss of the Chicago Mafia, practically at the same time. 

It was a great American saga.  No one had ever had such power, let alone a singer of popular songs.  Frank Sinatra was utterly one-of-a-kind.

He began as a boy singer on amateur nights, then a singing waiter who had to pay for his own equipment and air time to get his voice out on the radio.  The bandleader Harry James heard him and hired him, and suddenly the kid with no friends had a big band full of instant brothers.  Presently, a bigger band, Tommy Dorsey’s, came calling, and fronting this chart-topping outfit brought Sinatra to national attention.  And the audience that was drawn to him was brand new: girls -- bobby-soxers they were called, for a fashion affectation round the ankles -- who saw in the lanky singer with the blue eyes and wavy hair and bow ties an emblem for the boys off fighting in Europe and the Pacific.  They turned him into such a star that he bought himself out of his contract to Dorsey so as to make himself available to his explosive and devoted public on records and radio and in movies.

As it happened, though, in real life they couldn’t have him: He was married to his own neighborhood sweetie, Nancy, who bore him two daughters and a son and abided, knowingly or not, her man’s heroic womanizing.  On the road as a singer, in Hollywood making films, Frank slept his way through the ranks of famous and not so famous ladies, master of his appetites and his heart -- until, that is, he completely lost it to Ava Gardner, whose sexual thirst equaled, if it didn’t exceed, his own.

His torrid affair with Gardner cost him his marriage -- and a portion of his following at a time when he couldn’t afford it.  Columbia Records, for whom he’d had so many hits, suddenly didn’t know what to do with him and let his contract run out.  Ditto his movie studio and TV and radio networks.  The nightclub scene still had a spot for him, but he lost that, too, when his voice started, queerly, to fail.  And Ava, who married him, continued to follow her lust where it led her, making a cuckold of him in the face of the world.

He was finished...and then he rose from his self-immolation in a form more potent and dazzling than he, or anyone, had ever taken before.  He learned to sing differently, and he sang a new kind of song -- the same great American tunes he’d always adored (Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein or Hart) but with saucy up-tempo beats or moody, suicidal textures (there were rumors circulating around those last ones, that his grief over Ava had driven him to pills or a razor...).  He quit appearing in musical fluff and became a convincing dramatic actor: winning an Academy Award for “From Here To Eternity” (1953), then playing with convincing power in “The Man With The Golden Arm” (1955), “Young At Heart” (1954), “Suddenly” (1954), “The Joker Is Wild” (1957) and “Some Came Running” (1958).

Most of all, he came to embody a knowing, confident, modern, nonconformist, elegant male sexuality.  All the liaisons he’d kept hidden during his marriages could now be flaunted publicly.  All the boozing and gambling and pugnacity and outrageousness that drove people away from him just after the war seemed somehow magnetic and right in the age of tailfins, rock-and-roll, Sputnik and the Bomb. 

By 1959, when he was within sight of a half-century, he was on top of the world, very nearly literally, and selected from among his show- biz friends a small, tight circle of like-minded and like-styled fellows with whom he would form a supergroup of talent.  Together they could sing and dance and joke and get serious and make movies and stage wild shows and use their contacts in the world of power to introduce political authority to its illegitimate cousin in crime.  They would knit entertainment, government and mobsterism almost as an afterthought in their movie-making, music-making, and, chief of all, money-making endeavors.  And they would have the clout and the moxie to do it all not in dark smoky rooms but out in the sun of Las Vegas with the press and its cameras sitting ringside.

Only Frank Sinatra was big enough to orchestrate it all.  He was the nation’s best and most popular singer, one of its top box office movie attractions, a tycoon of the entertainment industry, a symbol of male virility and allure, and the sort of fellow who could talk politics with John and Bobby Kennedy and darker affairs with Sam Giancana and Frank Costello. 

The joke used to say, “It’s Frank’s world, we’re just living in it.”

The reality is that the joke was true.

Squaremile Magazine

01 Jan, 2011

Shawn Levy