Book Talk: Sinatra: The Life

“Above all…Frank’s sheer talent ought to be given more weight than the dark side of his personality. ‘It does not matter how powerful, or corrupt, he is or may become. We can forgive him so long as he continues to enchant us solely by existing’.”

“Sinatra: The Life” by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (2005)

A biography of this size and scope, that tells the story of an artist so enmeshed in the fabric of history, necessitates deep study and analysis and the result is that a “review” becomes more than simply a review. In Sinatra: The Life, Irish journalist and author Andrew Summers and his wife, Robbyn Swan, present such a wealth of information on Frank Sinatra, with varied and respectable sources and delivered with such a distinct tone that much of what they report bears discussion. The story they tell and the way they tell it could generate hours, nay days, of debate.

First we need to look at the author. The credibility of Summers and Swan is one thing that cannot be debated. Together and alone, the two have written a number of books on historical figures and events that have been best-sellers and award winners. I read Summers’ tome on Marilyn Monroe and was gobsmacked, particularly over the inclusion of an autopsy photo. Their other books include a work on the assassination of John F. Kennedy that was highly praised, a look at the “secret life” of J. Edgar Hoover that was attacked for fact-checking that was considered “unsatisfying” and a book on the 9/11 attacks that was at once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history and also criticized for a “lack of original research”. But I think it is safe to accept the work and research of Summers in the case of his Sinatra book; A Life contains 133 pages of notes and sources. He and Swan provide ample corroboration for every claim they make. Most of these claims point to the authors’ assertion that Frank Sinatra was not a nice person.

The comune (municipality) of Lercara Friddi featuring the Colle Madore archaeological site in the background.

The first eight pages of the book are spent establishing a link between Sinatra and Lucky Luciano. Summers obviously hopes to set the table for this book that will come back time and time again to Sinatra’s “mob connections”. Summers has unearthed countless documents that establish the Sinatra family origins in Lercara Friddi, a municipality in Palermo, Sicily. Sinatra’s father, Anthony Martin Sinatra, was born in this region, as was Luciano and his family. Summers makes much of Sinatra’s attempts throughout his life to “conceal” this fact and the reader is left to wonder if what Summers is saying is that because of where the Sinatra family originated, they must have been aligned in some way with La Cosa Nostra and ultimately Lucky Luciano. Summers continues in this vein but, as we’ll see, there are many perceptions one can have about Sinatra’s relationship with the mafia.

“Far from merely having had incidental encounters with “some guys” in his youth, Sinatra had intimate relationships with vicious murderers, thieves, and vice czars. His business would be entwined with their rackets for fifty years.”

– bold statement from Summers

Summers and Swan then go on to cite several examples of other entertainers who had dealings with “Italian-American gangsters”; Enrico Caruso, Bing Crosby, Mario Lanza, Al Martino, Jimmy Durante, George Raft and Joe E. Lewis among them. It is also stated that “there wasn’t a nightclub in New York that wasn’t owned by the Boys” and this was “a measure of the grip organized crime had on the nightclub business”. Well, if Mob involvement in the entertainment business is so rampant and so many artists were affected by it, what makes Sinatra so bad?

The infamous photo of Sinatra backstage at the Westchester Premier Theatre in New York in April of 1976. Among those pictured are known members of organized crime Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino and Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.

Summers makes much of Frank’s lifelong denials of dealings with the Mob. But why would FS deny having Mob connections? To conceal the fact that he is really part of Murder, Inc.? Or to avoid the public repercussions that would no doubt hurt his career? He could have been best friends with Luciano or never met him at all and denied a connection solely for professional reasons rather than to conceal the “fact” that he really was “one of the Boys”. Still, I suppose Summers could also be asking why is Frank friends or associating at all with anyone who deals in crime and murder? We also can’t deny Sinatra’s fascination with “those guys” and his propensity to act and be tough, like those in organized crime. This all might be just a bit of hero worship on Frank’s part.

“Italians tend to break down into two kinds of people: Lucky Luciano or Michelangelo. Frank’s an exception. He’s both.”

– pianist Gene DiNovi

Summers takes Sinatra to task again when discussing Frank’s leaving the employ of bandleader Tommy Dorsey. This book supports the ages-old story that the Mob helped Sinatra out of his contract with Dorsey. I believe this scenario is possible and there could be many ways this came about; only ONE of them being that FS asked “the Boys” for help. Another possibility that even Summers himself relates is that Italian Mafiosi loved Frank as one of their own and it could have been felt that Sinatra “validated” Italians, even those involved in organized crime. It’s possible the Mob could have approached TD on their own, wanting to help out their paisan and flex some muscle. And let us not forget something that no one seems to mention when talking about the mean ol’ Mob threatening to blow Tommy’s head off and that is the utter absurdity of TD’s severance agreement with Frank. Dorsey hoped to make money off him for the next ten years or perhaps even for an “unlimited period of time”. Are we surprised someone may have put a gun to Dorsey’s head?

During a chapter entitled “An Assist From the Boys”, Summers presents as indisputable the role the Mafia played in helping Frank during his down time in the early 1950’s and in securing for him the career-changing role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity. Summers lists all the nightclubs in which Frank found work during the doldrums, places that were Mob-run; hoping, I guess, that the reader will forget that he’s already said that most nightclubs in America were Mob-run. The author cites sources who have knowledge of discussions of the “estate” of dead gangster Willie Moretti. As Moretti’s holdings were being parcelled out, it was debated who should take over “the handling of Frank Sinatra” and Summers states plainly that “the Mafia had a continuing interest in every aspect of his life and career”. The Johnny Fontane storyline of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is referenced and a story is related that suggests the Mafia paid a visit to Columbia chief Harry Cohn.

Summers utilizes the memoir of film producer Martin Jurow (The Pink Panther) to tell a tale that seems to confirm in ironclad terms that the Mafia did pressure Cohn to give the Maggio part to Frank. Reading this part of the text can leave little doubt in the reader’s mind that the Mob may have been involved. It is hard to deny such a detailed testimony from an uninterested party like Jurow who seemingly had nothing to gain from adding this tale to his autobiography; aside from the appeal of adding such sensational stories to his book. Again, though, I think there’s a difference between Sinatra going to the Mafia to ask for help and the Mob following every aspect of Frank’s career and taking the initiative to help out whenever they could which would result in FS being beholden to them. It’s easy to imagine how powerful it would make a mafioso feel to pull the strings behind the scenes in Hollywood.

On the subject of Kennedy and Camelot, Anthony Summers quotes many players in this drama and this testimony establishes as well as can be Sinatra’s involvement with John Kennedy, Judith Campbell Exner, Sam Giancana and others. All that’s left for the reader to decide is if the testimony of the “many players” quoted is to be believed. This ties in with Sinatra’s always contentious relationship with the press. In the early days, Frank had a poor relationship with reporters and it was this that contributed to newspapers handling Frank roughly when it came to reporting on his 4-F Status, his Mafia connections and his relationship with Ava Gardner. In the summer of 1960, however, when Sinatra’s power in Hollywood was unrivalled and his association with organized crime was assumed and his relationship with the Kennedys was an established fact, there was a different story to tell. Summers quotes an article from Good Housekeeping: “Sinatra has become the most feared man in Hollywood…no one will talk about him. He’s an untouchable”. Later, the author of that article says he received a threatening phone call in the middle of the night warning him to “lay off Frank”. Quite a turnaround and confirmation of Frank’s status in the firmament.

“(There is a) staggering power that inheres in this contradictory man, whose tangled and obviously lonely life is a strange amalgam of elegance and ugliness, of profound failure and dizzying success, of adamant loyalties and equally adamant dislikes, of kindness and courtesies and rudeness…”

– Canadian Gene Lees in 1967

As regards Frank Sinatra’s contributions as an artist of the highest calibre, Summers and Swan waste little time exploring Sinatra’s work in recordings and films. This, obviously, is not a book that is concerned with his triumphs in the field of entertainment. Even Sam Giancana famously laid off plans to do Frank harm every time he heard him sing. But just about every time the authors quote reviews they are in a negative vein. For example, Summers focuses on negative reviews for Sinatra’s 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden while the one positive review he shares is said to come from a “former bobbysoxer”; as if to say the only people who could have loved this show are those who have grown up with Frankie and will love anything he does.

Now for a couple of highlights, nuggets and fascinating things you’ll learn from A Life:

  • Summers is harsh regarding Frank’s wartime 4-F status and makes a point of noting that for years after the Army doctor that recommended the exception received tickets to Frank’s shows
  • Phil Silvers’ wife often talked politics with Sinatra. She says Frank was not a Communist as some in the press hoped to suggest but that Sinatra “believed in civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and put himself on the line in that way”.
  • Yul Brynner’s son, Rock, relates a hilarious story of Sinatra in Tel Aviv in 1965 taking up the Jewish cause. Drinking one night, Brynner says suddenly “Frank becomes a Jew” and tries to get a German war criminal he once met on the phone just to tell him off.
  • Summers reports that Saddam Hussein liked to dance to “Strangers in the Night” while Osama Bin Laden “curse(d) the memory of Frank Sinatra every time he hears his songs”.
  • Apparently, Sinatra’s wife, Nancy, had an abortion during their marriage. I don’t think I had ever heard that.
  • After Lauren Bacall accepted Sinatra’s proposal of marriage, the two were out on the town. When Bacall was approached for her autograph, Frank urged her to “put down (her) new name” so Bacall wrote “Betty Sinatra” on a napkin for a fan. My question is; where is that napkin?!
  • Summers and Swan report that “Strangers in the Night” reached number one “and stayed in that position for fifteen weeks. “Strangers” may have been a huge hit but there’s no way a song of Frank’s was the #1 song in the land for over three months in 1966; on any chart. That must be a typo. The song was only on the pop charts for a total of eleven weeks. “Strangers in the Night” was #1 on the pop charts for one week and topped the Adult Contemporary charts for seven weeks. This gaffe helps to prove my point that this book is concerned not one iota with Sinatra’s accomplishments as a recording artist or actor.

In a nutshell, this book is negative. Frank is portrayed as – and he may very well have been – a severely flawed human being, a fact that us fans may simply have to live with. The book takes a jaundiced view of Frank Sinatra the man and spends very little time honouring his artistic achievements. The problem for fans is that the book is so well researched that you are basically left with no choice but to accept the reporting of Summers and Swan. The only loophole fans can find is the slant that Summers puts on his findings, findings that could be interpreted another way. In other words, perhaps we can’t argue with his conclusions but maybe we can debate about what these conclusions mean.

Frank with fourth wife, Barbara Marx. Summers and Swan seem to confirm what daughter Tina claims in her book, that Barbara ingratiated herself into Frank’s life forcefully.

The last pages of A Life are very unemotional, almost depressing. There is no celebratory tone reminding the reader of the joy Frank Sinatra has brought to many people, the role he played in people’s lives and in history. The reader is left to decide how he or she feels about all this negative reporting. And actually this applies to many or all of the entertainers we’ve loved through history, those who have fallen afoul of the laws of God and/or man. Can you watch I Spy reruns starring Bill Cosby? Can you still enjoy the magnificent The Usual Suspects featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Kevin Spacey? How do you feel listening to stern father Bing Crosby sing or watching Fred Astaire dance in Swing Time? Have you discarded the Quentin Tarantino films produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax? If we disregarded an artists’ work because of their personal failings, we wouldn’t be left with much to watch or listen to. There is much to learn about Frank Sinatra in A Life and your perspective will be tested. Be brave and dig in.

10 comments

  1. I’ve not read this particular book but I have read his Monroe, JFK and Hoover books and I have to agree with you about his use of facts. He is well researched but sometimes slants his use of facts to agree with his own conclusions. Having said that, I quite fancy reading the Sinatra book!

  2. Once again a fascinating analysis. It’s interesting the conclusion this book obviously leads you to in terms of Sinatra as a person, beyond his artistic abilities and questionable company. Artistic peers such as James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Tony Bennett had very nice things to say about him. The Johnny Fontaine/Godfather reference has been (predictably) denied by everyone, including I think Mario Puzo himself. Personally, I’m not sure Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, would’ve buckled under intimidation (financial or other incentives possibly). Cohn himself was apparently connected and perhaps even well protected, through Johnny Roselli. Like other Hollywood execs, he also frequently visited Las Vegas. Perhaps there were in fact contract negotiations, but of a more mutually beneficial nature.

    In terms of the mob; Sinatra, through Peter Lawford, reportedly brokered the 1960 Kennedy campaign’s alleged alliance with Sam Giancana with view to securing votes in Chicago, and was then very much in the doghouse when it became clear that Robert Kennedy was going to clamp down on organised crime rather than give them a free run. There’s no doubt that Sinatra placed himself in this world consciously, and used the power it afforded him directly and indirectly, but was he ultimately trapped by failing to deliver a compliant President and Attorney-General? Someone suggested this scenario of Frank owing Giancana a lifetime of favours, in a later interview, it might have even been his daughter Nancy but I’m not 100% certain of the source.

    Great stuff again, thanks Gary.

    • Thanks, George, for reading and for your lucid comments. Regarding Cohn; Summers reports using Martin Jurow’s memoir that Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo was involved in “negotiations”. When he heard Cohn didn’t want Frank, Alo said “He owes us. Expect a call”. Cohn’s widow confirms two mob guys showed up at Columbia telling Harry he would use Frank. Johnny Rosselli apparently gave Cohn the money to gain control of Columbia and “suggested” Cohn do him a favour. You’re right about Giancana and Frank playing fast and loose with the mob. That benefited him but also caused him trouble.

      • Thanks for that extra detail on Harry Cohn and his connections, and I didn’t know that Roselli had actually financed Cohn’s takeover. He is certainly one of the more interesting Hollywood moguls. A bit like Jack Warner – thoroughly appalling in many ways, but a lot of fun to read about their exploits and outrageous behaviour. Probably not quite so much fun if you were on the wrong end of it, though.

  3. The only volume I’ve ever seen exclusively about Harry Cohn was by AP Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas. It was written a long time ago, and I think from memory in the original publication they didn’t even refer to Roselli by name; just Mr X or a name they had made up. It was a fairly innocuous account from memory.

    I might have suggested one or two of these before, so sorry if I’m repeating myself, but Neal Gabler’s Empire of Their Own covers almost all of the first and second generation moguls. Cass Warner Sperling (granddaughter of Harry Warner) has done some historical work on Warner Brothers. I think my favourite Hollywood bio is A Scott Berg’s Goldwyn. There’s a great TV doc floating around, made in the 90s, called Jack L Warner, the Last Mogul, by his step-grandson Gregory Orr. Has some great interviews, including from Jack Warner Junior, who had been treated very cruelly by his father, but also from some very interesting studio people.

    • Oh, yes. I read this many years ago and still own it. It is absolutely essential reading. The ultimate reference book for all the pertinent information on Sinatra’s recording career.

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