My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.
It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!
And it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.
Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.
Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:
"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.
It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.
They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.
'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'
The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.
It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.
He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)
I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.
Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.
A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).
*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?
**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.
***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.