My parents hated each other. They fought constantly. I don’t remember seeing a single loving moment between them. By the time I was 12, it was over. Splitsville. They divorced.
They both went on to have loving, fulfilling second marriages, and, fortunately, both my brother and myself were crazy about both of our parents’ second spouses.
Looking back on why my parents had ever gotten together in the first place, the expression ‘What were they thinking?” comes to mind. They were 15 years apart in age and didn’t seem to have any interests in common. They didn’t have similar senses of humor nor senses of life. Mom was a Democrat and dad was a Republican, with all the clichés that each of those labels imply.
The only thing I can remember them agreeing about was that Frank Sinatra was their favorite singer. My dad was a year older than Sinatra, and my mom had been one of Sinatra’s diehard bobby-soxer fans in the 1940s.
Today, May 14, 2013, is the 15th anniversary of Sinatra’s death.
Given the fact that seemingly the only time in our house when my parents weren’t having monumental fights was when they were playing great Sinatra records from his Capitol years, he has always interested me. I loved his voice and found it very soothing.
As I got older I began to read more and more about Sinatra. Back in April 1966, when I was 14, Esquire published an article about Sinatra that I quickly devoured. It had the funny title of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and was a very long piece.
It was about Sinatra, the man. It turns out that this singer, who seemed to me to be the most sensitive of vocal interpreters, wasn’t such a nice guy. Yet he was clearly an iconic figure in American pop culture, for generations of both men and women. As a kid I found the contradictions of Sinatra very puzzling.
Here’s a short excerpt from near the beginning of the article:
“For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people — his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five — which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time. He is the champ who made the big comeback, the man who had everything, lost it, then got it back, letting nothing stand in his way, doing what few men can do: he uprooted his life, left his family, broke with everything that was familiar, learning in the process that one way to hold a woman is not to hold her. Now he has the affection of Nancy [Sinatra] and Ava [Gardner] and Mia [Farrow], the fine female produce of three generations, and still has the adoration of his children, the freedom of a bachelor, he does not feel old, he makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but it is still nice for other men to know, at fifty, that it can be done.”
What I didn’t know when I originally read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is that it would later be thought of as one of the best pieces of magazine journalism ever published, a benchmark of what came to be known as the New Journalism. It was written by Gay Talese. I recently re-read the piece, and it’s still terrific. You can read it if you click here.
Over the years I’ve kept reading about Sinatra. Most recently I read James Kaplan’s excellent 2010 biography “Frank: The Voice.” What made me want to read it was Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in The New York Times.
Kakutani wrote that Sinatra “provided the soundtrack for several generations of Americans trying to navigate the rocky shoals of romance and grapple with love and heartbreak. And he became one of 20th-century pop culture’s quintessential men of contradictions: the bullying tough guy whose singing could radiate a remarkable tenderness and vulnerability; the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas sophisticate with an existential outlook on life; the jaunty urbanite who could deliver a torch song like no one else. Fans could recognize his voice from two or three perfectly phrased syllables, and they knew him instantly from his style: the rakishly tilted hat, the coat slung over one shoulder, the Camels and Jack Daniel’s.”
Kakutani went on to note that Kaplan, in his book, did a “nimble, brightly evocative job of tracing the development of Sinatra’s craft, showing how he assimilated early influences and gradually discovered a voice of his own.“
And Kaplan did exactly that. Kaplan’s a wonderful writer to boot, and I recommend his book to anyone interested in Sinatra.
But the facets of Sinatra that have really interested me over the years are the contradictions of the man, as so eloquently stated above by Talese and Times reviewer Kakutani.
And to read about those you have to read a firsthand account of what Sinatra was like. And there’s only one of those that’s any good: “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra.”
Published in 2003 by HarperCollins, it’s a first-person account told by George Jacobs, an African-American who served as Sinatra’s valet, sometimes cook and right-hand man from 1953 to 1968. The book is written by Jacobs and William Stadiem.
What’s so great about the book is that it’s a no-holds-barred account of Sinatra and his inner circle for those 15 years. How candid? Check out this excerpt. Jacobs writes:
“As much as I disliked his father, that’s how much I was crazy about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was handsome and funny and naughty and as irreverent as Dean Martin. ‘What do colored people want, George?’ he asked me the first time he visited [Frank Sinatra’s home in] Palm Springs, not long after Mr. S and Peter Lawford [JFK’s brother-in-law] became bosom buddies.
“I don’t know, Mr. Senator.”
“Jack, George, Jack.”
“What do you want, Jack?”
“I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood,” he said with a big leering grin.
“With a campaign promise like that you can’t lose, sir.”
“You’re my man. Jack.”
“No, it’s George.”
“Who’s on third?”
“Pardon me, sir?
“Jack, goddamn it. Call me Jack. Or I’ll send you back to Mississippi.”
“Louisiana, Jack. They eat Catholics in Mississippi. They hate you worse than me.”
“And that was the way we’d go on, giving each other shit all the time, no master-servant games. He and Mr. S got along great. They had everything in common, charisma, talent, power.”
Then there’s this, the details of the final break between JFK, then president, and Sinatra. It was early 1962:
Sinatra had redone his Palm Springs compound in honor or JFK, including the installation of a number of new phone lines.
Writes Jacobs, “This was going to be Jack’s West Coast crash pad, for all the world to see.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Peter Lawford had to tell Sinatra that JFK was not going to be staying with Sinatra anymore.
“Lawford first tried to blame the Secret Service, saying it was a security issue. Then he finally admitted that it was a Frank issue and that Bobby [Kennedy] was th
e mastermind behind it. Mr. S. smashed the phone he was talking on against the wall. He went into another room and was able to get Bobby on the line in Washington. … Bobby basically told him we can’t have the president sleeping in the same house where [mobster] Sam Giancana had slept. And Mr. S. said JFK’s already slept here, so what’s the fucking deal. Bobby played hardball. He said it’s my deal now, and Jack ain’t sleeping there and hung up. There went another phone, smashed to smithereens. We were lucky to have had all those extra phone lines installed. I felt sorry for Mr. S. He was like the girl who got stood up for the prom, all dressed up with no place to go. He had spent a fortune redoing the house, just for JFK, and now the house was off-limits. … How could they treat their friend this way, he wailed to me, like a little kid nearly in tears.”
Jacobs continues that later that day “Mr S. went on the most violent rampage I had seen. Lawford’s clothes were ripped out of closets, ripped personally to shreds. His golf clubs were bent in half. Pat Lawford’s (JFK’s sister) makeup and perfume kit was crushed under foot. I followed Mr. S. around the house on his search-and-destroy mission, just to make sure he didn’t die of a cerebral hemorrhage, his blood pressure was so off the charts. I didn’t dare try and stop him, or even say ‘Cool it, boss. This ain’t worth it.’ He probably would have killed me.”
And then there were the women: Ava, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Juliet Prowse, Lauren Bacall and the two Judys, Campbell and Garland, to name just some of them.
Jacobs even writes about a tryst between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo that he was witness to at Sinatra’s compound when Mr. S. was out of town.
Though I’m always telling people to read Jacobs’ book, I hadn’t seen anything about it in the press lately until I saw this item in the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six about a month ago, on April 3, 2013: “A modern-day Rat Pack comprising Brett Ratner, Brian Grazer and Graydon Carter is in talks to team up on an HBO doc based on “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra” by Ol’ Blue Eyes’ longtime valet George Jacobs, sources tell us. The project was once slated as a feature for Ratner to direct, starring Chris Tucker, but has now been reimagined as a TV doc, insiders said. However, others and an HBO rep said no deal is done with the cable network.”
I was disappointed to read the item, because it seemed to me the way to adapt the book is turning it into a movie (feature or cable) or a miniseries. I don’t know how one would do it justice as a documentary. Docu-drama, yes, documentary, no.
Then, on April 30, I read this item at Deadline.com: “Alcon Television Group, the television division of Alcon Entertainment, and Frank Sinatra Enterprises are teaming to produce an as yet untitled documentary about the life and music of Frank Sinatra to premiere on HBO. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney will direct the four-hour miniseries docu described as an up close and personal examination of Sinatra, his life, his music and his legendary career.”
Was HBO going to do two Sinatra documentaries? Furthermore, the more I thought about it, was HBO, a division of Warner Bros., the company that owns Sinatra’s former record label, Reprise, really going to be able to produce, faithfully, any video or film version of so candid a book as “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra”?
So I decided to try to contact William Stadiem, the professional writer who co-wrote Jacobs’ book. I don’t know Stadiem, but he is a very talented scribe who holds two graduate degrees from Harvard, in law and business. He has also written “Marilyn Monroe Confidential” and “Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess.”
I was fortunate to reach him by phone in the Los Angeles area. First, I asked him whether Jacobs was still with us, and he told me yes, that Jacobs, now in his 80s, still lives in the Palm Springs area.
Stadiem also told me he wasn’t exactly sure where any current negotiations were for the TV movie or documentary rights of “Mr. S.” He also wondered whether HBO would move ahead with two different documentaries about Sinatra.
Stadiem said he’d love to see the book made into a movie, “or perhaps, even better, a play.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but it could be adapted into a marvelous play for one or two
characters, or a full-blown cast. And then perhaps that work could be filmed.
Today, on the 15th anniversary of Sinatra’s death, the life and legacy of the man and his many contradictions — let alone his music — still resonates for millions of us.
It’s clear that for all his success, he spent most of his life like many of us. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ever since he was born, Sinatra was desperately seeking shelter from the storm.