Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Celebrity biographies can be treacherous things. And the superstar of the twentieth century was Frank Sinatra. A legend in his own time, he remains one today. A popular SiriusXM channel bears his name, and his songs are ubiquitous on movies, television, and at public events, especially weddings. I once attended a Congressional hearing having nothing to do with music in which a committee chairman from New York gratuitously digressed at length about his Sinatra record collection. With all that in mind, and the fact that Sinatra completely dominated celebrity journalism from World War II until the first Gulf War, the biographer’s task is bound to be challenging. There have been several, including one by Frank’s daughter Nancy, also a singer, but most of them haven’t been very good.
Enter James Kaplan, an author of biographies of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis duo, and tennis luminary John McEnroe. The Voice is the first volume in a two-part opus; the second, The Chairman, came out in 2015. Covering the period from Sinatra’s birth in 1915 to the dawn of his musical resurrection in 1954, The Voice chronicles what was perhaps the darkest period in the singer’s life. Raised an only child by a domineering (and although Kaplan doesn’t say it, abusive) mother, and a weak father, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Frank was scarred—literally– at birth from a botched delivery, and a troubled upbringing. Ambition became a consuming motivation for everything he did, but stability was not his forte.
Frank’s first wife Nancy Barbato was the mother of his two daughters and one son. Of humble origins, she stood by his side as he entered the limelight with big band leaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey; then, during World War II, he emerged as a singer in his own right, landing a big contract with Columbia Records, and film cameos—and less successfully—appearances on radio and television. But Sinatra was a trying, serially unfaithful husband. Consumed by insecurities and crushing loneliness, his desire for sexual companionship became almost pathological. The legions of screaming young women at his concerts—bobby soxers, as they were called—provided endless opportunities to indulge his cravings.
Nancy put up with a lot, though. And in the end it was not the one-night stands, but Frank’s obsession with siren actress Ava Gardner that destroyed his marriage.
That marital mess takes up most of the latter half of The Voice as the book follows the implosion of his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sinatra’s wild and arrogant personal behavior; battles –sometimes physical–with members of the press, and dalliances with the Mob, ruined his popularity. Frank’s obsession with Ava, who was more neurotic and unstable than him, accelerated a downward spiral that eventually led to a myriad of suicide attempts.
Kaplan writes with a blunt rawness juxtaposing nicely with his subject, the times and especially the place, in mid-twentieth-century New York and New Jersey. At times, the author overdoes it a little; and his frequent sniping at daughter Nancy Sinatra’s efforts to construct a hagiographical portrait of her father in her own biography detracts from Kaplan’s own insights, which stand well on their own. Kaplan is more than a little critical of Sinatra; but he also writes with a subtle empathy that recognizes Frank’s struggles with his upbringing, surroundings, and Italian ethnic identity in a time dominated by straight-laced WASPs.
Because of this empathy, the reader cannot help but develop a feeling for Sinatra–and best of all–an understanding for his resourceful ability to own and express every lyric that he sang. As his more perceptive contemporaries recognized, it wasn’t just Frank’s technical virtuosity—although it reached perfection—but his complete identification with his best songs, as he sang them, that made him so irresistible. And so, as Sinatra crawled out of his deepest pit, with his career all but dead, to enter a transformational new era with arranger Nelson Riddle and Capitol Records, Kaplan helps us to cheer along with Frank—and maybe even shed a tear—as he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his 1954 role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity in 1954, and starts to embody his legend.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.