Summer Reading 2016: Sinatra on the Ropes, and on the Rise

NJ Spotlight | August 22, 2016 | 2016 Summer Reading
Old Blue Eyes’ 1954 Oscar for ‘From Here to Eternity’ didn’t just revive a flagging career, it transformed Sinatra into a cultural icon

While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

Whether or not you consider Frank Sinatra New Jersey’s most famous son will likely vary depending on your taste and maybe even your generation, but there’s no denying that Old Blue Eyes is a legend. Biographer James Kaplan followed up on his well-received 2010 chronicle of the Hoboken native, “Frank: The Voice,” with the October 2015 publication of “Sinatra: The Chairman,” a sequel that looks at Sinatra’s life after winning the Oscar for “From Here to Eternity.” Here is an excerpt from the start of that second volume:

Eleven days after winning the Oscar for From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra sat down and typed a note to a friend, clearly in response to a congratula¬tory letter or telegram. The note, on Paramount Pictures stationery and in Frank’s customary, too-impatient-to-press-the-shift-key style, began,
april 5, 1954
dear lew —
my paisan mr sinatra is still on cloud nine and the bum refuses to come down . . .
That bum—“mr sinatra”—was so thrilled, the note continued (still all low¬ercase, still in the third person), that he was “ridiculous.” And then, after a final thanks to the recipient, came the signature: “maggio.”

It’s a charming letter and a fascinating one. (All the more fascinating for the mystery of exactly whom the letter was sent to. Kitty Kelley asserts (“His Way,” p. 526) that the note read “Dear Leland” and was addressed to the producer Leland Hayward. She claims that the letter “is on file in the correspondence col¬lection at the Performing Arts Research Center at the New York Public Library.” A search of Hayward’s correspondence at the NYPL yielded no such artifact. A scanned copy of the note provided by a Sinatra archivist appears authentic and clearly reads “Dear Lew.” But which Lew? Perhaps the movie director Lewis Allen, with whom Sinatra would work shortly, or the director Lewis Milestone, who would nominally helm Ocean’s 11 several years thence, but almost certainly not MCA head Lew Wasserman, whose agency had unceremoniously dropped the down-on-his-luck Frank as a client in 1951 and whom the singer would not forgive for decades.)

Throughout his life, Sinatra employed secretaries who answered his voluminous mail, often signing his name themselves. From time to time, though, when the spirit moved him, he penned or typed his own missives, and the letters are him, revealing his restless intellect, his sense of humor (always more spontaneous in personal circumstances than onstage), even a literary sensibility. And why not? As a great singer, he was a great storyteller; why should that faculty switch off when he was away from a microphone? In this note, he is writing in character, as PFC Angelo Maggio, the role that won him that Academy Award, and the voice is perfect: “the bum refuses”; “he’s so thrilled he is ridiculous.” From the moment he’d first picked up James Jones’s blockbuster novel, Sinatra had completely identified with Maggio, the feisty little private from Brooklyn who speaks in a kind of Damon Runyon–ese. He had campaigned, hard, for the movie role by barraging the filmmakers — Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn; producer Buddy Adler; director Fred Zinnemann; screenwriter Daniel Taradash — with telegrams touting his perfect suitability for the part, and he had signed every wire just as he’d signed this note: “Maggio.”

Frank Sinatra had identified so powerfully with the character not only because Angelo Maggio was a skinny, streetwise Italian-American from Brooklyn — like Sinatra’s native Hoboken, close geographically to Manhattan but oh so far away — but also because Maggio was one of the world’s downtrod¬den, a little man who drank to ease his sorrows and spoke truth to power with wisecracks. When Sinatra first read “From Here to Eternity” in late 1951, he was feeling considerably downtrodden himself. His records were no longer selling; he was having vocal and financial problems; the IRS was after him. He had become infamous, pilloried in newspapers across the United States, after leav¬ing his wife and three children for Ava Gardner. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had recently terminated his movie contract, and he would soon also be dumped by Columbia Records, as well as by his talent agency, the Music Corporation of America.

“He’s a dead man,” the talent agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar declared in 1952. “Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town.” Maybe not, but Frank Sina¬tra could. Literally overnight — after the Academy Awards ceremony on March 25, 1954 — Sinatra brought off the greatest comeback in show-business history. And he had done it all in Hollywood, a ruthlessly Darwinian company town that reviles losers but has the sappiest of soft spots for a happy ending. His Oscar underlined the fact that he was also a freshly viable recording artist with a new contract at Capitol Records, where he and a brilliant young arranger named Nelson Riddle had begun creating the string of groundbreaking record¬ings that would revolutionize popular music in the 1950s.

And quite suddenly that spring, without a shred of embarrassment about its fickleness, the entire entertainment industry began throwing itself at his feet. “The whole world is changing for Frank Sinatra,” Louella Parsons wrote in her syndicated column of April 19. “Today he has so many jobs offered him he can pick and choose.”

Parsons was talking about movies, although television, radio, and nightclubs were also calling. Among the film possibilities offered to Sinatra: a supporting part alongside the hot-as-a-pistol young Robert Mitchum in the medical melo¬drama “Not as a Stranger”; the second lead in a Warner Bros. remake of “Four Daughters,” the picture that had catapulted John Garfield to fame; a co-starring role alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 20th Century Fox musical Pink Tights, even though Monroe soon dropped out when she heard how much more the studio was offering Sinatra than her. And, lo and behold, MGM — where Louis B. Mayer had personally fired Sinatra in 1950 after he made an impolitic joke about Mayer’s mistress (and where Mayer himself was now history) — wanted him back, for the long-discussed “St. Louis Woman,” alongside Ava Gardner.

This was distinctly problematic for several reasons. For one thing, Gard¬ner, who’d been outraged that Metro had dubbed a professional singer’s voice over hers in “Show Boat,” was determined never to make another musical. For another, she had come to hate Hollywood with a passion. She was living as an expatriate, cohabiting in Spain with the charismatic and brilliant bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, the darkly handsome torero whose rivalry with his brother-in-law Antonio Ordónez would later inspire Ernest Hemingway’s long Life magazine piece “The Dangerous Summer.” Most important of all, however, she was about to file for divorce from Frank.


While the Hollywood of 1954 bore some similarities to today’s entertainment capital, it was altogether a sleepier, more rustic town. Not a more virtuous one by any means, but more tightly bounded. The studios still held sway; their publicity departments controlled access to stars and information about them, even when it came to police matters. There was a certain code of conduct for the press and other prying outsiders when it came to celebrities.

It is, for example, impossible to imagine any major star today living, as Sinatra did in the spring of that year, in a garden apartment, albeit such a glamorous one as Frank’s five-room bachelor pad in a redbrick complex at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Glen. A decade before, when he had first come to Hollywood, he had resided in a pink-walled stucco mansion in Toluca Lake. It was a mark of both his change of fortunes and his maturity (not to mention the change of times) that Sinatra no longer had to ward off hordes of bobby-soxers, or hordes of any kind. In the spring of 1954, he was approaching thirty-nine — lean and balding, not settled by any means (his defi¬ant hedonism and overweening ego would guard against such a fate for a very long time), but grown up, in his own particular way. His oaken baritone on the Capitol recordings, rich with sad knowledge — or, on up-tempo numbers, with swaggering authority — was a sea change from the tender Voice that had soothed America through the war.

But the secret was that he was still yearning. (He would always yearn, even after he had gained all the world had to offer.) He had spent the previous Christmas and New Year’s in Rome, where Gardner was shooting Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Barefoot Contessa,” desperately trying to hold on to her, even as she was edging away, already in love with the bullfighter. Ava loved Frank too — she always would — but her passion for him had ebbed, diminished in good part by his plummet from success, which had coincided with her own rise to stardom. He had drained her scant reserves of patience and sympathy. Unknown to her, just before she left for Europe the previous November, he had made a serious suicide attempt, cutting his left wrist in the New York apartment of his close friend the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen: he would have bled out had Van Heusen not returned and found him.

And Ava smelled his desperation and hated it even as she loved him. She was heedless and restless and easily bored, and she was in love with another man.

The gossip columnists (Sinatra read them as closely as any fan) cobbled up a sweet fantasy: Gardner would come to the Oscars that March — she herself was up for Best Actress, for “Mogambo” — and the couple would reunite. But she stayed with her lover in Spain.

If Frank himself had harbored any fantasy that his renewed fame would bring her back, he was rudely disappointed.

“One night we went to Frank’s for a dinner party,” recalled the lyricist and screenwriter Betty Comden, “and we saw that one of the rooms was filled with pictures of Ava, and around the pictures were lit candles. It was like the altar of a little church.”

Yet another night, Gardner’s biographer Lee Server writes, Swifty Lazar, who lived in the same apartment complex as Sinatra, came home late and saw that Frank’s door was open.

“Wondering if there was a problem, he stuck his head through the doorway and saw Sinatra by himself, evidently very drunk, slumped in an armchair, holding a gun. Cautiously Lazar stepped inside and as he did he saw that Sinatra was aiming his gun — an air gun, it turned out to be — at three large portrait images of Ava he had propped up on the floor. The three faces of Ava were full of pellet holes where Sinatra had been shooting at them — all night long, as it appeared.”

If Gardner had been Delilah to Frank’s Samson while they were together, she would be his muse for years after they broke up — specifically and crucially, the great Capitol years. “Ava taught him how to sing a torch song,” Nelson Rid¬dle famously said. “She taught him the hard way.” On May 13, 1954, Sinatra — with Riddle conducting a twenty-nine-piece orchestra — recorded three songs that could have been addressed directly to his wandering wife: “ The Gal That Got Away,” “Half as Lovely (Twice as True),” and “It Worries Me.” On the last, Frank sang,

Just what did I do—was I mean to you?

Taken as autobiography (which to some extent it must be), the lyric may look disingenuous — of course he had been not just mean but brutal to her, and she to him, on innumerable occasions. But listened to, the line, sung with exquisite tenderness, is meltingly lovely. In fact, Frank in his new middle period was every bit the ballad singer that Frankie of the Columbia years had been — and then some. He had lived more, suffered more.