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Frank: The Voice

James Kaplan

(Doubleday; US: Nov 2010)

The Frank Sinatra most people know, or think they know, is the Chairman of the Board: the swaggering man’s man surrounded by booze, broads and bada-bing — and who could, when he wanted to, belt out one heck of a tune.


But before he was the Chairman, he was The Voice, the crooner whose dulcet tones left young girls swooning, young men steaming, Hollywood beckoning and starlets in hot pursuit. And then, when he had conquered the world, he just about lost it all.


James Kaplan, in Frank: The Voice charts the improbable rise, crash-and-burn and even more improbable revival of Sinatra’s career, punctuated by the night in 1954 when he won an Oscar for his performance in From Here to Eternity.


On the way up, as Kaplan spells out, Sinatra learned his craft while allying himself with anyone who could advance his career. Although he admired and respected talent, he wasn’t so good with people: Sinatra, in Kaplan’s reading, bullied, cajoled, betrayed and abused just about everyone in his life, all in pursuit of being the next big thing.


And when he got to the top, those same traits fueled his downfall. How far down? By the end of 1952, Sinatra had lost his radio show, his TV show, his record label deal, his agent, his movie studio contract — and was on the verge of losing the one true obsession of his life outside his career: actress Ava Gardner, his wife.


And then, in little more than 12 months, he rebuilt it all (except his relationship with Gardner; they separated in 1953, divorcing four years later), conquering Hollywood with that Oscar and, thanks to arranger Nelson Riddle and a new recording deal at Capitol Records, the music business.


It’s considered the greatest comeback in showbiz history, and rightly so. But in Frank: The Voice, the journey back is filled with regret, hostility and disappointment — all reflections of the tortured artist at the heart of it all.


To relate the story of the man riding this roller coaster, Kaplan decided he’d try to get inside Sinatra’s head. And not just Sinatra’s: We get Kaplan’s versions of interior monologues for many of the people he embraced, relied on and, just as often, abused or disappointed along the way.


It’s a popular strategy among celebrity biographers. But it’s also fraught with peril, particularly when re-creating the worlds of figures whose every move has been chronicled in big headlines and paparazzi pictures. And, particularly in the case of Sinatra, there are just too many conflicting sources to get a good read on what really motivated him, beyond a burning desire to be No. 1.


More problematic in Frank: The Voice are the sources Kaplan relies on to get inside his subject. Some of his sources — in particular, Kaplan’s interviews with those present at the creation of Sinatra’s stardom — give the storytelling authority and life.


For example, singer Jo Stafford, who was there when Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey (in Milwaukee, she says ), describes how Sinatra changed the game just by singing one song with Dorsey’s big band, the gig that made him a national star. “Everyone up until then was sounding like (Bing) Crosby,” Stafford recalled, “but this was a whole new sound.”


But other sources are less authentic. Kaplan, for example, relies for a big chunk of his story on information from Kitty Kelley’s scathing and factually problematic biography His Way. (Among His Way’s more entertaining inconsistencies: The dates Kelley says she interviewed former Rat Packer Peter Lawford coincide with when he was on his deathbed, and, in one case, when he already had been dead for two weeks.)


In part because of his reliance on such inconsistent material, Kaplan’s often brutal portrait feels less like a revelation and more like a legend that’s been printed before. In the Sinatra of Frank: The Voice he didn’t grow into the role of Chairman of the Board — he always was Chairman of the Board.

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