- Historic Sites
WHY SINATRA IS OUR GREATEST SINGER, PERIOD
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
The whole psychodrama of male-female relations that is delineated in the fine Rodgers and Hart standard “I Wish I Were in Love Again” ("The sleepless nights, the daily fights, / the quick toboggan when you reach the heights, /1 miss the kisses and I miss the bites, /1 wish I were in love again") is implicit not only in Sinatra’s singing style but in his whole public persona. (Sinatra covers the song on A Swingin’ Affair , 1957.) The Sinatra who gave up everything for Ava Gardner is like Shakespeare’s Antony risking his kingdom for a mirth. He is also the embodiment of the American man as he would like to see himself, a kind of hard-boiled romantic, like Bogart as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, acquainted with defeat and failure, a loner who nevertheless can’t stay single but compulsively involves himself with a femme fatale, and every woman is one, a man for whom women are easy in one sense, difficult in another, for whom heartbreak is the flip side of cocksure jauntiness, and melancholy and elation are so closely related it’s hard to tell them apart.
At the Hofstra conference devoted to serious Sinatra studies, Roger Gilbert of the Cornell University English department read a brilliant paper entitled “Sinatra and the Culture of the '50s.” One notion Gilbert pursues is that there are aesthetic parallels between Sinatra and the abstract expressionists (or action painters). “A moment ago I suggested that Sinatra might be called a Method Singer; let me now propose that he be considered an Action Vocalist,” Gilbert said. “Sinatra’s best recordings, like his concert performances, always have the quality of live events, of actions rather than mere recitations. Just as we’re continually aware of [Jackson] Pollock’s choices, his split-second swerves, hesitations, and thrusts as he wields the brush, so in listening to a Sinatra track we hear the impulsive gestures of his voice as it carves its own path through a song. Improvising, ad-libbing, bending, or embellishing a melody, condensing or stretching out a lyric, Sinatra is constantly making choices as he sings, and that’s surely where much of the excitement of his music lies. There’s a tangible riskiness in his best performances, a willingness to leap without knowing exactly where he’ll land. As a result his records sometimes contain clinkers, clams, sour notes, failed effects; but these stand as evidence of Sinatra’s total commitment to the moment in all its unpredictable power.”
Sinatra married Mia Farrow in 1966
when he was 50 and she 21. “I’ve got Scotch older than Mia Farrow,” Dean Martin said. The marriage didn’t last. Years later Sinatra confessed he still didn’t know what that was about.
Parlor game: Which of the four Sinatra wives would you choose to be: Nancy Barbato, his first love, mother of his children, keeper of the family name and flame, to whom he was loyal though not faithful; Ava Gardner, perhaps the most beautiful woman in Hollywood; the young Mia Farrow at the beginning of her career as an actress ( Rosemary’s Baby ) and as a gossip-column stalwart (her subsequent consorts include Woody Alien); or Barbara Marx, who married him when he was old and revered, an institution, indeed a character in celebrated novels (Don DeLillo’s Underworld )? All but Ava Gardner survived him.
Sinatra toured the world giving concerts. He devoted the proceeds of some tours entirely to charity. He made huge amounts of money and gave large sums away. He tipped (he called it “duking") more lavishly than anyone else. After Sinatra died, on May 14, 1998, everyone quoted Dean Martin: “It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it.” When I told a friend, a very attractive and flirtatious woman of 26, that I was working on an article about Frank Sinatra, she said, “Is there a place in it for a photograph of me naked surrounded by Frank Sinatra CDs?”
Today, a rainy cold first day of spring, I went to a dermatologist to check out a minor skin irritation. A first consultation. He asked me what I did and I said I was a professional writer and he asked, “Of what?” and I said, “Well, just now I’m working on an article about Frank Sinatra,” and he lit right up. A real fan, he listens to Jonathan Schwartz’s Sinatra radio show, and Sid Mark’s. When I leave, he thanks me for brightening up the afternoon, and I depart in the rain listening to Sinatra sing “Meet Me at the Copa,” in which more than one defunct New York institution surfaces: “Now there are people who prefer the art museum, / And out in Brooklyn there’s a ball park and a team, / But I don’t care a whole lot if I never see ‘em / Meet me at the Copa, meet me at the Copa tonight.”
Sinatra and women. Dean Martin: “They should put Frank’s zipper in the Smithsonian.” Humphrey Bogart remarked that Sinatra thought paradise was a place that was filled with women and had no journalists but what he didn’t realize was that he’d be better off the other way around.