Classic Ellis: Frank Sinatra, 1998

Of the good things and the bad things that have been said of Sinatra since his going last week (with his checked coat, I guess, slung over his shoulder), a couple are often missing. One was that his hostile, bully-boy, journo-punching ways date not from the first rumours of  his Mafia links in 1949 but much earlier than that, when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee went after him in 1945 as a likely communist. This was because he appeared in a film called What Is America To Me and throughout the war kept raising on stage the fate of the Jews in Poland and Germany, something no true American would do.

And the harsh downturn in his career in the early fifties was in large part due to that, the downturn that his Oscar for playing Maggio in From Here to Eternity rescued him from, much like the parallel downturn in those fraught, bleak years of the rising careers of Larry Parks and Zero Mostel and Melvin Douglas and Martin Ritt and Ring Lardner Jnr and Arthur Miller, when Ol’ Blue Eyes was not only Black (as Dennis Whitburn wittily observed in his fine play The Siege of Frank Sinatra) but Black because thought Red.

My first published work was about Sinatra, a feisty defence of him in the letters page of The Brisbane Telegraph (ending with the passionate plea ‘Give the mug a fair go’), an intervention that did much, I’m sure, to speed his resurrection, and I’ve thought about him a good bit since then.

Among a lot of other things, for instance, he somehow legitimised what might be called the underclass of the promiscuous, gave dignity to people — both men and women — who sleep around. Not just with the obvious one, ‘Strangers in the Night’, but much earlier, with ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’ and ‘The Wee Small Hours of the Morning’ and ‘All The Way’ and ‘A Very Good Year’ and ‘Summer Wind’, he gave sex (if these are the words I want) its head in a way that jazz had never done for the nervous Updike middle classes, and when he sang ‘Love and Marriage’ (go together like a horse and carriage) you didn’t believe him. He was every suburban woman’s dream of a one-night stand, a man who ‘knew how to make you feel like a woman’, as one of his classier bedfellows — or broads, as he gallantly called them — Lauren Bacall once said. None who saw it will forget the oomph and sizzle when he arrived on the piano stool next to Doris Day in her respectable suburban parlour in Young at Heart, nor what a good match she was for him; Doris, we felt, would settle him down.

He was such a good actor too, reaching Bogart levels in The Detective and The Manchurian Candidate, and had he played all the roles of that curiously similar screen actor Richard Widmark, he would have done them as well. History (and his own famed impatience) denied him the great swan-song role like Fonda’s in On Golden Pond and Wayne’s in True Grit, but in another medium the album Duets is that.

His would have to be the most  American of careers — the first singer little girls squealed and threw their panties at, a husband of Ava Gardner (and Mia Farrow when that looked more like pederasty), a founder of Las Vegas, a pimp for the Kennedys, a midnight solace for a month or two of Marilyn Monroe, the first big name to call Ronald Reagan ‘dumb and dangerous’ before in the long run supporting him, a hipster, a swinger, a playboy, a lounge lizard, a man’s man, a pack leader, a Mafia don, a singing waiter, a broken-down nightclub stand-up, a washout, a comeback, a legend, the first big star to to move round with a retinue of thick-witted bodyguards and fly his classy buddies in a private jet to parties overseas, the first public figure besieged for political incorrectness (when he called Australian female journos ‘hookers’ in 1976 and he was locked inside the Boulevard Hotel by angry service unions till Bob Hawke dropped by for a scotch and ice and sorted him out), a first-generation Italo-American whose mother was an abortionist and whose son Frank Junior’s bloodied ear arrived in the mail a week after his kidnapping, a voice that as background went equally well with a cocktail party on Fifth Avenue, a gay bathhouse in San Francisco or a melancholy bar like Cheers in Chicago at four in the morning (and more, much more than this, I did it …), an elegiac voice as cool and sad as vermouth for all the lost seasons of love.

And so it goes. You might say our lives will be poorer without him but he’ll be around for a while — on CD, on cable, and on the summer wind.

  1. Wonderful tribute and so eloquently written.

    We should also mention his rather sexy and talented daughter Nancy, who along with Lee Hazelwood, produced albums almost as good as her father’s.

  2. Don’t know much about Nancy. What became of Frank Junior, who had a singing career too.

    Do you think Harry Connick Jnr is in Frank’s league?

    I do. Or I think I do.

  3. Nancy was very 60s and miniskirts and occassionally country and then soul, she never could decide but boy could she sing! And she, alone with Barbara Feldon, made my blood warm.

    Connick has a fine voice but Frank is the Man. You have written such a beautiful tribute here, it is one of your best.

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