Although on the surface, studies of the singer Frank Sinatra seem to be emblematic of the frivolity of university offerings these days, there may actually be some value to this endeavor. After all, most students are not accustomed to listening to vocalists who can keep a beat, hit musical notes with their voices rather than their fists and maintain a melody without an echo chamber.
Unfortunately, as with most pedagogical enterprises, the opportunities for inaccuracy abound, and scholars have been seizing on them. “The post-World War II, early cold-war backlash against all things leftist helps to explain the tailspin that Sinatra’s singing and acting career experienced in the late 1940s and early 1950s,” Michael Nelson writes in the January 23, 2009 Chronicle Review. Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College, describes the decades during which Sinatra was an identifiable liberal Democrat in his review of essay-compilations on the crooner’s impact that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s supplement.
Nevertheless, two sentences following the above quote, Nelson contradicts himself. “Sinatra didn’t help his own cause by abandoning his wife in public pursuit of Ava Gardner,” Nelson writes. “Even his continuing commitment to perform and record emotionally and musically rich songs hurt him when the public taste turned to novelty numbers like ‘Woody Woodpecker’ and ‘Too Fat Polka.’”
“Sinatra’s comeback—his Academy Award in 1954 for From Here To Eternity and his series of stunningly successful Capitol records with the arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins—is an oft-told tale.” Yes it is.
Yet and still, Nelson’s take on politics and Sinatra’s career slide may not hold up very well when compared to available evidence. The real story might be much more interesting.
Several authoritative books on the singer that feature exhaustive interviews with his associates and contemporaries pin Sinatra’s fall from motion picture grace down to his comment on the relationship of the 65-year-old boss of the MGM film studio where Sinatra toiled and an underrated 35-year-old band singer. “Louis B. Mayer had been patient with Frank’s past box office failures and had put up with his lack of discipline on the set, but the last straw was an ill-judged Sinatra joke about Mayer’s personal life,” Anthony Summers wrote in Sinatra: The Life. “When he heard about that, the studio boss told Frank to get out and stay out.”
“In 1949 Mayer fell off a horse and was hospitalized,” Donald Clarke wrote in All or Nothing At All: Life of Sinatra.
“He didn’t fall off a horse,” Sinatra said. “He fell off Ginny Simms.”
Sinatra’s life was so eventful that in addition to the aforementioned titles, several other fine tomes are available commercially that chronicle the entertainer’s life and times. Even plainly partisan books from both ends of the scale deliver more of a bargain than the run of scholarly discourses rolling off university presses discussed above. Thus, both Kitty Kelly and Nancy Sinatra are more reliable, at least on this subject, than the average Ph. D.
One of the reasons that performers such as Frank Sinatra get tagged as legendary is because legends spring up about them. For what it’s worth, I offer my own take on a few of these.
When I saw him in concert in 1987, he was in his seventies and known to be rather ornery. Seeing him was a gamble.
That night, the bet paid off. The notoriously pugnacious “saloon singer” was apparently in a good mood, telling the audience that he couldn’t wait for football season to start and joking that at his age, he didn’t buy green bananas.
He moved flawlessly through a 16-song set with no break and only a dainty sip of Jack Daniels to sustain him. Also, although I’ve seen his height reported as anywhere between 5’7” and 5’11”, when the florid, white-haired troubadour entered the old Capital Center in Landover, Maryland, I, in a front-row seat, stood eyeball to eyeball with him, and I am 5’6” with my hair combed back.
Finally, I was amazed to find that his allegedly fearsome bodyguards looked…a lot like him.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.