FEBRUARY 23, 2016
I WENT BACK AND FORTH a few times about David Lehman’s new book. Does the world really need another biography of Frank Sinatra? There are several long ones, and a couple of excellent short ones, too, by John Lahr and Pete Hamill. So what does Lehman offer to make Sinatra’s Century worthwhile?
In the end, I come down strongly in its favor. There is much to love here, even though, let’s face it, there’s nothing about Sinatra’s life that can’t be found in most of the other books: the rise from modest means in Hoboken, the Major Bowes success (actually, Lehman doesn’t mention Major Bowes, although there is a photo of him, unidentified, with the rest of the Hoboken Four), the bobby-soxers, the pride he generated among Italian-Americans, the mob connections, the Ava debacle, the Rat Pack, the Mia debacle, the generosity, the thuggery. But although Lehman’s reportage may be derivative, it turns out to be the good kind of derivative; this is a compact-yet-complete portrait of a complicated guy who lived a long and active life; a guy whom Lehman calls “the most interesting man in the world.”
Lehman is a poet, and in structure and occasionally in style his book resembles an epic poem. In an afterword, he reveals that the strategy he chose, 100 discrete sections in honor of Sinatra’s 100th birthday (December 12, 2015), provided the answer to his own insecurities regarding purpose. “How do you write about someone who has provoked so many other writers, journalists, and novelists to erupt into prose?” Well, why not erupt into poetry, instead?
So a poetic sensibility dominates, and a poet’s eye (or ear) guides. The founder and editor of the Best American Poetry series, the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and a core faculty member of the graduate writing program at the New School, Lehman alludes to numerous poets here: T. S. Eliot, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Brad Leithauser, and Mary Jo Salter among them. In one chapter, for instance, we get reactions to Sinatra from Lehman’s peers: we learn that Leithauser really likes Sinatra’s way with Ira Gershwin’s lyric to “A Foggy Day”; that Molly Arden enjoys The Voice’s phrasing of the word “lovely” in “Come Fly with Me”; that Billy Collins (“whose poems are filled with references to jazz musicians”) likes the way that Sinatra-and-only-Sinatra sings “chick” and “dame”; that Siberian poet Lera Auerbach found in “My Way” an antidote to the grayness of life in Communist Russia and followed its voice, leaving her homeland behind; and that Michael Burkard gets a kick out of the elongated efs (in the word “terrifically”) that Sinatra employs in “I Get a Kick Out of You.” It’s not just Sinatra’s life Lehman wants us to understand, it’s his influence on others, and especially his meaning to other poets and poetic souls. Or if it’s true, per Archibald MacLeish, that “poetry should not mean / But be,” then it’s Sinatra’s being Lehman is after — and how that being affects us still, nearly 20 years after his death.
Like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Sinatra’s Century offers multiple views of a subject that fascinates its author. Shortish at 265 pages, this book, like a collection of poems, includes lots of white space. At times its tone is impressionistic: some chapters are only a sentence or two in length — you can finish reading in an afternoon and still have time to listen to several of the songs described within. And if, after reading, you find yourself listening to lots of Sinatra on Spotify or iTunes or, if you’ve got them, CDs from your own collection, Lehman will have achieved one of his goals. Great poetry inspires a reader to dream and to connect with life outside and beyond. You might even find yourself searching the internet — or the library — for fuller treatments of Sinatra-related characters and anecdotes, of which there are plenty.
Meanwhile, the brevity of the chapters scattered throughout adds pungency and contributes to a poetic feel. You think, oh, the poet is commenting now, summarizing some aspect of Sinatra’s life in a short canto. I wish I could report that the content in these poetic flights always succeeds. But while some are wonderful, others are mundane and sometimes silly. One whole chapter, I kid you not, is made up of anagrams of the letters in “Sinatra.” (Not all the anagrams, just those that might illuminate the man in the poet’s eye: art, rain, satin, strain — Satan is omitted, as is tiara.) This particular canto is something of a strain. And another makes much of the fact that three of the characters Sinatra played in movies (he was in more than 50) were named Danny.
Enough of the short chapters do succeed, though, and they generally highlight how Sinatra has infiltrated the culture. The one describing Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt dancing to two great Sinatra tracks in the movie What Women Want makes you want to run out and rent that movie (or stay in and stream it, I guess). Yet another short chapter is devoted to the comedian Dennis Miller’s description of his own political shift rightward following the September 11, 2001 attacks, reminiscent of Sinatra’s path from Roosevelt Democrat to Reagan Republican. And a slightly longer piece offers Lehman’s memory of his freshman year at Columbia, in 1966, and how Sinatra’s “That’s Life” contrasted with other elements of the Swinging Sixties. In this way the author goes for the poetry of the man as reflected in the poetry of the times.
America as melting pot is one of Lehman’s themes. In an earlier book, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, he details his love affair with the Great American Songbook. The pantheon of celebrated composers and lyricists — Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, et al. — is made up almost exclusively of Americans of Jewish descent, except for Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter (who famously told Richard Rodgers that his secret to writing hits would be to “write Jewish tunes”). Sinatra is to Italian-Americans what Irving Berlin is to American Jews. His success in the 1940s and ’50s was hugely important to a community frequently discriminated against and struggling to assimilate. In the earlier book, Lehman quotes Jerome Kern’s famous line — “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music. Irving Berlin is American music” — but if Jewish songwriters defined American song, Frank Sinatra, all by himself, defined super-pop-stardom and, in many ways, masculinity in 20th-century America.
The biographical aspect of Sinatra’s Century is put forth efficiently, and largely chronologically, with some flashbacks and flash forwards — again, for poetic effect. His prodigious sex life is covered as well, though readers hungry for salacious details will want to go to Kitty Kelley’s His Way or George Jacobs’s entertaining Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra. (Jacobs was Sinatra’s longtime valet.) But Lehman covers the basics, and his synthesis is well done. If you want to know more, there are other sources to consult — Lehman says as much, himself. His accomplishment is in not just telling Sinatra’s story, but in describing the man’s effect on all of us, then and now.
And one of the most valuable uses of the book might be as a road map, especially to the recordings. In my favorite chapter, Lehman goes deep into “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” He compares several different recordings of the song, which Sinatra sang as often as any in his career. He notes that in the 1950s, starting with the famous version on the Only the Lonely LP, Sinatra sang the song in a higher key than when he was younger, despite the darkening of his voice. There were other fine covers, Lehman tells us, by Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James, but it was Sinatra who inhabited this song, and after his 1958 version, if not the earlier one in the 1940s, virtually owned it. Lehman describes Bill Miller’s piano accompaniment and Nelson Riddle’s subtle string arrangement, and he points out how generous Sinatra was in giving credit to his arrangers, accompanists, and songwriters. He offers the connoisseur’s opinion that the “version to get is the previously unreleased take on the three-CD set The Capitol Years (1990).”
Well, not for my money it isn’t. It’s fine — piano only. But the familiar version from 1958 is superior, with Riddle’s strings and “that broken saxophone’s solo near the song’s close.” In fact, Lehman doesn’t describe the arrangement entirely accurately — the strings come in more often than he allows — but who cares? His enthusiasm makes the reader want to stop reading and start listening. If you do, the rewards are big. And this is one of the book’s delights: I spent an hour on “One for My Baby” and was surprised to learn that Sinatra’s singing of the song only got better and better with age. Later recordings, like the live versions of Sinatra at the Sands (1966) and especially Live at the Meadowlands (1986), are heartbreaking. The studio version from Only the Lonely is the best recording, but to my ear Sinatra’s singing and emotional impact improved in the later live versions, hard as it is to improve upon perfection.
Lehman notes that Sinatra changes Johnny Mercer’s lyric slightly and sings “won’t you make the music easy and sad” rather than “dreamy and sad.” Songwriters vary in their reactions to singers taking such liberties. Cole Porter is said to have sent a telegram to Sinatra saying, “If you don’t like my songs the way I write them, why do you sing them?” But Sinatra made lyrical changes to fit Frank Sinatra. As I followed Lehman’s graduate course on “One for My Baby,” I noticed that, in the 1960s, Sinatra changed even more of the lyric. Instead of “I could tell you a lot, but you’ve got to be true to your code,” he started singing, “I could tell you a lot, but that’s not in a gentleman’s code.”
At first, I thought this was the Chairman of the Board really taking liberties. But it turns out that “gentleman’s code” is the original lyric, the one Fred Astaire sang in The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and the one Johnny Mercer himself sang in his recordings. The “true to your code” variation is evidently an adaptation made so that the published sheet music version could be sung by both male and female singers. Sinatra didn’t always take poetic license. Sometimes he was a purist!
(In his quest for the poetry of Sinatra, Lehman makes one hilarious error. He mentions “The House on the Hill” as the Hammerstein-Kern song Sinatra selected for Peggy Lee, which became one of her signature songs. In fact, “The House on the Hill” is an oft-anthologized poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. The Hammerstein-Kern song is titled “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”)
Who is this book for? Maybe not Sinatra fanatics, who are going to have heard it all before. But the casual Sinatra fan will love it. Young people who know very little about Sinatra will likely love it, too, and learn from it. People of all ages will relate Sinatra’s story to those of the prevailing pop stars of their day, whether that means Elvis, the Beatles, or Justin Bieber.
In “One for My Baby,” a “Sinatra song” if ever there was one — despite its having been written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen — Sinatra tells us:
You’d never know it but buddy, I’m a kind of poet
And I got a lot of things I’d like to say
And when I’m gloomy, you simply gotta listen to me
Till it’s talked away
Sinatra’s Century chronicles the life of the poet Frank Sinatra, told by a poet, with poetic trappings. Like good poetry, it rewards repeated readings — and prompts us elsewhere. In the end, Lehman’s book may be most valuable in leading his readers to the songs. For as Pete Hamill concludes in Why Sinatra Matters (1998), the music is mostly why he mattered. And matters still.
Tom Toce is a songwriter, actuary, and Jeopardy champion living in New York City. His cabaret songs have been recorded by Andrea Marcovicci, Jane Monheit, Tovah Feldshuh, and many others. The cabaret shows he produces, devoted almost exclusively to songs by living songwriters, have won acclaim, awards, and rave reviews.