Just between us, I enjoy a good juicy celebrity biography.
I do have a few standards, though. I prefer my celebrity bios to be about someone I’m actually interested in learning more about (in other words, I will not be picking up biographies about any Kardashian or Justin Bieber any time soon). And I actually don’t want something that’s just trashy, but rather a book that’s well-written and thoughtful. By all means, the author is welcome to dish the dirt, but it needs to be dished not just for the sake of dishing, but with a purpose.
My wonderful spouse gave me James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice as a gift last year. It’s a hefty book, clocking in at 718 pages (excluding footnotes and such, which tack on another 60+ pages), and it only covers Sinatra’s life up to the point where he won the Oscar for 1953’s From Here to Eternity. I am waiting rather impatiently for the second volume because I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Even if you’re not a huge Sinatra fan, or much of a Sinatra fan, this book is worth reading. As it happens, I’m a big Sinatra buff, but I also appreciated the details of the period, the discussions about popular music at the time, the descriptions of touring with bands through large and small towns, Hollywood, New York, and Las Vegas in the 30’s and 40’s—there’s just a ton of detail here.
I think what I liked best about Kaplan’s treatment is that he takes a writer’s view of his subject. Frank reads like a novel, not a biographical list of stuff strung together—he builds his character and the worlds he inhabited from research and facts instead of his imagination, but the result is a winding story of a man obsessed with being adored who lost nearly everything before making one of the greatest comebacks in show biz history.
And there’s no starry-eyed worshipping going on, no gushing: Kaplan clearly appreciates Sinatra’s talent, and he obviously admires his drive to succeed, but that doesn’t mean he’s pulling any punches about what a rat bastard Sinatra was—to his wife, to his kids, to his lovers, to the press. He was very definitely not a nice guy. But he is a fascinating one.
I think it’s probably hard to write with complete dispassion about any person once you get so caught up in the minutia of a life. Kaplan avoids falling into the opinion trap pretty well—there are times when his admiration for Sinatra’s talent, or his amusement at his affectations, are easily seen, but he genuinely avoids psychoanalyzing his subject. There is sometimes a tentatively offered point-of-view about how a certain incident might have affected Sinatra’s behavior, but he never comes out and says things like “Sinatra was a womanizer because he was super sensitive about his height and his looks and could never please his mother.” You can certainly draw that conclusion from the information provided, though, if you choose to do so. And that’s what a good biographer should do: give the reader the facts, paint a verbal portrait of a life, but let the reader decide the bigger questions.
On a larger scale, this isn’t just a biography of Sinatra, although that is, of course, the primary point of the book. This is a history of popular music from the late 1920’s through the early 1950’s, a time when some of America’s greatest songwriters and vocal interpreters were working, where Big Band and Swing were king, and where Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby made crooning an art form. I personally found the detailing of Sinatra’s various recordings—the arrangements, his own stabs at conducting the band, his struggles with his record company—really interesting. Ditto his working relationships with some of the biggest names in music from that time period, like Tommy Dorsey (who Sinatra says was the only person besides his mother he was ever afraid of), Buddy Rich, Jo Stafford, and an assortment of singers, songwriters, and musicians.
His Hollywood forays are equally interesting, but for a different reason. Sinatra didn’t like to actually work (singing wasn’t work for him), so when he began making movies, he had issues with things like, oh, showing up on the set on time. But as his star rose, so did the expectations for him on film, and he began to appreciate what he could learn from people like Gene Kelly, who he later said taught him everything he knew about doing musicals. Movie Star Sinatra is a different person from Crooner Frankie, and Kaplan appreciates those differences enough to underline them.
Overall, I found this an even-handed, well-written biography, one that is fair in its depiction of its subject and lush in the details of the time periods it straddles. It works on so many different levels—as a biography of a specific subject, as a history, and as a study of pop culture during a certain time period—that it has the ability to appeal to a lot of different people. Even if you’re not a fan of Sinatra’s music or of Sinatra the person, this is worth taking a look at. And who knows—Kaplan might make you a fan by the time he’s done.