Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra , by George Jacobs and William Stadiem. Harper Collins, 260 pages, $24.95.
One of the odder byways of nonfiction is the dishy memoir by those who have served the great or the near-great. Think of all those books by former White House staff members: seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks’ My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House , chief usher J.B. West’s Upstairs at the White House , kennel keeper Traphes Bryant’s Dog Days at the White House . England has a long tradition of royalty rip-offs, most famously The Little Princesses: (1953), the royal nanny’s best-selling tell-all. The Queen was not amused.
We, of course, don’t have royalty-even Presidents don’t qualify-but we do have Hollywood. And now we have Frank Sinatra’s onetime valet, George Jacobs. With the help of William Stadiem, Jacobs has given us a vivid account of his many years serving The Voice, and of the tragic (to him) denouement of their relationship. Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra is a curious and convincing portrait not only of Sinatra but of Mr. Jacobs himself, and of the kind of mentality that breeds such passionate attachment to a man so spectacularly unworthy of it.
George Jacobs, now 76, was born in New Orleans. Although black, he had Jewish blood on both sides-hence his last name. After a stretch in the Navy, during which he became aide to an admiral and learned to cook Mediterranean style, he married, moved to Los Angeles and, through a series of maneuvers and accidents, found himself Man Friday to agent Swifty Lazar’s Robinson Crusoe. Which in turn led to Sinatra snatching him from Swifty-needling Lazar was one of Sinatra’s favorite pastimes.
It was love at first sight: “I loved the guy, and I assumed he loved me, too.” From 1953 to 1968, George was Frank’s shadow. He cooked for him-the Italo-American food Frank craved; he dressed him (orange was Sinatra’s favorite color); he ferried Frank’s lady friends and call girls to and from the Residence; he palled around with the Rat Pack; he watched over Ava (long after she had bounced Frank) when she needed looking after; he became a link to Sinatra’s family-big Nancy and the three kids-and stayed on close terms with Dolly, Sinatra’s bar-owning, ward-heeling, midwife/abortionist mother, even after Sinatra booted him; he knew Marilyn (“the girl Dolly wanted her son to marry”) and the Kennedys, the notorious Judith Campbell and the dangerous Sam Giancana. And he dealt as best he could with Mia Farrow (when she was Mia Sinatra), whom he clearly despised, even before she became the engine of his fall from grace.
A summer night in L.A. George has the evening to kill before going over to Ava’s bungalow, where they would “get plastered, and … sing to each other until daylight.” Looking for action, he stops off at a place called the Candy Store for a few drinks, and along comes Mia. “I thought she was high, high as a kite. ‘Dance with me, Georgie Porgie,’ she insisted, dragging me out to the floor …. ” After they dance “for what seemed an eternity,” George slips away to meet Ava. When Frank reads about their dancecapade in Rona Barrett’s gossip column, it’s over in a flash: George’s key suddenly doesn’t fit the compound door, and a letter from Frank’s lawyer tells George that he’s been fired. “I was not to reenter the premises, nor telephone, nor in any way approach or try to contact Mr. Sinatra …. There was no explanation, no apology, no severance pay.” And indeed, the two men run into each other only one more time, in 1978, at Don the Beachcomber’s. “I took one look at him and broke down into tears. I couldn’t stop crying. Mr. S put his arm around me. ‘Forget about it, kid,’ he said. ‘It isn’t so bad.’ I guess I couldn’t forget about it, because the tears didn’t stop. Mr. S gave me one last squeeze and was gone …. I was sad he wasn’t as sentimental about us as I was.”
There are telling discrepancies between what George Jacobs says here and what, in the early 80’s, he told Kitty Kelley when she interviewed him for her no-holds-barred Sinatra bio, His Way : “After fourteen years together, he dropped the net on me just like that, and he couldn’t even look me in the face to do it. He couldn’t fire me in person. He had to have his prick lawyer do it for him. I was so mad afterwards that I threw away everything he’d ever given me-two-thousand-dollar watches, suits, sweaters, shirts, shoes, coats, cameras, radios-everything. I didn’t want anything from the bastard around. I got twelve thousand dollars in severance pay and blew it, and then I sold all my shares in Reprise Records.” It’s not only the forgotten severance pay that stands out here, but the anger that’s generally absent or veiled in the new book. Time does heal all wounds.
There was clearly a blurring of lines in the relationship between the two men, as there often is between master and servant. George was definitely more to Frank than a valet, unless your definition of valeting includes procuring, getting chummy with gangsters and Presidents, and baby-sitting Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe. We’re not talking Jeeves here. To George, Frank was a hero-not only “the most powerful man in the entertainment business” (“the folks in show business feared Sinatra the same way the folks in Communist Russia had feared Stalin”), but also “my best friend, my idol, my boss.” What George was-actually-was an adoring courtier to a member of Hollywood’s royalty. “It feels great,” he tells us, “to be the right hand of a king.”
It doesn’t feel great, though, to be expelled from paradise. What George Jacobs suffered at Sinatra’s hands is the old story of Prince Hal and Falstaff, and of a million less famous examples of favorites being abruptly shed: You think you’re a “we” and discover you no longer even exist; the king doesn’t need you any more, and wants you out of his sight and off his conscience. Some cast-offs fade gracefully into oblivion; some shriek with rage ( The Devil Wears Prada ); and some put a good face on it, which is what George Jacobs has done in Mr. S. It helps that he has humor and a certain wit, and it’s a relief to the reader, who comes to like him, that he managed to make a life for himself after Sinatra, despite the dismal fate of several of his children and an appearance on The Gong Show .
What we discern about Sinatra-and it jibes with other accounts-is that he was a man with profound feelings of inferiority about everything but his music. He was a shrimp; he had scars and a damaged ear from a difficult birth; and he never got over his unlovely background. Hoboken was hardly “class,” and no concept was more important to this man who aspired so desperately to be accepted by what he saw as the elite: Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Edie Goetz (Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, and supposed doyenne of social Hollywood), the Kennedys. “Mr. S craved class like a junkie craves a needle.” But his social aspirations were undercut by his blatant weaknesses-an almost pathological anger and blasts of unforgiving coldness: Tommy Dorsey, Lauren Bacall, his godfather and many others who had been faithful and loyal were brutally banished. He was a serial hater. “Everything about Mr. S had to do with paying debts and settling scores”-the Sinatra family needn’t have left Sicily.
Sinatra pursued women voraciously, but did he ever really love anyone except Ava and Dolly? Certainly he cared as a friend for some of his occasional conquests-Marilyn, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Natalie Wood, Dinah Shore and a hundred more-and he was generous and gallant to his bought women: After all, they gave him what he most wanted, control. He was fun, yet abusive; free from prejudice, yet consorting with and admiring some of the most repellent criminals of his day. And, of course, he was a very great singer.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Frank Sinatra, and yet he was crushed by two traumatic defeats. One was the loss of Ava. The other was being dropped by the Kennedys after Jack made it to the White House (with Sinatra’s crucial help). By then, Frank’s criminal connections were too rank for Bobby and for Ambassador Joe, and Frank in turn became the Falstaff figure, banished by the prince. It was a public humiliation. Indeed, the severest portraits in Mr. Jacobs’ book are of Bobby (Sinatra called him “the weasel”) and of Dad-Joe Kennedy is probably the one man in the world George Jacobs could be said to have hated. Vile about blacks, Joe was even nastier about Jews. “The Jewish jokes didn’t stop. The worst one I can recall: ‘What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? The pizza doesn’t cry on its way to the oven.'” “Mr. Ambassador,” Jacobs sums up, “if anyone had the guts to spit in his face, a bravery that my boss sadly lacked, should have been called Mr. Asshole.” As for Bobby’s assassination at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, the unforgiving Sinatra could only mumble, “It wasn’t even one of us .” Peter Lawford? “Cheap, weak, sneak, and freak.”
Jack was a different matter. “As much as I disliked his father, that’s how much I was crazy about John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” Jack was “handsome and funny and naughty and irreverent as Dean Martin,” insisting that George call him by his first name and obsessed with Hollywood gossip and Mr. S’s love life. According to George, the Senator “was far more in awe of Mr. S than Mr. S was of him.” Why? “Because Frank Sinatra controlled the one thing JFK wanted more than anything else: Pussy! Mr. S was the Pope of Pussy, and JFK was honored to kiss his ring.” After all, Mr. S could “bestow” not only a Judy Campbell but a Marilyn Monroe. There’s a hilarious scene in which Kennedy is being massaged by George while they “talk pussy.” The talk has its effect, leading to the punchline: “We better get you laid, Jack.”
About Frank himself close up, George is specific and admiring. Ava, weighing up her “one-hundred-twenty-pound runt,” put it most succinctly: “There’s only ten pounds of Frank but there’s one hundred and ten pounds of cock!” On the other hand, Mr. Jacobs may be the only witness to how Sinatra dealt with the problem of size. For Oscar night-the night he won Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity , the night that revived his career-he “had special underpants made, a cross between a panty girdle and a jock strap. The idea was to hold down that big thing of his, so it wouldn’t show through his tuxedo pants.” Everybody’s got problems!
I only wish I’d known about this cunning device the one time I met Sinatra. Among his closest friends were Bill Green (chairman of the Clevepak Corporation) and his wife, Judy, an old school pal of mine. Judy was determined that Frank and I should meet, God knows why, and she set up a formal dinner party. One night during the 70’s, I drove up to the Greens’ house in Mt. Kisco with Swifty Lazar-Sinatra, by the way, was still on Swifty’s case-and I found myself at the end of a long dinner table on one side of Judy, with Sinatra on the other. If I’d known about the dick-suppresser, it might have gotten the conversational ball rolling, but as it was, I was as much at sea as Sinatra about what to say. Finally I blurted out some bland question about Hollywood, and Frank lit up: Here was a subject he could safely address. Leaning over Judy, he looked at me directly for the first time. “You know, Bob,” he said, “sometimes Hollywood can be the loneliest town in the world.”
Robert Gottlieb is the dance critic for The Observer.
Our Most Dazzling Patriarch, A Bad Boy With a Lusty Streak
by Ted Widmer
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life , by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, 590 pages, $30.
Future historians may well ponder the explosion of interest in the 18th century that marked the beginning of the 21st and wonder whether it was a modern version of the intellectual crazes that dotted the landscape of the Enlightenment, like tulipomania or mesmerism. Or maybe it’s just one of those generational games of leapfrog, like the obsession with the 50’s that oddly accompanied the 70’s ( M*A*S*H , Grease , Sha Na Na, the Fonz). Is there a historian who doesn’t have a project on the Founding Fathers in the works? Is there a Founding Father left unaccounted for? (Actually, there is-Washington, the biggest of them all-but Joseph Ellis will take care of that.)
Into this crowded swimming pool, the unlikely figure of Walter Isaacson is about to cannonball. On July 4 (natch), his fat new biography of Benjamin Franklin will appear. Until recently the C.E.O. of CNN, and before that the managing editor of Time , Mr. Isaacson is the author of two important books on the foreign-policy establishment, Kissinger (1992) and The Wise Men (which he co-wrote in 1986 with Evan Thomas, who is now the assistant managing editor of Newsweek ). That’s quite a résumé. Somehow, over the last few years, in between the AOL-Time Warner merger, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and the degradation of the Atlantic alliance (the book he should do next), Mr. Isaacson found the time to write a doorstop on one of the most complex figures in American history. Despite the insipid subtitle (who among us has not lived “an American life”?), it’s a serious offering, and looks imposing well before one summons the courage to actually read it.
Do we need a new biography of Franklin? Last fall, Yale’s Edmund Morgan issued a graceful profile, and three years ago, the prolific historian H.W. Brands published a solid longer study. In truth, Mr. Isaacson’s book does not add enormously to the sum of our knowledge. But his clear prose and media savvy may bring in readers who have not ventured into the 18th century before, and Franklin’s life is so seminal that he can hardly be written about too often.
He was quite simply the most dazzling American of his time. Adams deserved the boost he got from David McCullough, and Jefferson will always stand for a certain kind of flawed brilliance, but whenever Franklin walked into the room, he sucked all the air out of it. No one else had his range, his street smarts or his flair for publicity. He was a one-man CNN, with his finger on the pulse of an emerging information society and a natural penchant for snappy one-liners (“Love well, whip well”). His autobiography is still the template for all the memoirists who have toiled in his wake. He was funnier than the rest of the Founders, by a wide margin (if you don’t believe me, try reading Mather Byles, then considered the great wit of America). He worked harder than the others as he grappled his way up the ladder, literally running away from the grime of his working-class background. And unlike every other Founder, he was a natural urbanite. A lover of cities and all they stand for, from Boston and Philadelphia to London and Paris, where this expatriate American spent the happiest years of his life, far away from his fellow Americans and their dreary money-grubbing (though he could grub with the best). If Barbara Walters had been alive in the 18th century (and it does seem like she’s been around that long), no one would have given her a better interview. The least wise thing he ever said was “He that lives carnally, won’t live eternally.” Franklin is here forever.
As that pious homily suggests, this was a man of great contradictions, his lapses every bit as interesting as his talents. Franklin is indisputably part of our pantheon-the household god of Rotarians and mutual-fund managers-but his life offers fantastic defects for a cunning biographer to explore. As far as we know, he did not commit the unpardonable sin for a Founder (interracial sex), but he did just about everything else. He was a disaster as a family man, emotionally retarded with the people who needed him most, and inclined to long absences that gave him the freedom to range over choicer pastures. Mr. Isaacson is quite good on Franklin’s tortured relationship with William Franklin, the bastard son he sired within a year of his marriage, and who in turn sired a bastard who sired a bastard. For reasons that we can only begin to fathom, William Franklin, neglected by his father for much of his life, became an ardent Tory during the Revolution, bringing anguish to both. No other Founding Father could possibly have found himself fighting against one of his children. None had a more ambivalent relationship with the word “father.”
Mr. Isaacson has done plenty of research. Franklin’s depressing heirs sold his papers in the 19th century, but they have largely been reassembled, and Mr. Isaacson has sifted through many of them-not as many as Edmund Morgan, but enough. He has also brought back the humor missing from the more academic tomes.
Satire was an essential political tool for Franklin. Throughout his life, he made people laugh, and while they were laughing he picked their pockets. As a bored teenager, he invented the fictitious busybody Silence Dogood to get into his brother’s newspaper. As a gouty old man in Paris, he invented flippant bagatelles to get into his girlfriends’ pantaloons. Mr. Isaacson provides details on all these Franklins and more-including the kaleidoscopic range of names people called him-“the new Prometheus” to Kant, “old Ben lightning rod” to the people, “Dr. Fatsides” to the women he lived with in London, in one of his many suspect domestic arrangements.
But Benjamin Franklin , like its subject, is an imperfect creation. Mr. Isaacson’s journalistic background allows him to avoid pontification, but his casual style comes at a price. The writing, if it does not annoy, does not exhilarate either. Too many complicated subjects are dispatched with a cliché or a breathless summary (“the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself”). Mr. Isaacson often interrupts a perfectly good narrative to summarize a point with bullets-a strategy that may work well in a Time sidebar, but which looks strange in the middle of a history book. One also senses that for all his reading on Franklin, certain reaches of the 18th century remain terra incognita for Mr. Isaacson. His thumbnail portraits of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards ignore important subtleties of the Puritan character, and Edwards would have been flabbergasted to learn that he stood for a hierarchical arrangement of society, when he devoted his most trenchant sermons to the godless money hunger that was already tainting American democracy, well before the United States was created.
D.H. Lawrence’s hilariously savage essay about Franklin, which Mr. Isaacson dismisses too quickly, pursued a similar attack, loathing the self-help maxims, the false humility, the endless attempt to rob life of its mystery. It remains the best thing written on American smugness, a topic that requires our urgent attention as the world looks at us with fear and loathing. Franklin is too complicated to reduce to simple praise or condemnation, and Mr. Isaacson wisely avoids either extreme. But his inclination is to overlook these harder points, which deserve to be heard along with the hosannas. For Lawrence, for Herman Melville, and for many of Franklin’s contemporaries, there was something a little suspect about Franklin’s bromides. It does not diminish Franklin’s greatness to look more deeply into the less flattering side of the story.
If biography is always secretly autobiography, what drew Mr. Isaacson to Franklin in the first place? It’s not as odd a choice as it first seems. Like Henry Kissinger, Franklin merged celebrity and foreign policy, and he would have approved both the sentiment and the pithiness of Mr. Kissinger’s most lasting thought: “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” Like the policymakers Mr. Isaacson studied in The Wise Men , Franklin radiated an insider’s confidence; he knew what was best for the country without needing to tell too many people the details. And, of course, Franklin was a journalist before he was a statesman: Like Walter Lippman, like James “Scotty” Reston, he deftly made the leap from covering events to shaping them. That’s got to be exciting if you happen to have risen to the top of the journalistic heap and have nowhere left to climb.
Benjamin Franklin is not the final word on Old Ben Lightning Rod; I doubt any book ever will be-as Poor Richard tells us, cryptically, “men and melons are hard to know.” Mr. Isaacson’s ambitious new study signals an important effort to bring Franklin back into focus. A new generation of readers needs to know more about the Founder who most appealingly embodies our great resourcefulness as a people-and more than a few of our weaknesses, too.
Ted Widmer is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
Nostalgia at the Ballpark: Gravest Threat to the Game
by Mark Costello
The Teammates , by David Halberstam. Hyperion, 217 pages, $22.95.
So it’s June again, 2003. Summer comes, the kids are getting out of school, and even semi-with-it fans of baseball begin to check the box scores with their coffee. April and May baseball-a quarter of the season-is the stretch run of mirage and statistical bizzarerie. Wiser minds ignore it. No, the lowly Royals will not win the A.L. Central, despite leading for six weeks (it couldn’t last, and didn’t). And no, Jason Giambi, the Yankees’ onetime M.V.P., slumping early on, will not strike out 300 times and hit .192. The Royals fade. Giambi homers twice to beat the Cardinals in the Bronx. June is when the season starts to act its age.
Sanity’s return, welcome every year, is particularly welcome now. It hasn’t been a good time for the game. Let’s list some of the outrages. A season-ending players’ strike was narrowly averted in August of last year. In the spring, two former All-Stars, Ken Caminetti and Jose Canseco, alleged that at least half of the players are dependent on steroids, speed and other banned supplements. In March, as if to prove the point, a young reliever for the Orioles died while jogging in the outfield-a death caused, the coroner would find, by the reckless use of Ephedra, a potent weight-loss medication. The fans, weary of bloated player contracts, drug-related scandals and the plague of $30 trinkets at the ballparks, have been tuning out. Ratings and attendance, sliding for a while, are down again this year, imperiling the very economics of the game. The Montreal Expos have been placed in M.L.B. receivership and, desperate to draw crowds, now play a portion of their “home” games in that Francophone heaven, San Juan, Puerto Rico. This spring, as the Royals made their early bid for greatness, an ex-managing general partner of the Texas Rangers bombed and conquered a country named Iraq. The ex-managing general partner’s name is George Walker Bush. We’ll see how this transaction pans out for everybody’s favorite Texas Ranger.
Problems seem to follow baseball, even to the White House. Perhaps it’s appropriate that baseball faces what is either a midlife crisis or possibly old age with an actual baseball man as President. The game has always been the self-anointed microcosm of the nation. And in a time of doubt, baseball does what America is busy doing now, it seems to me: turning inward, looking backward.
Proof of this can be found in the latest crop of baseball books. Strikingly, most focus on some golden yesteryear. The classic of the genre-and it truly deserves that title-is Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer , published 30 years ago, a bittersweet memoir of Brooklyn, boyhood and the beloved Dodgers. But The Boys of Summer was written by a grown man, and not in summer but in the moral fall of the late 1960’s, a time of riots, burning cities and assassination. The subject may be baseball, but the theme is what we’ve lost.
The problem with nostalgia is that it works. The Boys of Summer surely worked, crashing the best-seller lists. But nostalgia is a trap. It leads nowhere except back. Literarily, it leads to imitation. Brooklyn has been done to death, but this doesn’t kill the appetite or stop the quest for other special, golden, magical teams and times and places.
Roger Kahn’s latest book, October Men , is a blow-by-blow of the 1979 New York Yankees, which featured such humble, noble figures as the alcoholic Billy Martin, the egoholic Reggie Jackson and the plutocratic owner, George Steinbrenner. In a funny way, of course, nostalgia is promiscuous. It can embrace Roger Kahn’s plucky, funky Dodgers of the 50’s, the antithesis of New Baseball, money and free agency, the reign of “I got mine.” Then a decade or two passes, and Roger Kahn can write another book waxing elegiac over the Yankees of the late 70’s, who pretty much embodied those new forces.
At least the Yankees won. In David Halberstam’s The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship , the teammates are left fielder Ted Williams, center fielder Dom DiMaggio (Joltin’ Joe’s little brother), second baseman Bobby Doerr and the slap-hitting shortstop, Johnny Pesky. These men formed the core of the Boston Red Sox in the 1940’s, a team that, in the great Red Sox tradition, almost won. They were all fine players (Doerr and the great Williams are in the Hall of Fame), but also, Mr. Halberstam believes, symbols of a country largely gone. They were, he tells us, “men of a certain generation … special men-smart, purposeful, hardworking-and they had seized on baseball as their one chance to get ahead in America.” In short, these are the guys, or the kind of guys, who hit the sands on D-Day and whipped the Japs at Iwo Jima. It’s a baseball version of The Greatest Generation .
To his credit, Mr. Halberstam is less interested in baseball or the Red Sox than in the strange and spiky byways of male friendship. Williams, Doerr, DiMaggio and Pesky came up more or less together in the early 40’s, playing as a unit until 1951, separate lives “forever linked in a thousand box scores, through long hours of traveling on trains together.” But much of The Teammates happens afterwards in the 80’s and the 90’s, well outside the box scores. The boys grow old. They squabble and go fishing. One of them gets sick. The others gently help him die. Many of these scenes are very powerful.
But over everything, and over all of baseball, lies the goo of reminiscence. Hey, Ted, remember ’46?
The game is changing, and the changes may be fatal, though I doubt it. Free agency, that hated innovation, is surely better and more just than the old plantation days of the reserve clause, when a club controlled a man for life without negotiation. Fan interest may be down in the United States, but it’s up in Asia and in many other markets, and not everything important happens in the U.S.A. In the end, the biggest threat to baseball as the pulse rate of a healthy culture may not be the future, but the goo-the backward gaze, the pastime of past time.
Mark Costello’s most recent novel is Big If (Harvest).
From Gospel to Gangsta: Naming the Soul of Black Music
by Stephen Metcalf
Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music , by Arthur Kempton. Pantheon,498 pages, $27.50.
In the early 1920’s, Columbia Records was on the verge of extinction when it released a song called “Downhearted Blues” by a bawdy torch singer named Bessie Smith. The record was a smash, Columbia Records was saved, and “race music,” as it was bluntly labeled at the time, forever became the basis for America’s pop-aural universe. That older classification is no longer suitable, of course; but how to bind together the many genres, from soul to funk to rap, that have descended to us from gospel and the blues? Arthur Kempton, unaffiliated musicologist and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books , has come up with a suggestion. “Boogaloo” was both a dance craze from the mid-60’s-not coincidentally, the time of Mr. Kempton’s coming-of-age as a music fan-and, he insists, a music insider’s term of art for black popular music in the soul idiom. Etymology and usage aside, as a single thread with which to bind gospel and gangsta rap, “boogaloo” is very much Mr. Kempton’s own invention. But does one spirit really preside over “Peace in the Valley,” “Baby Love,” Maggot Brain and “Straight Outta Compton”?
Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music is a contrary book: It’s a shambling-rambling, loose-jointed, prolix argument in favor of, well, a quintessence : a single, unifying spirit to all the popular music made by African-Americans. Pivotally, Mr. Kempton downgrades the blues as its true source to the advantage of gospel. And so for the first half of the book, at least, “boogaloo” seems to mean the precarious balance between the sacred and the profane, as best exemplified by those most omni of omni-Americans, Thomas A. Dorsey and Sam Cooke. Dorsey essentially invented gospel, by smuggling the aura of sexual intoxication of Ma Rainey, for whom he had once played back-up piano, into the church, while smuggling back into popular music the wild devotional zeal of Southern Baptists. Cooke, of course, was the first true soul singer. He had apprenticed for years as the front man for the divine gospel ensemble the Soul Stirrers, before striking out on his own as one of the earliest crossover heartthrobs. Think of songs that reshaped the world (Elvis’ “That’s Alright, Mama” or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”); Sam Cooke’s ditty “You Send Me,” with its wafting and endlessly repetitive chorus, doesn’t come immediately to mind. But in fact it gave birth to boogaloo’s new tension, between the grit and soulfulness of music made by and for blacks, and the mass appeal of black music meant to ingratiate itself with whites.
Beethoven or Mozart? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Stax or Motown? You don’t have to choose, but if you do a deep moral allegiance is at stake. Mr. Kempton tries to have his cake and eat it too; he claims both Stax and Motown as manifestations of boogaloo. Stax, after all, made soul music: Otis Redding, Aretha, Isaac Hayes. Motown made black pop for white teens. With Motown, Mr. Kempton’s single-thread theory starts to fray. In post-riot, post-white-flight Detroit, Berry Gordy’s empire clung to a fake reality. Motown continued to make some captivating records, of course, but the truth was harder than anything Lionel Ritchie could convey. While Mr. Gordy was racing thoroughbreds, and Michael Jackson was shilling for Pepsi, a segment of black America had hardened into a seemingly permanent underclass. The new reality of inner-city life-draconian drug laws, Jamaican posses-required a new music. All organic connection to the black Southern Baptist church, and any fealty to the dulcet Sam Cooke, was lost forever.
Mr. Kempton does his best to bridge the yawning gap between the death of Motown and the birth of hip-hop by stretching our understanding of funk. But though he does some sweet justice to the magpie genius of George Clinton-and though dozens of rap records sample Funkadelic-by now the term “boogaloo” has too many smoothed corners and caveats to sustain itself. Where, after all, is the Louis Armstrong of the Hot Fives, the Duke Ellington of the great Blanton-Webster years? Why introduce Charley Patton as “Charlie Patton,” only to drop him quickly, even though his genius towers over American music, from every funk bass player, living or dead, to Hendrix and flat-picking pioneer John Fahey? But Fahey, of course, is what Mr. Kempton, son of the great Upper West Side journalist Murray Kempton, would refer to as a “white boy.” Here we start to see what “boogaloo” really refers to: not some quality intrinsic to black music, but the brand of authenticity Mr. Kempton aspires to as its ultimate crossover fan. Every white person writing about black music is in danger of falling into the same trap, and the warning sign is always a look, ma, they let me on the Mothership! zinginess to the prose. When Arthur Kempton was a little boy, he wanted to be an Afronaut.
Any book intent on giving Holland-Dozier-Holland their due, and that resurrects, if only in passing, the name of the great forgotten purveyors of Philly soul, the Delfonics, is a book worth poring over. But in addition to its murky thesis, Boogaloo suffers from a more serious deficiency: It’s hopelessly derivative. (The footnotes, a virtually uninterrupted string of ibid. ‘s, are a dead giveaway. The most egregious example: Mr. Kempton’s chapter on Stax records has 55 footnotes; no less than 52 of them refer to Rob Bowman’s 2000 book, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records .) A book dependent on other people’s primary research is in dire need of a rich, compelling thesis, and the notion of “boogaloo” simply doesn’t fit the bill.
And all the while, another thesis has been staring Mr. Kempton in the face. Thomas A. Dorsey, Sam Cooke, Berry Gordy, George Clinton and Suge Knight all have something in common, and it’s not some Af-Am chi called boogaloo. As Mr. Kempton’s own book shows, all these men were empire builders or would-be empire builders. It should never be forgotten, oh felix culpa , that blues is the child of the field holler, and soul music a legacy of Jim Crow. But the music of black Americans is so routinely portrayed as a dignified response to exploitation-and as the wellspring of an authenticity born of sweltering oppression-that Mr. Kempton can’t see what his own research, derivative as it is, has handed him: Black-on-black exploitation has always been deeply embedded in the music itself. Mr. Kempton has tried to make Boogaloo the story of Afro-Christianity, but it’s not. From Thomas Dorsey’s Bill Gates-like manipulation of copyright laws to Suge Knight absconding with Tupac Shakur’s master tapes, it’s the story of Afro-capitalism, through and through.
Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer .
Chick Lit Meets Skin Flick: More Dark Tales of Motherhood
by Sheelah Kolhatkar
The Porno Girl and Other Stories , by Merin Wexler. St. Martin’s Press, 225 pages, $22.95.
A young woman with a baby strapped to her chest ducks into the Pussy Cat Palace, an X-rated theater and store full of “dildos and vibrators … rubber buttocks, plump oversized vulvas, phony breasts plus enough chains and leather for an entire S&M Olympics.” She’s taking in a skin flick when her baby gets hungry, so she starts nursing and inserts a coin in the video slot. And another, and another.
This isn’t the opening of a snuff film, but the title story of The Porno Girl and Other Stories , a debut collection of short fiction by Merin Wexler. Ms. Wexler’s heroines aren’t fascinating because of their problems, but because of the ways they deal with them. Mostly upper-middle-class women living in New York or some place like it, they act out their darkest impulses, the ones the rest of us try to suppress. They watch porn, sleep with the wrong people, flout widely accepted truths. Their predicaments are familiar: They juggle careers and kids and cope with men who let them down. The author makes their life crises hilarious and painful at the same time.
Several of these 11 stories are good, but the book is worth reading for the “The Porno Girl” alone (it brings to mind the stories of Mary Gaitskill). “It wasn’t sex I was after,” explains the woman who visits the porn theater with her newborn under her coat, “I wasn’t aroused; I was becalmed …. And in that faint tranquility I could begin to feel briefly myself, meaning my prebaby self, which, since the birth, seemed to have died.” Afraid that she’s “sick, an unfit mother,” she flees to a new mother’s group, only to be horrified by the “coffee klatch” of big-haired breast-feeders arrayed in a circle. She earns our sympathy as she struggles to fit the unforgiving mold of the Stepford mom.
Ms. Wexler brings the Manhattan version of Mommy-and-me culture to brilliant life. Our heroine spends days searching for Dreft, the “fabled” detergent the baby books insist she use. She wonders if it’s just “another fiction to distract new mothers from staring down the truth of their inalterable new state.” She attends Gymboree, baby massage and baby yoga, trying to be normal. But she has already met Rodman, the African clerk at the porn palace near Times Square. Rodman is unfazed by the fact that she’s brought an infant into the world of triple-X. He asks if she’s breast-feeding and talks pacifiers; he’s a new daddy himself. Rodman’s practical attitude toward parenting, in which children aren’t so precious-they’re integrated rather than quarantined-exposes the maternity fantasy for what it is. The Porno Girl can choose to subscribe to it or not.
Stories like “What Marcia Wanted” and “Waiting to Discover Electricity” are also compelling, although less outrageous. In the former, 14-year-old Evelyn falls in and out of awe with her neighbor Marcia, a tragic figure whose husband is coming out of the closet. Marcia is “a skinny drunk, as if everything she poured in poured right out.” Ms. Wexler renders Evelyn’s coming of age with painful realism: “Inside me, I felt something taking root, seeds of panic and regret. What had I done wrong?” Evelyn asks. “To be so suddenly connected to another human being, it was terrifying.” In “Waiting to Discover Electricity,” college-bound Schuyler idolizes Carolyn, the mother of her baby-sitting charges. She dresses up in Carolyn’s clothes, struts for her in a bikini, tries her first glass of wine with her. The story conjures up every older sister and baby-sitter from one’s formative years. Schuyler’s simultaneous love and betrayal of her mentor exposes the dark undercurrent of intimate relationships.
In some instances, Ms. Wexler is less successful at exploiting her subjects. “The Nanny Trap,” in which a career woman gets pregnant a second time so as to hold onto her nanny, will speak to anyone who’s keeping too many balls in the air: “Finally I had everything arranged in a way that I could handle: my job, my child, my marriage,” the narrator tells us. If it weren’t for Nola, her West Indian helper, “the precarious arrangement that comprised my life could instantly collapse.” The unlikely scenario is ripe for the grim comedy that’s so satisfying elsewhere in the book. Unfortunately, the nameless narrator morphs into the appalling house mistress from The Nanny Diaries . “One nanny I knew had the nerve to get pregnant and ask for maternity leave,” she says. She has nightmares about her unborn child having “brown skin and full lips, his hair braided like [Nola’s] in cornrows around his head …. He spoke to me in a voice like Bob Marley’s and said he wanted curried goat.”
In an otherwise bleak emotional environment, we encounter simple, sensual images. Evelyn, in “What Marcia Wanted,” sips her first martini: “It made my head swirl, and I felt the wind rush inside my skirt, soft as chinchilla.” After trying marijuana, she hears “wildlife whispering on the bay: the gulls in their dialect, the tadpoles quibbling, crickets, the squawk of gulls.” Euphoric after a date, Miss Hendl, in “Helen of Alexandria,” “felt light-headed and limber, the top flap of her shoulder bag flung open, precious contents exposed.”
These moments of poetry stand out; elsewhere the prose is relentlessly crisp, as detached as many of Ms. Wexler’s worldly-wise New York heroines, who are rarely shocked by anything, even their own transgressions. The author refrains from painting broad urban landscapes; her specialty is interiors, the confines of apartments “hanging over the rushing traffic,” Manhattan shuddering beyond the windows.
With its unhappy depictions of family life and exclusively feminine perspective, The Porno Girl and Other Stories belongs to the current wave of fiction and nonfiction battering the women-having-it-all myth. Modern motherhood causes more than its share of agony, and writers such as Amy Koppelman, in her post-partum novel A Mouthful of Air , and contributors to the recent anthology The Bitch in the House aren’t shy about acknowledging it. I note, however, that Merin Wexler, a native New Yorker, is married, with two children. So this is the more hopeful lesson I take away from my brief affair with her book: Relationships, maternal and otherwise, are difficult but not impossible.
Sheelah Kolhatkar has written for Forward and The New Internationalist .
Who Was Christa Worthington? Murdered Woman Tells No Tales
by Sara Nelson
Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod , by Maria Flook. Broadway Books, 403 pages, $24.95.
Pity the poor true-crime writer. To tell a compelling tale of murder and madness, she must have the skills of a reporter, the eye of a novelist and the mind of a shrink. It also helps if she has some knowledge of the place and the people she’s writing about. Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me , about mass murderer Ted Bundy, is a classic of the genre not because Ms. Rule is a great stylist-if the story’s strong enough, sentence structure hardly matters-but because she actually knew Bundy. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song , about Gary Gilmore, is astonishing because the author already had plenty of experience looking into the heart of darkness and, well, because he’s a formidable craftsman.
Maria Flook is an accomplished fiction writer- Open Water , Family Night and the weird and almost goth collection, You Have the Wrong Man . To judge from her searing memoir, My Sister Life , she’s also no stranger to the twisted side of humanity. But her first foray into reportage, Invisible Eden , about the murder a year and a half ago of Christa Worthington, the glam fashion writer turned Cape Cod single mom, is only marginally successful.
Maybe you read the newspaper accounts of the Worthington murder, coming as they did, in early 2002, as a kind of tabloid relief after months of relentless Sept. 11 coverage. Worthington, a 46-year-old former fashion writer for such publications as Women’s Wear Daily , was found stabbed to death in her Truro, Mass., bungalow, her 2 11/42-year-old out-of-wedlock daughter, Ava, cuddling her corpse-and, horrifically, trying to nurse. The murder shocked the resort town that had seen little violence, though plenty of gossip. Christa was a Worthington, a member of a slightly down-at-the-heels but nonetheless patrician New England family that had been summering there for years. Known to slum, the Vassar grad had taken up with Tony Jackett, the local cocksman, a married harbormaster and “shellfish constable,” and borne his child. It was a “town/gown” relationship about which everybody knew-even, eventually, Mr. Jackett’s long-suffering wife Susan. Initially, Mr. Jackett was a suspect-or what Ms. Flook’s main source, First Assistant District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, describes as “in the orbit of opportunity.” Another traveler in that orbit was Worthington’s latest boyfriend, Tim Arnold, who discovered her body that January night when he came over, he said, to return a flashlight he’d borrowed.
This is great, dramatic stuff-the kind of story dozens of journalists would have loved to sign book deals for. And early on, Ms. Flook suggests why she’s the right woman for the job: “Christa and I lived one mile apart, but we had never met,” she writes in her opening. Like Worthington, Ms. Flook is also a single mother, and a writer. She even suggests a more mysterious connection: “In the checkerboard of snapshots [of Christa at the crime scene] I see my face reflected.”
So it’s ironic that, for all her connections, for all her understanding of local custom and politics, and for all her dozens of interviews and sound bites from Mr. O’Keefe, Mr. Jackett, Mr. Arnold, local journalists, her Vassar friends, her New York pals (including New York Times critic Ben Brantley) and her ex-boyfriends, Ms. Flook never quite gets the story. Who killed Christa Worthington, and why? After 400 pages of prose that can be laughably purple-“he captained her onto the pillowy pier of her Posturepedic”-we don’t know any more than we did from those initial reports: The most Ms. Flook can suggest is that the killer was either Jackett or Arnold or some other current or ex-lover, of which Christa had many.
But the even more important question that Ms. Flook doesn’t answer is this: Who was Christa Worthington, and why should we care? Part victim of her Brahmin background, part unhappy career woman who voiced the typical fashion-magazine writer’s complaint ( “I should have at least two books written by now, if I was going to be a real writer”), part sexual adventurer, the Christa who emerges is wildly incomplete and almost wholly unlikable. And while Ms. Flook stops just short of suggesting that a “promiscuous” woman gets what she deserves, there’s a decidedly reactionary social attitude at work.
Which is surprising, since the author, both in her previous works and in this one, reveals herself to be far from traditional when it comes to social behavior. Admitting she had to “work backward to find [Christa],” Ms. Flook often proudly attaches herself to the single-mom aspect of the story, wearing her own similar social status as a badge of courage. (“Being a single mom isn’t a single job but a thousand tasks in one,” she writes self-congratulatingly at one point, echoing many other similar comments.) What’s more, she recounts-sometimes in embarrassingly revealing detail-her interviews with newly divorced assistant D.A. O’Keefe, who comes off as tantalizingly “town” to Ms. Flook’s “gown”-just like Tony Jackett and Christa.
It’s the Flook-O’Keefe relationship, in fact, that has many early readers on Cape Cod up in arms. The assistant D.A. gave Ms. Flook access that the police withheld from all other journalists, and he opined about the victim’s lifestyle, they say. Ms. Flook portrays many of her meetings with Mr. O’Keefe as almost date-like; she comments on his eating habits, and he tells her that her lipstick is smudged. Along with the relationship Christa had with Mr. Jackett, this is the partnership at the center of Invisible Eden , an ultimately frustrating book. Too bad all those suggestive echoes don’t tell us much about either the murderer or the victim.
Sara Nelson, the publishing columnist for The Observer , is a senior contributing editor at Glamour .