Great Musician Minus the Music Makes for a Botched Biography

Sinatra: The Life, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Alfred A. Knopf, 576 pages, $26.95.

I believe, based on a lifetime of consideration, that Frank Sinatra was the greatest interpretive musician this country has ever produced. By that I mean he took the music and words of composers and lyricists, passed them through his own emotions, intellect and life blood, and distributed them to grateful recipients all over the world for 60 years. His singing was, for the most part, virtuosic. It was also intimate, honest and accessible, even to those who spoke no English. His recordings of more than 1,300 songs, collected in a towering stack of albums and a cornucopia of repackagings from dozens of countries as well as the United States, will stand forever as a living archive of excellence unsurpassed in its field and beloved by plumbers and dentists, entrepreneurs and violinists, octogenarians and grandchildren, astronauts and politicians, and inhabitants of tiny huts made of twigs.

Any book called Sinatra: The Life would be well advised, therefore, to follow the music. Without it, there are no girls, gangsters or Presidents, no private jets, bowls of caviar, sprawling mansions or astronomical phone bills. There are no movies to star in, private tables in fabled restaurants, Congressional hearings or stretch limousines; no Gregory Peck, no Dean Martin, no Liz Smith. And, to be sure, no Ava Gardner.

This scurrilous little book (little in substance, not in size-it’s hefty) was compiled laboriously by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan and published, in a curious lapse of judgment, by the reputable Knopf. The authors try to persuade the reader that Frank Sinatra lived much of his life on the book’s gutter level.

That premise is demonstrably false and invalidates any book purporting to be a legitimate biography of Sinatra, who was first and foremost a musician of rarefied talent. Music, rather than centering the book, laps at its edges. Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan seem to regard this dominant part of Sinatra’s life as an inconvenience for them as biographers. What they write is sparse, superficial and often wrong: “[J]azz gave Sinatra his sense of rhythm and his lifelong readiness to improvise,” they say. Deconstructing such a dramatically fallacious statement would require paragraphs. The essential facts are that, although jazz enriched Sinatra, he was never a jazz singer and rarely “improvised,” as that term is used in jazz. As for rhythm, nothing or nobody gave it to him; it came naturally.

A genuine biography of Frank Sinatra must nourish itself with the history of American popular music. That means-in grossly simplified terms-showing how European drawing-room ballads began to fuse around the turn of the 20th century with African-American slave chants and rhythms. In the hands of a few dozen American composers (Berlin, Gershwin, Kern and Ellington are obvious examples), a new form of music evolved and swept the world.

Then the biographer must show how the young Frank Sinatra, fueled by his talent and tenacity, and helped along by the fact that his birth coincided with that of the new music, learned to render the music in a way unmatched by anyone else, and then kept doing it for six decades, transcending generations and newer musical forms, most notably rock. The efforts made by Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan to fathom and explicate these central elements of the Sinatra phenomenon are, to put it politely, deficient. Without a trenchant analysis of his music, his life story has little context, less meaning and a false importance. Telling the story without sufficient attention to the music leaves a gaping hole at the center of the book.

Tell it they do, however, and their effort is exaggerated and poorly sourced. Did Frank Sinatra know gangsters? Without question. How could he not have? He grew up in the Italian ghetto of Hoboken, N.J., during Prohibition, when bootleggers and loan sharks (his uncles among them) were as ubiquitous as milkmen and newsboys. Did he associate with gangsters as an adult more than the average person? You bet. He worked in nightclubs, many of which were owned by gangsters. Did he hang out with gangsters more than his public-relations representatives would have wished? No doubt. In some perverse way, the cut of their jib, their fuck-you mien, captivated Sinatra.

But there’s a formidable gap between that cluster of long-known facts and the authors’ central assertion about Sinatra and gangsters: “His business would be entwined with their rackets for fifty years.” If that were true and verifiable, Sinatra likely would have been prosecuted and sent to prison. The feds certainly tried. Frank Sinatra was “the most investigated American performer since John Wilkes Booth,” in the words of Pete Hamill, a thoughtful Sinatra enthusiast. As for the results of the investigations, the historian Michael O’Brien, in his new biography of John F. Kennedy, determines that “despite Sinatra’s associates, there is no evidence that he engaged in criminal acts for the mob.”

Thus does the central thesis of Sinatra: The Life collapse.

Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan all but demand an examination of their documentation and verification, so let’s oblige. “Notes and Sources” and the index take up nearly a third of the book, 174 pages of tightly packed, small-print citations, which are skillfully designed to appear authentic. With patience and a magnifying glass, however, the reader will discover that much of this material falls short of genuine verification.

The authors interviewed the entertainer Jerry Lewis, who claims that Frank Sinatra was almost “caught” carrying a briefcase containing “three and a half million in fifties” through customs in New York, presumably for the Mafia, presumably in the late 1940′s. “Customs opened the briefcase, then-because of a crowd of people pushing and shoving behind Frank-aborted the search and let him go on. ‘We would never have heard of him again,’ Lewis reflected, had the cash been discovered.”

Intriguing-if true. A few questions, please. How did Jerry Lewis acquire this information? Whose money was it? Where was Sinatra coming from, and what was his destination? Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan tell us in the source notes that they interviewed Jerry Lewis, but they don’t indicate that either he or they can answer such questions. Nor do they acknowledge that Mr. Lewis, who is 79 years old and has struggled through several serious illnesses and medicinal regimens, may have a faulty memory of events, or rumors of events, that allegedly occurred more than half a century ago. Are there other sources to document Mr. Lewis’ story? The authors cite “former policeman and New York Crime Committee investigator” William Gallinaro, who “said he learned of Sinatra’s courier role in 1947 from a Cuban police contact.” But there’s no indication that Mr. Gallinaro had any real evidence, or that he knew anything about the episode Mr. Lewis recounts, even though the reader is encouraged to infer that he did by the juxtaposition of citations. As for the “Cuban police contact,” has there ever been such a flimsy appeal to authority? The “contact” simply fades unidentified into the distant mists of 1940′s Havana, a milieu that gave new pungency to the word “unreliable.” If Jerry Lewis, William Gallinaro or the “Cuban police contact” were reliable witnesses, Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan would have extracted verifying details and used them. Their failure to do so leaves the entire incident in serious doubt, and their inclusion of it in the book violates even minimal standards of evidence and verification.

The book contains many such failures. There’s negligible qualitative discrimination between sources: Luigi Barzini’s book The Italians, a recognized authority, and the September 1956, edition of Photoplay magazine, an ancestor of today’s tabloids, are given equal weight. Then there are the “reports” and “memoranda”-numbering in the hundreds-from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The better journalists I know tell me that such documents often are unreliable. They typically represent one person’s observation-typically incomplete, unverified, un-cross-examined and inadmissible as evidence in court. And yet Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan cite them as Holy Writ on the subject of Frank Sinatra.

Another failure of Sinatra: The Life: I believe a biographer is obliged to make every effort to put the reader in the room with the subject-to show (not tell) what he’s like to be around, how he behaves, talks, thinks, intuits, schemes and reasons in a variety of situations. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan don’t do this job well, either. Instead, they quote what seem like hundreds of people (I lost count) talking about Sinatra, and-because of the dubious sourcing-it’s often unclear whether these people know what they’re talking about.

A definitive biography of Frank Sinatra is long overdue. Sinatra: The Life, which claims to be definitive, is quite the opposite.

Jonathan Schwartz presents music and commentary on WNYC in New York and XM Satellite nationwide. The paperback edition of his memoir, All in Good Time, will be published next month by Random House.