'Frank': The Man, The Voice, The Mafia Ties

Cover of the book Frank
Frank: The Voice
By James Kaplan
Hardcover, 688 pages
Doubleday
List price: $35

Read An Excerpt

Before Elvis and the Beatles, there was "Swoonatra." At concerts in the 1940s, bobby-soxed idolators screamed, sobbed, pledged their hearts — and other parts of their anatomy — to the skinny singer from Hoboken, N.J.  And a bevy of Hollywood beauties, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, longed to be his mistress or his mate.

Sinatra was one of a kind: talented, ambitious and ruthless. As James Kaplan demonstrates in Frank: The Voice, Sinatra's heart was not made of stone but "was divided into many chambers." He was willing to step on or over anyone in his path; disentangle himself from deep emotional, artistic and professional bonds with bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey; and use anyone, even the Mafia, "until he grasped the brass ring.  The master plan for himself was exactly that: for himself. Alone."

Even for those who know the outcome, Frank — a deliciously detailed, tough but not trashy account of Sinatra's rise, his fall from celebrity (amid criticism that he was a draft-dodging Communist sympathizer), and his Oscar-winning comeback in From Here to Eternity — manages to sustain the suspense. Subpoenaed to testify before the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime about allegations that he had been a "bagman" for the mob, Sinatra was, according to Kaplan, petrified that a televised appearance would ruin his career. Although investigators ridiculed Sinatra's private claims that he hadn't known who Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky or Bugsy Siegel were, they concluded that in front of the cameras he "might raise a lot of hell without saying anything" — and let him off the hook.

James Kaplan i

James Kaplan's stories and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times. Erinn Hartman hide caption

itoggle caption Erinn Hartman
James Kaplan

James Kaplan's stories and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.

Erinn Hartman

At the same time, Kaplan refutes the notion, popularized in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, that the Mafia forced a reluctant Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, to give Sinatra the role of Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity by placing a horse's head in his bed. What actually did it, he argues, was that Ava Gardner went to bat for him; that Cohn actually liked him; that Sinatra offered to do the picture for a fraction of his customary salary; and that director Fred Zinneman was willing to give him a shot.

Frank ends in 1954 with Sinatra's Academy Award. He's feeling vindicated, not humbled. Soon, "The Voice" will become "The Chairman of the Board."  And do things his way for another four decades. Kaplan may well be preparing a chronicle of these years. But there's something about Frank — and about Frank — that might give him pause. Readers of Kaplan's book may well feel, for better and worse, that they've learned everything worth knowing about the subject.

Excerpt: 'Frank: The Voice'

Frank: The Voice
Frank: The Voice
By James Kaplan
Hardcover, 688 pages
Doubleday
List price: $35

 

Act Three: Higher and Higher

"Good morning. My name is Frank Sinatra."

— His first line in the movies, in the 1943 RKO Radio Pictures feature Higher and Higher

11.

"EXTRA ADDED ATTRACTION," was indeed how the Paramount first billed him: fourth on the program, beneath Benny Goodman and His Famous Orchestra, under a comedy trio called the Radio Rogues and a comedy duo called Moke and Poke, and just above "DON BAKER at the PARAMOUNT ORGAN." Frank Sinatra's name was, however, the only one besides Goodman's in boldface, and in type only slightly smaller. And beneath the name, the slogan: "The Voice That Has Thrilled Millions."

It was true enough. But the phrase itself sounded like something that would have rolled off the stentorian tongue of some radio announcer of the 20s or 30s. And here in January 1943 — one of those hinges in time that come along periodically, a moment when everything simply vaults forward — Frank Sinatra, a radically new American product, needed drastic re-packaging, and somebody new to do it.

The coiner of the slogan was another of Sinatra's agents at the time, a soon-to-be-forgotten figure named Harry Kilby. The publicist who convinced the powers that be at the Paramount to affix the tired-sounding strapline to the bottom of the marquee was one Milt Rubin, a Times Square hack and the willing slave of the Emperor Winchell — Walter, of course. Sinatra had hired Rubin in the fall of ‘42, soon after leaving Dorsey, on a tip from the all-powerful columnist, and had quickly come to regret it. The p.r. man treated Frank like just another act, no more important than anyone else on his C-list roster of ventriloquists, acrobats, and female impersonators. Meanwhile Rubin hovered around Winchell's table at Lindy's, laughing at the great man's jokes and begging for scraps. There were times Sinatra — admittedly a high-maintenance client — couldn't reach his fifty-dollar-a-week publicist on the telephone. Nancy, who wrote the checks, began ignoring Rubin's bills. This got his attention, though not in a good way: the publicist initiated legal proceedings against his client.

Manie Sacks of Columbia, Sinatra's new rabbi, had the solution. "George Evans is your man," he told Frank. "He's the best in the business — the best there ever was."

This was manifestly true. Between Rubin and Evans, there was simply no comparison. A glance into the former's fusty Times Square office would have made it clear: a cluttered couple of rooms behind a frosted-glass transom door, an old broad in a snood doing her nails at the reception desk while some sweaty guy with a Chihuahua cooled his heels. In George B. Evans's clean and modern Columbus Circle suite, on the other hand, there were three assistants fielding calls from clients like Mr. Glenn Miller, Mr. Duke Ellington, and Miss Lena Horne.

Evans was 40, in the prime of his life, and he was a dynamo, with a thrusting determined jaw and a ravening look in his piercing dark eyes. Lightly balding, bespectacled (tortoise-shell frames were his trademark), handsome in his way, he dressed well, spoke fast and crisply, came straight to the point. And he had a good opinion of himself, with reason: He lived for his clients, and his clients did well by him. Their joys were his joys; their sorrows were his, too. If they needed solace at 4 a.m., he picked up the phone, no questions asked. He was as expert at making trouble go away as he was at whipping up excitement.

In return he was choosy about whom he wanted to represent. Where this Sinatra boy was concerned, Evans was skeptical at first, Manie Sacks's laudatory call notwithstanding. Singers were a dime a dozen, and what was a singer, anyway, without a band? The bands made news, the bands brought the crowds. And the bandleaders were gods. Glenn, Duke: God, just the thought of these brilliant, elegant, authoritative men gave Evans chills. In some sense, representing them made him feel he was taking on their qualities.

But a boy singer! This one might even be different from the rest — from what he had heard on records and the radio, Evans was willing to grant that. It was a pleasant voice, nicely expressive. Still, George Evans didn't quite see what all the fuss was about.

"You've got to go see him, Georgie," Sacks said. "This kid really does have something. Go to the Paramount and see what he does to those girls."

Evans went, and saw. Nick Sevano, Sinatra's Hoboken homeboy and soon-to-be-ex-gofer (one too many tantrums about starch in the shirts; life was too short — except that Sevano would spend the rest of his very long life trading, like so many others, on his acquaintance with the singer), met the publicist in the Paramount lobby and whisked him down the aisle in the middle of the 2:30 show. Evans, not easily impressed, gaped at what he saw.

Actually, the sound and smell were what hit him at first. The place was absolutely packed with hysterical teenaged girls, almost five thousand of them, fire laws be damned (the couple of hundred Paramount owner Bob Weitman had slipped to the Fireman's Fund earned him a lot of extra money). They were jamming the seats, the aisles, the balcony — all but hanging from the rafters. And hanging raptly on the words to the song the starved-looking kid in the spotlight at center stage was singing —

Be careful, it's my heart

and going nuts when he hit that last word:

It's not my watch you're holding, it's my he-art….

The (by now very practiced) catch in his voice, the tousled spit-curl on his forehead (no Dorsey anymore to order him to comb it), the help-me look in his bright-blue eyes (always, pointedly, laser-focused on one girl or another in the audience) — it all set them off like dynamite. The air in the great auditorium was vibrating, both with ear-splitting screams (FRANKIEEE!!! FRANKIEEE!!!) and the heat and musk of female lust. Evans could smell perfumes, b.o., the faint acrid tang of urine (the girls would come for the first show at 9:15 a.m. and stay for show after show, determined never to relinquish a precious seat even if it meant soaking it), and something else. They were like a great herd of female beasts, he thought with wonderment, all in heat at once….

Excerpted from Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan. Copyright 2010 by James Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.

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