Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It can be embarrassing to have an obsession, especially when you're a respected academic and the object of your affection is not exactly scholarly.

(Soundbite of song, "From This Moment On")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) From this moment on, you for me, dear...

SIEGEL: Literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish has a confession to make about his longtime love. It's part of our series My Guilty Pleasure about the sort of books that we're sometimes embarrassed to admit to reading.

Professor STANLEY FISH (Humanities and Law, Florida International University; Literary Critic): It's not that I'm reading still another book about Frank Sinatra. There's nothing embarrassing about that. It's that I know everything it's going to tell me before I read a word.

There's the self-willed rise to stardom; the marriage with the neighborhood girl; the early films with Gene Kelly, who taught him how to dance; the all-consuming relationship with Ava Gardner, whom he married, fought with, and pined for as she dallied with bullfighters; the suicide attempts and then the glorious comeback when he campaigned for the role of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity," wrested it from Eli Wallach, learned how to play it from Montgomery Clift, and won the Academy Award for it.

And that's where the book I'm reading now, James Kaplan's "Frank: The Voice," ends, with still more than 40 years of life to go, and I can't wait for volume two even though the writing is at best workman-like, the psychologizing irritating, and I know exactly what is waiting for me: the Rat Pack, the turn from ardent Democrat to increasingly conservative Republican, the retirement, "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back," the years with Barbara, and "I Did It My Way."

Why? Why should someone who has spent an academic lifetime teaching and writing about John Milton, George Herbert and John Bunyan have a large photograph of a skinny crooner prominently displayed in his study?

Part of the answer is to be found in the photograph taken in 1953 in London. It is the position of his hands that tells the story. His right hand is relaxed and caresses the microphone at knee level as if it were a bass or a woman. The left hand is chest high and is holding on to the microphone for dear life. It would be too easy to say that one hand signifies vulnerability; the other, strength and control. Each hand signifies both. The hand that lightly caresses is tentative, yet confident; the hand that clutches is assertive, yet desperate.

Sinatra was a man of extreme confidence and extreme vulnerability at the same time, and the presence of both, in this picture and in his music, is what makes his story endlessly compelling. He may have done it his way, but his way is so grandly theatrical that it is archetypal. It is also flattering to the obsessed and serial consumer of the legend who after a while cannot distinguish himself from the object of his fascination.

The real guilty pleasure of reading about Sinatra is the pleasure of imagining yourself to be just like him, just like the flawed and heroic figure whose story you can't get enough of.

(Soundbite of song, "From This Moment On")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) Got the arms to hold me tight. Got those sweet lips to kiss me goodnight.

SIEGEL: Stanley Fish, whom we just heard talking about Frank Sinatra, is a professor of Humanities and law at Florida International University.

(Soundbite of song, "From This Moment On")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) You and I...

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.