Sinatra by Earl Wilson

I've been fascinated with Frank Sinatra's voice for a long time and in the past few years began to be curious about his life, so when I happened upon this book at a used bookshop I snapped it up. Unfortunately it turned out to be twenty-four chapters of bad behaviour. In truth I wish I'd never seen it; it left me feeling like I needed a shower.

It's hard to believe anybody could be as much of a jerk as this book makes Sinatra out to be, but there's no reason other than disappointment not to believe it. His gigantic ego, wild mood swings, heavy drinking, gambling, arrogance and contempt for other people must have made him miserable to be around and yet people hung on and seemed happy to take all the crap he dished out.  I couldn't keep track of the good friends he suddenly dropped when they said the wrong thing then let back into his inner circle on a whim. I don't know how he could remember who his friends were on any given day.

He expected everybody to feel honoured to serve him and for some inexplicable reason many did, in spite of his insults, name-calling and childishness. The authour says: "He has more likability than anybody I ever met. If there is such a word as unlikability, he has that too, but when he turns on his likability you think you must have been wrong about him ever being unpleasant."

The book does talk about good things he did, charities he supported, people he helped, but those things seem less impressive in light of the awful way he treated people. He used women - dames and broads he called them - and was proud of it. He was married three times, but even then never hesitated to sleep with any woman who caught his eye. His friends joked that they would "give his zipper to the Smithsonian" when he died.

The authour hints at Sinatra being bi-polar and having a "God complex". He never believed himself at fault even when he was violent; someone else was always responsible because they had made him angry.  When he made a scene at a hotel, throwing things and screaming at the staff, it was because a hotel employee hadn't done everything just the way he wanted it. He saw it this way: "...the frustrations and anxieties resulting from his failed marriage, plus his manic-depressive makeup caused him to explode; he couldn't help it and shouldn't be blamed."

As tedious as it was to read about one Sinatra tantrum after another, the writing didn't help the experience either. It was choppy at times and hard to follow. The story is told in a generally chronological way, but often the authour would suddenly drop back a few years and that made it confusing. And some pages read more like lists of facts than a story.

The writing is brash, even harsh, with little subtlety. Was that the style of the era perhaps or is it more a result of Wilson's being a  reporter? Or maybe it's just not very well written. Sometimes things are referred to but given no explanation. For example, when Sinatra's father died, it is mentioned he had been a "devoted son to his father", but we aren't told how he showed his devotion or anything much about that relationship at all so it doesn't go very far toward softening our impression of him. There are things in the writing that an editor should have caught, like saying on one page that Frank "looked trim, rested and sexier....than when he was a young man" then just a few lines later "the lean Sinatra face was now round and puffy."  There were other inconsistencies and inaccuracies like referring to John Denver as a "young rock star". Rock, huh? Did Wilson ever actually listen to Denver's music? That particular bit of bad research leaves me wondering how much of Sinatra's story in this book is just guesswork. Would another authour have a different story to offer?

I may try another one someday but for now I've had my fill of Frank Sinatra. He was completely obsessed with fame, money and power, and yet told people that he'd had "a great life." His wish for his first grand-daughter - his tiny, newborn grand-daughter - was that she would have "a hundred times as many guys as he'd had women". Could he be more obnoxious?

If you're considering reading one of his many biographies try something other than this first. I fear you won't like him much after this one. Fortunately I can still enjoy his music. I feel lucky to have gotten through the book with at least some part of my "fan" status intact. If he's a particular favourite of yours, tread carefully through this book, or even better, skip it altogether.


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