Two Sinatra books: fans, virtue, vice

December 21, 1997|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Sinatra: Behind the Legend," by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Birch Lane

Press. 559 pages. $27.50.

"The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'," by Bill Zehme. HarperCollins. 245 pages.$23.

Of genius, a great Roman philosopher once observed, there can be none without a touch of madness. If you're Frank Sinatra, that ain't the half of it, baby. Here's a cat who guzzled booze by the quart, chain-smoked Chesterfields, boffed every broad from Hoboken to Tinseltown, hardly saw the light of day for the better part of three decades and threatened to kill anybody who got in his way.

"When he dies," Marlon Brando was moved to say, "the first thing he'll do will be to find God and yell at him. ..."

Somehow - in between the scandals, brawls, attempted suicides and extremely unpleasant treatment of the innumerable women in his life - Francis Albert Sinatra found time to make 60 movies and win two Oscars. He was also, by all accounts, a hell of a singer.

Said to be in failing health, the quintessential Jersey Guy turns 82 this month and finds himself again the subject of biography. Two new books, by show biz chronicler J. Randy Taraborrelli and Esquire writer Bill Zehme, demonstrate that it can be both virtue and vice for a historian to also be a fan of his subject.

These guys got it bad. But where Taraborrelli stumbles trying to rectify the consummate musical artist he admires with Sinatra's off-stage persona as maximum lounge lizard, Zehme triumphs with unabashed worship of his tuxedoed idol. With the deaths of Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin in recent years, it dawned on Zehme that Sinatra is the last great American swinger left standing. Sure, Hugh Hefner is still around, but he's a pale, pajamaed imitation of the robust rogue once known as "The Voice."

"Men had gone soft and needed help," Zehme explains. "They needed Frank Sinatra." The writer went on to ask The Chairman of the Board to outline his "canon of cool" - from proper grooming to scoring with the dames - then wrapped it all together with the choicest quotes and anecdotes from Sinatra's well-documented life.

It's high spoof, really, tricked up to look and feel like a how-to manual for the aspiring "gasser." It's also a wildly entertaining read. Taraborrelli has bigger problems. Known for two earlier hatchet jobs on Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, he now sets his sights on the definitive bio.

Working with the cooperation of the notoriously protective Sinatra family, he struggles through the opening chapters, heaping layers of revisionist interpretation upon the less savory details of Sinatra's early days and petulantly taking prior biographers to task for having "got it wrong."

As but one of many examples, he recounts the infamous 1947 mob convention at the Hotel Nacional in Cuba, where the then-31-year-old Sinatra was the featured attraction and most-special guest of cutthroat Lucky Luciano.

Taraborrelli chalks this up as youthful indiscretion - an innocent "walk on the wild side" by an impressionable Italian kid. Never mind that it was one of many Mafia entanglements over the years that would bring Sinatra to the attention of the FBI and make him the model for a character in Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."

But as the book progresses, Taraborrelli begins to take command of the material, seemingly coming to grips with the notion that Sinatra belongs to history and requires more than the services of an apologist.

What eventually emerges is a convincing picture of haunted genius - the saga of an immigrant son from hardscrabble Hoboken with little in the way of natural ability, good looks or family fortune who willed himself to greatness again and again as successive audiences discovered and abandoned him.

In spite of ourselves, we are made to care for an unrepentant hustler who dumped his wife and three kids to marry movie-bombshell Ava Gardner - only to be cast by her into an abyss of loneliness from which would spring some of the most bittersweet music ever sung.

For the rest of his life, he would find no greater love. Not in the arms of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Mia Farrow or the hottest dolls in Vegas. Not in 5,000 bourbon-soaked nights with Sammy and Dean and JFK and the rest of his rat pack "pallys."

Thus did the man who lived by night come to fear the dark. It was then, alone and besotted, that he was most prone to gobble an overdose, turn up the gas or cut his own wrists.

"You gotta love livin', baby," he'd bellow at his friends. "Because dyin' is a pain in the ass!"

Jim Haner is an investigative reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J. He has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and The Sun. A native son of the Garden State, he has been steeped since birth in the lore of Sinatra.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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