By Nicholas Stix
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Jonathan Schwartz just ended his Saturday show on NPR’s WNYC-FM (93.9) by remarking that today is the 13th anniversary of the death of Frank Sinatra, who was born on December 12, 1915.
“I was working that day, at a station that is defunct, happily in my opinion: WQEW….Schwartz then played 1983’s “All the Way Home,” which Schwartz considers to have been “his last great record.” Probably so.
“[Upon leaving work] I looked up at the Empire State Building: It was all blue, as in ‘ol’ blue eyes.’”
Long before Frank Sinatra died he was senile, his bodily systems were constantly failing him, and I considered that his death would be a blessing. Besides, what would I care? As famous as the man was, he was a complete stranger to me.
When I heard the news, it turned out that I cared a great deal, and was not at all relieved. For days, I was in a funk.
Frank Sinatra remains the greatest singer in the history of recorded music. There was not only his voice, which at the time of his greatest popularity was between a baritone and a tenor, until cigarettes pushed him over to baritone country. There was his phrasing, particularly with torch songs, and his way of swinging, ever upward, with up-tempo songs.
From Here to Eternity. Both men were nominated for Oscars, and the movie won eight, all told. Sinatra won for Best Supporting Actor. However, while Clift gave his greatest performance in FHTE, he did not win the Oscar for that role. His FHTE co-star, Burt Lancaster, matched him, scene for scene, step for step. So they knocked each other off, and William Holden won a combination spoiler/cumulative Oscar for Stalag 17 that year, and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Monty would be nominated for four Oscars, but never win. Sinatra would be nominated for Best Actor for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), but would lose out to his fellow paisan and FHTE antagonist, Ernest Borgnine, for Marty.
For about ten years, until he was hit by one of history’s longest mid-life crises, he was one of the world’s greatest movie actors. I only learned much later that, among millionaires, Sinatra was probably the most generous man on the face of the Earth. His kindness was, however, often overshadowed by thuggery. He described himself as a manic-depressive.
Marlene Dietrich called him “the Mercedes-Benz of lovers.” She was not alone in that judgment. He got around. About 25 years after the 1951 divorce of Sinatra and his first wife, Nancy, the mother of his three children went through, a reporter asked her why she never remarried. She said, “When you’ve had the best, all the others are disappointments.”
Nancy Barbato Sinatra is supposedly still alive. That would make her about 90 years old.
Sinatra considered wife number two, Ava Gardner (1920-1990), his great love. I read somewhere—maybe in Gardner’s ghostwritten autobiography—that between their 1957 divorce and the rest of her life, that they would periodically rendezvous in luxury hotels around the world.
I dunno. That was surely his most passionate relationship, but his happiest? Including their extramarital affair, Sinatra and Gardner were together only about four years, were miserable most of the time they were together, the marriage was dead on arrival, and their divorce went through less than two years after they’d tied the knot. Gardner blamed her own jealousy, admitting that it drove her crazy whenever they were in public, and another woman looked Sinatra’s way. That’s a whole lotta crazy.
The only woman with whom he enjoyed any sort of happiness, I maintain, was his first wife.
Even tragic mistakes, such as his embrace of civil rights, were motivated by a fundamentally American sense of fairness that, unfortunately, was not reciprocated. Sinatra integrated Las Vegas, when he told clubs that if they wouldn’t hire his close friend, Sammy Davis Jr., then considered in many quarters to be the world’s greatest live entertainer, that they couldn’t have him, either.
He was the pugnacious little guy who won out, an “Angelo Maggio,” but unlike his tragic movie alter ego, one who lived and prevailed… with a little help from his broken-nosed friends.
He was the embodiment of the best of America, and only a little of her worst.
[Previously, in this series:
“Frank Sinatra: My Shining Hour (Video, from Trilogy: Past Present Future)”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Sing Arlen & Mercer’s Come Rain or Shine”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Sing the Quintessential Version of Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer’s ‘One for My Baby (and One More, for the Road)’”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Sing the Classic Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer Torch Song, ‘Blues in the Night’”;
“Frank Sinatra: Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s Stormy Weather (Video)”;
“Frank Sinatra Live! Medley of The Gal That Got Away and It Never Entered My Mind, Performed in 1980 at Carnegie Hall (Great Quality Video of a Grand Performance!)”;
“Frank Sinatra: Here's That Rainy Day (Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke)”;
“Frank Sinatra’s Revelatory, 1962 Performance of Kern and Fields’ The Way You Look Tonight”;
“Paul Robeson?! Hear Frank Sinatra Give the Definitive Interpretation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Ol’ Man River (1963)”;
“The Greatest Song Ever Written? Hear Frank Sinatra Sing Rodgers & Hammerstein's Soliloquy”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Sing the Real ‘New York, New York,’ by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, from On the Town (1944/1949)”;
“The Swingingest Record You’ll Ever Hear! Fly Me to the Moon, by Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones”;
“Frank Sinatra: Autumn in New York, with the Billy May Orchestra (Video)”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Make Rodgers & Hart Swing! ‘The Lady is a Tramp’; Live at Madison Square Garden/1974”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra and a Bunch of Little Kids Sing the 1960 Academy Award-Winning Song, ‘High Hopes’”;
“If Frank Sinatra were Still Alive, and were Interviewed by Larry King”;
“When Sinatra Ruled: Hear Him Sing ANOTHER Oscar-Winning Song, ‘All the Way,’ from The Joker is Wild (1957)”;
“Hear Frank Sinatra Sing Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s ‘Love and Marriage’;
“Hear Frank Sinatra’s Unique Presentation of Cole Porter’s ‘I've Got You Under My Skin’”;
“Frank Sinatra Sings ‘Young at Heart’”;
“‘A Man Alone’: How Great was Sinatra? So Great that with a Voice that was Way Past Its Prime, and Less than Stellar Material, He was Still the World’s Greatest Singer—that’s How Great He was!”;
“I'll Never Smile Again: Hear 24-Year-Old Frank Sinatra with the Pied Pipers and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1940!”;
“Frank Sinatra: ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’ (1955)”;
“Frank Sinatra: I Didn't Know What Time It was”;
“Sinatra Celebration News: Pennsylvania Music Newspaper Columnist Announces Releases of Rare Radio Broadcasts and Rehearsals from 1935-1955, and Provides a Lovely, Yet Succinct Introduction to the Works of ‘The Voice’”; and
“Frank Sinatra: A Swinging Ring-A-Ding-Ding (1961 Recording).”]