I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now.
Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.
That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.
While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.
It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.
Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.
Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.