FRANK: The Voice, by James Kaplan. Doubleday, 786 pp., $35.
Frank Sinatra was not, in the words of a Cole Porter tune he recorded in 1961, "Easy to Love." Not for his long-suffering first wife, Nancy; not for Ava Gardner, the celebrity second wife whose bad behavior he matched, tantrum for tantrum; not for the bandleaders and record company executives and Hollywood directors who tried in vain to harness his talents; not even for those in his audiences, who screamed and swooned but also were known to lob tomatoes.
But the Voice? Impossible not to love. "The Voice" was a genius bit of branding cooked up by publicist George Evans in 1943, and biographer James Kaplan, who has previously co-authored memoirs with John McEnroe and Jerry Lewis, cleverly swipes it for the subtitle of his terrific new book. "Frank: The Voice" tracks Sinatra from his humble New Jersey beginnings through his huge success as a big band singer and solo artist in the 1940s to his fall from grace and phoenixlike resurrection in the early '50s, capped by the Oscar he picked up for "From Here to Eternity" and the peerless Capitol records he made with Nelson Riddle. With its neat dramatic arc, "Frank: The Voice" could be the template for the ultimate Sinatra biopic.
Sinatra's story has been recounted a million times, and Kaplan doesn't dish much new dirt. What he does, instead - and boy, he does it well - is invest the story with renewed freshness, vitality and insight. Sinatra is widely considered the greatest pop singer of the 20th century, but "Frank: The Voice" is no hagiography; Kaplan really gets under the skin of this complicated, mercurial man.
Sinatra was born in Hoboken in 1915, and Kaplan suggests that his violent birth - a doctor damaged Sinatra's left cheek and ear, yanking him out with a pair of forceps - was the casus belli of his lifelong rage. Frank's forceful mother, Dolly, a Democratic ward leader and part-time abortionist, is the inescapable primal figure of his childhood. Kaplan describes "an only child, both spoiled and neglected, praised to the skies and viciously cut down when he fails to please, grows up suffering an infinite neediness, an inability to be alone, and cycles of grandiosity and bottomless depression."
Though the voice of his youth was "still relatively thin and small," according to Kaplan, his ambitions more than made up for it. Discovered by bandleader Harry James at a New Jersey nightclub - Sinatra was making $15 a week as a singing waiter - he rose to become a phenomenon, a singer who bucked the trend of breezy " Crosby sound-alikes" by delivering something new: what Kaplan calls "romantic yearning with hints of lust behind it" or "arrogance with a quaver of vulnerability." Whatever you called it, it worked.
Until it didn't. Sinatra's popularity took a hit during World War II, when servicemen began to resent this cocky civilian who drove their girls crazy. Later, the married Sinatra's flagrant womanizing and coziness with the Mob would damage his popularity further; the cheesy records he cut with pop maestro Mitch Miller ("Mama Will Bark" is one such dog) didn't help, either.
But America sure couldn't get enough of his stormy relationship with screen siren Gardner. Gossipmongers obsessively charted Sinatra's on-again, off-again romance with the actress Kaplan calls "that most dangerous of creatures, a gorgeous nihilist." The marriage played out in the glare of flashbulbs, and as recounted by Kaplan - a tale of booze, affairs, abortions and plenty of R-rated language - it was sensational, even by the contemporary standards of TMZ and Gawker.
All the heartache schooled Sinatra for Act II. Kaplan quotes Riddle saying, "Ava taught him how to sing a torch song," and it was the mature, world-weary Voice of the '50s Capitol recordings - "In the Wee Small Hours," etc. - that is probably the singer's greatest legacy. At the same time, Sinatra began lobbying relentlessly for the part of Maggio - a puny, tightly wound Italian-American G.I. - in the film adaptation of James Jones' World War II epic.
In "The Godfather," Mario Puzo's Sinatra stand-in, singer Johnny Fontane, memorably lands his big movie role after a horse's severed head is left in the studio executive's bed. Kaplan dismisses this florid touch as pure fiction. We'll never know what persuaded Columbia mogul Harry Cohn to hire Sinatra for the role, but Sinatra - with some coaching from co-star Montgomery Clift - nailed it. "Frank: The Voice" leaves its subject in the wee small hours after Oscar night 1954, aimlessly wandering the streets of Beverly Hills with statuette in hand, stunned by his reversal of fortune and a little lost. The music swells. Fade-out. Roll the closing credits.