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'Sinatra: The Chairman' review: James Kaplan's admirable Frank Sinatra biography

Frank Sinatra performing in the late 1960s. The

Frank Sinatra performing in the late 1960s. The second volume of James Kaplan's biography is out for the singer's centennial. Credit: Getty Images / Martin Mills

SINATRA: The Chairman, by James Kaplan. Doubleday, 979 pp., $35.

It takes an epic life, not just a classic body of work, to make a legend, and Frank Sinatra -- like Garland, Piaf, Fitzgerald and Monroe -- rarely made a move that didn't inflate his myth. He was a tough-yet-tender hero of American masculinity; a style icon without trying; a bruised romantic; and a brat, sometimes a scary one, who got away with just about everything. Most important, he brought a nearly unrivaled finesse to the art of popular singing. All his triumphs and missteps are somehow detectable in his work, or so his biographers would like to think.

Dozens of them have vied to own him in print. But what do you do when there is not much left to say, and when hardly any participants or eyewitnesses from his creative prime are alive to speak?

Enter Sinatra's latest scribe, journalist James Kaplan, who co-authored the memoirs of Jerry Lewis and John McEnroe. In 2010, Kaplan released "Frank: The Voice," volume one in what aims to be the magnum opus on a titan. Now, in Sinatra's centennial year, comes the second and last volume, "Sinatra: The Chairman." The hulking set totals close to 1,800 pages. If any pop-music figure merits the space, it's Sinatra. But are there any revelations inside?

Not really. The Kaplan books typify a growing genre of biography: one in which the tired tales of deceased giants are synthesized from mostly existing sources into something ostensibly new. As with "Frank: The Voice," the second volume contains few firsthand interviews; previous books made Kaplan's two possible. For musical insight, he leans heavily on Will Friedwald's "Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art"; for background on the films, Tom Santopietro's "Sinatra in Hollywood." For gossip, he turns to Kitty Kelley's "His Way," J. Randy Taraborelli's "Sinatra: Behind the Legend" and Sinatra valet George Jacobs' "Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra." Family insights come from memoirs by daughters Tina and Nancy. Books about Sinatra's celebrity friends and colleagues along with hundreds of articles complete the copious research. To his credit, Kaplan goes out of his way to give acknowledgment.

Such a book stands or falls on its author's storytelling ability. In that regard, Kaplan does admirably, with a sense of momentum and a fair, balanced tone. Volume two is mostly free of the imagined details that lent "Frank: The Voice" the semifictionalized tone of a biopic. "Sinatra: The Chairman" begins in 1954, when a 38-year-old Sinatra rose from a career crash with an Oscar-winning performance in "From Here to Eternity." His singing career and his artistry hit their peak. From there, Sinatra wallowed in his newfound power. He recorded 31 top-10 albums; reigned over Las Vegas in its Mafia-run heyday; numbered a president (JFK) as well as several mob bosses among his close friends; and ran through a stellar array of women, such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Kim Novak, Lauren Bacall and Mia Farrow. He was intimidating and sometimes endearing. The author notes Sinatra's "restless intellect, his sense of humor (always more spontaneous in personal circumstances than onstage), even a literary sensibility."

Kaplan relates the famous tale entertainingly, even if many of his insights are recognizable from other books. The ones he hasn't borrowed can sound hyperbolic: "No human was more complicated than Frank Sinatra," for instance. On page 8 he mentions the "sublimely gifted Nelson Riddle"; on page 29, the "sublimely gifted" Mel Tormé.

Kaplan is on surer ground depicting the messy private lives and downfalls of the spoiled high-rollers his subject knew, from ex-flame Ava Gardner to the savage Mafioso Sam Giancana. Like all of them, Sinatra lived for psychodrama. That was his fun, and it fueled his art. The joy dimmed only in his final years: Friends had died, his health and memory were fading, and his voice had grown ragged, self-annihilated by cigarettes and callous use. But his charisma only deepened as time ran out. Today he remains so present in American culture that it seems as though he never died.

Curiously, 1970 through 1998 (the year Sinatra died), though admittedly less eventful years for the singer, are breezed through in just 79 pages. Depending on how rabid a Sinatra fan the reader is, the fast-forward will be either a letdown or a relief. After Kaplan's exhaustive retelling, there is no conceivable need, ever, for another Sinatra book. But these two surely won't be the last.

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