Ol' Blue Eyes probably put it best himself, in that smoky voice with the smart phrasing. He was, quite simply, "King of the hill, top of the heap." He occupied the commanding heights of the popular music scene in America for decades, a durable performer whose long career onstage was as celebrated as his untidy life offstage was notorious. The melodies - and the lyrics - he popularized over the course of almost 60 years have been woven into the cultural fabric of his native land - and far beyond. They have become as familiar, and as comfortable, as a pair of old but sturdy shoes. So even though he died of a heart attack last week in Los Angeles, at the age of 82, Frank Sinatra's legacy will endure.
Who else but Sinatra could leave behind not one but a dozen signature tunes spread among his more than 200 albums? Each captures a facet of the singer's enigmatic nature, as well as underlines his astonishing range. In the 1940s, he was a big-band vocalist with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, a skinny kid in a floppy bow tie driving screaming teenage bobby-soxers into swoons with romantic ballads like I'll Never Smile Again. In the 1950s, he was joyfully exuberant in Come Fly with Me. A decade later, his darker side emerged. My Way celebrated the defiant streak of truculent independence that was then becoming his trademark. In an even more sombre vein, One for My Baby uncovers a bruised, world-weary 3 a.m. melancholy that was clearly the result of Sinatra's increasingly tangled personal life. "The atmosphere of a guy nursing a drink, sitting in a bar, can be wrenching," he remarked at the time in a rare, revealing public comment. "I suppose I've experienced just that scene many times, and perhaps it's why this song is so meaningful to me."
Despite his public success, Sinatra was no stranger to private woe. He was born on Dec. 12, 1915, in Hoboken, N.J. Various biographies, especially Kitty Kelley's 1986 His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, paint an unflattering portrait of the singer's parents. Kelley described his mother, Dolly, as ambitious and domineering, while his father, who owned and operated the Hoboken saloon where young Francis Albert first sang in public, is dismissed as weak and passive. It was Dolly, a midwife by trade, who engineered Frank's rise to early stardom as a teenage idol. By the time he was 25, he was already famous, a regular on the radio and singing with Dorsey's orchestra and Harry James's band. He had also married his teenage sweetheart, Nancy Barbato, and fathered two daughters - Nancy and Tina - and a son, Frank Jr.
The marriage broke down after 12 years in the face of Sinatra's notorious infidelities. Chief among these was a tempestuous, highly public and ultimately doomed relationship with the glamorous Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1951. When the actress, the second of his four wives, divorced him six years later after running off to Spain with a couple of bullfighters, Sinatra was said to have flirted with suicide. According to Nelson Riddle, one of Sinatra's best musical arrangers, it was Gardner who "taught him how to sing a torch song. She was the greatest love of his life and he lost her."
Meanwhile, Sinatra's career had taken some surprising turns. He was virtually washed up when an acting role revived his plummeting popularity. His memorable performance as Angelo Maggio, the wise-cracking soldier murdered in the 1953 movie From Here to Eternity, won him an Oscar. Choice roles in other films followed, among them High Society (1956) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In all, he appeared in 66 films. His success as an actor prompted his rebirth as a singer. It was during this period that many of his masterworks were recorded: Songs for Swingin' Lovers (1956), Come Fly with Me (1958), That's Life and Strangers in the Night (1966), and My Way (1969).
Behind all of the fanfare, however, Sinatra's reputation continued to suffer as a result of some of the darker aspects of his personal life. There was another scandalous marriage, this time a two-year affair with actress Mia Farrow, then 21 years old. (His fourth and last marriage was in 1976, to Barbara Marx, ex-wife of Zeppo, the youngest of the Marx Brothers comedy family.) Far more sinister in his past were his admitted associations with Mafia figures, in particular Chicago gangland boss Sam Giancana. In 1963, the Nevada Gaming Commission stripped Sinatra of his licence to operate a casino in Lake Tahoe. The FBI investigated, accumulating sheaves of incriminating wiretaps, forcing powerful political cronies, led by the Kennedy clan, to distance themselves.
By the time he died, however, Sinatra's peccadillos, including his underworld connections, had receded from view. He had gained a new generation of fans, recording duets with younger singers in 1993 and 1996. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, he was feted on nationwide TV by an audience that included all of Hollywood's elite. In the end, it was only Ol' Blue Eyes who counted, the consummate crooner who set the standard by which all of his peers will continue to be judged.
Maclean's May 25, 1998