Sinatra: he stepped up

April 25, 2015

SinatraMy mother was a bobby-soxer back her day and Frank Sinatra was her favorite artist. He was adulated by teens in the 1940s –oh, that voice, like velvet– and my mother saw him in concert more than once.  She brought me to his appearance at the Italian American Anti-Defamation League benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 1970, the only time I saw him. My memories of that event are vague. But I love his voice. Unique.

As the years passed he was associated with La Cosa Nostra, as were most public figures of southern Italian or Sicilian descent. Whether they were or they weren’t, if their last name ended in a vowel, they were. If you know what I mean.


Did you happen to see the very good HBO documentary called Sinatra: All or Nothing at All? Two parts, four hours, it focused mostly on his first 60 years. Oh, it was great! He lived the Mad Men life before Mad Men existed. But there was so much more to him than cocktails, a smoke and that voice.

SinatraWhile like us all, he was imperfect, he was one of the very few celebrities who used their power to fight racism in show business. He thought bigotry was stupid and this idea that black performers could not stay at the same hotels as white performers rankled. When he had power, he used it to end that injustice.  He was also a primary factor in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s success. He stepped up in a big way against racism and bigotry his entire life, when it would’ve been far easier to sit back and say nothing. Far less risky.

This belief in justice? It was the way southern Italian men of that generation were. I can remember a saying in my family, e giusto — it’s right, just–used the way we’d say “it’s only fair” or “it’s only right.” My father was that way, too. The Navy medical system was something he constantly bucked up against when he was in the service, because he felt so much of it was wrong. Men of my culture in that generation rarely just “went along.” They pointed out the wrong and tried to make it right.

What comes to mind is that line from Ted Kennedy’s eulogy of his brother, Bobby:

My brother…a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it.

Different culture, same concept.

Many in my father’s generation and our Sicilian culture were decent men who saw wrong and tried to right it.   Sinatra was one.

In the second half of the documentary, however, Henry Belafonte pointed out that the Rat Pack (Dean, Frank, Lawford) made Sammy Davis, Jr. the butt of racist jokes in their comedy routines. I make no excuses for that. I do, however, say that we hear a lot of comedy that pushes the boundaries so I am not convinced at all it meant Frank was racist. Just that he didn’t see that the comedy that way. Tone deaf, maybe. But not racist. And there IS a difference.

People are complicated. They’re never all one or the other. We are all a mix of good qualities and those not-so-good qualities.

Sinatra the elderOverall, I enjoyed the documentary until just about the end. While we heard from the Sinatra family, including first wife, Nancy and his three children, his second wife, Ava Gardner, was covered in detail,  and third wife, Mia Farrow added some new context about his discomfort with 1960s culture– after that, his history fell off a cliff. There was only brief mention of his marriage to Barbara Marx in 1976. It was his longest marriage, lasting until his death in 1998, so it was a significant omission.  And nothing about his death.

Maybe that’s not surprising. Perhaps it’s because there is no love lost between the family and Marx and the Sinatra estate’s fingerprints were all over this documentary. It’s well-known that the Sinatra family felt Marx had been a wedge in their relationship with Frank  (his children say they weren’t told he was on his deathbed), so the omission seems intentional. Still, failing to present Sinatra, the whole man, and his whole life, is a flaw in what was otherwise a fascinating piece.

He was 82 when he passed. On his gravemarker: The Best is Yet to Come.  Like Frank’s life, this documentary passed too soon.

I’d love your thoughts.


18 comments on “Sinatra: he stepped up
  1. It’s not secret I’m a HUGE Sinatra fan. He’s my favorite singer. Not only the voice but his phrasing and choices of songs are extraordinary. Like Ella Fitzgerald his voice is a musical instrument.

    His acting is exquisite in so many movies. He held his own against acting giants. When he and Bing sang in “High Society” it was priceless. There’s also an older film he did with another man he adored, Jimmy Durante, with a priceless duet. I could go on.

    He quietly funded many, many charities, particularly ones with children. When Ava Gardner got sick and was alone, he flew her back from Europe and paid for her medical care until the day she died. When Woody Allen was giving Mia trouble, he had something to say (as her other ex, Andre Previn). Watch the Kennedy Center Honors on youtube – Walter Cronkite talks about how charitable Frank was with kids when Perry Como and a choir of children entered the stage to sing for Frank and the audience.

    I, like the rest of the world, felt a kinship to Frank. My father grew up in Hoboken and went to school with Sinatra’s family. Being from NJ everyone loves having Frank from there. But most of all, my son was born on Dec. 12, Frank’s birthday. Hours after giving birth, my brother was the first to arrive at the hospital and he asked, “Where’s the little Chairman of the Board?”

    The Sinatra Family has a strong hold over trademark issues and using Frank’s name. I was not surprised about barely mentioning Barbara Marx. An ex-showgirl and once married to Zeppo Marx, they did not get along. No surprise there.

    I loved the documentary, had it marked on my calendar for a long time. Enjoyed it, even though some areas were “cleaned” up a bit. I didn’t care. It was a treat.

    I’m a Frank Sinatra nut and so you wrote about the right subject for me, Carol.

    Oh, BTW, when my dad was in the service during the Korean War he, like Sammy, he faced a lot of anti-semitism. I loved Frank for his bravery and he deserved the Oscar he won for “The House I Live In” not only for what it was about but also because it was about bigotry, something rarely discussed at that time.

    I miss him, and wish he were still around. Thank goodness he left us a legacy of extraordinary music and films. As Nancy says at the end of her Sirius XM shows each week, “Sleep warm (she says Papa) Frank.”

  2. Sandy says:

    That is a shame. I know what you are saying. If a documentary is a true documentary, then the whole life and even death should be included in it.

  3. I am also a fan…I loved Nancy’s tribute for his 100th birthday and I learned so much. I only listen to five radio stations and really mostly two, Siriusly Sinatra is one of them. I would like to see the documentary…thanks for keeping us informed, Carol.

  4. I think documentaries often tend to focus on specific — dramatic — events and can’t capture a person’s whole life. Sinatra is such an iconic figure, though, that it seems a shame to leave out such a big chunk.

  5. Jeanine says:

    I haven’t ever followed Frank, and to be honest don’t know much about him but I feel the same about true documentaries. It all should be included!

  6. This, yes: “People are complicated. They’re never all one or the other.” Yes!

    Sinatra is one of my MIL’s faves. Even in her state of dementia, when I share photos of Frank Sinatra, she begins talking away about the old days and her love for Ol’ Blue Eyes.

  7. Roz Warren says:

    I was hoping to read an insightful review of this documentary. Thanks! I’m a Sinatra fan and envy your having seen him, even if it wasn’t in concert. I love his music and now I’m really looking forward to seeing the documentary.

  8. Great review! I enjoy his music, but I’m not a fanatic. I’m glad you are a fan, though, or I would not have expanded my info base about him and Italian Americans.

  9. I’ve always been fascinated with Sinatra and the whole rat pack and have read several books about them. I pinned this because I didn’t see, I’ll have to look for it!

  10. Ruth Curran says:

    I don’t know that it is possible to capture a full life in a documentary — all the colors and flavors. Maybe when we see a documentary we are learning as much about the perspective of the one in charge of the film as we are the subject — what they chose to include, leave, emphasize. Great review and thank you for putting in the context of your life and roots!

  11. I am a real Sinatra fan. I agree, I really dislike a true story that doesn’t tell the whole truth.
    Honestly I believe the comedy the guys used ‘with’ Sammy Davis really helped people to love Sammy. Back then I think the comedy did a lot to help those who were ‘uncomfortable’ with anyone of a different race or culture to see them in a different light. I believe those guys all loved Sammy very much and there wasn’t one ounce of racism in their bones.
    I am not a Harry Belafonte fan. I think he is bitter, ungrateful and a race baiter.

  12. Donna says:

    Love him, he is a huge part of my little town, the Rat Pack ruled Vegas and we loved it. I have every CD, love it all.,,,,

  13. I really don’t know anything about Sinatra but would love to see the documentary.

  14. Lana says:

    I didn’t see this, but I know my younger son would really enjoy it. Thanks for the review – I’m going to search for/record it now!

  15. Mikel Cassara says:

    Cassaras and Sinatra’s are related. He’s my cousin by blood

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