My 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.
While 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.
Overall, 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.