How one wishes that a concerned editor had taken Nancy Sinatra aside and slipped her a copy of Mommie Dearest for inspiration before she sat down to write Frank Sinatra: An American Legend (General Publishing Group, $45), this big, splashily produced, numbingly loving, coffee-table biography/scrapbook about her father. Or at least Nancy, 55, should have picked up a few pointers on objectivity from her younger sister, Tina, who was the executive producer on a 1992 CBS miniseries that unshyly depicted their father’s drunken brawling and general caddishness. (The Sinatra kids do seem to enjoy turning Pop into pop.)
As it is, Frank Sinatra — out in time to celebrate the singer’s 80th birthday this December — boils a magnificently varied career down to a witless date-by-date laundry list of key events and trivial pursuits. ”March 6, 1952: He guest-starred on NBC television’s The Dinah Shore Show.” (Really, Nancy! What did he sing?) Later she writes, ”April 1992: Lackluster sales and strong competition forced Dad’s line of pasta sauces off the supermarket shelves.” In between all the nice pictures, she also throws in terse reminiscences from Dad and his friends, such as ”Nelson Riddle on Working With Sinatra: ‘Frank is stimulating to work with.’ ” You know a book is in trouble when you begin looking forward to the part where the author records ”These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” in 1965.
If you make it halfway through this expensive tome, you’ll find a surprisingly compelling account of the 1963 kidnapping of Nancy’s brother, Frank Jr. Frankophiles who make it to the end will be rewarded with a complete discography and filmography. But frankly, that’s a big if.
As a member of the generation that didn’t grow to appreciate fully Frankie’s ineffable coolness until the smash 1993 Duets album (an appalling admission, I know), I am made queasy by the Sinatra canonization — the 1985 Medal of Freedom and a recent proposal by New York congressman Jose E. Serrano to give Sinatra the Congressional Gold Medal. Sinatra consorted with gangsters, for heaven’s sake; he ignored his family; and he was repeatedly investigated by the FBI for his casino dealings. Nancy Sinatra tirelessly argues that dear old Dad and mob boss Sam Giancana were just friends. Okay. Fine. They were friends. But if a man is judged by the friends he keeps, well…
Having said that, a round of applause for Sinatra’s accomplishments is in order. He has recorded more than 100 albums, more than 2,000 songs — which he sang very, very well — won the 1953 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity, made some damn fine films (especially The Manchurian Candidate in 1962), and loomed larger — for a longer time — on the cultural landscape than almost any other performer in American history.
So what’s wrong with Frank Sinatra? A book concentrating on his career would have been better served by a Sinatra scholar, not by a loving daughter whose forays into Sinatra’s private life seem creepily detached. For example: Recalling her parents’ 1950 split during Frank’s whirlwind romance with Ava Gardner, she writes, ”In 1984, I asked him if, given the choice again, he would have left us, and he said, ‘No.’ ” And that’s it. The next thing you want her to write is, ”So then I took off my boot, which was made for walkin’, and used it to crack open his thick, selfish skull.”
Actually, Nancy has already dealt more candidly with her father’s life — in her 1985 biography, Frank Sinatra: My Father, also a coffee-table book. (Has this woman never heard of a shelf?) Maybe she thought it was time to broaden her scope and relinquish her father to his most devoted mistress, the public. Or maybe — and this is a grim thought — she’s decided to do a book about her father every 10 years. Frank Sinatra: An American Legend fails him as both a man and a legend. C-