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The Life

Written by Anthony SummersAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Anthony Summers and Robbyn SwanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robbyn Swan



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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 624 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42776-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Packed with revelations, this is the first complete account of a career built on raw talent, sheer willpower--and criminal connections. Anthony Summers--bestselling author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe--and Robbyn Swan unveil stunning new information about Sinatra’s links to the Mafia, his crowded love life and his tangled relationships with U.S. presidents. Exclusive breakthroughs include the discovery of how the Mafia connection began--in a remote Sicilian village--and moving interviews with his lovers. Never-before-published conversations with Ava Gardner get to the core of the tragic passion that dominated his life, came close to destroying him, and made his best work heartbreakingly personal. Sinatra delivers the full life story of a complex, flawed genius.

Excerpt

Debut

March 18, 1939.
In a studio on West 46th Street in New York City, a band was playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” It was a simple place, a room with couches and lamps, hung with drapes to muffle the echo from the walls. This was a big day for the musicians, who were recording for the first time.

A skinny young man listened as they played. The previous night, at the Sicilian Club near his home in New Jersey, he had asked if he could tag along. Now, as the band finished playing, he stepped forward and spoke to the bandleader. “May I sing?” he asked.

The bandleader glanced at the studio clock to see if they had time left, then told the young man to go ahead. He chose “Our Love,” a stock arrangement based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Standing at the rudimentary microphone, he launched into a saccharine lyric:

Our love, I feel it everywhere
Our love is like an evening prayer . . .
I see your face in stars above,
As I dream on, in all the magic of
Our love.

Unseasoned, a little reedy, the voice was transmitted through an amplifier to a recording device known as a lathe. The lathe drove the sound to a needle, and the needle carved a groove on a twelve-inch aluminum-based lacquer disc. The result was a record, to be played on a turntable at seventy-eight revolutions per minute.

The bandleader kept the record in a drawer for nearly sixty years. He would take it out from time to time, with delight and increasing nostalgia, to play for friends. The music on it sounds tinny, a relic of the infancy of recording technology. Yet the disc is kept in a locked safe. The attorney for the bandleader’s widow, an octogenarian on Social Security, says the singer’s heirs have demanded all rights and the lion’s share of any potential income derived from it, thus obstructing its release.

The disc is a valuable piece of musical history. Its tattered adhesive label, typed with an old manual machine, shows the recording was made at Harry Smith Studios, “electrically recorded” for bandleader Frank Mane. Marked “#1 Orig.,” it is the very first known studio recording of the thousand and more that were to make that skinny young man the most celebrated popular singer in history. For, under “Vocal chor. by,” it bears the immaculately handwritten legend:

Frank Sinatra

A year after making that first record, at twenty-five, Sinatra told a new acquaintance how he saw his future. “I’m going to be the best singer in the world,” he said, “the best singer that ever was.”

A Family from Sicily

Io sono Siciliano . . .” I am Sicilian.

At the age of seventy-one, in the broiling heat of summer in 1987, Frank Sinatra was singing, not so well by that time, in the land of his fathers. “I want to say,” he told a rapt audience at Palermo’s Favorita Stadium, “that I love you dearly for coming tonight. I haven’t been in Italy for a long time–I’m so thrilled. I’m very happy.”

The crowd roared approval, especially when he said he was Sicilian, that his father was born in Sicily. Sinatra’s voice cracked a little as he spoke, and he looked more reflective than happy. At another concert, in the northern Italian city of Genoa, he had a joke for his audience. “Two very important and wonderful people came from Genoa,” he quipped. “One . . . Uno: Christopher Columbus. Due: mia Mamma . . .”

This second crowd cheered, too, though a little less enthusiastically when he mentioned that his father was Sicilian. “I don’t think,” he said wryly, “that they’re too thrilled about Sicilia.” It was a nod to northern Italians’ feelings about the island off the southernmost tip of the country. They look down on its people as backward and slothful, and because, as all the world knows, it is synonymous with organized crime. It is the island of fire and paradox, the dismembered foot of the leg of Italy. Sicily: at ten thousand square miles the largest island in the Mediterranean, a cornucopia of history that remains more remote and mysterious than anywhere in Europe.

The island’s story has been a saga of violence. Its ground heaved to earthquakes, and its volcanoes spat fire and lava, long before Christ. Its population carries the genes of Greeks and Romans, of Germanic Vandals and Arabs, of Normans and Spaniards, all of them invaders who wrote Sicily’s history in blood.

“Sicily is ungovernable,” Luigi Barzini wrote. “The inhabitants long ago learned to distrust and neutralize all written laws.” Crime was endemic, so alarmingly so that a hundred years ago the island’s crime rate was said to be the worst in Europe. By then, the outside world had already heard the spectral name that has become inseparable from that of the island–Mafia.

The origin of that word is as much a mystery as the criminal brotherhood itself, but in Sicily “mafia” has one meaning and “Mafia”–with an upper case “M”–another. For the islanders, in Barzini’s view, the word “mafia” was originally used to refer to “a state of mind, a philosophy of life, a concept of society, a moral code.” At its heart is marriage and the family, with strict parameters. Marriage is for life, divorce unacceptable and impossible.

A man with possessions or special skills was deemed to have authority, and known as a padrone. In “mafia” with a small “m,” those who lived by the code and wielded power in the community were uomini rispettati, men of respect. They were supposed to behave chivalrously, to be good family men, and their word was their bond. They set an example, and they expected to be obeyed.

The corruption of the code and the descent to criminality was rapid. Well before the dawn of the twentieth century, the Mafia with a capital “M,” though never exactly an organization, was levying tribute from farmers, controlling the minimal water supply, the builders and the businessmen, fixing prices and contracts.

Cooperation was enforced brutally. Those who spoke out in protest were killed, whatever their station in life. The Mafia made a mockery of the state, rigging elections, corrupting the politicians it favored, and terrorizing opponents. From 1860 to 1924, not a single politician from Sicily was elected to the Italian parliament without Mafia approval. The island and its people, as one early visitor wrote, were “not a dish for the timid.”

Frank Sinatra’s paternal grandfather grew up in Sicily in the years that followed the end of foreign rule, a time of social and political mayhem. His childhood and early adult years coincided with the collapse of civil authority, brutally suppressed uprisings, and the rise of the Mafia to fill the power vacuum.

Beyond that, very little has been known about the Sinatra family’s background in Sicily. The grandfather’s obituary, which appeared in the New York Times because of his famous grandson, merely had him born “in Italy” in 1884 (though his American death certificate indicates he was born much earlier, in 1866). Twice, in 1964 and in 1987, Frank Sinatra told audiences that his family had come from Catania, about as far east as one can go in Sicily. Yet he told one of his musicians, principal violist Ann Barak, that they came from Agrigento on the southwestern side of the island. His daughter Nancy, who consulted her father extensively while working on her two books about his life, wrote that her great-grandfather had been “born and brought up” in Agrigento. His name, according to her, was John.

In fact he came from neither Catania nor Agrigento, was born earlier than either of the dates previously reported, and his true name was Francesco–in the American rendering, Frank.

Sicilian baptismal and marriage records, United States immigration and census data, and interviews with surviving grandchildren establish that Francesco Sinatra was born in 1857 in the town of Lercara Friddi, in the hills of northwest Sicily. It had about ten thousand inhabitants and it was a place of some importance, referred to by some as piccolo Palermo, little Palermo.

The reason was sulfur, an essential commodity in the paper and pharmaceutical industries, in which Sicily was rich and Lercara especially so. Foreign companies reaped the profits, however, and most locals languished in poverty. The town was located, in the words of a prominent Italian editor, in “the core territory of the Mafia.” The town lies fifteen miles from Corleone, a name made famous by The Godfather and in real life a community credited with breeding more future American mafiosi than any other place in Sicily. It is just twelve miles from the Mafia stronghold of Prizzi–as in Prizzi’s Honor, the Richard Condon novel about the mob and the film based on it that starred Jack Nicholson.

It was Lercara Friddi, however, that produced the most notorious mafioso of the twentieth century. Francesco Sinatra’s hometown spawned Lucky Luciano. Luciano was “without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster,” according to one authority, and “head of the Italian underworld throughout the land,” according to a longtime head of the Chicago Crime Commission. One of his own lawyers described him as having been, quite simply, “the founder of the modern Mafia.”

Luciano, whose real name was Salvatore Lucania, was born in Lercara Friddi in 1897. Old marriage and baptismal registers show that his parents and Francesco Sinatra and his bride, Rosa Saglimbeni, were married at the church of Santa Maria della Neve within two years of each other. Luciano was baptized there, in the same font as Francesco’s first two children.

In all the years of speculation about Frank Sinatra’s Mafia links, this coincidence of origin has remained unknown. Other new information makes it very likely that the Sinatras and the Lucanias knew each other. The two families lived on the same short street, the Via Margherita di Savoia, at roughly the same time. Luciano’s address book, seized by law enforcement authorities on his death in 1962 and available today in the files of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, contains only two entries for individuals who lived in Lercara Friddi: one a member of his own family and the other a man named Saglimbeni, a relative of the woman Francesco Sinatra married. Even if the Sinatras and the Lucanias did not know each other, Luciano’s later notoriety makes it certain that the Sinatra family eventually learned that they and the gangster shared the same town of origin. Kinship and origins are important in Italian-American culture, and were even more so in the first decades of the diaspora.

As a boy, Frank Sinatra could have learned from any of several older relatives that his people and Luciano came from the same Sicilian town. He certainly should have learned it from Francesco, who lived with Sinatra’s family after his wife’s death and often minded his grandson when the boy’s parents were out.

Francesco, moreover, survived to the age of ninety-one, until long after Luciano had become an infamous household name and Frank Sinatra an internationally famous singer. Sinatra himself indicated, and a close contemporary confirmed, that he and his grandfather were “very close.” Late in life, he said he had gone out of his way to “check back” on his Sicilian ties. And yet, as we have seen, he muddied the historical waters by suggesting that his forebears came from Sicilian towns far from Lercara Friddi.

That the Sinatra family came from the same town as a top mafioso was not in itself a cause for embarrassment. The reason for the obfuscation, though, may be found in the family involvement with bootlegging in Frank Sinatra’s childhood and, above all, in his own longtime relationship with Luciano himself, the extent of which can now be documented for the first time.

.  .  .

There was only one school in Lercara Friddi, and few people there could read or write. Francesco Sinatra was no exception, but he did have a trade–he was a shoemaker. He married Rosa, a local woman his own age, when both were in their early twenties, and by the time they turned thirty, in 1887, the couple had two sons. As the century neared its close, thousands of Sicilians were going hungry, especially in the countryside. There were food riots, and crime was rampant.

In western Sicily, the Mafia’s power had become absolute. Palermo, the island’s capital, spawned the first capo di tutti capi, Don Vito, who would one day forge the first links between the Sicilian Mafia and the United States. His successor, Don Carlo, operated from a village just fourteen miles from Lercara Friddi. Some of the most notorious American mob bosses–Tony Accardo, Carlo Gambino, Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante–were, like Luciano, of western Sicilian parentage.

By 1889 Francesco and Rosa had moved to a working-class suburb of Palermo. Two more sons were born there, but died in infancy, possibly victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the neighborhood in the early 1890s. One and a half million Sicilians were to leave the island in the next twenty-five years, many going to Argentina and Brazil and, increasingly, to the United States.

Francesco Sinatra joined the exodus in the summer of 1900. At the age of forty-three, he said goodbye to Rosa and their surviving children–there were by now three sons and two daughters–and boarded a ship for Naples. There he transferred to the British steamer Spartan Prince, carrying a steerage ticket to New York. At Ellis Island, on July 6, he told immigration officials he planned to stay with a relative living on Old Broadway in Manhattan. He had $30 in his pocket.

Francesco found work, and soon had enough confidence to start sending for his family. His eldest son, Isidor, joined him in America, and Salvatore, just fifteen and declaring himself a shoemaker like his father, arrived in 1902. Rosa arrived at Christmas the following year, accompanied by Antonino, age nine, and their two daughters, Angelina and Dorotea, who were younger. Antonino–Anthony Martin or Marty, as he would become in America–was to father the greatest popular singer of the century.

The Statue of Liberty smiled, Frank Sinatra would say in an emotional moment forty years later, when his father “took his first step on Liberty’s soil.” For many Italian newcomers, however, the smile proved illusory.


From the Hardcover edition.
Anthony Summers|Robbyn Swan|Author Q&A

About Anthony Summers

Anthony Summers - Sinatra

Photo © Eamonn O'Brien

Award-winning biographer and journalist Anthony Summers was educated at Oxford University. He began his career in broadcast journalism working for Granada TV’s “World in Action” program and later BBC News. As Senior Film Producer with Britain’s top public affairs programs, “24 Hours” and “Panorama,” he covered the United States, the Vietnam War, and the Middle East. He has produced documentary specials on the culture of Vietnam, the Palestinians, drug trafficking, the Kennedy assassination, and the fate of Russia’s last imperial family. He obtained an exclusive interview with the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov when the physicist - under house arrest at the time - won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Summers is the best-selling author of Goddess, a biography of Marilyn Monroe (1985); The Arrogance of Power, a biography of Richard Nixon (2000); Official and Confidential, on J. Edgar Hoover (1993); Honeytrap, on the Profumo spy scandal (1987); The File on the Tsar, an investigation of the disappearance of the last Russian imperial family (1976); and Conspiracy, on the assassination of JFK (1980), which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s top award for non-fiction.

Four of these books were developed into successful television documentaries; Goddess was dramatized for television; and Honeytrap was turned in to the film “Scandal,” starring John Hurt.

Anthony Summers has been consultant to numerous television documentary programs, and he is a contributor to Vanity Fair magazine.

Summers and Robbyn Swan were married in 1992. They live in Ireland.

About Robbyn Swan

Robbyn Swan - Sinatra

Photo © Eamonn O'Brien

Robbyn Swan was Anthony Summers’s key associate on The Arrogance of Power and Official and Confidential. She has contributed to Vanity Fair and has worked for PBS and the BBC on television documentaries. She has a degree in politics and Russian history from Smith College.

Summers and Swan were married in 1992. They live in Ireland.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
authors of

Sinatra: The Life

Q: Sinatra: The Life contains an amazing amount of new information–how did you approach the task of telling the story of Sinatra’s life and in some places of correcting the received wisdom about his life?

A: To begin at the beginning turned out not to be as simple as we imagined. It looked for a while as though we would never find the Sinatra family’s roots in Sicily. The version Sinatra himself offered turned out not to be true, and we located the real village of origin only after chasing down many false leads. It was whim as much as evidence that got us to the solution–a solution that proved more rewarding than we could have dreamed. The information uncovered in Sicily turned out to be the first link in the chain of events that tied Sinatra to the Mafia for life.

Q: What and/or who surprised you most as you were researching Sinatra's life?
A: He continually surprised us. Anytime you look at just one facet of his character you risk getting a distorted view of the whole. Yes, he was–to his discredit–involved with thieves and murderers, without evident guilt or social conscience. Yes, he was prone to violence and unpardonable arrogance. He had myriad faults, but he was also a sensitive man capable of acts of compassion. The vast majority of those who knew him remember him with admiration and affection. That, probably, was the biggest surprise.

Q: Do you think the passage of time since his death allowed Sinatra’s friends and acquaintances to be more open with you than with previous biographers?
A: Yes. We interviewed several hundred people, including many who spoke out for the first time. Sinatra regarded his private life as forbidden territory, and went to great lengths to keep trespassers out. Biographers have to intrude, by definition, and many people who would not have talked while he was alive did talk with us. Some would have remained silent when he was alive, out of loyalty to a friend. Fear of his wrath, no doubt, also kept some mouths closed. Now that he’s gone, people have opened up. Sinatra’s children, though, did not talk to us–in spite of repeated requests–and we know they persuaded some others not to talk.

Q: Sinatra: The Voice still has legions of fans and entire radio programs devoted to his music–what do you think makes his music so timeless and popular?
A: Bob Dylan came close when he said Sinatra “had the truth of things in his voice.” Some of his stuff was about cool–happy cool in the Rat Pack period we’re forever hearing about. But what got to people, the teenage bobbysoxers he hooked in the forties and the generations that followed, was Sinatra’s ability to communicate yearning and loss. Life and love is about yearning and loss as much as it is about idealized romance, and his own life ran in sad parallel to his art. His public knew it, and that made his work all the more poignant. Other singers offered entertaining performances. So did Sinatra, but he went deeper, offered shared human experience. His audiences also got the quality that came from tirelessly honed musical disciplines, and the skills of the best arrangers of the era.

Q: For the first time in a Sinatra biography, you draw straight lines linking the man to the most important mafiosi of the mid-20th century. Why do you think the FBI allowed Sinatra to remain above the fray of Bureau investigations of the Mafia when the evidence was plain to see?
A: There are things to put right here. First, for years FBI agents were not encouraged to pursue the Mafia–Director J. Edgar Hoover long tried to suggest the Mafia did not really exist. The FBI did build a file of more than a thousand pages on Sinatra, however. It’s available to the public now that he’s dead, and contains valuable information on his links to the Mob. The records of the Bureau of Narcotics are also rewarding–there are detailed agents’ reports on Sinatra’s contacts with the Mafia at the highest level. The first known questioning of Sinatra about organized crime was in the early fifties, by attorneys for the Senate’s Kefauver Committee. Much later, there was a probe by a Jersey state committee and another by the House Committee on Crime. Sinatra invariably gave evasive answers–including many that were lies–and even denied knowing that the Mafia existed. Though in the seventies he came under suspicion in the office of the U.S. Attorney for New York, there was never hard evidence of criminal acts, evidence that could justify bringing charges. His relationships with mafiosi were mutually beneficial, and Sinatra closed his eyes to the obvious fact of their murderous nature.

Q: Sinatra had a lavish lifestyle–do you think that he became a shareholder in the Cal-Neva Lodge casino just as an investment?
A: We can’t say what Sinatra’s intentions were. From all the information available, though, it looks as though his focus was having a resort that was his, identified as his–and, while the Cal-Neva lasted, it was. It seems, though, that Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana was key to the operation and likely the real power in the Cal-Neva operation. The mobster’s presence at the Lodge caused Sinatra to lose his Nevada gambling license and–worse for him–brought massive public humiliation. Sinatra rode out the storm, as he almost always did.

Q: Sinatra switched his support to the Republican Party after decades of support for the Democrats–how much did being shunned by President Kennedy and his cohort after all his campaign efforts have to do with this change of heart?
A: Probably not as direct an effect as has been believed. Sinatra continued to back the Democrats after Kennedy’s death, and in 1968 came out for Hubert Humphrey. It hurt him, though, that Humphrey eventually asked him to back off because of new publicity about his dubious associations. Why did he go over to the Republicans, first Reagan in California and later Nixon–both of whom he had earlier said he despised? Perhaps it was simply because Sinatra yearned to be close to power.

Q: The book makes clear that Sinatra had extremely complicated relationships with women. Why do you think he was unable to let go of Ava Gardner until almost the end of both their lives, in spite of how desperately miserable she made him?
A: Can obsessive love ever be explained? Sinatra’s love life was prolific, more so because women were drawn to him like moths to a flame, but few of the relationships were “complicated.” In one central way he was old-fashioned. He was a traditional Italian-American male who thought a man should have a wife and children–license to fool around on the side, to be sure, but with marriage as the anchor. Such was his feeling for Ava Gardner that he broke with that tradition and left his excellent, loyal wife. That made it all the more shattering when the relationship with Ava fell apart. There followed long periods of promiscuity, much use of whores, some meaningful affairs with fine women, a marriage in middle-age with a much younger woman–and a late marriage that lasted. Yet he never lost touch with Ava, and never gave up on her.

Q: The book recounts many parties with a lot of social drinking–do you think Sinatra had a dysfunctional relationship with the bottle too?
A: He called booze his “gasoline,” and jokes about it became part of his persona. In fact it was no joke, though few outsiders understood the extent of Sinatra’s alcohol problem. For long periods, he really did drink a bottle of Jack Daniel’s a day. Add in the cigarettes, and it’s astonishing that he kept up the pace and the brilliant performances for so long. His violent outrages and emotional disasters, though, ran in parallel with heavy drinking. Taken together, specialists in the field told us, the mass of information we gathered indicates that Sinatra was an alcoholic. This is new, a fact that would explain much about the “dark” Sinatra.

Q: How did you find the woman who reveals in your book that she was sexually assaulted by Sinatra? Why did she agree to speak to you after so many years of silence?
A: We came upon her in the best way, by chance, thanks to a conversation with a woman friend in whom–after many years–she had confided. The woman, who is now married with a family, agreed first to talk on the phone, then to meet with one of us. She had kept quiet at the time, she said, in part because she thought no one would believe her, in part out of fear as to what might happen if she complained. Many rape victims do stay silent. This woman described her experience in detail, but asked us to shield her from publicity by obscuring her present identity. She submitted to persistent, critical questioning, and we came away believing her–not least because what she said was consistent with, though more serious than, the accounts of other women. She describes the incident as having occurred at a time Sinatra was going through one of his darkest, most violent periods, and using alcohol to excess. Assuming the woman’s story is true, and we think it is, alcohol almost certainly played a role in the incident.

Q: From the stories you tell, it seems that Sinatra’s personality was split between a deep-seated altruism (illustrated by his commitment to the civil rights movement, distaste for McCarthyism, and generosity to strangers) and intense narcissism and insecurity. How did you reconcile these traits so that the whole man could be revealed in Sinatra: The Life?
A: Your question goes to the heart of the man, and of the book. Our publisher asked us, at the start, to try to explain Sinatra. He was a walking contradiction, a peerless performer, a man of huge generosity, and as you say, a champion of racial equality. Yet he indulged in selfish tantrums, was prone to violence, and cozied up to the worst crooks in America long after it had ceased to be necessary for his career. You can’t square the circle, and few ordinary men or women would have gotten away with his behavior for long. But stars often behave unforgivably badly and yet are tolerated. Sinatra was the star of stars, and that gave him special license.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"The most definitive Sinatra bio to date." —Entertainment Weekly

“A definitive, generational work. . . . The first fully documented biography since Sinatra's death.”—Vanity Fair

“First-rate reporting. . . . Dense and intimate.” —People

“A mountain of information. . . . Fascinating” —Los Angeles Times

“Only the most patient, judicious, unflappable of writers, and ones sincerely devoted to Mr. Sinatra’s music, could have written this book. . . . It’s safe to say Sinatra: The Life will remain definitive for years to come.” —Dallas Morning News

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