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December 5, 2010

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Epic rehash of Sinatra's life

ELVIS Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Jack Kerouac: these and other giants of popular culture were long ago explored to death, yet biographers keep struggling to give the old stories a new spin. With most witnesses gone, however, and the tattered clippings picked dry, writers are left to "reinterpret" the facts, leaning heavily on imagination. Many of their books enter a gray zone of shady-credibility.

Dozens of authors have tried to crack the mystique of Sinatra. Aside from revolutionizing the art of popular singing- - which he took from strident and bravura to the most nuanced form of storytelling - Sinatra redefined prevailing notions of masculinity. His balance of tough, tender and cool made him the heterosexual male's ultimate role model. For women, he was ideal: a sensitive man's man.

His life is a biographer's field day. Among its details are a Hoboken upbringing with an abortionist mother; the hardscrabble but exciting swing era, which ignited his career; his ascent to super stardom in the war years, when he awakened the lust in countless screaming girls; the youthful marriage (to the long-suffering homebody Nancy Barbato) that was torn asunder by Ava Gardner, over whom he attempted suicide. Mafia ties, arrests and other scandals kept coming.

For an author to tackle this epic again would require a lot of nerve. And nerve is everywhere in the newest effort by James Kaplan, co-author of memoirs by John McEnroe ("You Cannot Be Serious") and Jerry Lewis ("Dean and Me"). "Frank: The Voice" takes more than 700 pages to tell half the story: that of Sinatra's rise, his late-1940s career crash and his phoenix-like rebirth in 1954, when he claimed an Oscar for best supporting actor in "From Here to Eternity." (Kaplan is now at work on Volume 2.) There's scarcely a fresh tidbit here; the source notes list fewer than 20 original interviews, while the bibliography contains about 125 books.

But "Frank: The Voice" is more about the voice of its author, who sets out to view the familiar tale through a lens like none other. His goal, the publisher says, is to "make ... the reader feel what it was really like to be Frank Sinatra." The tools he uses are questionable. They include relentless psychoanalyzing and mind reading, even to the point of putting words in his subjects' brains. The author becomes a fly on the wall of ages-old bedrooms, boardrooms and verandas, observing and overhearing things no one ever reported.

The good news is that Kaplan can tell a story. His passion for Sinatra keeps the narrative flowing; he's equally fascinated by his subject's seamy and artistic sides; and he evokes period atmosphere well. While adding nothing new to our understanding of Sinatra's singing, he offers a fair synthesis of what's already been said.

But the biographical content has grown hoary through over-telling, and Kaplan strains to pump new life into it. He tarts up his lines with profanities and Sinatra-like snarling: "He made good and goddamn sure that he understood the words to every song he sang." Cliche's pile into the hundreds; hyperbole flies. Of Sinatra's first big break, as Harry James's vocalist, Kaplan writes: "The singer was a genius, the trumpeter-leader a kind of genius. The band was terrific."

Kaplan's reliability is highly suspect. He notes that Sinatra rumors would keep gurgling up "like malodorous bubbles in a swamp," yet the whiff of the apocryphal rises often from these pages.

If nothing else, "Frank: The Voice" helps prove that a dozen years after his death, Sinatra is still setting both sexes aflame. No book has done equal justice to the personal, historical and musical depth of his story, but several deliver in their own ways. For sheer dish, nothing can top Kitty Kelley's "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra." If some of her sources were dubious, Kelley's intentions never were: she bulldozed her way through his messy life, without feigning a shred of interest in his art.

Those who know little of Sinatra's history probably won't care where Kaplan got his material.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," he writes. But one wonders: should fantasy figures like Sinatra be fair game for this biopic approach to the truth? Any responsible biographer, I think, would have to answer no.


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