David Lehman’s “Sinatra’s Century” is a much shorter but more intimate portrait [than James Kaplan's biography]. Many of the same anecdotes used by Kaplan can be found here, too, but Lehman, an established poet, widens the frame of reference, thereby expanding the emotional resonance of the songs. He compares Sinatra’s version of “One for My Baby” to both Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and to Ernest Hemingway’s famous story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Whereas Kaplan accumulates facts, Lehman tells us what those facts mean. For example:
“There are two reasons that male resistance to Sinatra turned completely around. . . . His voice deepened . . . and he was able to sing so convincingly of loss, failure, and despair unto death.” But when a fact is needed, Lehman comes through: In a 2014 commercial for Jack Daniels, a voiceover tells us what Sinatra’s recipe was: “three rocks, two fingers, and a splash.”
There it is, a Sinatra haiku, and, boy, what a splash he made.
-- Sibbie O’Sullivan is a writer on the arts who lives in Wheaton.
(from the review in the Washington Post, October 28, 2015)
Mr. Lehman appears to have listened to cuts from each of Sinatra’s nearly 600 recording sessions, watched most of his 50-odd movies and his countless TV shows and specials, and read deeply in the bibliography. A fan, Mr. Lehman pronounces Sinatra “the greatest of all popular American singers,” his work “an aesthetic experience of intense pleasure,” and the star no less than “the most interesting man in the world.” He compares Sinatra’s 1958 recording of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer lament “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” to Hemingway’s pitch-perfect story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” about a forlorn, tipsy old man reluctant to leave a Madrid cafe. Sinatra’s ballad, Hemingway’s nihilistic tale and the sight of Humphrey Bogart stood up in the rain by Ingrid Bergman at the Gare de Lyon in “Casablanca,” he writes, are “what American existentialism, as a mood or an aesthetic condition, is all about.”
Happily, most of Mr. Lehman’s Sinatra appreciation is on a less cerebral plane. He ticks all the familiar biographical boxes: mother-ridden boyhood in Hoboken, N.J., bobby-sox mania, career eclipse, Ava Gardner, movie stardom, Rat Pack shenanigans, mob and Kennedy connections, master of sex, sad decline. But, like a good rewrite man, Mr. Lehman holds the reader by ferreting out of the voluminous files lots of choice quotes and anecdotes that reanimate Sinatra’s gamy lost world.
Here is Ava Gardner proclaiming, “He weighs 120, but 110 of those pounds are pure c—k.” Here is movie mogul Louis B. Mayer sobbing as he watches young Sinatra belt out “Ol’ Man River” in 1943 at the Hollywood Bowl. And there’s Sinatra’s first glimpse of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s smash comedy act: “The Dago’s lousy, but the little Jew is great!” Or screaming in a Hollywood restaurant at Mario Puzo, the author of “The Godfather,” with its portrayal of a mobbed-up crooner many thought was based on Sinatra: “Choke. Go ahead and choke, you pimp.” In his final days, Sinatra watches the 1955 movie version of “Guys and Dolls,” in which Marlon Brando got the role he coveted of the suave gambler Sky Masterson, and complains to his daughter, “He still can’t sing.” Like a pharaoh, he is buried with provisions for the next world: a flask of Jack Daniel’s.
-- Edward Kosner. Mr. Kosner is the former editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News and the author of a memoir, It’s News to Me.
from the review in the Wall Street Journal
Sheckey Greene always used to like telling his Las Vegas lounge audiences about the time Frank Sinatra saved his life. Here’s how poet David Lehman quotes him in “Sinatra’s Century.” Sheckey was “standing out in front of Caesar’s Palace one night and three big tough guys began to kick the hell out of me. They were giving me a terrible beating but finally Frank came up and said ‘okay, that’s enough.’ ”
No one is ever likely more trustworthy about Sinatra than Kaplan has now been in his behemoth two-volume biography.
I must confess, nevertheless, that poet and anthologist David Lehman’s “Sinatra’s Century” is more to my liking because his 100 glowing and gleaming fragments on Sinatra’s life and meaning are filled with wildly entertaining quotation, anecdote and insightful critical judgment.
-- Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News (October 25, 2015)