Excerpt from Frank: The Voice

Excerpted from FRANK: The Voice by James Kaplan Copyright © 2010 by James Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Click here for the printer-friendly PDF

Act Three: Higher and Higher

“Good morning. My name is Frank Sinatra.”

— His first line in the movies, in the 1943 RKO Radio Pictures feature Higher and Higher

11.

“EXTRA ADDED ATTRACTION,” was indeed how the Paramount first billed him: fourth on the program, beneath Benny Goodman and His Famous Orchestra, under a comedy trio called the Radio Rogues and a comedy duo called Moke and Poke, and just above “DON BAKER at the PARAMOUNT ORGAN.” Frank Sinatra’s name was, however, the only one besides Goodman’s in boldface, and in type only slightly smaller. And beneath the name, the slogan: “The Voice That Has Thrilled Millions.”

It was true enough. But the phrase itself sounded like something that would have rolled off the stentorian tongue of some radio announcer of the 20s or 30s. And here in January 1943 — one of those hinges in time that come along periodically, a moment when everything simply vaults forward — Frank Sinatra, a radically new American product, needed drastic re-packaging, and somebody new to do it.

The coiner of the slogan was another of Sinatra’s agents at the time, a soon-to-be-forgotten figure named Harry Kilby. The publicist who convinced the powers that be at the Paramount to affix the tired-sounding strapline to the bottom of the marquee was one Milt Rubin, a Times Square hack and the willing slave of the Emperor Winchell — Walter, of course. Sinatra had hired Rubin in the fall of ‘42, soon after leaving Dorsey, on a tip from the all-powerful columnist, and had quickly come to regret it. The p.r. man treated Frank like just another act, no more important than anyone else on his C-list roster of ventriloquists, acrobats, and female impersonators. Meanwhile Rubin hovered around Winchell’s table at Lindy’s, laughing at the great man’s jokes and begging for scraps. There were times Sinatra — admittedly a high-maintenance client — couldn’t reach his fifty-dollar-a-week publicist on the telephone. Nancy, who wrote the checks, began ignoring Rubin’s bills. This got his attention, though not in a good way: the publicist initiated legal proceedings against his client.

Manie Sacks of Columbia, Sinatra’s new rabbi, had the solution. “George Evans is your man,” he told Frank. “He’s the best in the business — the best there ever was.”

This was manifestly true. Between Rubin and Evans, there was simply no comparison. A glance into the former’s fusty Times Square office would have made it clear: a cluttered couple of rooms behind a frosted-glass transom door, an old broad in a snood doing her nails at the reception desk while some sweaty guy with a Chihuahua cooled his heels. In George B. Evans’s clean and modern Columbus Circle suite, on the other hand, there were three assistants fielding calls from clients like Mr. Glenn Miller, Mr. Duke Ellington, and Miss Lena Horne.

Evans was 40, in the prime of his life, and he was a dynamo, with a thrusting determined jaw and a ravening look in his piercing dark eyes. Lightly balding, bespectacled (tortoise-shell frames were his trademark), handsome in his way, he dressed well, spoke fast and crisply, came straight to the point. And he had a good opinion of himself, with reason: He lived for his clients, and his clients did well by him. Their joys were his joys; their sorrows were his, too. If they needed solace at 4 a.m., he picked up the phone, no questions asked. He was as expert at making trouble go away as he was at whipping up excitement.

In return he was choosy about whom he wanted to represent. Where this Sinatra boy was concerned, Evans was skeptical at first, Manie Sacks’s laudatory call notwithstanding. Singers were a dime a dozen, and what was a singer, anyway, without a band? The bands made news, the bands brought the crowds. And the bandleaders were gods. Glenn, Duke: God, just the thought of these brilliant, elegant, authoritative men gave Evans chills. In some sense, representing them made him feel he was taking on their qualities.

But a boy singer! This one might even be different from the rest — from what he had heard on records and the radio, Evans was willing to grant that. It was a pleasant voice, nicely expressive. Still, George Evans didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

“You’ve got to go see him, Georgie,” Sacks said. “This kid really does have something. Go to the Paramount and see what he does to those girls.”

Evans went, and saw. Nick Sevano, Sinatra’s Hoboken homeboy and soon-to-be-ex-gofer (one too many tantrums about starch in the shirts; life was too short — except that Sevano would spend the rest of his very long life trading, like so many others, on his acquaintance with the singer), met the publicist in the Paramount lobby and whisked him down the aisle in the middle of the 2:30 show. Evans, not easily impressed, gaped at what he saw.

Actually, the sound and smell were what hit him at first. The place was absolutely packed with hysterical teenaged girls, almost five thousand of them, fire laws be damned (the couple of hundred Paramount owner Bob Weitman had slipped to the Fireman’s Fund earned him a lot of extra money). They were jamming the seats, the aisles, the balcony — all but hanging from the rafters. And hanging raptly on the words to the song the starved-looking kid in the spotlight at center stage was singing —

Be careful, it’s my heart

and going nuts when he hit that last word:

It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my he-art….

The (by now very practiced) catch in his voice, the tousled spit-curl on his forehead (no Dorsey anymore to order him to comb it), the help-me look in his bright-blue eyes (always, pointedly, laser-focused on one girl or another in the audience) — it all set them off like dynamite. The air in the great auditorium was vibrating, both with ear-splitting screams (FRANKIEEE!!! FRANKIEEE!!!) and the heat and musk of female lust. Evans could smell perfumes, b.o., the faint acrid tang of urine (the girls would come for the first show at 9:15 a.m. and stay for show after show, determined never to relinquish a precious seat even if it meant soaking it), and something else. They were like a great herd of female beasts, he thought with wonderment, all in heat at once….

As Evans hovered close to the stage, open-mouthed (Sevano just behind him, grinning knowingly), a girl in an aisle seat stood and tossed a single rose, its long stem wrapped in protective paper, up to the singer. The flower hung for a second in the whirling beam of the spotlight — and then, with a graceful movement, Sinatra caught it, smiled at her, and closed his eyes as he sniffed the blossom, sending the whole theater into yet another paroxysm. The publicist’s ears picked out one sound above the din: a low moan, emanating from a lanky black-haired girl standing next to the rose-thrower. It was a sound he had heard before — only in very different, much more private, circumstances.

Then and there George Evans decided he would represent Frank Sinatra.

He had been in the business for ten years; he had represented Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallée at a time when such sappy crooners could capture the hearts of America’s females — and when hearts were all the only part of the female anatomy in play. Now the game had clearly advanced, and Sinatra was clearly the man responsible.

Evans knew at once he could take the game still further.

He stuck around for three more shows, taking careful note of what he saw and felt, his mind racing at the possibilities. Manie had been right. This was something the publicist had never seen the likes of before. It was a great whirlwind, and he was being offered carte blanche to step in and harness it. But how?

He noticed — because each audience, after all, is a different animal — that not every show was successfully hysterical. Sometimes there were odd lulls in the tumult; sometimes the crowd got in its own way (and the singer’s), just screaming, creating a massive wall of sound, preventing Sinatra from doing what he did best: singing. Pandemonium was all well and good if it served the purpose at hand — namely, making this boy a star like no other before him.

But Evans saw that Sinatra’s visual appeal, while unique, was limited. What got to the girls was that voice — specifically, the unique blend of that personality and that voice. Other singers were better to look at. Others had winning personalities and terrific voices. But no one, absolutely no one, got his personality into the voice like this kid. He sold a song, and told a song, like nobody else. Especially, of course, if the song was a ballad. He yearned in front of thousands of females, making every girl in the place want to mother him or screw him — Sinatra had each and every one of them in a dither about which. But he had to be heard.

Then George B. Evans had his first great idea. “The Voice That Has Thrilled Millions” — the creakiness, the sexlessness, of that goddamned slogan made him cringe every time he thought of it. He could do so much better. What was it about Frankie Sinatra that got those girls’ juices flowing?  Evans closed his eyes and thought about what set them off. He saw those blue eyes focusing on one girl, then another; and then he heard it: When, for just a half-second, Sinatra stopped in the middle of a word, that was when the frenzy crescendoed. That was it! It was simple, really; all great human truths are. Evans didn’t have to add a thing. All he had to do was subtract.

Frank was just… The Voice.

Simple. Instantly recognizable. You didn’t have to ask whose. Accept no substitutes. This was it, now and for all time.

He lit a Romeo y Julieta in honor of that one.

In the sweet cloud of blue smoke came the second idea. He would never admit to what inspired it. Like all Americans, he had listened with fascination to the Nazi broadcasts of Hitler whipping the German masses into a frenzy. The rallies were beautifully choreographed, the mass chanting swelled and fell precisely on cue. The dictator was never drowned out. Someone was behind this, Evans knew: someone very skillful.

George would have to be just as skillful in working his new client.

Evans had read how farmers would pay a pilot to go up and scatter certain chemicals on clouds to end a drought — seeding the clouds, they called it. Well, if clouds could be seeded, why not crowds? Rumor had it that Milt Rubin had handed out half-dollars in the Paramount lobby to girls who promised to make a racket during Sinatra’s shows. It was the right idea, Evans felt, but unscientific in approach. In later years he would offer to donate a thousand dollars (he subsequently raised it to five) to the favorite charity of anyone able to prove that “a kid was given a ticket, a pass, a gift, or a gratuity of any kind in any shape or manner at all to go in [to a Sinatra show] and screech.” But Evans then went on to admit to E. J. Kahn, Jr. that “certain things were done. It would be as wrong for me to divulge them as it would be for a doctor to discuss his work.”

It was a self-aggrandizing comparison, but George Evans was in the aggrandizing business, and he was head and shoulders above his competition. “George was a genius,” said Jerry Lewis, who, along with his partner Dean Martin, was represented by Evans in the late 40s. “He would audition girls for how loud they could scream! Then he would give each of them a five-dollar bill — no dirty money, just clean new bills; I learned that from him. The agreement was that they had to stay at least five shows. Then he spread them through the Paramount — seven sections. Evans would read the scores of the songs to see where the screaming should come in — the girls could only scream on the high, loud parts, never when it was low and sexy.”

The publicist would even take groups of girls to the basement to rehearse them, giving them precise cues when to yell “Oh, Frankie! Oh, Frankie!” — not just during the loud parts, but whenever Sinatra let his voice catch. Evans also coached the singer. Picking up on Sinatra’s intimate relationship with the microphone, Evans told him: Imagine that mike on its stand is a beautiful broad, he told his client. Caress it. Make love to it. Hold on to it for dear life.

This guy’s good, huh? said Sinatra to Sanicola and Sevano, who bobbed their heads eagerly.

The publicist even trained both the singer and his claques in the art of call and response. When Sinatra sang “She’s Funny That Way,” with the lyric “I’m not much to look at, nothin’ to see,” Evans coached one of the girls to yell “Oh, Frankie, yes, you are!” On “Embraceable You,” Evans told Frank to spread his arms beckoningly on the words “Come to papa, come to papa, do.” The girls would then scream, “Oh, Daddy!” After which, Frank would murmur into the mike, “Gee, that’s a lot of kids for one fellow.” Evans trained some of the girls to faint in the aisles, others to moan loudly in unison. He hired an ambulance to park outside the theater and issued the ushers bottles of ammonia “in case a patron feels like swooning.”

In the first two weeks of 1943, the hysteria at the Paramount built. At one show, 30 girls keeled over; only some of them had been prepped to do so. The crowds outside the theater were equally worked up. Times Square had become a 24-hour Sinatra-thon. Wartime swing shifts abetted the overnight, around-the-block ticket lines for the 8:45 a.m. shows. The girls pushed and shoved, endangering each other and everything in sight. “I saw fans run under the horses of mounted policemen,” recalled Sinatra’s assistant road manager Richie Lisella. “I saw them turn over a car.” Cordons of cops did their best to contain the hysteria. And George Evans did his best to fan it.

The publicist coined a whole new lingo, 40s-glib and gum-snappingly brash, to describe the phenomenon he was guiding. Winchell, Earl Wilson, and the other columnists could now refer to the singer as “Swoonatra,” and to his bobby-soxed idolators as “Sinatratics.” (Which was easier to read than to say.) The anguished pleasure they suffered in his presence was “Sinatrauma”; the specific physical reaction Dr. Evans had noted in one moaning female fan was, unsubtly enough, a “Sinatraism.” (“Sinatrasm” might have been a little too on the money.)

George Evans was brilliant at leveraging publicity. No outlet was too insignificant — although it helped, in the case of high-school newspaper editors, if you could get a couple dozen of them in a room together to interview the star. Evans worked overtime planting Sinatra items — some of them lightly factual, most heavily laced with fancy — in the gossip columns and the news. Evans told reporters: Over a thousand Sinatra fan clubs have sprung up in the U.S.A.! (Who was counting? A thousand was a nice round number.) You had, among many, many others, your Sighing Society of Sinatra Swooners, your Slaves of Sinatra, your Flatbush Girls Who Would Lay Down Their Lives for Frank Sinatra Fan Club. And let us not forget that glorious (and likely fictitious) gaggle of middle-aged aficionadas, The Frank Sinatra Fan and Mahjong Club.

Publicists have sown such corn since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, but this was a bolder variety, and the soil in which it took root was particularly fertile. There was a war on, and America was hungry for upbeat stories. And it’s always easier to make up good news than find it, and George Evans was delighted to oblige.

His greatest work of fiction was Sinatra’s first publicity bio, a text that would have done Parson Weems (George Washington’s early biographer and the inventor of the cherry-tree myth) proud. To establish greater solidarity with teenaged fans, Evans first chopped a couple of years off the singer’s age: Frank Sinatra had been born, it was now asserted, in 1917. He had been raised poor but proud in the slums of Hoboken, narrowly avoiding mayhem at the hands of vicious street gangs. He had triumphantly graduated, rather than dropped out from, A. J. Demarest High, where he had not only lettered in football, basketball, and track, but also sung in the glee club. The sports reporter’s chair he had so hungered for at The Jersey Observer was now his. And in a truly inspired invention, Evans transformed Dolly from a cussing midwife-abortionist-political fixer into a former Red Cross nurse in World War I — from Mammy Yokum to Catherine Barkley in a single swoop.

And that was only the beginning. In Evans-world, the present-day Frank was a model suburban husband and dad, mowing the lawn, washing the car, patiently teaching little Nancy chords on the family’s upright piano. To document all this Potemkin domesticity, the publicist dispatched photographers to the Sinatras’ new house, the cute Cape Cod at 220 Lawrence Avenue, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. It was an upward-aspiring middle-class quarter of similarly cute houses, all set rather closely together. The Sinatra family doctor lived right next door. And down the block and around the corner — just a hop, skip, and a jump away — lived the North Jersey crime boss Willie Moretti. Naturally the publicity material did not mention this last fact, which may or may not have been sheerest coincidence.

It was also a crowded street, now that Swoonatra had moved in. There were all those publicity photographers, for one thing; for another, there was now a more or less nonstop procession of teenaged girls tiptoeing up the driveway, hiding behind the bushes, swiping Frank’s undershorts from the clothesline, writing love notes in lipstick on the garage door, or casting discretion to the winds and simply pressing their noses against the glass. “I’d look out my bedroom window and there would be somebody’s face…,” Big Nancy recalled. “They’d sit out there on the lawn for hours. We tried asking them to go home, but they wouldn’t leave. It scared me, but finally I’d feel so sorry for them I’d send out doughnuts and something for them to drink.” As magnanimous as she was, it’s hard to imagine Mrs. S. sending out those doughnuts and drinks more than once or twice before putting her foot down. Publicity, she was quickly learning, cut two ways.

So did fame, though if Sinatra had any regrets, he hid them well. The threadbare private life glimpsed by twelve-year-old babysitter Ed Kessler in the Audubon Avenue apartment (a life in which, even then, Sinatra participated only sporadically) was now quite thoroughly a thing of the past. Private life for Frank Sinatra had simply winked out like a light, ceased to exist — or rather, he found what little privacy he could in his trysts, and in the wee hours with his pals. It was as though he had stepped out of his front door and into the basket of a hot-air balloon. As he ascended over the landscape of everyday reality, Mr. and Mrs. America got up early, went to work, punched a time clock, listened to the radio, worried about the bills. Far above, Frank Sinatra smiled amid the unimaginably sweet breezes of his new life.

It was a life that seemed somehow inevitable. He had done his share of hard scrabbling, and then some. “People call me an overnight success,” he said. “Don’t make me laugh.” But when real success did come, it came fast. In early January, when RCA Victor released “There Are Such Things,” one of the Dorsey-Sinatra recordings the bandleader had stockpiled in anticipation of the American Federation of Musicians strike (which had been in full swing since August), the record instantly went to number two on the Billboard chart. By the end of the month, it had risen to number one, knocking off Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” As a result, the Paramount held Sinatra over for another four-week run, a nearly unprecedented honor (only Rudy Vallée had accomplished it before). And on the strength of the Paramount run and the record sales, CBS, whose recording arm, Columbia, was about to sign the singer, named Sinatra the star of its flagship radio show, Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade.

The Hit Parade was based on a simple formula: Bean-counters somewhere would supposedly tabulate the week’s top-selling records, and the studio orchestra and singers (Sinatra’s female counterpart was the now-forgotten Joan Edwards) would perform the top dozen or so of them in reverse order, saving the biggest hit for last. Sandwiched in between were plenty of commercials for Lucky Strikes, with the brand’s mystical, mellifluous slogan (L.S.M.F.T. — “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”) and its catchphrase (“so round, so tender, so fully packed”): magic words that made you feel, if you happened to smoke the brand, part of an elect.

The show was hokey, and over Sinatra’s two tenures there (1943-44 and 1947-49), many of the songs were dogs (not even Sinatra could do much with “Red Roses For a Blue Lady”). But radio was everything then, and Sinatra’s selection as the star of Your Hit Parade was a direct weekly injection of his name into the American consciousness. Not everyone bought records. Certainly not everyone went to the Paramount Theater (although the cops in Times Square would have disagreed). But everyone listened to the radio.

And George Evans was succeeding beyond even his expectations — so much so that in early 1944 Billboard gave him an award for  “Most Effective Promotion of a Single Personality,” an occasion that inspired him to pronounce (a little indiscreetly) to the Chicago Tribune News Service, “Frankie is a product of crowd psychology…. Understand, it was the Sinatra influence that provided the initial impetus. But it was I, Evans, who saw the possibilities in organized and regimented moaning…. It’s a big snowball now, and Frankie’s riding to glory on it.”

I, Evans. The publicist may have been a popinjay, yet he was a very successful one, and there is no evidence that Sinatra resented his ego — as long as that ego was doing good things for him. And Evans was more than just a publicist: He was a father figure, the third in a series of such figures in Frank Sinatra’s life, after Tommy Dorsey and Manie Sacks. While Sinatra invariably found a way to pry away the intimacies that complicated his life, with the father-surrogates things were even more complex, and ultimately explosive. It was as if he had to kill the old man again and again. And each of the father-substitutes was — as Sinatra’s actual father of course was not — a considerable figure. Then again, to loom large in Sinatra’s life at this point, a man had to be.

George Evans’s genius went beyond mere publicity. He took a strong hand with his new client, the main issue being Sinatra’s marriage, which was increasingly troubled. There was no deep psychological underpinning to this: It was simply that the more famous Frank Sinatra got, the more women there were who wanted to go to bed with him, and it was hard not to oblige as many of them as possible. Covering up the evidence was rarely his first priority. In the quaint era when there was still such a thing as bad publicity, this was one of the worst kinds: In 1940s America, a man — and especially a public exemplar — was nothing if he was not a family man. And if George Evans had anything to do with it, Frank Sinatra would, by God, be a family man — whatever the reality was.

Evans undertook a three-pronged offensive. The first was positioning, or what might today be called spin: the pictures of Frank mowing the lawn and dandling Baby Nancy.

The second was active interdiction. With Sinatra, the women gathered like flies, came in over the transom and through the emergency exit doors. Whenever possible, Evans headed them off, but he couldn’t always be present to look out for his client’s best interests. So whenever news of the singer’s latest indiscretions reached him, the publicist started working the phones — to Sinatra, to the girl, to her folks in Oshkosh, if need be: anything to stamp out the brush fire. And there were a lot of brush fires.

Evans was earning his fat salary, and it was fine with Sinatra. He liked George, liked the fact that the older man was unafraid of him. He smiled when the publicist grabbed him by the elbow to steer him from trouble, smiled even when he stamped out another brush fire. There were always more fires to be lit.

The third prong of the offensive turned out, surprisingly, to be Nancy Sinatra herself. From the moment he met her, George Evans saw that she was a remarkable woman, direct and intelligent, with a quiet dignity and a real beauty behind a physically unconfident exterior. Her liquid brown eyes searched and questioned. And suffered. Evans immediately saw that Nancy was well on her way to becoming one of those Italian peasant ladies you saw sitting on apartment stoops — heavy, fiercely plain, all browns and blacks, coarse fabrics and unplucked hairs. As a married man himself, he understood how women battled with weight, and as Frank Sinatra’s publicist, he understood that Nancy was on the verge of giving in: There was simply too much competition.

For the longest time she had been grappling on her own with her position, and it was starting to wear on her. She made bargains with herself: She would lose the weight. (It wasn’t easy.) She would look the other way as long as he came home to her. (He didn’t come home very often.) What made it all so terribly difficult was that she still loved Frank, she was closer to him than to anyone else on earth: They were soul-mates — except that the part of his soul that that bitch Dolly owned would never be satisfied. And not only did Nancy love him, but (and this made her furious sometimes) she had stuck by him since the beginning, since the days when they’d lived on spaghetti and meatless tomato sauce because meat simply cost too much. Now that he was really beginning to make some money, why should she share any part of his success with another woman?

But in George Evans, Nancy Sinatra found an ally. He looked at her appreciatively, he saw her as a woman, not just the suffering wifey. In truth, a great part of Evans’s appreciation was professional: The woman had possibilities. Frank Sinatra had to be made to see those possibilities. Evans squinted at Nancy through his horn-rims, seeing the changes in his mind’s eye. And then he went to work.

He took her to Bonwit Teller, to shop for dresses — an unimaginable expense for a woman who had made her own clothes forever. He took her to Helena Rubinstein to have her hair done, and for a makeup consultation. He took her to a Dr. Pogash, a Park Avenue dentist, to have her teeth capped. And then there was the matter of her generous Barbato nose: Just a little thinning of the tip, and she would be perfection itself, he told her. Louie Mayer would be testing her for the screen.

She gave him a level look. She had lived with this nose for twenty-five years, she told him, and it had worked just fine for her so far.

You’re a beautiful woman, Nancy. Why not make the most of what you already have?

Was there a moment between them? He came to appreciate, more and more, the beauty that flowered under his ministrations. (Meanwhile, his own wife was sullen and resentful these days about the long hours he spent away from home.) And Nancy Barbato Sinatra longed — ached, really — to be looked at again that way. It had been such a long time. She melted a little when George called her beautiful, but at heart she was practical and decisive. As was he.

Then there came a day, in early April, when Frank looked at her with her new dress and her hair and her makeup and her teeth (and the five pounds she’d tortured herself to lose), and it was that look again. He took her into the city, to go dancing at El Morocco (Hank Sanicola, at a nearby table, shooed away the girls), and for a late supper at Le Pavillon, and they laughed together and looked in each other’s eyes just they way they used to down the shore, down at Long Branch. Later they drove back to Hasbrouck Heights, paid the babysitter, and a month later she was pregnant again.

Including the band’s girl singer, a blond, pug-nosed 22-year-old from North Dakota named Norma Deloris Egstrom, a/k/a Peggy Lee.

Interestingly, one of the first buyers of the new and improved Sinatra age was none less than E. J. Kahn, Jr., in “Phenomenon,” the three-part 1946 New Yorker profile — prepared with the aid of that magazine’s legendary fact-checking department — that was the basis for his 1947 book The Voice.

Or, as the announcer would intone: “Your Hit Parade survey checks the best sellers on sheet music and phonograph records, the songs most heard on the air and most played on the automatic coin machines, an accurate, authentic tabulation of America’s taste in popular music.”

© James Kaplan 2010 • Web design by Adrian Kinloch