Frank Sinatra: An Immigrant's Soul, a Nation's Voice
The Ryder June 12, 1998
Others better qualified have already told you why every pop radio station, singer and fan had cause, if not sense, to pause for a moment on May 15. All I can do is tell you why this baby boomer, no bobby soxer, spent her free time that day commiserating with others on the internet, watching black and white film clips on CNN, and nursing grief.
My age peers just don’t get it. Frank Sinatra had already peaked, fallen, risen, been, in short, a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king well before I was born, never mind bought my first Tiger Beat.
“Sinatra’s reactionary,” they’d point out. “A symbol of the worst in pre-feminist macho.” Oh, please, spare me cultural analysis by those whose grandmas spoke English.
The so-called ‘New Immigrants’ from Eastern and Southern Europe began entering this country around 1880. Ships brought Sinatra’s parents and my own. The flood stopped after our racial inferiority was canonized in the quota acts of 1924 and 1929.
These New Immigrants (not alone, or exclusively, but significantly) clustered in cities near Ellis Island: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark, Jersey City. The guys were Frank, Tony, Bruno, Stanley, Joe, Moishe, Abe. The women were often Maria, Sophia, Rosa. They worked in mines, factories, construction, garbage hauling. Sometimes the men boxed for money. Round-cheeked grandmas made bootleg liquor. They survived the Depression and fought, and won, World War II.
They had incredible stories. Another Frank, laughing and proud, tells me of his Italian grandmother breaking the arm of a sweatshop foreman. This boss used to march up and down the aisle, lifting women’s skirts, sure they couldn't resist because they were poor and foreign and if they made any quick move at the mechanized loom, they’d lose a finger or hand. That grandma had to reverse immigrate to hide out in her village for a while.
They spent hot summer nights on the fire escape, or went down to Coney Island and slept on the beach. Nobody ever closed her back door and only a traveling salesman would knock.
Everybody knew everybody else. If you talked long enough, you would find out that my uncle knew your cousin who arrested him, or saved his life in the war, or dated his niece.
They claimed that in the old country their aunt met Archduke Ferdinand. That in the old country all they had to eat were potatoes. That in the old country they had to kiss the landowner's hand. There was dark talk of whips, Cossacks, vendettas, frenzied escape.
And they just got sick of it one day, and with just the clothes on their back and a feather quilt, they up and left and arrived with nothing, and have been scrambling ever since.
They’d show ‘em. They’d be more American than the flag. But if you knew to look, you could hear the grateful, giddy greenhorn peeking through every Black jive “Cool, man,” you could see the jut in the jaw of the determined parvenu under that WASP tuxedo. You could hear the stifled laughter. “Ha, ha. We made it in spite of you.” But eventually they'd relax and you'd hear "Ach, yai," and "paison" and be fed pignoli cookies so delicious you wished you had an extra tongue.
At their best, like Sinatra, they didn't learn the white racism that didn't exist in their own countries. At their best, like Sinatra, they befriended black people and adopted and celebrated black artistic expression. In any case, their mere confusing presence, white but not quite, gave American racism a run for its money.
They shared everything but would take no charity. They had gargantuan capacity for work. Work was a necessary daily sacrament. We'd be limp, translucent at sunset after one street game. Grandpa would still be in the garden, bad heart and everything, sucking on his pipe, working till he dropped in place. Decade after decade, showing up, punching the clock, everybody at the plant their buddy.
Sinatra comes from a long line of apologies. Not just Italian; Sicilian. On the kind of ethnic gameboard I was born on, one quickly learned that Sicilian is the lowest Wop there is. It’s almost unbearably poignant that when he first arrived in America, Sinatra’s Sicilian father tried to increase social acceptance by calling himself Marty O’Brien. Admit it – your heart bleeds for such a greenhorn.
Sinatra had all of 47 days of high school. His talent purchased enough stature to be exploited by John F. Kennedy in a run for the presidency. But not enough to be kept around after the election was won. Bobby told his brother to end the relationship with the unsavory Sinatra. Sinatra, son of a culture that prizes loyalty above all, was ejected like bad rubbish from the White House he’d helped win.
The side of Sinatra Bobby Kennedy found unsuitable was waspishly referred to in obituaries. “A Hidden Dark Side,” one headline read. Heavens. Sinatra occasionally became angry. He occasionally threatened those who hurt his friends. He told his ex-wife Mia Farrow, in what sounds like self-parody, that if she wanted, he would break Woody Allen’s legs after Allen broke Farrow’s heart in the creepiest way imaginable.
Assessments of such behavior as a hidden dark side are rooted in WASP ideals, and have no purchase for people like me. Anger at injustice, fighting wrong, are virtues in the value system taught me. Some people use fists more readily than words or courts. I grew up among peasants, physically strong people. They had fists. They had no English, no entrée to the wider culture. When you take away such people’s immediate outrage, when you deny them their bodies, you castrate them. Rather, it was the values promoted in the wider culture which were crimes to us: be cold., abandon friends, do not express.
Yes, Sinatra palled around with mobsters. He explained that mobsters were part of the saloon scene he worked in; he said, “If my name didn’t end with a vowel, I wouldn’t have had all this trouble.”
Mario Puzo, in talking about the appeal of "The Godfather," said that Vito Corleone offered disempowered people a resource they could turn to if they got screwed. Any assessment of the Mafia would have to factor in the racism, marginalization, and desperation the New Immigrants faced. As long as the system excludes you, you need another system. As a friend of mine from Newark once said, "When the WASPs do it it's called ‘free enterprise;’ when we do it, it's called ‘organized crime.’”
Sinatra’s work passionately performs the New Immigrants’ remembered bruises. The one movie role he crawled on his belly to get was not that of a macho, swaggering winner. Sinatra pulled strings and took less than scale to play Maggio, in “From Here to Eternity.” Maggio is a quintessential New Immigrant. His horizontal relations are good -- he’s a loyal buddy to his peers. But he chafes at, rebels against, oppressive authority. Skinny private Maggio takes on sadistic, powerful Sergeant Judson. Judson, after insulting Maggio’s sister, and calling Maggio a “Little Wop,” beats Maggio to death.
Young Sinatra supported candidates to the left of the mainstream in the Democratic Party. He won a special Academy Award for “The House I Live In,” advocating racial and religious tolerance. He demanded that African American audience members and performers at his concerts receive equal treatment. He raised money for civil rights.
But Sinatra, is, most importantly, a singer, and it is in this opus that I readily see the subversive Sinatra so invisible to my age, but delightful to my ethnic, peers. I come from New Jersey, a state you mock. It’s automatic, you don’t have to question the racism and classism behind mocking blue color Polaks and Wops jammed into culture-free urbs. I measure success by how often I am told: "Are you from Europe? What! New Jersey! You don't sound like you are from New Jersey.” My lack of a New Jersey accent is not accidental.
Sinatra was more subversive than Kurt Cobain or Marilyn Manson. Mobbing the field and destroying the net is a gesture limited in its appeal to our lizard brains; it leaves us sensorily starved and can’t engage as true subversion does. It is breathtaking to watch a genius risk everything in wresting the racket from reigning stars and playing to win. Sinatra won so unquestionably he changed the game forever.
Sinatra played by the rules that served him. He was immaculate. He kept his hair, the stigmata of those hairy New Immigrants, short and neat. He wore, not just the very best clothing, but the very best clothing for the most exclusive venues: tuxedos, always a hat.
And then he got up on stage and presented America with a male so new shocked girls rioted to be near him. He sang songs written for women. He surrendered his voice, face and body to the humiliations and hopes of love with an emotional presence, intensity, intelligence and irony, that was unfamiliar to his audiences. And Sinatra sang in a New Jersey accent. Not just the a’s and o’s, but the architecture, the energy, the temperature, the values. When Sinatra introduces that ethos into a song, it is no longer laughable, marginalized. It is canonized.
He could do it, doing it meaning, for Sinatra, changing the face of American popular music forever, thanks to the unapproachable virtuosity he acquired though his own gargantuan capacity for work. “This is how you become a singer,” he said. “You eat songs. You breathe songs. You sleep songs. Then maybe you begin to get something.” He could do it because he endured it all, being put down by chance, fashion, love, bad health, and he came back for more, taking low paying jobs, recording bad songs like “Mamma will bark.” He could do it because, while he didn’t always follow all the rules, he made bonds of passion, he lead from his heart.
In Sinatra’s opus I hear the appetite for life, in its grittiest, least fancy forms, for camaraderie, for let's get the gang together and never sit down as long as the music is playing, that is the soul of a Polish wedding. I hear the kind of vitality that, yes, might result in the occasional brawl, the occasional politically incorrect remark. What do you want? You won’t get from Sinatra the American Puritanism that sometimes manifests as a witch trial, sometimes as political correctness. You will get life.
I hear the kind of determined appetite for life that I used to see in red nosed alcoholic uncles four times older than I who would, truly, never sit down as long as music was playing. The dark was allowed in that energy. The darkness came from what these people had seen. Striking loved ones beaten to death by company thugs. Hunger that looked like it was going to win. The frustration of not speaking the language of anyone in power. I hear those hard things in Sinatra, maybe just in a phrasing, maybe just in the way he caresses one word, and I get shivers. In Sinatra's “Duets” album, he sang, for the umpteenth time, "One for my baby and one more for the road" As ancient as he was, as many times as he had sung this song, this treatment of it was absolutely essential. He wrung his exposed, decayed voice of every drop of pathos and meaning. He worked that garden until he dropped in place.
This is American music, all right, but it’s American music the way Sinatra made it. There’s no mint julep here. No twang. There is a saloon in Hoboken.
Sinatra has been called the first anti-hero. Maybe so, but there’s a difference between Sinatra and some others since who just pulled down the net. In Sinatra’s music, you get irony, but it’s not a detached irony. Sinatra laughed, first, at his own self-deluding folly. “I’m a fool to want you,” he confessed. “Each time I find myself flat on my face,” he admitted. And, “Then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid.” Self mocking didn’t mean that nothing mattered. Love mattered. Connection mattered. Maybe he had blown it, yeah, but his blowing it didn’t mean it didn’t matter. It mattered all the more.
“But,” you protest,” “He sang, ‘I’ve got the world on a string,’ ‘Ring a ding ding,’ ‘I did it my way.’” Doesn’t that sound like a bully padrone?”
Maybe to some. In Sinatra’s swagger I don’t hear, “I’m lording it over you,” I hear, “I’m jutting my chin out in spite of everything, and I’m going to give us all a good time.’” I hear a tightrope moment of joy, joy won by the man’s own determination. In the accent, and the ethos, I hear a triumph I can take from, participate in, at least vicariously.
People say that we feel sad when someone else dies because it is a reminder of our own mortality. I don't feel very mortal this morning. Time feels to me like something I have so much of I can squander it typing out impassioned essays that will earn me no money and may never get published.
But I know that world, that flavor, those values, those memories, even those accents of the New Immigrants are passing.
Someone doing accent research says that New Yorkese, formerly so Yiddish and Irish, is becoming more Puerto Rican and Third World as immigrant populations shift. As silt in a river passes, the ethos changes, moves downstream, becomes not the color of the river but the bed for a planted field.
I often ponder, if I ever have kids, how could I bring home to them what it was like growing up with a mother who was born in a river because my grandmother was taking a break from a hot session of sugar beet harvesting?
Here's one way to communicate that ethos: by listening to "That's Life," or "My Way," or "A Very Good Year.”