Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Finally Meeting Frankie |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Finally Meeting Frankie

IT WASN’T the BBC’s fault that the forthcoming, modest little television documentary blushingly entitled ‘Clive James Finally Meets Frank Sinatra’ has somehow managed to get itself hyped out of its head. The Beeb’s handout merely mentioned that the show contained an exclusive interview with Frank Sinatra. That was enough for the tabloids to run breathless stories saying that the show was an exclusive interview with Frank Sinatra. This was very flattering and I am duly grateful, but the facts are a bit less exciting. Actually the interview lasts for about four minutes. Sinatra was in no danger of being asked a hard question and I was in no danger of being hustled roughly from the room by his overbearing bodyguards.

For one thing, he didn’t have any bodyguards. He had arrived in Sanctuary Cove with no accompanying personnel except his musical director, his lawyers, his secretaries and a rather marvellous man who checks the details in the contract. The red carpet, for example, has to go all the way from the front door of Mr Sinatra’s dressing-room to the stage, and be fixed to the floor by fasteners at no less than certain intervals. If the carpet, as it did in this case, runs along the ground instead of along the floor, it must be fastened to the ground. On the afternoon of the Sinatra concert I watched the carpet being laid and came to terms with the fact that in order to rate a red carpet fastened to the floor or ground at no less than a certain interval, it is not enough merely to appear on television. It is necessary to sing.

Sanctuary Cove is a luxury resort just north of Surfers’ Paradise on the southern Queensland coast. The modest little documentary is really about Sanctuary Cove’s opening week, of which the Sinatra concert was merely the — wildly successful, incidentally — culmination. The whole week was shyly entitled ‘The Ultimate Event’ by the man who organised it, Michael Gore. The Australian Press regularly vilifies Michael Gore as a barbarian who persuaded the ex-premier of Queensland, the notorious Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to rewrite the laws of Queensland so that Sanctuary Cove could be supplied with what amounted to a private road network paid for by the state. As subtle as a falling girder, Michael Gore’s immodest personality looms large in the modest documentary. He has his weak points, but deviousness isn’t one of them. Hana Mandlikova is also present, doing her best to correct my backhand. She is Sanctuary Cove’s resident touring professional, meaning that she will be there when she isn’t playing tennis. Arnold Palmer explains why he is still trying to get the ball in the hole. It wasn’t just because he has been asked to design Sanctuary Cove’s next golf course. It was also a matter of having been born to perform. Thus a powerful hint is given as to what compels Frank Sinatra to go on singing. All concerned in the documentary spend a lot of time assuring me, its nominal frontman, that Frank Sinatra will indeed actually turn up as promised.

On this point the tension is not entirely manufactured, because at the time it was hard to see any reason why Frank Sinatra should ever want to set foot in Australia again. He had last been there in 1974, when he had been asked many difficult questions. His response had been not to answer them. The way he phrased his refusal was, with some reason, considered rude by the Press, whose female members he called hookers. They all rushed off to look the word up in the office dictionary, after which, in the useful Australian expression, it was on for young and old. The concerts were cancelled. The unions boycotted the tour so thoroughly that Sinatra couldn’t even take off to go home. He had to negotiate to get out. When he finally reached escape velocity he swore never to return.

Watching all this from 12,000 miles away in London, I thought he had a point. He was there to sing, not to be interviewed about his alleged Mafia connections, which I suspected were rather like my Mafia connections. If I imagined myself born in Hoboken instead of Kogarah, and blessed with a beguiling voice instead of a swamp-dwelling croak, it wasn’t hard to see how, if a homicidal gangster threw his arm around my shoulders and told the world I was his long lost friend, I might smile in agreement. Sinatra later made a film about Joe E. Lewis, the Chicago comedian who tried to stop working in one nightclub and start working in another. The hoodlums disapproved of the switch and indicated their displeasure by cutting his vocal cords. Sinatra played the part with fervour but it was nothing compared to the fervour with which punishment might have been handed out to him if he hadn’t been fast on his feet. Yet with all that hanging over him, he had managed to give the English language its most pure voice. He sang things the way they ought to be said. In the Fifties, wearing out two copies of ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, I thought that Frank Sinatra meant democracy. He was it.

Half a lifetime later I still felt the same, and when asked to host Sinatra’s return concert I didn’t hesitate. I would have wanted to meet him even if he had done nothing with his life except act. Sinatra has been in some terrible movies. According to Kitty Kelly’s biography of Sinatra he behaved very badly on the set of Von Ryan’s Express, but surely the worst thing he did was to sign the contract in the first place. His carelessness about choosing film roles was always close to outright cynicism, but the reason for being annoyed with him about this was that he has always been the best naturalistic actor in Hollywood. An amateur who could rarely be persuaded to rehearse, he made the professionals look histrionic. It was the way he said things. He could pick out the rhythm of a speech so that it sounded as if he had just made it up, except that no improvisation could ever be so clear cut.

In The Manchurian Candidate, one of the really good films of his career, Sinatra is content to deliver the inspired lines of George Axelrod’s intricate script as if they were ordinary speech. Any other actor would have tried to impose himself. By a historical irony, another of Sinatra’s films, Suddenly, has also been out of circulation for some time, and for the same reason — because it was about the assassination of a president. In Suddenly, Sinatra is even better than he was as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, but surely he was good enough in that to make the question of how he got the role at least marginal, if not irrelevant. There are those who are fascinated simply by the way in which Sinatra played Maggio. I myself have always been firmly in this category.

If Sinatra had never sung a note he would have been a revolutionary screen actor, but he would never have been that kind of actor if he couldn’t sing. He speaks so well because of his sensitivity to rhythm — not just the rhythm of the music, but the rhythm of the words. Sinatra is, or at any rate should be, the favourite singer of anyone who writes anything, because he gets into the song through the lyric. The main reason why he sings so few recently written songs, no matter how big a hit he might have if he did, is that he doesn’t think the words are good enough.

The previous fact is among those revealed in the exclusive interview, which happened just before I went on stage to host the concert. Sinatra needed to be interviewed no more than he needed a hole in the head. (Of holes in the head he probably has enough already, because according to all reports he has a hair transplant which, like the red carpet, is held down by fasteners at no more than a certain interval.) He granted a few minutes of his time because I was part of the Sanctuary Cove decor and he surmised, correctly, that I wasn’t going to ask him about Joe Bananas or why he had called the female members of the Australian Press corps a dirty word.

Within these terms of reference, as the negotiators say, I found the man I expected to find. He is interested in talking about his work. He lives for it, and understands it profoundly. He is a living demonstration of the deep, awkward, unpublishable secret of all artists — that they are motivated mainly by love of what they do. Their secret is that there is no secret.

Sinatra, however undisciplined his private life has sometimes been, is no exception to this rule. Even at the age of seventy-two, essentially he lives in order to work. Those who work in order to live — a category which necessarily includes most journalists — will always have trouble understanding that. It makes a dull story. Talking about Mafia connections is so much more exciting.

Sinatra arrived in Sanctuary Cove by private jet half an hour before the concert started and he had flown out again before the applause died. If he had stayed an extra day to enjoy the place, the Press, with the best will in the world, would have made his life impossible. The Press had the best will in the world because he knew them better than they knew him. He invited them to join him in a group photograph. The result was a stampede. Would-be hardbitten Australian journalists elbowed each other out of the way. Photographers took the shot and then begged journalists to take over their cameras so they could get into the picture too. It was an educational display of the sheer force of fame.

But the man who generates that kind of power can give it direction only to a certain extent. More often it will work against him, and all he can do is hide. At home in the US, Sinatra has his own Sanctuary Cove in Palm Springs. There he sits, walled off in his compound, unreachable by the world, with which he could stay in touch only at the minimum price of having his hand shaken until it bled.

Nobody who buys land at Sanctuary Cove will ever achieve that degree of isolation, because the security men will insist on calling him by his first name. For the brief part — about 90 per cent — of the time when this modest documentary isn’t concerned with exclusively interviewing Frank Sinatra, I think it captures something of the Australian spirit. Australians are hard people to overawe, and perhaps that’s why Sinatra came back — because he thought they were worth trying to impress. The $1,000,000 fee was just cab fare.

Observer Magazine, 28 August, 1988

[ See the programme HERE. ]