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Sinatra's Century

One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World


David Lehman (View Bio)
Hardcover: HarperCollins, 2015.

Sinatra's Century

Sinatra’s Century is a collection of one hundred short reflections on the man, his music, and his larger-than-life story, by a lifetime fan who also happens to be one of the poetry world’s most prominent voices. David Lehman uses each of these short pieces to look back on a single facet of the entertainer’s story, from his childhood in Hoboken, to his emergence as “The Voice” in the 1940s, to the wild professional (and romantic) fluctuations that followed. Lehman—winner of a 2010 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his book on twentieth-century American song, A Fine Romance—offers new insights and revisits familiar stories: Sinatra’s dramatic love affairs with some of the most beautiful stars in Hollywood, including Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Ava Gardner; his fall from grace in the late 1940s and resurrection during the “Capitol Years” of the 1950s; his bonds with the rest of the Rat Pack; and his long tenure as the Chairman of the Board, viewed as the eminence grise of popular music inspiring generations of artists, from Bobby Darin to Bob Dylan.

Brimming with Lehman’s own lifelong affection for Sinatra, the book includes lists of unforgettable performances; engaging insight on what made Sinatra the model of American machismo—and the epitome of romance; and clear-eyed assessments of the foibles that impacted his life and work. Warm and enlightening, Sinatra’s Century is full-throated appreciation of Sinatra for every fan.

In celebration of Frank Sinatra's one-hundredth birthday, December 12, 2015, David Lehman has written a charming and irresistibly readable book about the life and times of the greatest entertainer in American history.

"I went back and forth a few times about David Lehman’s new book. Does the world really need another biography of Frank Sinatra? There are several long ones, and a couple of excellent short ones, too, by John Lahr and Pete Hamill. So what does Lehman offer to make Sinatra’s Century worthwhile? In the end, I come down strongly in its favor.... This is a compact-yet-complete portrait of a complicated guy who lived a long and active life; a guy whom Lehman calls ‘the most interesting man in the world.' Lehman is a poet…so a poetic sensibility dominates, and a poet's eye (or ear) guides. The founder and editor of The Best American Poetry series, the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and a core faculty member of the graduate writing program at the New School, Lehman alludes to numerous poets here…. It's not just Sinatra's life Lehman wants us to understand, it's his influence on others, and especially his meaning to other poets and poetic souls…. At times its tone is impressionistic: some chapters are only a sentence or two in length—you can finish reading in an afternoon and still have time to listen to several of the songs described within.… The brevity of the chapters scattered throughout adds pungency and contributes to a poetic feel…. His accomplishment is in not just telling Sinatra's story, but in describing the man's effect on all of us, then and now. And one of the most valuable uses of the book might be as a road map, especially to the recordings…. The casual Sinatra fan will love it. Young people who know very little about Sinatra will likely love it, too, and learn from it. People of all ages will relate Sinatra's story to those of the prevailing pop stars of their day…. Sinatra's Century chronicles the life of the poet Frank Sinatra, told by a poet, with poetic trappings. Like good poetry, it rewards repeated readings—and prompts us elsewhere. In the end, Lehman's book may be most valuable in leading his readers to the songs…. The music is mostly why he mattered. And matters still.”" — Tom Toce, Los Angeles Review of Books  (Read the full review)

"Engaging, playful, deeply personal, and elegantly concise." — Geoffrey O'Brien, The New York Review of Books

"This [is a] delightful and incisive book by David Lehman. Lehman is a poet, critic, and editor, known for his book on the New York School of poets and Signs of the Times, a hard-hitting attack on deconstruction as a peculiarly toxic form of literary discourse. But who would have predicted this tribute to a singer with whom Lehman has had a lifetime love affair? The subtitle, with its crisp pun on ‘notes,’ takes the singer from his birth in Hoboken in 1915 to his death in Los Angeles in 1998. The notes vary in length from one to four or five pages, but are always focused on some aspect of his career…. The notes are pithily, aggressively written, as if to live up to the feisty voice of Lehman's hero, The Voice. He brings out vividly the style of a ‘generous, dictatorial, sometimes crude powerful man unafraid to use his power,’ which was what the skinny 130-pounder turned into. More than once, Lehman's sentences consist of direct quotations from a Sinatra song.… As always, in talking about a Sinatra recording, Lehman pays attention to minute but significant pleasures the singer brings out…. We don't need yet another biography of Sinatra, and Lehman has been wise not to try to get too much fact in that can already be sampled elsewhere. His relatively brief book is more like Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters (1998) but goes further and deeper than Hamill did into what makes Sinatra's treatment of a song so memorable, inimitable." — William H. Pritchard, The Weekly Standard

"It's a great year for Sinatra fans…. There have been some interesting music releases... There have also been some substantial additions to the ever-growing shelf of books about Sinatra. I would particularly recommend Sinatra’s Century, a wonderful new book by the poet, editor, and essayist David Lehman. It was Lehman's delightful idea to salute Sinatra’s 100th birthday by writing a book with 100 short pieces about the singer…. The book is at once short, fun to dip in and out of, full of quirky yet thoughtful lists of best albums and songs, with a poet's appreciation of Sinatra's craft." — Ken Tucker, Yahoo TV

"Many readers thought the last word on Frank Sinatra went to tell-all biographer Kitty Kelley, who gave us His Way in 1986. But now, poet (and Sinatra fan) David Lehman gives us a more nuanced study—Sinatra’s Century, subtitled One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World. Bookstores will display Lehman's richly illustrated work in the biography section. But actually, it's a collection of musings about Sinatra's life. Here, in its entirety, is Note No. 1: 'At Zito's Bakery on Bleecker Street, a Greenwich Village landmark for eighty years before it closed its doors in 2004, customers saw two framed photographs on the wall behind the counter. One was a picture of the pope. The other was a picture of Frank Sinatra.' After that striking start, the book hits all the highlights—and dim days—of Sinatra's career, starting with his days as a big-band singer who blossomed into an idol for teenage girls in the Word War II years. Lehman quotes jazz critic Gene Lees as noting that in the wartime years, with so many beaus far away in uniform, Sinatra 'said for the boys what they wanted to say. He said to the girls what they wanted to hear.'... Although Lehman takes note of Sinatra's many failings as a human, he credits Sinatra's special skills as an artist, especially in his handling of lyrics.... Lehman sprinkles anecdotal gems throughout the book. Some samples: • 'Saddam Hussein may have been the world’s most ardent admirer of ‘Strangers in the Night.’ In his palace days, Saddam played the song over and over.' • 'Graffiti on posters in New York subway stations, circa 1966-67: TO BE IS TO DO.—NIETZSCHE / TO DO IS TO BE.—SARTRE / DOO BEE DOO BEE DOO.—SINATRA' • 'In the Philippines, "My Way” seems to be the populace's karaoke song of choice, but you'd be a fool to sing it, because if you don't do it justice, you might pay for the failure with your life. There is a subcategory of Filipino crime dubbed the ‘ "My Way" Killings.’ In 2010, the New York Times reported that the song had precipitated the deaths of at least six persons in karaoke bars in the past decade." But readers beware. Just as you’re rolling along, Lehman will drop another song title into his text. And if you're of a certain generation, your attention will stray from the text toward lyrics you still remember: Those fingers in my hair / That sly come-hither stare / That strips my conscience bare / It's witchcraft. Even so, let this book cast its spell." — Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Sinatra would be 100 years old this Dec. 12 had he not, in his own pet locution, ‘gone to the mountains’ at 82 on May 14, 1998. Timed to the centenary, two volumes have just been added to the buckling library shelves. One is ‘Sinatra’s Century,’ poet David Lehman’s slim meditation on the singer in 100 epigrammatic pensées. The other is ‘Sinatra: The Chairman,’ the second volume of James Kaplan’s gargantuan biography (following ‘Frank: The Voice,’ from 2010), lumbering in at 883 pages of text, not counting endnotes and index. That any popular entertainer could inspire such different biographical treatments—much less nearly 1,700 pages of a two-part study published over five years—confirms Sinatra’s death grip on the American imagination. 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.... 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…. Mr. Lehman’s book is an artful miniature portrait." — Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal

"His 100 glowing and gleaming fragments on Sinatra’s life and meaning are filled with wildly entertaining quotation, anecdote and insightful critical judgment.... [Lehman is] a gifted critic." — Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

"Lehman, a poet, takes a pointillist approach, offering 100 takes on the singer, ranging in length from a couple of lines to a few pages. A contrarian baby-boomer lifelong Sinatra devotee, Lehman bookends the volume with two lovely elegiac poems. Some of the observations are familiar, but the best make fresh comparisons and connections…. And Lehman is strong on the way Sinatra’s music continues to wend its way through the culture." — Ben Yagoda, The New York Times Book Review

"He will hold your interest with his smart and passionate views. The book is the literary equivalent of a late-night session among Sinatra devotees sharing their favorite recordings over drinks, calling attention to the finer nuances of beloved tracks. Even an old Sinatra fan like me learned new things from Lehman." — Ted Gioia, Bookforum

"David Lehman’s Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World is a much shorter but more intimate portrait [than James Kaplan's Sinatra: The Chairman]. 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, The Washington Post

"These are very short notes, each with its own theme. A typical note is 3-4 pages long and can be about Sinatra’s birth, his big band years, Ava gardner, Rat Pack, Bing Crosby, Kennedy, Frank Sinatra’s death, movie career, Marilyn Monroe, mafia connections, saloon songs, David Lehman’s opinions, or anything else. The topics cover almost anything you may want to learn about Frank Sinatra, and are shortly kept with the most important parts. The notes also include many quotes of Frank Sinatra or people who knew Frank Sinatra. For the most part, these quotes are very interesting and sometimes quite funny.... The book is a good read. Sinatra’s life is distributed to 100 chapters quite fairly, so you get a taste of everything. And most importantly, you don’t get a chance to get bored thanks to the dynamic structure of the content. Different content at every chapter and the shortness of the chapters keeps you fresh and your interest high; and you don’t get tired while reading since every line doesn’t have a factual information that you have to keep in mind. A ‘personal’ book on Frank Sinatra is a bald move. The trend among Sinatra books is that if you are from the Sinatra family, you write a memoir, and if you are not, you write a well structured, informative biography. Sinatra’s Century is a combination of both. It gives you biographical information about Frank Sinatra, but with a personal touch and feeling. When a poet with a good vocabulary explains Frank Sinatra, the result is highly satisfactory. All in all, Sinatra’s Century by David Lehman is a great book for anyone who would want to learn about Frank Sinatra’s life and music. The book does not clinically investigate every bit of Frank Sinatra’s life, but connects you to the legendary singer and enriches your image of Francis Albert Sinatra instead. The book clearly shows the many different sides of the complex man, from weakest to strongest, and presents you a man, with his rights and wrongs." — Ozgun Akalin, TheFrankSinatra.com

"Well-written and unfailingly pleasing to read." — Terry Teachout, Commentary

"In this set of affectionate and vibrant fan's notes, poet and critic Lehman celebrates Ol’ Blue Eyes's 100th birthday (December 12) with 100 impressionistic reflections on the singer's successes and shortcomings. He includes mentions of Sinatra's tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner and his relationships with Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. Lehman colorfully points out that Sinatra remains a part of the American cultural scene, with his songs playing in commercials, as background music in restaurants, and in opening and closing credits of movies and television shows such as 'Wall Street' and 'The Sopranos.' He also as a signature brand of bourbon named after him. Sinatra stays in the public eye, Lehman observes, not only because of his work as a movie actor and a singer but also because of his nonconformity and his fondness for being a maverick. Sinatra's vocal range and phrasing were so pure and powerful that he had teenage girls swooning from the moment he stepped on the stage. Lehman describes Sinatra's friendly rivalry with Bing Crosby, his lifelong friendship with Dean Martin despite their widely disparate personalities (Martin liked to get up early, Sinatra partied late into the night), his perfectionism, and his famous clashes with gossip columnist Rona Barrett. In the end, Lehman's lively reflections wonderfully celebrate Sinatra’s enduring impact on his own life and on American culture." — Publishers Weekly

"This book offers 100 brief meditations on Sinatra and his music. Lots of fans out there could write 100 mash notes, but what makes this book so special is that the fan in question is distinguished poet Lehman, editor of the Best American Poetry series and The Oxford Book of American Poetry. So expect elegant writing and creative insight along with the outpouring of affection." — Library Journal

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