FEBRUARY 19, 2016
Copyright 2016 FRANCIS DIMENNO

“The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.”–Edward VIII


Count Justin Victor looked around at what was a nearly full house at the Seven Stars saloon, with excited loafers congregated around a newly-installed but rickety pool table immediately opposite the bar, and in a loud voice made his opinions known regarding today’s youth.

“Billiards! Boh! Nowadays the Chicago outfit trying to take over from the Black Hand, jabbering Italians shooting up the town and there’s bloodshed in the streets. You ever notice the complacent look on their faces as they jaw-jaw in their greasy tongue? You ask me, they all ought to all be hung, 

“And what do the true he-men do for fun and profit, here in Blowtown? Why, this rotten gang right here is wasting their time on a foolish game. Is that table even level? And where did the chip in the cue ball come from? And how is it them pool cues are already warped? The whole set-up reeks of second-hand goods. It’s just yet another new-fangled contrivance brought in to suit the younger crowd, who can never be quiet and never stay still. What’s next–are we going to install a bowling alley? If so, let me know. I could use a day job–as pin boy.

“I fear for the future when I see the young people of this new century. They are lazy half-hearted blabbermouths who are as ignorant as the day is long. Afraid to work. Afraid to even eat. All this fuss about tainted meat. Fooey. It was good enough for grandpa, and it’s good enough for me. What about the tainty-taint meat? You heard of the tainty-taint meat? Taint mine, and taint yours. 

“I say that you can always tell a youngster, but you can’t tell him much. Plucking on those banjos and mandolins and blowing on those gawdawful cornets. They say you can listen to such music on phonograph records, too, instead of wax cylinders. I say phooey on all of it. Give me the concert by the bandstand any time. Not that I have time for amusements such as that. And grand opera is for stuffed shirts, and fat gals with solid gold lorgnettes. 

“Young folk today are spoiled rotten. They burst into great blubbery tears whenever they’re thwarted. We were of a hardier breed. We would wake up in the mornings shivering to the spectacle of a freezing room and clean ourselves up from a bowl of water where you had to break off all the surface ice before commencing to wash your face. If you wanted to take a shit, there was a handy outhouse and you would trudge through the snow to get to it, so if’n you were smart you would either use a chamber pot or learn to hold it in. Lawd! These young people today, with their indoor plumbing and their infernal wristwatches–they think they hung the moon. They think with their emotions, not their heads, and they lead with their tempers. Look at the sons of the rich swells, uptown. They know nothing of horses but prefer instead to fiddle-faddle about in their brand new steam-driven automobiles. It’s a disgrace! Furthermore, most of them are stuck-up slick-faced brats as refuse to grow any kind of facial hair, and they sport long manes and curls instead of soap-locks, and they wear sissified stiff collers made of celluloid like a bunch of she-males. In my day, a man who couldn’t raise a mustache of a set of sideburns was hardly what you’d call a man at all. Back then, there was a name for such folk, but it would do no good to repeat it here. Next thing you know, these so-called men will be going all in for face paint, and dousing themselves with perfumey water.Hell! In the olden days we never so much as took a bath from Halloween to Arbor Day!

“Bah! To make matters worse, I hardly know what to make of the young folk in Blowtown any more. They don’t go in for athletic clubs or set up shop as fire-fighters no more, like they did back in my day. They got me dum-foozled is what. Snuffing them asthma powders and jabbing needles in their arms. Playing crazy. Acting oh-so ironic when ye ask them a direct question. They wouldn’t put up with such behavior out west, oh no siree. They would shoot such vagabonds on sight. With actual firearms. Even the g’hals get into the act, what with their ether frolicks and their chloral habits. What is this world coming to? Skunk wagons befouling the air. Steam radiators! What ever happened to the good old pot-bellied stove?   

“Children today are soft. That’s all. They play with scooters, and hoops, and cap guns. In my day, too much book-learnin’ was known to ruin your shootin’ eye, and any man who couldn’t shoot was no man at all. We didn’t have telephones, or ice cream, or fancy cocktails. We was too busy blowing the heads off’n bluebirds and squirrels. Kids today are dominated by their mothers. Weak-hearted women they are, who won’t let a real boy get involved in the rough-and-tumble which is his surest training ground. Oh, no–nowadays, you mustn’t even raise your voice to your bairn, let alone spank him, or else you might frighten the little critter clean out of his growth. But I say that it never hurts a little man to get his britches dusted every now and again, even if he ain’t done nothin’–nothin’ you know about, anyway. ‘Spare the rod and spoll the child.’ Truer words were never spoken, and, of course, it is just that much better if the boy had to go out with his jack-knife and cut his own switch. Haww…. That’ll learn him! ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’ Whatever happened to that fine old saying? As my old man used to say, ‘When the big boats get in the water, the little boats stay out’. Children were supposed to be quiet and respectful around adults–not have their every whim catered to, like they do nowadays. 

“No, I see nothing good coming of these developments–nothing good at all.”






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By James Kaplan. Hardcover. Doubleday. 992 pages.

For the first time in over a year I have foregone sleep to finish reading a book – namely, Kaplan’s brand new three-pound Sinatra biography, spanning the years 1954 to 1998. (The compelling first half, covering the years up to 1954, is called Frank: The Voice, and came out in 2010.)

Here is where most amateur reviewers might insert some anecdote of how deeply touched they were by the Old Man’s songs. About the first song of His they ever heard, maybe, and how old they were. They might even gush over the fact that the man was known as “The Entertainer of the Century,” and blather on about what a towering figure he was, and how meaningful and important his career was.

Here’s a secret. I don’t admire the man’s music. I never did. It has always mostly left me cold. Maybe it’s a generational thing; maybe not. Anyway, I am not hypnotized by, nor do I have any sentimental attachment to “The Voice.” I do not revere “The Chairman,” whose career trajectory has always struck me as a story of ruthless ambition yoked to thuggish behavior. So why did I bother to read both the first, and this, the second half of his biography?

I read it voraciously, and with great enjoyment, because in the center of it all is a fascinating exploration of the territory comprising the crossroads of the mob, American politics, and popular entertainment; particularly in the Kennedy portions of the book. Kaplan doesn’t shy away from the worst of it – he mentions, albeit in passing, an incident at the Cal-Neva lodge which occurred about a week before Marilyn Monroe’s death, in which a drugged-up Marilyn was being ridden like a horse by Sam Giancana –while Frankie snapped photos. The author even has the balls to twit acclaimed Johnson biographer Robert Caro for never once mentioning an allegedly crucial fact – or conjecture – regarding Johnson and Kennedy – namely, that Kennedy picked Johnson for VP because LBJ and Hoover were extorting him via potential scandals such as “womanizing,” etc. Of course, Caro is a serious and high-minded historian respected by academics; Kaplan is more along the lines of a smart and super-competent journalist who has seen and assessed every Sinatra motion picture, as well as having heard and ranked every Sinatra album virtually song by song (though I don’t know how he could have left out Sarah Vowell’s prescient and hilarious condemnation of “My Way”: “[It] pretends to speak up for self-possession and personal vision when, at base, it only calls forth the temper tantrums of 2-year-olds or perhaps the last words spoken to Eva Braun.”)

On top of all that, Kaplan has read just about everybody else who has ever written about Sinatra: From supportive gossip columnist’s Earl Wilson’s early (1976) biography to Gay Talese’s snarky but risible April 1966 Esquire essay Frank Sinatra Has a Cold; from Kitty Kelley’s scandalous and scandal-filled 1983 hatchet job His Way, to Anthony Summers’ conspiracy-minded Sinatra: The Life (2005); from Randy Taraborrelli’s gossipy Sinatra: Behind the Legend (1997) to Tom Santopietrio’s entertaining Sinatra in Hollywood (2009). Kaplan, in fact, is such a Sinatra expert and close reader of all things Sinatra that he can almost seamlessly balance certain aspects of the Sinatra legend (his world-spanning charitable work; his generous moral and financial support of individuals) with certain less-savory aspects of the man’s behavior (his hatred of critical journalists; his well-known inclination to nurse lifelong vendettas; his mobbed-up associates; his famously volatile temper).

It’s a thinking man’s biography; but it essentially gives short shrift to Sinatra’s career in the 1970s and practically ends with 1981, and the release of his final album for Reprise, She Shot Me Down. Perhaps Kaplan is sentimental and prefers not to focus too closely on the decline of Sinatra’s talent in his sunset years; more likely, it was a mercenary editorial decision which was taken to edit the book to a manageable length. To be sure, angling for a Part Three – arguably a necessary component – would have been pushing it. Not a commercially viable decision.

Then again, in other places the book might have profitably been shortened, particularly in Kaplan’s account of the years 1954-1965, by omitting the seemingly interminable lists of Sinatra concert attendees, Sinatra party attendees, and Sinatra girlfriends, who notably included Gloria Vanderbilt, Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak, Anita Ekberg, Juliet Prowse, and Judy Garland. And Judith Campbell, whom he shared with mobster Sam “Momo” Giancana and pimped out to none other than the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. (Small wonder Jackie Kennedy regarded Sinatra as, at best, a boorish nuisance and, at worst, a certified menace.) But such lists, I suppose, were a part of Kaplan’s always painstaking research, and perhaps he was loath to jettison them. Besides, Sinatra, who famously hated to be alone, was very much a social animal, and such accounts of his pals and gals help to define him as a social creature.

Kaplan, in addition to quoting every Sinatra authority out there, also seems very much inclined to rely extensively on accounts by people who are Willing to Talk; most notably, Sammy Davis Jr.; estranged Sinatra valet George Jacobs (whom Sinatra charmingly called “Spook”): and legendary comedian Shecky Green, source of the famous Sinatra-related quip (cited in print by Wilson): “Sinatra saved my life in 1967. Five guys were beating me up, and I heard Frank say, ‘That’s enough.’ ”

What ultimately emerges from this biography is a picture of a complex, contradictory man, which Kaplan shows us examples of time and time again, so that even the most unrepentant Sinatra-hater (or idolater) must surely get the picture: That there is far more to Sinatra than meets the eye. The man was both admirable and contemptible. Many people don’t even know themselves; how can they presume to know what truly rests in the heart of another? Kaplan tries, and, to his lasting credit, he comes about as close to unraveling the history and mystique of Sinatra as anybody I’ve read.


  1. The movie that foretold the rise of Donald Trump


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