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Born 100 years ago: Frank Sinatra's ups and downs

Interview: Conny Paul / egDecember 11, 2015

The world celebrates Frank Sinatra on December 12. DW asked biographer Johannes Kunz how rock'n'roll, his mafia and presidential ties and the amazing women he seduced affected his career.

Frank Sinatra, Copyright: CBS /Landov
Image: picture alliance/landov

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Kunz, some Sinatra fans claim that his collaboration with Nelson Riddle was the climax of his career. Do you agree?

Johannes Kunz: That's right. Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins were arrangers, and they were behind some of Sinatra's best material. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that he only worked with excellent orchestras and arrangers - for example with Quincy Jones later in his career, or with Axel Stordahl in the early years, the 1940s, when he also performed with Tommy Dorsey.

He was also very selective in his choice of songs.

Yes he was. On a professional level, he was an absolute perfectionist. He picked the best songs in the Great American Songbook - songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter or Irvin Berlin for example. That also applies to the orchestras he chose to work with. He made excellent recordings with Count Basie and - unfortunately - only one LP with Duke Ellington.

Author Johannes Kunz, Copyright: Johannes Kunz
Johannes Kunz is the author of a biography on SinatraImage: privat

In 1974, he gave a great televised concert with Woody Herman's big band. That was his comeback at the Madison Square Garden. Sinatra came from an era of big bands that bloomed in the 1930s.

What were his early influences?

Sinatra was a loner, and above all, an autodidact. He was influenced by Bing Crosby, the big star of the time. Back then, many singers tried to imitate Crosby, as he was the paramount of all vocalists. But in the end, Sinatra consciously chose to do it his own way - and succeeded. By the mid-40s, he'd replaced Bing Crosby as youth idol and established his name as the top crooner in the country.

The emergence of rock 'n' roll at that same period created new stars. What did that mean for Frank Sinatra?

It did create a slump in his career in the early 1950s. Fans were turning away from big band singers and tuning in to rock 'n' roll stars. Sinatra was unable to adapt to the new trend; it just didn't fit with his tuxedo and bowtie style. He bitterly criticized Elvis Presley at the time but later acknowledged Presley's huge popularity. When Elvis returned from military service in Europe, Sinatra even invited to sing with him on his TV show.

Frank Sinatra is also well known for his womanizing. Did that harm his reputation?

He left his wife Nancy for Ava Gardner, who had swept him off his feet. They had an incredibly erotic relationship. The US was very prudish at the time, and the media criticized Sinatra for leaving his wife and three small children.

His alleged ties to the mafia also hurt his career.

Yes, photos and newspaper reports demonstrated in the late 40s that he had met with mafia big shots in Havana - including the godfather of all godfathers, Lucky Luciano. The scandal blocked him from signing new record and film deals afterwards.

But he was lucky enough to be in a relationship with Hollywood star Ava Garner. How did she help him get back into the business?

Interestingly, his big comeback came through the film "From Here to Eternity" (1953). Eli Wallach was initially cast for the role of Angelo Maggio but refused. Ava Gardner convinced the producers to give the part to Sinatra. Some critics claimed it was the mafia instead who put them under pressure, but that was never proven. Playing for a very small fee of $8,000, he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. The film was his entry to new records deals and other film roles.

Is it true that Sinatra was not as selective in his films as in his songs?

He acted in about 60 films, including two very good movies, the Oscar-winning "From Here to Eternity" and "The Man with the Golden Arm," which earned Oscar nominations. He also starred in two or three very good entertainment movies, including "High Society," co-starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. All the others were rather very simple entertainment however.

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Images
Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at the Inaugural Ball in 1961Image: picture-alliance/AP Images

Frank Sinatra is also said to have had good ties in politics - apparently he was even a friend of John F. Kennedy?

Frank Sinatra was really more than a singer, entertainer and actor. He played a major role in American society. He was close to the Democrats and later to the Republicans. His connections with the mafia gave him a bad reputation - and they truely existed. During John F. Kennedy's presidency, his brother Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, prioritized the fight against organized crime. Frank Sinatra was repeatedly checked, and Kennedy broke ties with him. Ultimately, they could not prove that he was involved in any criminal activity.

He is also said to have become close to Ronald Reagan and especially to the First Lady, Nancy.

In 1985, the Republican President Ronald Reagan awarded him the highest civilian honor of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the equivalent of a certificate of good conduct from the highest authority.

How important was family to Sinatra?

He was certainly a family man who truly appreciated his relationship with his three children. He was married four times: with Nancy Barbato, then with his great love Ava Gardener - they had a very erotic relationship with jealous dramas. After that came Mia Farrow and finally Barbara Marx, with whom he stayed married until the end of his life. But beyond that, he was a womanizer. He had countless affairs with stars such as Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. In Viennese slang, we'd say: "he didn't leave one out."

The Viennese journalist Johannes Kunz is the author of over 30 books including "Frank Sinatra und seine Zeit" (Frank Sinatra and His Times).