"From the Bottom to the Top": Frank Sinatra, the American Myth of Success, and the Italian-American Image

Article excerpt

When one thinks of Frank Sinatra, numerous images come to mind. Some will think of the young crooner, heartthrob to countless bobbysoxers; some will think of the cocky leader of the so-called Rat Pack. There is the bellicose casino owner daring the authorities to shut him down after it is reported that a well-known Mafioso had visited the property. There is the man of great philanthropy, and great cruelty. There is the liberal star challenging the McCarthyism of the nation's capital, the active democrat supporting John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and the Reagan Republican campaigning for the "great communicator" in the 1980 election. There is the unrepentant womanizer, and the spurned lover. There is the broken man, nevertheless persevering to once again scale the heights of success. For most people, one's recollections of Frank Sinatra share at least one essential feature: they are based upon media constructs, the product of media industries promulgating information satisfying various agendas and paymasters. As such, the meanings of texts comprising those media constructs are of paramount concern for any analysis of Sinatra's cultural importance.

This article focuses on national media coverage of Sinatra, from his first appearance in a national magazine, Newsweek in March 1943, through his "fall from grace" during the late 1940s and early 1950s, to his eventual and ultimate rise back to the top of the entertainment industry following his Oscar-winning success for From Here to Eternity (1953). The media images that came to dominate the national discourse on Sinatra throughout his career were the products of specific organizations operating at a particular time. It is the thesis of this study that the Sinatra known to millions that is, Sinatra's image-was promulgated through a national yet New York-centered media that, ensconced in an environment alive with both nativist and progressive rhetoric, presented Frank Sinatra, implicitly and explicitly, in ways consistent with local representations of Italian Americans. That is, the national media disseminated, through Sinatra's image, stereotypes of Italians and Italian Americans that originally circulated in local press items and progressive literature focused primarily upon migration of southern Italians to the United States from 1890 to 1920. Within this context, this study provides an analysis of Sinatra's image, with particular reference to the American myth of success.

Texts, Terms, and Concepts

Texts

This study addresses the dissemination of stereotypes in the national mass media. Hence, Time magazine, "perhaps the most often-read newsmagazine in the United States" (Noune and Nourie 495), was chosen because of its status as a "gatekeeper" for information distributed to the public. It was, and remains, among the most read magazines in the nation. Newsweek was chosen for similar reasons. This study, however, while focused upon Time and Newsweek, integrates analysis of materials appearing in other national publications, the vast majority of which were published in New York City (see Appendix). Seventy-one articles published were analyzed, fiftyseven of which were published in New York. Embedded within these texts is a star-making apparatus that had been perfected in Hollywood's promotion of its product and had developed its own values and themes. Of all of the conventions present in the star image, perhaps none is as ubiquitous as that of the American myth of success, and it is to this myth that we now turn.

The American Myth of Success

For Richard Weiss, author of The American Myth of Success (1969), the eponymous myth is among the "most enduring expressions of American popular ideals," the notion that "ours is an open society, where birth, family, and class do not significantly circumscribe individual possibilities": "The belief that all men, in accordance with certain rules, but exclusively by their own efforts, can make of their lives what they will has been widely popularized for well over a century. …

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