Something Less Than Frank

By Hensher, Philip | The Spectator, November 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Something Less Than Frank


Hensher, Philip, The Spectator


ALL THE WAY: A BIOGRAPHY OF FRANK SINATRA

by Michael Freedland

Weidenfeld, 20, pp. 438

Whoever it was who remarked that music journalism is largely produced by people who can't write for the benefit of people who can't read had, it is tempting to remark on reading this bizarrely hopeless volume, a point. There's an interesting story here, and a wonderful subject. Frank Sinatra is, surely, the one crooneractor-whatever of his era whose name will live beyond his lifetime, and ours. But the failures of the celebrity biography are so perfectly embodied on every page of Michael Freedland's effort that one soon loses interest in what he is writing about, and starts to gaze, in fascinated horror, at his superlative inability to form a sentence, the incomparable uselessness made concrete on the page. It is, by a very long way, the worst written book I have ever seen between hard covers, and for that reason can be heartily recommended to anyone with the faintest taint of cynicism.

Astonishingly, this is something like Michael Freedland's 30th book. I cannot say if it is a worthy successor to his previous show business biographies, which include Dino: The Dean Martin Story, Sophie: The Story of Sophie Tucker, Dustin: A Biography of Dustin Hoffman, as well as Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery, Liza With a Z, and, if the Also By list is to be believed, two books entitled Shirley Maclaine. If they are all of the dimensions of this shocker, he has set something like three million words on paper. And still he cannot write a sentence which does not make the reader's eyes roll backwards in his head, like something from the last reel of The Exorcist.

Freedland's principal trademark is the lack of an ability to pay attention to what he is saying. There is a constant sense, here, as in so much writing these days, that what the words mean, or used to mean, hardly matters. A writer who can refer to `virulent flak' has lost the sense of what either word means. But that's a minor offence, comparable, perhaps, to tone-deafness, when one considers some things which Freedland doesn't mind setting down on paper:

When he flew in a shiny silver Dakota aircraft with the words `The Voice' painted in huge script on the nose, it could hardly have been anything but a gift from heaven.

' "The Voice" . . . the nose, flew . . . from heaven'; the whole effect is tragically distracting. The cack-handed manner is constantly there.

The perfect Freedland sentence, perhaps, is one which seems to be doing all right until the final clause, when it becomes apparent that its author has not been paying attention and has allowed his mind to wander. When Sinatra gives a speech to a school against racial intolerance:

What Frank didn't know when he accepted the invitation was that the school was in the forefront of an equality move which, for its time and its location, was nothing less than remarkable. Fifty years later, the very idea of the source of the trouble being considered a reasonable cause of dissent would be almost laughable if it weren't in many ways a landmark.

This truly astonishing terrible sentence is doing all right in conveying some sort of a meaning until the final word, when Freedland's idea - I suppose this is his idea, since the sentence conveys no sort of meaning at all - that protest against Sinatra's speech was almost laughable and that Sinatra's speech itself was in some sense a significant stance combines woozily to suggest that it was the protest that was the landmark.

That wandering off the mark is an extremely interesting way in which prose fails. Freedland often starts a sentence by making one point, and ends by making another which, in truth, has nothing to do with the first. The final effect is of a drunkard's rambling, shooting off in all directions. …

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