Why Sinatra Matters
by Pete Hamill

When Frank Sinatra died on the evening of May 14, 1998, the news made the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Many ran extra editions and followed with special supplements. There was little sense of shock; he had been a long time dying. He had also been a long time living, and so the obituaries were full of his life and times.

It was mandatory to chronicle his wins and losses, his four marriages, his battles, verbal and physical, with reporters and photographers. His romances required many inches of type.
There were accounts of his fierce temper, his brutalities, his drunken cruelties. Some described him as a thug or a monster, whose behavior was redeemed only by his talent.

We read brief charts of his political odyssey from left to right. The shadow cast upon him by the Mob was also an inevitable part of the stories. And there were tales of his personal generosity to friends and strangers and the millions of dollars he had raised for charities. He was clearly a complicated man.

"Being an eighteen-karat manic depressive," he was quoted in many of the obituaries, "and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have perhaps an overacute capacity for sadness and elation."

But much of the language of farewell had a stale, even hollow quality, probably because most of the obituaries had been ready for too many months. Sinatra had been a virtual recluse since 1995, making only rare public appearances. Over the previous year he had been in and out of hospitals. There were reports from California that he had suffered several heart attacks and, with the possible onset of Alzheimer, had difficulty recognizing even old friends. Across those final months there was little hard news about his condition; his children insisted he was fine, although cranky and cantankerous, and so the vacuum was filled with rumor and supposition. The truth was probably a simple one. Frank Sinatra, after a life in which too many cigarettes and too much whiskey were part of the deal, was old; and as happens to all of us when we grow old, the parts just broke down. He had abused his body in a way that was special to his generation of American men; that he had survived until eighty-two was itself a kind of triumph over the odds.
Return to Books