I am a huge fan of Big Band/Swing music, and no one sang it better than Frank Sinatra. He had a long career because he started in the late '30s and was big throughout the '40s, lost favor in the early '50s, came roaring back in the late '50s, and then even in the '60s and beyond, he continued to soar, despite the dominance of Rock N Roll. He succeeded professionally like no other vocalist of his generation. How did he do it?
I think it was due to the unique timbre of his voice, which was very clear and crisp, and also very manly and arresting. There are a lot of songs that are indelibly linked to Frank Sinatra because he sang them better than anyone else. Take, for instance, I've Got You Under My Skin by Cole Porter. Who wants to hear anyone but Sinatra sing it? And take It Had To Be You by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn. It’s a great old standard. Johnny Mercer called it his favorite song, and everybody recorded it. But, listen to this version by Frank Sinatra and see if you don’t agree that he captured the essence of the song better than anyone else. And it was recorded in 1979 when he was already 64 years old!
I read Sinatra: The Life by Robbyn Swan. I am not going to try to sketch Frank Sinatra’s biography here, as I have done with others, because too much happened to him in his life for me to be able to cover it and do it justice. I am just going to talk about one thing: his health. I think it’s truly amazing that Frank Sinatra lived to 82. First, he started out in life so feebly. He was a huge baby: 13 ½ pounds. He was literally torn from the birth canal, bleeding at the head and neck. He seemed dead, and they almost gave him up for dead. His left earlobe, cheek, and part of his neck were torn by the doctor’s forceps, and he remained scarred for the rest of his life.
But, even though he was born so large, he became very skinny as a child. By the time he was 4, it was clear that he was going to be pencil-thin. His parents tried to get him to eat more. There was never an issue about them being too poor to feed him adequately. His mother, Dolly, was a gourmet Italian cook, and she loved to eat. Meals consisting of several meat entrees, multiple cheeses, pasta, and rich desserts were served often. And his father, Marty, had been a semi-professional boxer and then became a fireman; so he was no string bean either; and he liked to eat. And there were no reports of Frankie ever having anorexia. He liked his mother’s Italian cooking, and, over the years, he often brought friends- and lovers- to eat at her house. But, for some reason, he never could gain weight.
I want to stress that it was not just that he was thin; he was truly underdeveloped. His musculature just never developed normally as a young man. He reached his teenage years and got his surge of testosterone, and apparently, it all went to his penis. (He was famous for being very well-endowed. His lovers said so, including Ava Gardner. And his valet, George Jacobs, reported that he had to order special underwear to hide his huge endowment to avoid embarrassment.) And, as sexed up as he was, he must have had plenty of testosterone. He was a voracious womanizer, starting in his teens and continuing strongly through middle life until finally, at 60, he settled down to a stable monogamous life with his fourth wife, Barbara. But, if as a youth his genitals grew in response to testosterone, why didn’t his muscles? He really had no form to his muscles at all.
Did he engage in sports? No, he wasn’t interested. He liked to follow boxing because that was the favorite sport of his father and uncles. And, after he dropped out of high school, he worked at a newspaper, and he tried to become a sports writer, but that didn’t work out either. Late in life he took up golf- half-heartedly- but that was about it as far as exercise went. But note that even without lifting weights per se, the ordinary activities of life should have caused some muscle development. Don’t most young men at some point have to carry heavy things, move furniture, spade the ground, etc.? My father never lifted weights, but his father was a grocer in New York City, and they stored inventory in the basement, and he (my dad) had to carry 100 pound sacks of potatoes up the stairs. He got plenty strong. Apparently, Frank Sinatra didn’t do anything like that. Still, it’s a mystery why he remained as puny as he did. When he began to make movies, he started wearing a butt cushion to fill out his rear-end, which reportedly, was not just flat, but “concave.” It’s one thing for that to occur in old age, but he was only in his 20s.
If I had to guess, I would bet that he was probably a poor digester. Maybe he had a short gut. Maybe he had a weak stomach. For some reason, he just didn’t assimilate his food very well. And that, more than anything, is probably what accounted for his scrawniness.
It’s interesting that late in life he did put on some weight and started looking fuller, although I’m sure it wasn’t muscle. However, I learned that a doctor had put him on Elavil, which is a tricyclic antidepressant that is rarely prescribed any more. It’s a very nasty drug, and one of the side effects of Elavil is weight gain- substantial weight gain. Note that his face got very round. That's a common side effect of Elavil.
So, he probably had a weak digestive system- from birth. But in addition, he took up smoking at an early age- in his early teens. And, he smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes: the strongest American cigarette. And, he smoked heavily. He was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. If he wasn’t singing or eating, he was smoking. And smoking impairs digestion and assimilation- quite a lot.
And, he also drank alcohol heavily. Ava Gardner, his second wife and reportedly the love of his life, said: “Every single night, we would have three or four martinis, big ones in champagne glasses, then wine with dinner, and then go to a nightclub and start drinking Scotch or Bourbon. I don’t know how we did it.”
And alcohol impairs digestion and assimilation too. Although not everyone who smokes and drinks gets rail-thin, if you start with a weak digestive system, as Frank apparently did, it is going to take a toll.
But, despite a very abusive lifestyle, Frank Sinatra’s physical health remained remarkably stable until late in life. What was unstable from the start of his career and throughout his career was his mental health. I have no doubt that in today’s medical lexicon, Frank Sinatra would have been diagnosed as bipolar. His mood swings were severe. He was explosive, and the severity and frequency of his rages and violent outbursts were frightening. It was beyond irrational; he would become crazed. Swan's book covered much of it, but even more was reported in His Way by Kitty Kelly- the book that Frank Sinatra tried desperately to stop from being published.
There is no need for me to detail any of the things he said and did, to which I am referring. Let’s just say that, at his worst, it involved an inordinate amount of inexplicable cruelty. But, at his best, generosity flowed from him like a fountain, and not just to people he knew and loved, and not just to causes that he supported, of which there were many, but even to complete strangers who were in need and whom he heard about. He often made his donations anonymously. He gave away millions and millions of dollars. I think if you had to describe his behavior in one word, it would be extreme: extremely good and extremely bad. And wide swings of the pendulum are, of course the hallmark of bipolar disorder. When his dark side manifested, he just could not control it. There were so many times that he apologized for outrageous behavior with tears in his eyes but then went on to repeat it. No doubt the heavy drinking was a factor. Alcohol brings out the worst in everyone.
I mentioned his taking Elavil late in life. That was something his wife Barbara insisted on. Earlier in his life, he briefly tried psychoanalysis. In fact, he saw the same therapist that Marilyn Monroe used: the preeminent Dr. Ralph Greenson. But Frank swore off psychotherapy and never returned to it. And, until the medical end, he wasn’t much of a pill popper either. Alcohol was definitely his drug of choice. Although it was reported that President Kennedy and Peter Lawford snorted cocaine at his house, Frank was never reported to be a cokehead. And he may have tried marijuana a few times, especially when he was married to Mia Farrow, since that was her drug of choice, but he was no reefer addict either.
But, in his final years, as commonly happens, he got thoroughly immersed in prescription drugs: for his heart, his blood pressure, his sleep, his moods, etc. etc. (If it's not my place to criticize his doctors, let me just say that I am not going to finish up that way.) But, he was able to do a phenomenal amount of touring and performing right up until his 80th year, and that was despite numerous physical problems and rather severe dementia. He continued to draw large crowds, even though his voice- and his mind- were largely gone. It seems that the fans knew he wasn’t long for this world, and they merely wanted to get a glimpse of him and get a memory of his voice so that they could say they heard Sinatra. And it wasn’t all bad: his phrasing, his timing, his great ability to individualize each performance and keep it fresh and new- he could still do that His final performance was on February 25, 1995 before 1200 people at a charity event in Palm Springs. Esquire magazine would report of the show that Sinatra was "clear, tough, and on the money." He was "in absolute control."
Frank Sinatra died a little more than two years later on May 14, 1998. He had had a heart attack- not his first- and efforts to resuscitate him failed.
But, let’s get back to our original question: how did Frank Sinatra manage to live to 82? After all, he smoked heavily; he drank heavily; he ate a conventional diet with no awareness of the importance of fruits and vegetables; he had tremendous stress, including personal, marital, professional, legal, and at times, financial. He was arrested several times. He got beaten up several times. He very nearly drowned once. He suffered from insomnia and kept very strange hours. He wasn’t as nocturnal as Elvis- but almost. He suffered severe emotional pain and anguish repeatedly. The compounding effect of all that stress had to be staggering.
So, if I had to say how he managed to stay alive for so long, I would say that it was mainly a matter of luck. He did have heart disease, but he didn’t have a fatal heart attack until 82. It could have come sooner- but it didn’t. He was known to have cancer of the ureter, which is common among heavy smokers, but it was manageable. He could have contracted a more deadly cancer- but he didn't, that we know of. It's as though he went through life wantonly heaping on abuses and excesses -but he didn't succomb in a deadly way until rather late. I have to think that his tendency to stay thin for most of his life worked in his favor. Thinness definitely supports longevity. Were good genes a factor? I have no basis for thinking that.
When Frank Sinatra turned 80, I joined thousands of others in sending him a personal greeting online, and it involved getting a very nice acknowledgment from his daughter, Tina. To me, Frank Sinatra will always be the greatest male vocalist. He may not have been technically the greatest, but he sang the music I like the most, and he sang it better than anyone else. There were so many great songs that he simply came to own. Nobody could touch him.