Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra, by George Jacobs and William Stadiem, 2003
Like many children of my generation (I was born in 1964), I watched early Warner Brothers cartoons which caricatured famous Hollywood people without having a clue who they were until much later. But the Frank Sinatra chicken in Swooner Crooner made an impression on me. As a teen I laughed at Joe Piscopo's impression of Frank singing "Under My Thumb" (his only funny skit, as I recall). Many years later, I took care of a lady with Alzheimer's whose happiest moments were spent listening to Tommy Dorsey records, and so I heard many early Sinatra classics over and over again. I read The Way You Wear Your Hat when it came to the library (don't remember much about it) because of the wonderful title and cover. The shadow of Sinatra is still everywhere in American culture; from the Ocean's 11 and Manchurian Candidate remakes to the resurgence of 50s cool (granted, that's old already, but I'm sure there are better examples), his presence is inescapable. So a book by his valet is a natural draw.
The opening is killer: "Summer 1968. The only man in America who was less interested than me in sleeping with Mia Farrow was her husband and my boss, Frank Sinatra." Dancing with Mia at a club (& subsequent rumors of an affair) led to Sinatra cutting off Jacobs overnight, as Jacobs had seen him to do so many other people. Then we go to the standard chronological narrative; a brief overview of Jacobs' life, his employment with Swifty Lazar, and then the day that Sinatra wooed him away in 1953. Until the blow-up in 1968, Jacobs accompanied Sinatra around the world, cooked his favorite food, baby-sat his lovers, ran his errands, put up with awful practical jokes, cleaned up after his tantrums, and befriended his family.
"No man is a hero to his valet," and yet Jacobs effectively communicates how much he loved "Mr. S." Frank Sinatra comes across as a guy with many good qualities (generous, thoughtful, humble, basically unbigoted) spoiled by success. Jacobs bore with his temper, insecurity, crude sense of humor, and occasional cruelty for the sake of the "vulnerable, real" person he saw underneath, and of course for the amazing perks and prestige that went with being right-hand man to the Chairman of the Board. Getting fired was a crushing blow for Jacobs, and it's easy to believe that it was a terrible mistake for the increasingly lonely and isolated Sinatra to get rid of someone who saw him for who he was and yet loved him.
The most interesting part of the book is the inside view of the structure and social distinctions of Hollywood, Mafia, and political circles, and the connections between them. I knew Joseph Kennedy (JFK's father) was unsavory, but Jacobs says of him: "Mr. Ambassador, if anyone had the guts to spit in his face, a bravery that my boss sadly lacked, should have been called Mr. Asshole." (Just noticed the rather strange sentence construction there--this is mostly a well-written book, but there are some flaws). He backs it up with first-hand observations, and shows that "Joe was mobbed up to his fancy collar pins." Blech. Jacobs liked JFK himself, but all the future President wanted to talk about was sex.
"What do you want? Jack?" I asked. [JFK had just insisted that Jacobs call him Jack.]
"I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood," he said with a big leering grin.
The book is stuffed with gossipy tidbits about the many famous people Sinatra knew--Marilyn Monroe, Garbo & Dietrich, the Lawfords, Billie Holliday, Noel Coward & Cole Porter, Lawrence Harvey, Judy Garland, Bogart & Bacall, and lots more. Jacobs shows the long-suffering first Mrs. Sinatra, alluring Ava Gardner (whom he describes as the true love of Frank's life), and manipulative, ambitious Mia Farrow. It doesn't feel like Jacobs is dishing dirt in a titillating way, but it ultimately leaves a bad taste. Most of the stars come off like Sinatra--people who might have been decent once upon a time, or if things had gone differently, but whose bad impulses have been allowed to predominate by constant catering-to.
This book straddles the fence in a strange way: it's too thoughtful and observant to be quite a light-hearted juicy gossip fest, but too emotionally flat and non-judgemental to be as thought-provoking and involving as it could be. I'd like more perspective on why George Jacobs would let Frank Sinatra become his life, to the extent that the "after Frank" section of the book feels hollow. Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable read and a must for people who like Sinatra and/or Hollywood stories.