It’s Frank’s World; They Just Analyze It
John Gennari, from the University of Virginia, argued that the tough Dolly Sinatra, “a political ward-heeler, a saloonkeeper,” should be seen in the context of “larger discourses of mother-bashing that pervade American culture.” That way, we may gain an understanding of her son that “peels back his tough-guy disguise and reveals, ironically, a nurturing maternal figure.”
UCLA’s James E. Bruno offered a “Jungian psychological perspective” of the man, exploring his use of “archetypes that tap into the American collective unconscious.” Coming from him, popular songs were transformed into “anthems or hymns for the human spirit, i.e. ‘My Way,’ ‘That’s Life’ . . .”
Douglas Brinkley came from the University of New Orleans to share his thoughts on the man’s “cocktail-culture coolness” and how his life--even his bullying side--paralleled the nation’s experience: “After all, the entire history of America has been the story of crushing whatever blocked its path, be it mountain ranges, Native Americans or foreign nations. . . . Yet there has always been something haunting and at times even beautiful about America’s brutal march to progress.”
So it went for three days last week at Hofstra University on Long Island, which last year sponsored conferences on “The World of Pope Innocent III” and “The 41st President of the United States, George Bush.”
This time it was Frank Sinatra who had the academic Rat Pack doing it, well, their way. From Thursday through Saturday, they analyzed his difficult birth, tore apart the lyrics he sang--even if he didn’t write them--and tried to figure out what it says about the rest of us that we bought the man’s records for half a century.
The conference, “Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music, The Legend,” had plenty for those not analytically inclined: The boys from Jilly’s nightclub were here too, and old friend Alan King, and daughter Tina, all overflowing with stories. There was a “Sinatra Tour” of Hoboken, N.J., a display of Sinatra art by LeRoy Neiman and a black-tie gala featuring a dinner out of the “Sinatra Celebrity Cookbook” and a musical tribute by Vic Damone.
University Provost Pinch Hits for Lasorda
Tommy Lasorda had been invited to emcee the gala, but the Dodger legend had to attend baseball meetings in Florida instead. His replacement? “We gave the honor to the provost of the university,” said conference co-director Natalie Datlof. “Sometimes you have to remember that you are a university.”
Indeed, in academic-conference style, the guts of the weekend were 43 panels featuring 120 “presenters” and 80 “discussants,” tackling topics from “Let’s Learn From Las Vegas, Doll: Sinatra and the Architecture of the Strip” to “Frank Sinatra and Traumatized Masculinity in ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ ”
It’s hardly the first time a pop culture figure has gotten such a going-over on campus. The University of Mississippi had scholars talking Elvis for a full week in 1995. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan was blowing in the academic wind at Stanford. And while the Hofstra Cultural Center is best known for its examinations of presidents, it marked the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s birth in 1995 with “Baseball and the Sultan of Swat.”
Such events draw crowds, and publicity, but are not without risk--for they almost invite parody. How can you have two papers analyzing one moment on one 1960 television show, even if it was the only joint appearance of Elvis and Sinatra?
“Frank . . . would he have been bored with this? Ooowwww!” declared comedian King, drawing an easy laugh at the first big event, a “ceremonial” on Thursday. “Frank woulda [said], ‘Let’s find a saloon!’ ”
But in a quieter setting that day, King recalled that Sinatra actually was flattered when he was told, well before his death in May, what the university wanted to do.
“I think Frank would have gotten a big kick out of it,” King said before a brunch at Hofstra Hall. “He was a secret reader . . . a vacuum cleaner who sucked up knowledge, right or wrong. He loved to be around people of letters, as well as he liked sitting around with Willie the Hook.”
Tina Sinatra similarly said her father, already ill, perked up when Hofstra wrote the family asking for its participation. “He felt his longevity depends on each generation . . . rebirthing him. He didn’t mean that the generations would only rediscover him at Tower Records.”
Still, she was worried that “dozens of people who didn’t really know dad were going to be talking about him. . . . That’s scary.”
The 70-year-old King, who lives just a few minutes away in Great Neck, also had to wonder how a professor could speculate that Sinatra’s one-take approach to film acting was testimony to how he could focus his “mental energies and emotions.”
“You know what Frank used to say when he did all those parts?” King recalled. “ ‘Just show me the mark.’ ”
Conference organizers said they received 400 proposals for papers.
Harvey A. Kaplan of the New York Freudian Society, a member of a panel called “Analytical Assessment of Sinatra” and a self-described Sinatraphile, said he is professionally interested in the “concept of the second self” in the singer. “He lends himself to this kind of psychologizing . . . unlike a straight singer like, say, Tony Bennett. Sinatra performs the song; he’s radically different when he sings. He really is the tough guy, but when he sings he becomes tender. He doesn’t allow this into his other life.”
The 1,200 attendees, not surprisingly, were overwhelmingly fans, many eligible for the $115 senior citizen price (others paid $150). Though Hofstra students could attend free, not many joined the sea of gray and balding heads.
“I assume most students don’t know who he is. The Bush conference was a lot bigger among students,” said senior Michael O’Connor, walking into a plaza as a loudspeaker played “Fly Me to the Moon.”
But Helene Boggs did grow up with Sinatra. “I’m an original swooner,” she boasted, one of the swarm of girls at the Paramount Theater in New York and the Earl in Philadelphia, where she still lives. She drove up with friends for the chance to revel again in “the feeling he was singing only to us.”
Rocco Marinaccio also had a young girl on his mind--but not from the bobby-soxer era.
“We’re programmed against a junior high school student!” he only half-joked as his own panel, “Frank Sinatra and the Politics of Cool,” was about to begin.
The simultaneous panel on fan clubs included teenager Diana Rissetto of Wayside, N.J., who sent a school report to Tina Sinatra and wound up in the conference. Her paper, “Blue-Eyed Boy: The Frank Sinatra Story,” describes the subject as “perhaps the greatest voice ever known to the world.”
At the fan club session, it was adulation. Tina Sinatra attended and, in choked voice, announced, “I know he’s here--and loving it.”
‘I’ll Confess--I Never Quite Got Sinatra’
The cool panel? It turned into a brawl.
It went smoothly enough through Marinaccio’s paper, titled “I Get No Kick From Assimilation; or, My Frank Sinatra Problem,” which worried that “the Sinatra now offered for adulation is a defanged figure who barely resembles the Rat Pack rebel.”
Then the moderator threw in his 2 cents. Mark Silver, the chairman of Hofstra’s sociology department, announced: “I’ll confess: I never quite got Sinatra.”
To gasps, he added: “I couldn’t help think about the person who invented cool. Miles Davis died several years ago with barely a mention. . . . Is Sinatra cool? Maybe. But if he is, it’s an establishment cool, a cool associated with wealth, fame, being white, being male. . . .”
Musical interpretation? “I think of Ray Charles,” he said. “And when I think of texture and voice, I think of Nat King Cole.”
Someone in the crowd said, “Go back to Moscow!”
Someone else asked, “Why did you come to this conference?”
Silver replied, “Sir, a university is an arena of open opinion and free exchange of ideas. In no way did I intend to diminish or criticize Frank Sinatra’s role as an entertainer . . . “
But it got only more tense, for someone in the audience agreed with the professor, then started complaining that “for a lot of people in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sinatra represented the Mafia and organized crime and all the evil . . . that Nixon represented . . . on top of which he was connected to the Marilyn Monroe assassination.”
On the podium, one of the young professors whispered, in best Sinatra fashion, “I need a drink.”