Bookmarks Issue: 
James Kaplan

The Voice

A-FrankJames Kaplan has published fiction and nonfiction, most notably for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Esquire, and has coauthored autobiographies with tennis great John McEnroe (You Cannot Be Serious) and comedian Jerry Lewis (Dean and Me). Frank: The Voice covers the first half of Frank Sinatra's life.

The Topic: From his humble beginnings in Hoboken, New Jersey, to his rise to the fore of America's cultural consciousness, Frank Sinatra seemed destined to be an icon. Blessed with "the indefinable something composed of loneliness and need and infinite ambition," Sinatra honed his voice through practice and experience, eventually recording more than 1,300 songs before his death in 1998. Almost as compelling as the music was the artist's personal life, including an inconsistent upbringing, a divorce from his first wife, a subsequent tempestuous marriage to film star Ava Gardner, rumors of mob ties, an explosive temper (and an overactive libido)--and finally vindication of a sort with an Oscar for his role in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. Sinatra, who hadn't yet turned 40, reflected these triumphs and tragedies in his singing.
Doubleday. 786 pages. $35. ISBN: 978-0385518048

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Frank: The Voice includes a wealth of information on not only Sinatra but numerous show business people he knew and worked--or slept--with. ... Whatever you think of Ol' Blue Eyes, he led an incredible life, and his adventures make great reading. This book is biography at its best." Elizabeth Bennett

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"First and most valuable, Kaplan gives us an illuminating portrait of a serious artist who helped revolutionize his medium. ... Kaplan also does a brilliant job of suggesting how the way Sinatra sang the song grew out of the life of an artist every bit as confounding and conflicted as his era--a man by turns generous, attentive and immensely decent, then ugly, violently abusive and self-absorbed to the point of cruelty." Tim Rutten

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"With its neat dramatic arc, [the book] could be the template for the ultimate Sinatra biopic. Sinatra's story has been recounted a million times, and Kaplan doesn't dish much new dirt. What he does, instead--and boy, he does it well--is invest the story with renewed freshness, vitality and insight." Tom Beer

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Kaplan] has produced a book that has all the emotional detail and narrative momentum of a novel. ... In recounting his subject's rise and fall and rise again--all before the age of 40--Mr. Kaplan gives us a wonderfully vivid feel for the worlds Sinatra traversed, from Hoboken and New York to Hollywood and Las Vegas, as well as the rapidly shifting tastes in music that shaped him and were later shaped by him." Michiko Kakutani

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A lot of the book's Sinatra stories have made the rounds before, but nobody has spun the old yarns with the raconteur's touch and attitude that Mr. Kaplan brings to the job. The co-author of memoirs by John McEnroe and Jerry Lewis, he knows how to channel his inner Frank when the moment calls for it." Eddie Dean

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"At every step of the journey, Kaplan does a good job of capturing what he feels is Sinatra's fragile ego, contradictory impulses, and--when possible--separating fact from fiction. ... Perhaps the best way to read this breezy book (and many people will) is to provide your own soundtrack." Michael Giltz

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Kaplan is skilled at painting a scene, and he turns readers into ‘flies on the wall.' ... Yet far too often in The Voice, Kaplan tells us what Sinatra is thinking, not just doing, and this weakens an otherwise excellent book." Charles R. Cross

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In part because of his reliance on such inconsistent material, Kaplan's often brutal portrait feels less like a revelation and more like a legend that's been printed before. In the Sinatra of Frank: The Voice, he didn't grow into the role of Chairman of the Board--he always was Chairman of the Board." Chris Foran

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Kaplan's] passion for Sinatra keeps the narrative flowing; he's equally fascinated by his subject's seamy and artistic sides; and he evokes period atmosphere well. ... But the biographical content has grown hoary through overtelling, and Kaplan strains to pump new life into it." James Gavin

Critical Summary

Veteran writer James Kaplan knows what goes into a life on the page. He's a good and capable biographer, and critics generally give Frank: The Voice high marks for his ability to connect the chaotic, heartbreaking, and at times violent life of the artist with the unique singing style that made him famous. Some reviewers, however, wonder whether another biography--despite Kaplan's gritty, point-of-view perspective and a photo insert that contains several rare snaps--adds much to the already crowded bookshelf on the crooner's life (including Kitty Kelley's His Way, upon which Kaplan draws frequently). Despite a few passages held together with dubious psychoanalysis, Kaplan makes his case (and an easy one at that) that Sinatra ranks among the icons of 20th-century popular culture, even if his true genius remains somewhat elusive.