Frank Sinatra Has A Cold by Gay Talese

Michael Cox on Frank Sinatra Has A Cold by Gay Talese

“Gay Talese’s profile of Frank Sinatra appeared in the April 1966 issue of Esquire. I missed it then, and don’t recall how it subsequently crossed my radar, but it’s extraordinary.  From start to finish, the writing is superb.

“Talese brilliantly distils the essence of Sinatra, despite never obtaining his co-operation for the piece. People categorise the story as an example of ‘New Journalism’, the term popularised by Tom Woolf in his 1973 anthology The New Journalism, but Talese rejected this, making much of his background as a copy boy and reporter on the New York Times. Personally, I see both viewpoints: Frank Sinatra Has A Cold was bold, and new, and different, but it’s also unflinchingly accurate. Talese’s creativity is harnessed entirely toward the truth, not fiction.

“There are many memorable vignettes. Take this, from the opening couple of pages:

Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra, it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.

“Sinatra’s disquiet is brilliantly rendered but understandable, too: a common cold, for this man as he approaches his 50th birthday with numerous singing and acting engagements to fulfil, is crippling. As Talese says, it robs him of “that uninsurable jewel” – his voice.

“Elsewhere, for all his power and charisma - despite the retinue of staff, the private jet, the immense wealth and effortless ease with which he can have anything he wants – there are snippets of Sinatra’s fragility. He is often detached, as if not wholly engaged with the people around him. He retains a little old lady to look after some 60 toupés and is capable of overreacting to perceived slights with little or no judgement. And yet charismatic he is. People the world over love him; men want to be him; women in bars want to drink with him. Even his ex-wives still love him, if all he does is turn up to sleep on their sofas.

“The story is such a wonderful insight into a strange and surreal world. Who but Sinatra would decide to fly his Lear jet for 16 minutes from LA to Palm Springs? Talese tells it through the hangers-on – and there are lots of them – because he couldn’t get direct access to Sinatra. Hence the paucity of direct quotes from the man himself, and yet such is Talese’s skill that the story somehow ends up being all the better for the absence of its star’s co-operation.

“This has to be down to the writing. It’s smooth and mellifluous without being pretentious or over-the-top. It’s from the era when American writing was arguably at its best. Talese ought to have the last word, as when Sinatra is confronted by a female fan at a set of traffic lights:

Just before the lights turned green, Sinatra turned toward her, looked directly into her eyes, waiting for the reaction he knew would come. It came, and he smiled. She smiled, and he was gone.

Great stuff. No comment, no writerly interjection – just a portrait, pure, simple and perfect.

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