20th Century Vox

A farewell to Frank Sinatra -- and to the America he embodied

By Sarah Vowell
May 15, 1998 6:53PM (UTC)
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Frank Sinatra died last night and he took the 20th century with him.
And by "20th century," I mean, more specifically, the American century, the
century of Hollywood and Holocaust and everything in between. The century of
Las Vegas, of romance, of cool. Say goodbye to the man whose vocal alchemy
turned silly love songs into sadness and swing; to the man who met with
murderers and martyrs, madmen and mavericks; to the man who ditched Roosevelt
for Reagan; to the man born in New Jersey who died in Beverly Hills. Say
goodbye to him and you kiss the American Empire goodbye. Frank Sinatra
was America, which is to say he was extreme, benign and malevolent,
good-humored and bad-tempered, self-obsessed and in love with the world.

There were as many Franks as there are states in the union. There was the
husband, the father, the jilted lover (when Ava broke his heart). Of course
there was the singer, the sappy young one in his Dorsey days, the gutsy
swinger of the Capitol years, the knowing old man on Reprise. There was the
life liver, the Rat Packer, the drink drinker, the guy's guy. There was the
sharp dresser, maybe the only man in America who could wear a tuxedo the way
John Wayne wore chaps. There was the actor: Maggio, the soldier in "From
Here to Eternity" who was as quick with a smile as he was with his fists, the
devastated writer in "Some Came Running," the "Manchurian Candidate's" nervous


Finally -- and most personally -- there was my Frank. My Frank isn't exactly
a singer or an actor, much less America. My Frank was a character in a story
I wrote, a story that has now come true. In my very first music column for
last year (which was turned into a public radio commentary of some
infamy), I pleaded with television news to avoid remembering Frank Sinatra by
playing "My Way" when he's gone. Because I had a premonition that every news
outlet, from the intellectual to the inane, would blare "My Way" to honor
Frank. Because I love Frank Sinatra but I hate that song. Because I love
memorials, but not when they insult a complex career. Because Frank Sinatra
is better than that.

So this morning, when I heard that Sinatra was dead I couldn't help but
switch on "The Today Show" just as "My Way" was drawing its final curtain.
Ditto "Good Morning America." (Only CBS restrained itself, though five
minutes before 9 o'clock, that affiliate had already gone local; this being
Chicago, they played "My Kind of Town.") I turned off the TV and played all
the songs I said I would in my column: "That's Life," "What Is This Thing
Called Love," and "Angel Eyes," over and over. And every time Frank said,
"'Scuse me while I disappear," I kept shooting the television dirty looks. I
could just tell it was full of "My Way." For the first time in my life, it
was no fun being right.

It's not like I wasn't expecting this, like I wasn't expecting the century to
up and quit, like I wasn't expecting such an old man would die. Now I have to
face the new century, the new millennium, without him. Listening to
Sinatra's records, I don't feel anything as hip and swank and rejuvenating as
"retro." I'm not even 30 and already I feel old-fashioned, left out, left
behind. I feel homesick -- for the 20th century, for America, for Frank.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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