The Chairman of the Board

las vegas welcomeAt the end of this month, I’m heading to Las Vegas.

Not exactly for pleasure—to be honest, I wouldn’t travel to Sin City for fun. I prefer quieter getaways. And not for research, though Reno figures prominently in CITY OF GHOSTS.

No, the desert oasis is calling me because the American Library Association’s annual conference is happening there, a huge and wonderful event in which I’ll be giving a couple of talks (including one on “Sin and Vice in Special Collections”—sounds titillating, no?) and signing a lot of books.

Obviously, the library fun won’t be around-the-clock, so in checking out possible theatrical entertainment, I discovered “The Rat Pack is Back” show, and promptly booked tickets.

rat-packI’m not usually one for “tribute shows”, a genre I didn’t really recognize as a genre until I wandered through the Ticketmaster site. But the yearning for a Las Vegas that was demolished with the Sands and finally passed away with Eydie Gorme still envelops me; the Las Vegas of my parents, the Las Vegas of my dreams, all neon and snap brims and cigarettes and Old Crow bourbon on long, shining wooden bars.

The Las Vegas of the Rat Pack.

The hero of the Rat Pack, the Boss before Springsteen, the one and only Chairman of the Board was, of course, Frank Sinatra. A man as ineffably cool as his startling blue eyes, a voice that made bobby soxers swoon and middle aged women grow misty over their Pink Ladies.

Young SinatraI own most of Sinatra’s music; I’ve listened to Sinatra’s radio shows from the ’40s; I’ve seen most of Sinatra’s films, from musicals (Anchors Away) to five star dramas (From Here to Eternity) to his action/adventure/PI phase (Tony Rome).  I know most of what has been written about Sinatra and some things that haven’t. And in addition to considering him one of the top three talents of the entire twentieth century, I think he was a very good and decent man.

Yes, I know about the “broads”. I also know about the organized crime connections. Sinatra was a man of his era in many ways and a man beyond it in others.

The fact is, when it comes to the treatment of women, the United States was and is grotesquely sexist. If you don’t believe me, check out the responses to the recent Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, a topic designed to protest the domestic and global dehumanization and hatred/fear/abuse of women exemplified by recent events in Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Santa Barbara. The misogyny this affirmative hashtag has engendered is deep enough to drown in.

You could also take a look at the response to Hilary Clinton’s run for President in 2008.

Hatred and contempt of people based on race and sexual preference has been partially driven underground and has, in some places, diminished. But hatred and contempt of women? Not so much. I see more misogyny every day on social media than Sinatra’s ever been accused of. He may not have been a proto-feminist, but he was certainly no bully and from all accounts, he was, if anything, rather Victorian in his gallantry.

He was, however, a proto-progressive on matters relating to race and religion, and he famously put his money where his mouth was, recording a great anthem (“The House I Live In”) for an America dealing with an upsurge in what would later be termed “hate crimes” immediately after it had defeated Nazi Germany.

Stories abound about Sinatra’s ire over the contemptible treatment of his friend Sammy Davis, Jr.; when it came to standing up against racism and anti-Semitism, he really was the Chairman of the Board.

About those organized crime links. The thing is, Sinatra was Italian. Italians live and work and breathe within a system of personal relationships and networks. I lived it Italy long enough to understand this, and long enough to have experienced it.

mercato_centrale_insideCase in point? As a foreign student living in Florence, I shopped for groceries at the Mercato Centrale (the central market) which, at the time, consisted of many, many small, individual shops (the green grocer, the chicken lady, the pork butcher, the pasta maker, the bean seller, etc.). You get the idea.

The one bread seller in the market was always inundated with a mob of women crushing against each other and the small, glass display case, trying to get the attention of the girls who took the orders. One young bread seller seemed to empathize with an American student trying to speak good Italian … and it was on this bread seller and her favor that I depended, week after week, to secure my focaccia and everything else. She’d skip right over some of the louder and more aggressive Italian signore, and make sure I got my bread. God bless her … I hope she’s had a good life.

In short, Italy has had more governments than Joan Rivers has had facial surgeries because Italians invest more in familial, personal, local and regional relationships than they do in the idea of a distant, representative authority.

Frank-SinatraThis is also the way Sinatra operated. He prized those relationships—and the loyalty that went with them—above all else. For an Italian, especially of his generation, they actualized his very identity and signified security and survival.

It was the Kennedy family’s betrayal of this loyalty that actually sent him toward the conservative side of the political spectrum in later years.

So yeah, I think I understand some of the Sinatra mystique, and, while I don’t expect much from this tribute performance, I do hope it will make me recall the time I saw the Voice himself … a wonderful memory, like so many wonderful memories, engineered by my mom.

dreesen and sinatraShe grew up in Harvey, Illinois, and was good friends with a young man named Tommy Dreesen. Mr. Dreesen grew up to have a fabulous career as a stand-up comic, and later became the regular opening warm-up act for Frank Sinatra.

Mom stayed in touch with Mr. Dreesen through the years. He’s a wonderful person, a terrific comic and a superb writer—I last saw him at his book release at the 2008 Book Expo America.

Long before that, however, on one of Sinatra’s last tours—held at the now defunct and much-missed Circle Star Theater—we had a chance to meet with Mr. Dreesen backstage when he and my mom reunited and shared some personal stories and family history.

The concert was amazing. Sinatra was old, yes, and relied on memory prompts. But he was still the Boss, still the Chairman, and when he performed “The House You Live In”, he still sang it with the same conviction he had fifty years earlier.

I caught a glimpse of the man backstage, while we were in Mr. Dreesen’s dressing room. You could feel his presence, feel his energy, diluted with the years, but strong and sure and fierce. And those eyes …

I’ve only seen eyes that blue and that piercing twice in my life. Once was when I saw Frank Sinatra … and the other was at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

Sinatra winkingSomehow, I think Mr. Sinatra would have enjoyed that comparison. 😉