Elements of Style: Sinatra, Edmund Wilson, Chanel, European Diplomacy in the 1920s

By Benjamin Schwarz

July August 2005 ATLANTIC




The Greatest Album Ever Produced

Sinatra, Anthony Summers and Robyyn Swan (Knopf) Here is a subject for a great American biography. Frank Sinatra is, along with Cary Grant, the most sublime American performing talent produced in the twentieth century. He utterly and permanently transformed American song; for three decades he was a central, and often driving, force in the entertainment industries—radio, gambling, records, and movies; he was both emblematic of and a vehicle for organized crime’s reach into nearly every aspect of American public life; he was the single most important model of masculinity for two generations of Americans. The popular culture, politics, gender relations, and style (in every conceivable aspect) of the American century can’t be fathomed without him. He was also an exquisitely complex personality. The public always knew the basic contradictions: Sinatra was vicious and sweet-hearted; he hated racial and religious bigotry and consorted with killers; he was a man of easy elegance and he was a lout. But while those paradoxes contributed to his mystique, they never defined it. Indeed, in what endures as the most adroitly drawn portrait, the 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese observed Sinatra as he awed, cowed, and beguiled his circle and those outside it, and revealed how Sinatra’s bullying and charm and vulnerability shaded into one another, and so let readers discern Sinatra as a man, even as Talese made plain that Sinatra’s charisma remained impenetrable. With quiet authority Pete Hamill’s elegant 1998 meditation, Why Sinatra Matters, locates its subject in the wider social and cultural currents of his times, but Hamill maintains that Sinatra “matters” chiefly as an artist. And while his slim book is the smartest, most precise, and most moving assessment of Sinatra’s music, especially his greatest work (the incomparable Capitol Records albums of his early mature years), it is by definition an incomplete picture (which is deeply unfortunate; no writer can navigate as nimbly through Sinatra’s world of politicians, mobsters, immigrants, musicians, and starlets as Hamill, who knew Sinatra well—a fact that probably explains his reluctance to write a full biography).

Until now that has left the reading public with Kitty Kelly’s sensational 1986 scandal sheet of a book, an unreliable but not necessarily false work, though one devoid of insight. Regrettably, Summers and Swan’s chronicle is a more or less tarted-up version of Kelly’s. True, the authors employed a band of assiduous researchers, and they’ve mined the scant FBI and other government files now available. Their evidence suggests not merely that Sinatra palled around with and aided the Mafia (especially and most crucially in its relationship with John F. Kennedy) but that he was its creature. But here, as in so many other areas of Sinatra’s life, the authors string together (often previously published) assertions, usually without corroborating evidence. The authors do confirm an already overwhelmingly persuasive picture of JFK as brutally coarse, doped up, and mobbed up (the survival of the Camelot myth is truly one of the world’s incomprehensible mysteries), and they’ve added colorful detail to what was already an elaborate picture of some aspects of Sinatra’s private life—his marriage to Ava Gardner, his kindness and cruelty to his hangers-on, and his energetic and soulless philandering. But although Summers and Swan have laid some important groundwork for the considered and sprawling biography their subject merits, this slackly written, cobbled-together book is third-rate Vanity Fair fodder, not a biography (in fact, the heavily and deftly reworked excerpt in that magazine is far better than this book). The authors devote a mere handful of pages to what was, after all, the one constant in and the main preoccupation of Sinatra’s life—his music. A man often barely in control of himself, Sinatra was nevertheless indisputably a careful, obsessively committed, and hardworking artist. And when the authors do very briefly touch on some aspect of Sinatra’s music (a paragraph on his fanatical attention to his transcendent phrasing, for example), they usually depend on quotations from authorities or other writers to make the point. Now that some valuable legwork has been done, an enterprising editor should ask Hamill to overcome his scruples and take another shot.

Chaneledited by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale). Coco Chanel’s Madonna-like self-invention, Trump-chanel-linton-tweed-840x1024like self-promotion, and Yoda-like pronouncements, together with her intense and convoluted love life (famously, when she launched her career as a couturier she was a kept woman; notoriously, she was a “horizontal” collaborator during the Second World War), have meant that writers have scrutinized her persona and biography more intently than the clothes she created and the look she defined. This swank book, however, published in conjunction with the current Chanel exhibition at the Met, focuses on the continuities and evolution of the style of the house of Chanel from its inception, before the First World War, to its current permutation under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld (his impenetrable Teutonic blather, which as far as I can tell insults the founder of the house he presides over, is—thank goodness—confined to two pages). Fashion writing tends toward the gaseous, but Koda’s introduction and the text of the exhibition catalogue he wrote with Bolton nicely explain Chanel’s innovations, clearly define the essential qualities of her designs, and concretely convey the workings of cut and construction. The photographs—enhanced by Lagerfeld to, I must admit, haunting effect—of the variations on the “little black dress” (all of which marry traditional, elegant materials to precise tailoring, creating the impression of “little more than a breeze,” as Harper’s Bazaar put it in 1923) and of the sumptuously astringent, squarish suits (with their exquisite but functional details and their “soft tailoring” and easily draped fabrics that allow them to drift over rather than cling to the body) testify to a living tradition that has tamed Lagerfeld even in his efforts to subvert it. After all, to quote Coco, “Fashion fades. Only style remains the same.”

Edmund Wilsonby Lewis M. Dabney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Writing a short review of this long biography is impossible, because very few people under fifty—including those with the fanciest educations—will have even the vaguest notion of the life, accomplishments, and, it seems (alas), ephemeral significance of the man revealed in it. And hardly any of those will have read a word he wrote. But if they care a jot about ideas, history, and literature, and if they approach reading with passion and seriousness, that is their great loss. Although Wilson was also a playwright, a novelist, a poet, a magician, and a compulsive diarist, his highest achievements were as a critic and a journalist-historian of ideas. Taking an unusual approach that amalgamated biography, history, and unerringly astute literary interpretation, Wilson wrote the greatest book on our Civil War (Patriotic Gore); the most elegant and commanding history of the socialist idea (To the Finland Station, a book that Dabney justly claims is “the most significant imaginative work to come out of the thirties in the United States except for several of Faulkner’s novels”); the best essay (along with George Orwell’s) about Dickens; and the most searing reportage of America in the bleakest period of the Great Depression (The American Jitters and Travels in Two Democracies—largely unheralded masterpieces of what’s now called narrative nonfiction). Wilson is one of the two or three most astute interpreters of Flaubert and Auden; he was the first critic to take seriously the hard-boiled fiction coming out of California in the 1930s (The Boys in the Backroom); he wrote penetrating portraits of an array of countries and cultures, including Haiti, the Zuni, the Iroquois, and Western Europe at the end of the Second World War; in Axel’s Castle he taught a generation of Americans how to read modernist literature; his editing of his close friend and Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and of Fitzgerald’s posthumous collection of letters and notebook entries, The Crack-Up, is largely responsible for elevating that author into the canon from the obscurity in which he languished at the time of his death; he revealed and explicated the importance and complexities of the Dead Sea Scrolls—and he was probably edmund-wilsonthe most astute adjudicator of contending scholarly theories regarding those texts (Wilson read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Russian, Hungarian, French, and German). Nearly all his books were polished assemblages of pieces he’d written from the 1920s through the 1960s for The New Yorker (where he was the magazine’s book reviewer and a staff writer) and for The New Republic (where he was an editor). Wilson had a rare gift for haute vulgarization (which has earned him the disdain of the theory-dominated academy)—he could tell a compelling, even dramatic, story about ideas. Deploying deft compression and apt quotation, he fused elegant, extended pen portraiture with precise criticism, and he wrote with supreme clarity and authority, yet in graceful, often sinuous prose (no less a judge than The New Yorker’s editor William Shawn held that Wilson’s style was among the best in the history of the language).

But he was in many ways a deeply distasteful man. Generous, loyal, and intellectually honest, Wilson was also a (frequently lonely) drinker of staggering capacity and a serial fornicator (he lost his virginity to another famously libidinous literary figure, Edna St. Vincent Millay). Not surprisingly, he was prone to rages and was at best imperious and at worst monstrous to his four wives. (His marriage to Mary McCarthy has to be one of the most turbulent unions in literary history. Dabney’s scrupulous account corrects some of the more outlandish and self-serving—and self-dramatizing—versions promulgated by McCarthy, but both parties emerge from this chronicle as spoiled and destructive.) Thanks to Wilson’s meticulous, posthumously published diaries, in which he seems to have recorded his every sexual episode in harshly clinical detail (he appears at times to have bedded women solely for the purpose of recording the experiences), we already know far too much about his routine, which could be summarized as Stakhanovite reading, followed by concentrated writing, followed by boozy seduction, followed by kind of yucky sex. Wilson’s previous biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, wrote a rounded if ultimately unsatisfying biography, so interested readers have already been treated to lots of unpleasantness. Dabney’s book, for which he conducted dozens of interviews and spent decades digging in the archives, is more complete, and in its sorting of the facts from the rumors and apocryphal accounts that have barnacled Wilson’s reputation, it’s as definitive as we’re likely to get—and as we need. But Dabney’s aim was broader than Meyers’s. He sought to write an intellectual biography. He has largely succeeded—he’s a discerning reader and a clear writer, though he periodically oversimplifies the intellectual and, especially, the political context of Wilson’s work and that of the people in his phenomenally wide and intellectually glittering circle (Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Isaiah Berlin, Auden, and Nabokov were at one time or another among his closest friends). But the great virtue of Wilson’s work is that it needs no introduction. An accessible mandarin and a vivid writer who shunned abstraction, Wilson wrote books any one of which can still be simply picked up and read with enormous pleasure and profit. But I fear they won’t be. With the optimism and myopia of a scholar consumed by his subject, Dabney sees Wilson as a vital influence in today’s American intellectual and cultural life. I don’t. To me, that life is alien and hostile to all that Wilson’s work represents.

The Lights That Failedby Zara Steiner (Oxford). This book—the first installment of a two-volume diplomatic history of Europe between 7605488the First and Second World Wars—has an awesome heritage to live up to. It’s the latest in the Oxford History of Modern Europe series, a group of now ten works written over the past half century by some of the English-speaking world’s greatest historians. The books have aimed to present a definitive and synthetic summation of their subjects, from a distinct though not Procrustean point of view. All the volumes possess a striking combination of verve and authority, and some of them—Theodore Zeldin’s two-volume A History of French Passions and, above all, A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (to which Steiner’s work is a sequel)—are among the most stylish and acute monuments of the historian’s art. Steiner, an American-born Cambridge historian who’s previously written an incisive and invaluable account of British policy leading up to the First World War, has here undertaken a subject of daunting complexity. European diplomacy before the First World War and after the Second is a story of relations among a handful of major powers. But in the period Steiner examines, the newly created states of Eastern and Southern Europe were independent players, not yet mere satellites. In the period Taylor assayed, international relations could justly be confined to the study of diplomacy, war, and preparations for war. However, in this 938-page volume, which covers the years from the Paris Peace Conference, in 1919, to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, in 1933, Steiner must disentangle the knot of reparations, debt rescheduling, hyperinflation, balance of payments, currency fluctuations, devaluations, and a host of other vastly intricate and controversial aspects of domestic and international finance and economics. Deftly, with command and cool analysis, and in prose always lucid, often crisp, and more than sometimes elegantly epigrammatic, Steiner succeeds. Hers is a proudly and explicitly unfashionable work, and one of its chief virtues is to illuminate the world view and unspoken assumptions of her historical actors, rather than to impose an interpretation of the past based on subsequent events. She insistently makes the reader see this period of European history as did those who lived it: as postwar, rather than pre-war. She also insists that readers grasp a truth that’s nearly universally acknowledged in the historical community but that the popular and journalistic mind is incapable of absorbing (thanks largely to the lingering influence of Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book she rightly pronounces “pernicious”): the Treaty of Versailles, though enormously flawed, was hardly a Carthaginian peace and neither economically nor geopolitically hobbled Germany.

Steiner’s appraisal of the role of domestic politics and economics in foreign relations is probably the weakest aspect of her work (her evaluation of the impact of the Depression on the Nazis’ rise to power is surprisingly thin), but with that exception her judgments are spot-on and her analysis is keen. The hallmark of this book is her nuanced dissection of the hopes for and limits to Franco-German reconciliation. Although she allows for the most generous interpretation of Berlin’s aims, she subtly points if not to the inevitability of conflict, then to the near certainty of a fragile peace, regardless of the nature of the German regime. After all, any German government would seek the revival of German strength, which would mean that Germany would eventually emerge as the preponderant power on the Continent. The leaders of the democratic Weimar regime, committed to the perhaps irreconcilable values of liberalism and nationalism, professed themselves good Europeans who sought only equality among the great powers. But because equality—perhaps even security—for Germany meant danger for the rest of Europe, an inherent tension underlay their policies. Thus, given the realities of international behavior, the “lights” to which Steiner’s title refers—”internationalism, multilateralism, disarmament”—were doomed to fail.

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