He once sided with the oppressed

His way to reaction

Frank Sinatra (1915-1998)

Torch singer and noted film actor Frank Sinatra grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, where his mother was a political activist. From his mid-teens to early 20s Sinatra sang for little or no pay. But in 1939 his career started to take off, first as the Harry James’ band’s first vocalist and then singing with Tommy Dorsey’s band for $125 a week. Sinatra left the band in 1942, with Dorsey demanding a contractual 43% of Sinatra’s earnings for the next 10 years. Sinatra took over as star of the top radio show The hit parade in 1943 and signed a contract with musical film studio RKO. He was able to insist that his own nominees write the musical score for the hit film Anchors aweigh (1945), in which Sinatra starred with Gene Kelly, after MGM bought up his RKO contract.

By 1945, Frank Sinatra had become a household name, so it was hardly economic pressures that influenced his decision to take the singing role in the 10-minute anti-racist film The house I live in, shown throughout the USA. The title song, which Sinatra later released as a single, was composed by US communist Earl Robinson; Albert Maltz, one of the blacklisted and hounded Hollywood Ten and Sinatra’s good friend, wrote the screenplay.

Sinatra’s progressive stance in the 1940s was not superficial, something underlined by another of his friends from those years quoted in Kitty Kelly’s His way: the unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra. Jo-Carrol Silvers recalls that, “Both Frank and I were fairly close to the Communist Party line at that time. Neither of us was a card-carrying member, of course, but were both close to people like Albert Maltz who were, and we shared their beliefs for the most part.” Although Sinatra did not join the CPUSA, he worked closely with communists in the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions.

After a visit to Cuba in 1947, where Sinatra was photographed socialising with known mafiosi, Hearst newspaper columnists renamed him with a gangster epithet. A couple of duff films followed, The kissing bandit and The miracle of the bells, both produced in 1948. But in 1949, Sinatra linked up with Gene Kelly again for Take me out to the ball game and On the town, temporarily lifting his career. Some fallow years of collapsing popularity were ended when Sinatra took the role of Private Angelo Maggio, for rock-bottom pay, in From here to eternity in 1953. After that he never looked back - in more ways than one.

Emotion and passion in Sinatra’s singing and acting ebbed away in terms of his involvement with anything overtly ‘progressive’. Following the McCarthy witch hunt years of the early 1950s, when his marital difficulties took precedence, Sinatra’s energies were totally directed away from anything to do with working class politics. He may have taken humanist roles in some of his films, using his intelligent and sympathetically realistic style to good effect, but his political drift rightwards continued without abatement. A former friend of John F Kennedy, his associates were surprised to see Sinatra cosy up to Reagan in later years. Sinatra became happy to bask in establishment adulation, peaking in the glory of his ‘Living legend’ award at the 1994 Grammys.

Anti-racism was one element that drew Sinatra to the left, associating him with communists, who were at the forefront of anti-racist struggles in the USA at the time. Clearly his relative wealth was no bar, either in his own mind or to leftists who worked with him. Any ideas of human liberation he possessed either became subsumed within his artistic expression or were frittered away and modified piecemeal through the separation of his mode of life from that of most of his audience. Professional setbacks had initially followed resounding successes and probably led Sinatra to separate his social and political concerns from his career, to which he then dedicated himself above all else. Involvement with progressive causes - not easy in the USA of the late 1940s - needed no longer to be his priority, and Sinatra withdrew from any such engagement. Political withdrawal has its own price, of course, since immersion in a sea of bourgeois thought is inevitably corroding, justifying every abandonment of human liberation. Justification for Sinatra ended with him literally singing the praises of his Republican friends.

Tom Ball