Pete Hamill is one of my favorite writers. His career as a writer spans many forms and includes newspaper and magazine journalism, non-fiction and fiction writing. In particular I love his fictional novels. He deftly weaves historical reference through fiction; and I especially like his books that are set in New York City. Forever is the best. He obviously knows New York and the changes that it’s taken throughout the years, particularly in the 20th century.
I have also read quite a few books about Italian Americans and the immigrant experience in the early 1900s. Having, and growing up with, grandparents and relatives that came over from Italy, I am drawn to stories depicting that period in American history.
So I was automatically predisposed to like Hamill’s book, Why Sinatra Matters. It is as much a biography of Frank Sinatra, as it is an historical portrait of the challenging times Italians faced as new immigrants to America. It also places Frank Sinatra as one of the moving forces behind the shift towards acceptance of Italian Americans into American culture. His rise to fame mirrored, and as Hamill explains, had an influence on the rise of acceptance of Italians in America.
The better part of the first half of the book is spent on Frank’s family life and early career. The only son of Italian immigrants, he was close to his parents, who had high expectations for him. He showed an interest in music early on, and worked through the ranks gaining his chops. The book documents Sinatra’s life on the road where he slowly moved out of the shadows of big band jazz leaders, to create a new musical icon: the front-man/singer.
It further traces his career – its steady rise and then almost catastrophic fall, and rise again as a result of Frank’s shear determination and hard-work. The book chronicles the making of his records and movies (not my favorite part of the book) and tells the classic American rags-to-riches, hard-work-triumphs-over-all, success story.
It is clear that Hamill had a fondness for Sinatra as an acquaintance (he doesn’t go so far as saying they were friends), and that they shared some dark nights in dark bars in New York throughout the years. Sinatra had some well-publicized marriages and relationships as described in the book, but it was his nights holding court, out with the boys in the city that never sleeps, that he may have enjoyed the most; and it is fun to get a glimpse into this through Hamill’s eyes. Hamill’s ability to write a biography that is not just a life-story but also a walk through a time and place, is why I continue to look forward to reading any of his stories.