A Woman’s Voice

My daughter, Samantha, asked if we would besitting shivafor Frank Sinatra, who died last Thursday. He was 82. No, I said. Butthough we wouldn’t light a candle or sit on a low stool, she wasn’tfar off the mark. In a house solely of women, Sinatra often becamethe substitute male. Sometimes, he was the surrogate father orgrandfather, his voice warm with a word of comfort for the wee smallhours of the morning. At times, he played the missing consort, withhis brio-filled lilt of unfulfillable promises to “fly me to themoon.” Otherwise, of course, as in “Lady is a Tramp,” he was the cad,cynically chastising the woman who “never bothers with some bum shehates.”

I’ve used “The Voice” as a guide, a casebook, anentry into the male psyche. See, I tell my teen-ager, men yearn too.Sinatra’s face on album and CD covers hangs on our mantle. Part ofthe family. Part of our history. Under our skin.

Women came to terms with Sinatra long ago. At theheight of the women’s movement, in the 1970s, a noted feminist writerset out the case against the singer: Womanizer. Abuser. Friend ofmobsters. Right-winger. Calls females “dames,” “chicks” and”broads.”

To my generation, of course, Sinatra was apolitical conundrum. Feminism was out to defeat Sinatra on bothfronts, the man and the entertainer. The man appalled us with hisviolence and uncontrolled appetites. But his ring-a-ding lyrics wereregarded in those days as not much better, selling women witchcraft,a flight of fancy, an empty plate of romance, a bill of goods. Lovehim, was the charge, and leave the movement.

But dreams always trump expedience. Sinatra wonthat round, and, in winning, taught us something about our genderthat went beyond politics and straight to longing and loyalty.

Maybe I took the Sinatra saga more personallybecause he seemed so much like family. Even this week, my mother madethe easy leap from mourning Sinatra to her own early life.

“We had no place to go but up,” she told me. No,she didn’t go to any of the bobby-soxer concerts where Sinatra wasthe rage. She couldn’t afford to. When my mother talks about Sinatra,her voice echoes the limited, financially strapped world oflate-1930s America, following the Great Depression, before theexplosion of the great middle class.

Jewish boys in New York, like Italian Americans inHoboken, learned how to fight almost before they learned to read.Respectability, the desire to be somebody, was an ache. My mother’sbrother, Yale, Sinatra’s age, is a guy who came up from the streets.Jewish women, mothers, daughters and girlfriends, like their Italiansisters, worried night and day about their men. Would they ever besafe? Romance may have been only a temporary substitute for a steadypaycheck. But a swing around the dance floor offered a respite fromworry, and a down payment on hope. Don’t knock it.

What amazes my mother, and therefore me, is howconventional, and upright, they’ve all become. The poverty ended.Yale became first a plumber, then a contractor and an investor inreal estate, and raised a family on Long Island. Sinatra became afriend of presidents, “Chairman of the Board.” See? she says.Sinatra’s survival to age 82 is proof of American goodness.

If women’s struggle with Sinatra is over, not sofor men. In reading the obits and watching the talk shows this pastweek of national mourning, I felt that America split in two. Womenstood by in silence, while men, young and old, were awash in grief,sentimentality and self-doubt.

The old guys did most of the talking, evoking thefull range of ambivalence, envy, pride and pleasure in the way hewore his hat and sipped his tea. The younger men did theworrying.

Larry King acted as host of the mourner’sassembly, greeting an endless roll call of aging hipsters, includingSteve Lawrence, Joey Bishop, Don Rickles. Rickles, the last purveyorof Yiddish-oriented insult humor, recounted Sinatra’s vintage Vegaspranks, including the time Sinatra locked a naked Rickles out of asteam room before the entire pool area of the hotel.

But younger men, humorless, had trouble laughing.Frank Rich, in The New York Times, couldn’t stand Sinatra’sindiscretions. He wanted the world to know that men four decadesyounger than Frank know better by now; they are not proud that thegreatest voice of the century was lodged in the corrupted spirit of anasty, street-brawling thug.

Sinatra’s passing is forcing men to come to termswith the peculiarly American male ethic. It’s a good exercise, butguys, nice ‘n easy does it.

We don’t hold you responsible. We don’t want tochose between heart and soul. Go back and listen to Sinatra. He canguide you, too. The heart of a woman wants to be treated fairly, butthe soul wants a guy to say, the song is you.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com. Her workshop”Writing and Reading for Heart and Soul” contines May 30 at theSkirball Cultural Center.

May 15, 1998



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