July 17, 2003
A Guilty Pleasure Swings With Style
"Mr. S, My Life With Frank Sinatra" by George Jacobs and William Stadiem is this summer's guilty pleasure. Jacobs was Frank Sinatra's valet from 1953 to 1968, and his memoirs are the excuse for a polished backstage tour of Sinatraland, a roller-coaster ride of the high life and the lowdown on almost every scandal, scoop, star, starlet, call girl and politician of the '40s '50s and '60s.
I enjoy good gossip. Not the malicious betrayal of personal confidences, but the reported details of the lives of people I don't know and probably will never meet. For me, the stories of the social and the social climbers, the arrived and the arriviste, accumulate like evidence to suggest patterns about human nature. Either that or they just entertain.
I can't explain why the private dramas of people we don't know are so compelling. But the Bible is filled with them. Imagine if the tabloids covered the Good Book. I can see the headlines now: Eve -- Her Bite With the Serpent! Abraham and Sara: Their Struggle to Have a Child! Breaking News: Accused Cain's Plaintive Plea: "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" Time moves on, but we remain human. As Philip Roth suggested in "The Human Stain," perhaps a banner should have been hung across the Clinton White House proclaiming: "A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE."
Cafe society has often inspired literature: Thackeray, Proust, Zola were all chroniclers of, as Balzac put it, "harlots high and low." In our own time, newspaper gossip columns from Winchell to Rush & Molloy, have provided a running commentary on the demimonde as successive generations fade in and out of bold print. It's not Howard Zinn's "People's History"; more like the People magazine history of "hanging out." So let me be clear -- lest you had any doubts -- "Mr. S." is not literature, but it is a fun read; an enjoyable dose of high-quality gossip.
George Jacobs, New Orleans born, black and Jewish (Sinatra got him interested in his religion, took him to Israel and arranged for his late-in-life bar mitzvah), was the outsider in the ultimate insider's world. He found a kindred spirit in Bill Stadiem, in part because of Bill's own outsider status, having grown up Southern and Jewish in North Carolina.
Stadiem is a friend of mine. We first met in a far-away galaxy called the 1980s. Stadiem was held up to me as someone who had achieved the remarkable: A Harvard Law grad, he had recently left Sullivan & Cromwell, the prestigious white-shoe Wall Street firm, and then wrote two books, "A Class by Themselves," a serious volume on the Southern Aristocracy, and "Marilyn Monroe Confidential" a racy tome by Lena Pepitone, Marilyn Monroe's maid.
Over the years, Stadiem continued to bounce between serious volumes such as "Too Rich," a fascinating bio of Egypt's King Farouk, and "Madame 90210," the memoirs of Beverly Hills' infamous Madame Alex. Stadiem has done it all, freelancing for every magazine here and in Europe, and selling the occasional screenplay (Stadiem wrote "Young Toscanini," a Zeffirelli film that became a Liz Taylor fiasco).
One day attorney Henry Bushkin (as Johnny Carson used to call him) asked Stadiem to lunch at Matteo's, the old-guard establishment in Westwood, to introduce him to Jacobs -- who lives in Palm Springs as a master carpenter, and who was considering telling his story. I have joked that Stadiem should open a domestic agency so he can place future sources, but in George Jacobs, Stadiem found what he called, "a live one."
As a result, "Mr. S" swings with style, filled with ring-a-ding-ding detail. Stadiem has poured a lifetime of accumulated gossip into every chapter. Stars, politicians, potentates, pimps, hookers, drug dealers -- Stadiem knows these characters and as Jacobs brings them into the narrative, they are painted with verisimilitude. As the anecdotes accumulate -- and many of the stories are too salacious to repeat here -- you get a sense of the characters of Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the influences and events that propelled them onto the public imagination.
Unfortunately, the book turns sour at the end, and Sinatra, who early on is a complex but genuine character, morphs into a cruel, empty and unredeemed persona. Apparently, Hell hath no fury like a domestic dispatched.
Reading "Mr. S" it might be fair to ask, as reviewers have, how it is that George Jacobs -- whose service to the Chairman of the Board ended in 1968 -- could possibly recall so many details. Good question. It helps that most of the tarnished are no longer among the living.
For "Mr. S.," as with most gossip columns, truth itself is, as fabulist Jerzy Kosinski once wrote, "a temporary resolution of various contradictions." And a guilty pleasure of summer.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.