The Sinatra Files: The Life of an American Icon Under Government Surveillance
edited by Tom and Phil Kuntz
Published by Three Rivers Press
268 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Stalking a Star
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
If they keep at the rate they're going, Tom and Phil Kuntz are going to become known as the editors who bring us the dirt on anything: and leave the prose at home. Tom edited The Titanic Disaster Hearings in 1998 while his brother Phil brought us The Starr Report: The Evidence and The Star Evidence. While not devising books that give us the dope on stuff we couldn't have before, Tom is the editor of the "Word for Word" column in The New York Times and Phil is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal's Washington, D.C. bureau. Clearly, a couple of guys with plenty of access to dirt.
The dirt this dynamic duo is dishing in The Sinatra Files is based around "The Secret FBI dossier" on crime-connected crooner, Frank Sinatra. While mob, communist, Kennedy and draft dodging rumors always dogged Sinatra's heels, The Sinatra Files gives it to us from the horse's mouth, as it were. Most of the book consists of verbatim excerpts from the mammoth 1275-page dossier the FBI accumulated on Frank Sinatra during his lifetime, but didn't release until after the star's death in 1998.
What emerges is not only a shadowy biography of Sinatra, but a fuller picture of the times in which he lived. A time when every innocent gesture could be analyzed and held against you: childhood affiliations; empty comments spoken loudly at parties; the wrong gesture; the wrong sympathy. The book offers all of the fascination of a car crash. You feel like it's nasty -- even goofy -- to keep watching, but somehow your neck keeps craning back.
While The Sinatra Files doesn't really give us a great deal that's new about Frank Sinatra -- or at least, it doesn't confirm much that we didn't already suspect -- J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, does not fare as well. Imagine the resources required to put together an almost 1300-page dossier on a single (though prominent) man. A dossier that, in the end, did little but confirm that, yes: Sinatra likely did have genuine medical concerns that excused him from joining in all the overseas fun during WWII. And, no, he wasn't a communist, as the authors state:
It is clear, however, that the FBI was overstating the case when, in internal reports from the period [of the McCarthy Trials], it referred to Sinatra as a "communist sympathizer" or a "CP fellow traveler." In the end, it had nothing on him but the ordinary activities of a liberal celebrity.
Frank Sinatra's general disdain for the media is fairly well known. What even the star didn't know, however, was that the press and the FBI "were sometimes collaborating with each other against him."
The FBI files now make clear that some of the journalists who wrote those reports were in effect FBI informants as well, providing unsubstantiated rumors for the bureau to run down.... The FBI returned the favor on occasion, helping journalists digging for dirt on the singer.
Kuntz and Kuntz have done a good job organizing, setting up and presenting the material in The Sinatra Files. They've obviously had to do a fair bit of honing to knock down that monstrous dossier to something manageable, but there's no sense of pieces missing and a lot of what's here makes for very interesting reading. Even those who aren't steaming Sinatra fans will find elements of The Sinatra Files to be enlightening. It all makes for a very good chronicle of a time that no one should have to relive. | June 2000
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian living in Scotland. He writes about music and the music industry. While he missed the whole "Sinatra thang," by a couple of years, he's always had a strong interest in ol' Blue Eyes.