Half a century ago, Frank Sinatra had a cold.
It didn’t kill him. Time did. He died 20 years ago.
Yet as another school year begins, journalism professors around the country will once again force their students – some who weren’t born when Sinatra died – to read Esquire magazine’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. It was Gay Talese’s acclaimed long-form profile of the famous singer, actor, and Mafia associate.
(Since you can’t libel the dead, and since Sinatra is sooo dead, I don’t need to put “alleged” or “reputed” in front of “Mafia.”)
It was such a well-reported and well-written profile, it made Talese the Sinatra of journalism. Professors of a certain age adore Talese and the New Journalism he helped create. Except New Journalism hasn’t been new for decades. That means students must read sentences like this…
Frank Sinatra was selected Metronome’s “Singer of the Year,” and later he won the U.P.I. disc-jockey poll, unseating Eddie Fisher.
…without knowing what Metronome and UPI are. Or who Eddie Fisher is. Talese doesn’t define these things because they were household names in 1966.
That’s why Talese can write about Sinatra…
He arrived suddenly on the scene when DiMaggio was silent.
…and never mention DiMaggio’s first name. But how many college students know who Joe DiMaggio was?
Journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history, not a Ken Burns documentary. Good journalism describes what’s happening now.
To truly appreciate what Talese accomplished in his Sinatra profile, you need to know more than just who these people were. You need to understand their personalities.
Otherwise, you’ll miss a lot. In a recounting of comedian Don Rickles – the shock jock of his era – you don’t know why this joke is so edgy…
Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor.
You don’t know Fisher cheated on his wife – with her best friend Elizabeth Taylor, who was the biggest female star of that era. Imagine Angelina Jolie, Taylor Swift, and Princess Diana rolled into one.
Fisher and Taylor were married for five years, but she divorced Fisher not long before Rickles starting picking on him. So Rickles was taking a risk. In 1966, Esquire’s readers understood that.
In 2018, no college student knows that Fisher was the best-selling pop star of the early 1950s. They do know Carrie Fisher was in Star Wars – and would likely be surprised to hear she was Eddie’s daughter.
John and Paul are not Beatles
Sinatra bought a 16-room house for his mother Dolly in New Jersey. Talese describes it like this…
The home is tastefully furnished and is filled with a remarkable juxtaposition of the pious and the worldly — photographs of Pope John and Ava Gardner, of Pope Paul and Dean Martin; several statues of saints and holy water, a chair autographed by Sammy Davis, Jr. and bottles of bourbon. In Mrs. Sinatra’s jewelry box is a magnificent strand of pearls she had just received from Ava Gardner.
Today’s college students don’t know Pope John or Pope Paul, although they probably remember Pope John Paul II. But hey, a pope is a pope. You can easily understand from context that Dolly Sinatra was traditionally Catholic.
But what about Ava Gardner? She’s mentioned twice in this paragraph and 17 times overall. Fortunately, Talese weaves in some background throughout the profile, because even some of his contemporary readers wouldn’t quite recall how Sinatra met – and married and divorced – the famous actress.
But Sammy Davis, Jr. is mentioned four times with no such explanation. Who is he? Why is he important? How many students today know he was the only prominent African American in Talese’s profile?
Dead white men I don’t know
Entire swaths of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” are meaningless to today’s students – and even their parents…
• “George Jacobs is a twice-divorced man of thirty-six who resembles Billy Eckstine.” So he resembles someone else today’s readers don’t know. That comparison was helpful in 1966. It’s worthless today.
• “Leo Durocher, one of Sinatra’s closest friends, was now shooting pool in the small room behind the bar.” His name appears eight other times, but you never learn he was a famous (for his time) Major League baseball player and manager. He’s also credited with saying, “Nice guys finish last.” Although he didn’t say it quite that pithily, he was anything but nice. In fact, he was kind of an asshole. Readers in 1966 knew all this. You don’t.
Other dead people you probably don’t know: Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich. They’re all legendary jazzmen. I only know that because I was briefly managing editor of a jazz magazine.
I still don’t know Steve Rossi, Marty Allen, or anything about “the Clay-Patterson fight,” and Talese tells me little about them. Because I’m supposed to know.
I could go on with the names, but let me end with some math. Here’s Sinatra in a casino…
Gently he peeled off a one-hundred-dollar bill and placed it on the green-felt table. The dealer dealt him two cards. Sinatra called for a third card, overbid, lost the hundred.
Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second hundred-dollar bill. He lost that. Then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth hundred-dollar bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing, “Good dealer.”
That sounds interesting but neither devastating nor insightful – until you realize that losing $600 in 1966 is like losing $4,600 today.
Journalism or history?
This profile is as faded as a 50-year-old Polaroid photograph. And if you don’t know what that means, it proves my point.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” contains so many unexplained cultural references, it might as well be Shakespeare – which my generation read with SparkNotes open so we could figure out “the quick and the dead” had nothing to do with speed.
I’ve seen college students read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” with multiple Wikipedia pages open, trying to figure out what a “Queeg-thing” is – because they’ve never seen or read The Caine Mutiny, and Talese doesn’t define it.
To truly and deeply appreciate what Talese is doing here, you need to know who these people are, and how they lived. His contemporary readers did.
By assigning this profile to college students, professors are telling their students, “No long-form journalism done in the past half century has been quite as good.” Which means journalism has gone from the first draft of history to the dustbin of history.
For millennials who still care about news – and according to an API study, 85 percent do – that sucks the urgency out from our craft. Frank Sinatra is to college students what Al Jolson is to their college professors.
So for every student who plods along and realizes the brilliance of Talese’s profile, we probably lose an equal number before we can lure them into the cult of excellent writing.
Talese wrote a popular profile because he deconstructed popular culture. It shouldn’t be controversial or heretical to wonder if we should assign students excellent writing that explores their culture. Then they’ll realize how long-form journalism can change their view of the world in which they live.
Yet it’s controversial and heretical.
I’ve made this argument before on a listserv of college media professors. I didn’t fare well.
Sarcastically replied one prof…
Yeah, and I’m wondering why we still teach Shakespeare, Hemingway and Twain to those who want to be creative writers. It’s because this is a damn fine piece of journalism that can help teach character, description, pint of view, and all other kinds of reporting and writing approaches.
I agree with you – Shakespeare is perfect for “creative writers.” I’m talking about journalists, who specialize in the now.
One professor emailed me privately with his explanation for why his peers keep assigning “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”…
You are 100 percent right, my students have only vague ideas of who the man was. But you also are not going to persuade those arguing with you. It’s harder to find new examples than to teach Talese every semester. It’s easier to keep the status quo. Just my two cents. Maybe I’m cynical.
Cynical but correct. Sadly, the only way this will change is to wait for these lazy professors to die themselves.