I made sure before summer’s end to get to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and its Sinatra: An American Icon exhibit. The Voice would have been 100 this coming December. What makes the show so worthwhile is that virtually all of the items are from the Sinatra family’s personal collection. The curators did a good job covering the depth and breadth of the singer’s life. Sinatra’s parents were fortunate to get out of the Old Country when they did. His father was from Sicily and his mother from Genoa. Both came to the United States as part of the Great Migration in the years prior to the Great War. They married in 1913, a year before the war began and their only child was born in December 1915, seven months after Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. The legacy of the Great War on early immigrants is a woefully understudied topic. What is certain is that Sinatra was a uniquely American singer. No one made the Great American Songbook more his own.
There is much to see in the show but my favorite exhibit was this re-creation of the Sinatra’s living room with its photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt displayed so prominently. His music aside, Sinatra’s life in its key elements is representative of twentieth century American life. Sinatra turned eighteen the year FDR entered the White House. A decade later he wanted to name his only son after Roosevelt but that did not happen. Instead of Franklin Sinatra, the infant became Francis Jr.
Sinatra and Roosevelt did not know each other too well, but to the extent that they had a relationship it was an awkward one. Sinatra campaigned for FDR in 1944, performing fundraisers and even speaking on the incumbent’s behalf at Carnegie Hall. He must have had slightly mixed feelings. Roosevelt had once condescended to Sinatra in one of their few personal encounters, gently tweaking the swarthy crooner for both ethnicity and the zeal of his bobby-soxer following. Sinatra uncharacteristically held his tongue. Despite this episode Sinatra always maintained his admiration for FDR even after he left the Northeast for the Sunbelt and changed parties in late 60s and early 70s, just as many other Americans were doing at the same time.
The exhibit is free and runs though this Friday, September 4, if you’d like to catch it in its final week.