Frank Sinatra, 1915-1998

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Frank Sinatra almost died a has-been. He could have been a greeter at a Vegas casino, those baby blues sad and dull, his stardom all gone but for a few old scenes of flashbulbs and screaming teenagers at the Paramount, 50 years ago. Instead, at his death Thursday of a heart attack, he occupied not a page or two in American culture but whole chapters, books, volumes. Singer, screen star, towering rogue, the Sinatra story is now indelible.

But in 1952, Sinatra the crooning sensation was on the rocks. Castigated by the press over mob connections and scandalous affairs (especially the brief marriage to made-in-heaven homewrecker Ava Gardner), he was dropped by Columbia Records, then by Universal Pictures. CBS axed "The Frank Sinatra Show." Remember those quaint, morally fibrous times? The public was shunning a villain.

Then Ava -- or the Mafia, depending on who tells it -- threw weight with the president of Columbia pictures and got Sinatra the part: doomed Private Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." Capitol Records decided to gamble on a once-great and teamed Frank with hotshot arranger Nelson Riddle. The new-sound Sinatra had a head start when the blockbuster film was released in '53.

In a beautiful movie, Maggio's was an exquisite death that resurrected Frank. It was image penance -- when those fickle droves dried their eyes, they were fans again. Sinatra was back for keeps.

Most people under 50... (continued)