You Will Have Your Wilderness Years: The Case Of Frank Sinatra


Sometimes the time is not right for your message to be heard.  Sometimes being great is not enough.  The right stars must come into alignment.  External conditions must be right for your message to be heard.  People may like you, but the real recognition may not yet be forthcoming.

History is replete with figures who went not just through slumps, but years of practical exile or relegation to obscurity.  But eventually, talent and quality will tell.  The key is to endure the hardship of the Wilderness Years.

Every dog has his day, as the saying goes.

Plutarch tells us, in the proem to his biography of Phocion, something similar to this when he discusses the political career of Cato the Younger:

Cicero remarks that he [Cato] conducted his politics as if he were living in Plato’s Republic, and not in the sewer of real Roman politics.  I would myself compare [Cato’s career] to the way people regard fruit that appears out of season:  they are glad to see it and are amazed by it, but they do not eat it.

In the same way Cato’s old-fashioned ways, coming into conflict as they did after so many generations with corrupted lives and degenerate characters, brought him great repute and fame, but were not fitting to the needs of the time:  the gravity and greatness of such virtue was out of keeping with the circumstances in which he was operating.  [Phocion 3]

Many other famous figures can be recalled who had extended periods of Wilderness Years.  Winston Churchill was forced out of politics after the First World War and was considered by nearly everyone to be finished.  But his star rose again, once the crises of the 1930s gathered momentum.

The singer Frank Sinatra presents another example.  It is not widely remembered now, but Sinatra’s career was not a string of unbroken successes.  It was volatile.  He enjoyed huge success in the 1940s as something of a teen idol to the “bobbysoxers.”  But then as the early 1950s rolled around, things began to change drastically for the worse.

Sinatra’s marriage to his first wife was not going well.  His publicist, George Evans, who had managed Sinatra’s career brilliantly, died suddenly in 1950 at age 48.  Music tastes also shifted with the end of the Second World War.

More bad fortune came to him when rumors started to circulate of his extramarital relationship with actress Ava Gardner.  What is considered acceptable today was not acceptable at all in 1950, and Sinatra found himself steadily losing work as a whispering campaign took place against him in the entertainment world.  And it only got worse after his divorce.

Blackballed from Hollywood, Sinatra was even forced to borrow $200,000 from a movie studio to pay back taxes.  But Sinatra, although a sensitive and thoughtful man, was also a tough survivor.  He knew he was the best singer in the country, and he knew he had to ride out the hard times.

So he took gigs at the Las Vegas casinos and hotels.  In those days, this was practically like going to Outer Mongolia for gigs.  Las Vegas did not have the prestige or status that it has now.  But they were paying, and Sinatra needed work.  So he did what he had to do.  He was willing to go anywhere for a singing gig.

But it was not easy.  He would regularly sing to tiny audiences.  At one gig in Chicago in the early 1950s, only 150 people showed up to see him in an arena that could seat 1200 people.  In April 1952, he actually performed at the Kauaii County Fair in Hawaii.  For an entertainer who only a few years before had been a national sensation, it was a pride-swallowing experience.

But he did what he had to do.  And he waited for his moment.

He still had friends in the movie industry.  And these connections eventually proved valuable to him.  With the release of the film From Here To Eternity in 1953, things began to turn around for Sinatra.  It was the beginning of his career revival.  From then on, all through the 1950s and 1960s, he would act in a large number of films.

The Wilderness Years had passed.  He had ridden them out.  But it was not easy.

It is not enough to be good.  It is not enough to be at the top of your game.  Sometimes, external conditions can inhibit our progress.  But in the end, quality will always rise to the top.  You must be patient, and you must find ways of riding out the hard times.

You do what you have to do.

Because sooner or later, everyone’s luck changes.  And when it does, you will need to be ready to seize the opportunity.


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