nytlogo379x64
BOOK REVIEW, Sunday, March 7, 2004

FRANKIE & JONATHAN

by James Gavin


Jonathan255
Photo by Librado Romero

ALL IN GOOD TIME 
A Memoir. 
By Jonathan Schwartz. 
283 pp. New York: 
Random House. $24.95.


LIKE HIM or loathe him, Jonathan Schwartz -- the stubbornly opinionated, shamelessly pontifical Manhattan disc jockey -- deserves to be called a ''personality,'' that title applied to D.J.'s in the days before niche-marketed, corporate radio formatting wiped so much character off the airwaves. Currently heard on WNYC and XM Satellite Radio after years on WNEW-AM and its successor, WQEW, Schwartz, now 65, has an old-fashioned radio voice: cultivated and sonorous, with a delivery made for the classic pop standards he plays. He upholds them convincingly as high art. Certainly he has helped rescue his hero, Frank Sinatra, from the kitschy lounge-lizard status he seemed to have sunk into. If, to some ears, Schwartz's vision of America's finest pop leans toward the white-bread and bourgeois -- Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli and Ella Fitzgerald in her ''Song Book'' phase set the general level of funkiness -- no one can call the music he plays unintelligent. In a dumbed-down age, we can be grateful for that. Along the way he has published four books of fiction and nonfiction.

But those who define themselves, ultimately, through their taste in the work of others often end up scrambling to prove their own worth, and Schwartz is known for an ego that many find unbearable. He interrupts his playing of music to dissect baseball for minutes on end; to ladle out showoffy minutiae about Sinatra recording dates; to make grand pronouncements on the greatest singers in the world, the best CD of the year. When he interviews stars like Lena Horne and Clint Eastwood, one feels him straining to seem as important as they are, with all his dropping of names and trivia. Most guests can hardly get a word in edgewise. Nancy Sinatra's hysterical published allegations, in 1998, that Schwartz was ''an evil man'' who had ''bootlegged my father's records'' suggest his ease in making enemies.

Behind every monstrous ego, of course, is a small, trembling, damaged one. And Schwartz's somber new memoir -- with its blandly upbeat title, ''All in Good Time'' -- explains a lot about what made him the way he is. Spare, elegantly written and scrupulously free of pomposity, it's hardly recognizable as the work of the man on the radio. Schwartz describes the plight of growing up in Beverly Hills and Manhattan in the dwarfing presence of a famous father: Arthur Schwartz (1900-84), who composed standards like ''Dancing in the Dark,'' ''By Myself,'' ''You and the Night and the Music'' and ''That's Entertainment.'' Among the songwriting masters of his day, Schwartz is a now-faded name who lacked the star quality of Porter, Berlin or Coward. But his hit tunes -- set to words by Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Leo Robin and, most famously, Howard Dietz -- live on as breathless, soaring displays of bygone Broadway and Hollywood glamour. They sound like outpourings of the most romantic heart.

As described here, though, the composer -- a dandyish smoothie on the surface -- was a distant, neglectful parent, so alienating that his son refers to him throughout much of the book as Arthur. Jonathan suspected his father ''couldn't stand'' him, and the consequences, for the author, were grave: years of alcoholism, a stay in a mental ward and a near suicide, attributed to what he once drunkenly termed his father's ''altogether stinko performance in life.''

In fact, Arthur was frantically tending to Jonathan's mother, the 1930's Broadway ingénue Kay Carrington, whose frighteningly high blood pressure kept her near the brink of death. As they traveled to doctors all over the country, a housekeeper minded their only son. Left to himself, he wandered around Beverly Hills, spying through windows and lurking in strangers' homes to gape at happy family scenes. Insecurity racked him: ''I'm afraid of going to sleep,'' he writes of his grade-school self. ''I'm afraid of practically everyone in my class. . . . I'm afraid of holes in bedsheets, that mice will bite off my toes.''

At summer camp, Jonathan -- acned, perspiring and ''a not especially ingratiating presence,'' he allows -- was ridiculed and abused. After the family moved to the Upper East Side of New York City, he was shipped off to boarding school. ''I simply wasn't worthy of living with my parents, and that was that,'' he concluded. But he was there when his mother died a gruesome, bloody death. In that poignant episode, son winds up consoling father, who seems oblivious of the 14-year-old's anguish. Arthur went on to marry his secret mistress, Mary Grey. The author recalls her as a foulmouthed shrew who belittled him obscenely while Arthur stood by. ''No matter what you do, you'll never surpass your father,'' she told him indelibly.

He had already found an alternative: spinning his father's music on the Victrola and playing D.J. He later made enterprising use of the Electronic Baby Sitter, an intercom device with which parents could monitor nursery sounds on a low AM radio frequency. Discovering he could broadcast music to his parents' rooms and to nearby apartments, he found an identity: ''That is who I am. I am those songs.'' He grew so obsessed that he even agreed to let a record-store clerk masturbate him in exchange for all the LP's he wanted.

HIS mania paid off. In 1958 he made his debut on WBAI; nine years later he became a rock D.J. on WNEW-FM. With FM emerging as an experimental format, he saw the chance to prove himself an artist. A long shift on the air, he learned, ''could build into a moody work of fiction, often autobiographical, frequently alive with joy.'' In 1971, he started his AM show of classic pop. The centerpiece was Sinatra, whose macho swagger, combined with a boyish vulnerability, was the model that Schwartz aspired to. He even undertook a side career as a cabaret crooner: ''an ersatz Sinatra,'' he admits. But his hero, like his father, would let him down. Broadcasting in 1980, the D.J. spent a hefty chunk of his show panning a bombastic space-age suite in a new Sinatra set, ''Trilogy,'' as ''narcissistic'' and ''a shocking embarrassment.'' Sinatra savaged him by phone, then got him suspended.

These are bitter memories, and they're not lightened much by the author's graceful prose or his interesting detours into the pop history he witnessed. Many such memoirs seem like a reaching-out to other troubled souls; not this one. It's unclear what Schwartz's goal was in writing this book: Did he want revenge? Catharsis? Sympathy? To elevate his life to the poetic realm of a Sinatra album? He writes about his happy marriage to Elinor Renfield, a theater director. But on the air he's still the same Jonathan, and as ''All in Good Time'' ends, he seems anything but at peace.