May 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Trying to capture Frank Sinatra, to pull him from behind more than a half century of myth, legend and rumor, is like trying to bottle smoke drifting in limelight. Somewhere in the haze of America’s collective memory, in that vast, darkened room where we rewind and replay our defining moments, stands a man in a tuxedo, his tie pulled loose, a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He steps toward a microphone beneath a single spot, his lips part, and we stop and hold our breath.

Like no one else in a business of fads, frissons and transient sensations, Sinatra created a style all his own—and endured. He had his first hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” in 1940 and his bestselling album, Duets, 53 years later. To bobby-soxers now grown into grandmothers, he was swoon bait; to more than one generation, he was, in the words of the late writer Tommy Thompson, “every man’s advocate in seduction, every man’s ally in romantic defeat.” His voice became our voice, and his songs were—and remain—an emotional soundtrack for the American century.

Of course, he did it his way. He rubbed shoulders with wiseguys, arranged Inaugural celebrations for Presidents of vastly different persuasions (Kennedy and Reagan), brawled drunkenly, gave extravagantly, and loved a roll call of Hollywood royalty with names like Ava, Marilyn, Dietrich and Bacall. (“If I had as many women as you’ve given me credit for,” he once told reporters, “I’d now be speaking to you from a jar in the Harvard Medical School.”) Battered, scotch-fueled, the blue eyes a bit watery, he could, even near the end of his career, pull from his heart the great songs, the phrasings that moved us to romance and hope and whatever gets you through the night. So set ’em up, Joe. There’s no one in the place except you and me…and Frank.

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