Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The accused: Francis Albert Sinatra.

The crime: Being a velvet-voiced, blue-eyed 22-year-old with a weakness for promising women the moon and the stars.

Today, this kind of dangling of the carrot happens all the time with no greater repercussions for a playboy than a few drunken late-night phone calls or a desperate 18-page love letter from the forlorn. But in 1938, as the cover photo of The Sinatra Files attests, not all paramours got away with broken promises. The photograph is a mug shot from Sinatra’s arrest for “seduction under a false promise of marriage,” one of many juicy tidbits offered in the book, a collection of files culled from a 1,275-page dossier of surveillance records and edited by brothers Tom and Phil Kuntz. The records detail the intense scrutiny with which J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI dogged Sinatra, hungry for evidence of his suspected ties to the mob, the Reds, and the kind of women who could bring a great man down.

Phil Kuntz, an investigative reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, has firsthand knowledge of the voracious appetite the public has for this sort of information. The brothers’ interest in such projects started when Tom, who is an editor and writer for the New York Times, excerpted records of the Titanic hearings in the paper’s “Word for Word” section (a feature he introduced in 1994). He got such a huge response to the article that he found an agent, put the records into book form in 1998, and—helped no doubt by the success of the Oscar-winning film—sold almost 200,000 copies. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal later hit the fan, Phil latched onto the idea and, with Tom’s agent, edited a best-selling book excerpting evidence from that case.

Given the popularity of the books and the ease with which they put them together, the Kuntz brothers were looking for other potential projects when the FBI released the Sinatra documents. “It’s a fun little thing to do, because you can take these documents and tell a story,” Phil Kuntz says. The book is a surprisingly smooth read, but with Sinatra on the front, “it almost doesn’t matter what’s inside,” he admits. This, however, is a case when you can judge the book by its cover: The salacious details—tame though some may seem to modern readers—are as captivating as young Sinatra’s indifferent stare. Describing what draws him—and, he’s hoping, large audiences—to such publications, Phil trots out the old axiom: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”—Tricia Olszewski