[10 November 2003]
“You live only once, but if you’ve lived as I have, once is enough.”
This is the stuff legends are made of: a group of astonishingly talented, dapper, handsome fellas from meager means rise to the top of the entertainment industry and establish themselves as worldwide household names. Their antics, successes, failures, and madcap shenanigans are reported in every newspaper and tabloid, eagerly followed by devoted fans who simply can’t get enough. Sounds like a typical Hollywood story, huh? It was. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop - better known as the Rat Pack - were the heroes of yesteryear. All, aside from Bishop, are dead now, but the fascination about the lives of this merry pack continues well beyond their departure to the Great Lounge in the Sky. These guys were the first to embody the definition of “cool,” and no entertainer since has managed to successfully emulate or capture their powerful allure.
Testament to the Rat Pack rep arrives in the form of the recently re-printed book, The Rat Pack: Neon Nights With the Kings of Cool which analyzes in great gossipy style the rise and fall of each Rat Packer. Authors Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell have written a breezy, easy-to-read tome which (surprisingly) provides an objective account of the Rat Pack’s status in the entertainment world and their tumultuous love lives.
As expected, the majority of the book revolves around Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board, and ruler of the almighty Pack, which interestingly had its origins with Humphrey Bogart. Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall regularly held parties at their Holmby Hills house, and on one particular evening, when the regular gang returned to the house after a night of partying, Bacall exclaimed: “You look like a pack of rats.” As Quirk and Schoell write: “The name stuck and the Rat Pack was born.”
After his Oscar win for the film From Here to Eternity (19xx), Sinatra received a coveted invitation to one of Bogart’s gatherings and became a regular. Though extremely respectful of the great Bogie, he nevertheless resumed an infatuation with Bacall, an on-again, off-again romance that in the end spelled disaster. After Bogart’s death, Sinatra took over the helm, and an offshoot of the original Rat Pack was born, this time featuring song-and-dance man Sammy Davis, Jr., the transplanted British actor Peter Lawford, dashing crooner Dean Martin, and comedian Joey Bishop.
From the late ‘50s until the early ‘60s, the Rat Pack ruled the entertainment industry, exuding a sort of Midas touch that transformed every project - no matter how dismal - into gold. Along with their illustrious singing careers, Sinatra, Martin, and Davis, along with Lawford and Bishop, were tapped to star in a slew of mediocre films which produced only one real success, Ocean’s Eleven (1960). (Two years ago, Hollywood decided to bank on the enduring Rat Pack magic, and remade the film, this time starring George Clooney and a slew of other Hollywood glitterati.) They are best remembered, however, for their appearances at the now-defunct Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where night after night, they belted their favorite tunes and cracked off-color jokes in a semi-drunken stupor to an adoring crowd.
At the peak of their fame, their paths became intertwined with another shooting star - presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy. In the chapter titled “The Jack Pack,” the authors detail a bizarre period in the Rat Pack saga which began with Peter Lawford’s marriage to JFK’s sister, Patricia Lawford, and Sinatra’s desire to ingratiate himself with the presidential candidate (an odd choice for someone who enjoyed mob connections and friendships with the likes of Sam “Momo” Giancana and the ruthless Mickey Cohen).
As Quirk and Schoell write:
Sinatra had always been in awe of people with ‘class,’ and to him the Kennedy family had it in spades . . . the Kennedys were actually vulgarians of the first order . . . but to Sinatra’s debased viewpoint they were the epitome of gentility and breeding.
Thus began the era of the Jack Pack, which witnessed Sinatra and his gang schmoozing with the Massachusetts politician and greatly assisting his election to the presidency. As the story goes, JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, even asked Sinatra’s help in using his mob influences to rally support for the Catholic candidate in the largely Protestant West Virginia. Sinatra obliged, and JFK swept the state. Eventually, however, it was Sinatra’s mob connections that later led the newly elected president to distance himself from his old pal. To JFK, Sinatra merely served as a sort of matchmaker who could introduce the philandering politico to a slew of women. Once elected, the friendship gradually fell to the wayside, and the so-called liberal president even shocked various members of his own family when he forbade the African-American Sammy Davis Jr., then engaged to white actress Mai Britt, from attending his inauguration.
A Harlem-born entertainer who had to struggle his way to the top of the entertainment heap, Davis was undoubtedly the most talented member of the Rat Pack. His talent was indisputable, but the times were rife with prejudice, and to his dying day, Davis thanked his friend and benefactor Sinatra (who was a diehard Civil Rights advocate) for taking him under his wing and giving him the break in show business he deserved. It was also through Davis’s insistence that restrictions began to ease regarding African-American patronage. Quirk and Schoell explain that “It was largely through his [Davis’s] efforts, his refusing to accept the status quo, that blacks were eventually admitted to casinos and into many of the tony downtown clubs.”
Though The Rat Pack focuses mainly on the professional attributes of each Rat Packer, the story is set against a backdrop of their often loud and boisterous personal lives. The authors painstakingly detail Sinatra’s tumultuous marriages to Nancy Barbato, and the actresses Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow; Martin’s marriage to second wife Jeanne, and his alarming penchant for booze; Lawford’s downward spiral from Hollywood actor and brother-in-law of JFK to a mere has-been; and Sammy’s brave union with white actress Mai Britt and his continual fight against racism. Only Bishop, who was often referred to as the “mouse,” seems devoid of personal strife, happily married and satisfied to dabble in comedy whenever the opportunity permits.
Martin comes across as the most interesting of the group. The handsome, charming, hard-drinking, chronic-gambling crooner was the only member of Sinatra’s clan who pretty much did as he pleased, and as the authors explain, “Dean was never one to kowtow to Frank, their mob buddies, or anyone else on the planet.” He never had to; his talent spoke for itself.
The Rat Pack is an interesting account of the lives of a few of America’s most important and influential entertainers. And it’s a must-read for all Rat Pack aficionados, who should put on a Sinatra CD, make themselves a martini, read this engrossing tale, and drink a toast to a legend. Here’s looking at you, gentlemen.