Remembering the Rat Pack: When “Cool” Was King

God, they were cool. They were handsome, wore flash suits, chain-smoked, drank swank martinis like there was no tomorrow, gambled, cavorted with crime bosses and politicians alike, had a slew of fleeting paramours, said and did as they pleased, feared no one, and ruled the entertainment world with their formidable talents. They were the Rat Pack: comprised of leader-of-the-Pack Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.

Ah, those were the days: when they owned Vegas — specifically, their stomping ground, the Sands hotel — and Hollywood, and everybody who was anybody wanted a part of the Rat Pack allure. At the height of their success and popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, the Rat Pack (an offshoot of Humphrey Bogart’s Holmby Hills rat pack) dominated the airwaves, the entertainment circuit, TV, the music industry, and films. The mighty Sinatra was the “Voice”; Martin was the happy-go-lucky, dashing crooner and resident wit; Lawford was a handsome Hollywood leading man and brother-in-law of JFK; Bishop was the comedian; and song-and-dance man “Smokey” Davis — “Mr. Wonderful” — was perhaps the most talented of the lot.

Sinatra, the “chairman of the board” bid the world farewell in 1998, at the age of 82. Sinatra said you only live once, but that if you had lived as he had, once was quite enough. And what a life he and his fellow Rat Packers led, indeed. They had elegance, panache, glamour, and an allure of je-ne-sais-quois recklessness. And as one after another died, leaving Bishop by his lonesome, the world realized that an important part of cultural history died with them.

Trends, and more specifically, trendsetters, are a dime a dozen. The world is a fickle place, and given the barrage of styles and entertainers that the entertainment industry offers in huge doses, we are always on the lookout for the next great fad. From the hip-swiveling Elvis to the bad boy Rolling Stones to Punk to Grunge to Hollywood’s eternal offerings of glam actors, the world is consistently bombarded with images of what and who is hot and what and who is not, and we try to adjust accordingly, depending on our tastes. But history, particularly in the entertainment genre, often repeats itself, and the greats always make a comeback beyond the grave. In recent years, we witnessed the return of the hippie ’60s and the retro ’70s, a brief homage to the turbulent punk-rock infested years. It’s been five years since Sinatra died, and it’s safe to say that now, in his great Martini Lounge in the Sky, the chairman of the board and his fellow Rat Packers are laughing about the everlasting impressions they have made, as we’re amid a full-force revival of that “make me a Martini and put on a Sinatra record” era of the Rat Pack years. Talk about making a comeback.

Martini bars started cropping up in droves all around the country a few years ago, serving that oh, so chic and swanky drink to those who could actually stomach it. (I have attended numerous parties and clubs where the drink of choice is a martini, and even those who don’t actually enjoy its taste are eager to nurse a cool-looking martini glass, and nibble on the olives, instead.) The modern touch to this drink is that now it’s offered in a variety of blends: you can actually even order a “cappuccino” or “chocolate” martini these days.

Depending on the city, martini bars are frequented either by well-groomed, successful, conservative-looking professionals who simply have acquired a taste for the drink, or more interestingly, by the Rat Pack and Swing aficionados who are eager to revive the music and lifestyle of those yesteryears. And there are thousands of these slick-looking, wanna-be Rat Packers who trail to Swing clubs and prefer to groove to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Daylight hours you’ll find them rummaging through used CD shops for rare Sinatra and Martin records. Browse through the weekend section of any paper, and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the number of swing dance clubs and “lounges” that are advertised. Lounges, in particular, which pay respect to the art of dignified drinking, are now de rigueur.

The Rat Pack comeback is largely thanks to Doug Liman’s 1996 movie, Swingers, which immortalized this group forever and has become a cult classic. Detailing the lives of a few hip-talking, swank-dressing 20-somethings in Los Angeles, Swingers deftly portrays the popularity of these modern Rat Packers who pay homage to their late, great heroes, and are cooler than cool. Yes, they sip martinis, smoke, frequent exclusive clubs, and speak their own slang (most likely, another homage to Sinatra’s “Franken-slang) — all this, intermingled with a soundtrack peppered with Dean Martin tracks.

Hollywood then attempted to bank on the Rat Pack allure with the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, this time starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt who, though swell, couldn’t quite capture the essence of Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and Co. And this year’s Down With Love, starring Ewan MacGregor and Rene Zellwegger, also harkens back to that glamorous ’60s era when, for some reason or another, everybody seemed better looking and more elegant. HBO also produced the tremendously popular Rat Pack starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, which brilliantly captured the rise and fall of the “Summit” (as they were also known). Perhaps Hollywood is onto something, and this is the start of cashing in on its glamorous past.

But try as they may, no one has equaled the original Rat Pack in talent, ingenuity, charisma, and power. Their love lives were front-page news: Sinatra’s messy divorce from Nancy Barbato, and tumultuous marriage and on-again/off-again relationship with actress Ava Gardner, and African-American entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.’s ground-breaking marriage to white actress May Britt, were household gossip. Actor Peter Lawford married into the Kennedy clan, which resulted in the questionable association of the Kennedy campaign with Sinatra and his crime boss pals, particularly Momo Giancanna, who according to wide-spread rumors, played a shady role in Kennedy’s successful presidential election. Sinatra and Lawford also introduced Marilyn Monroe to both JFK and brother Robert, leading to affairs between the actress and both brothers that put the Kennedys in hot water when Monroe took her life a few years later.

Cavorting with politicians seems to be a popular pastime for the glitterati these days, but the Rat Pack were the real movers and shakers of their time. Barbara Streisand can hobnob with the Clintons, and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins can plead the case for saving the spotted owl, but Sinatra and his pals were instrumental in putting Kennedy into office. That’s power. Sinatra played a crucial role in helping Sammy Davis, Jr. get his start, and it’s an established fact that Davis’ success broke barriers for a slew of other African-African entertainers. Drinking like fish, gambling, and scandalous affairs and consistent cheating is now part and parcel of an entertainer’s lifestyle, but, again, no one did this as brazenly and boldly as those long-gone perennial bad boys who shocked a nation with their wayward ways and dalliances. Yet they managed to be forgiven quickly by an adoring nation that, no matter what they did, always admired their astonishing talents. Somehow, at the end of the day, they always came across as perfect gentlemen. And speaking of talent, have you met anyone, no matter what their age, who hasn’t heard of Sinatra or Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr.? The entertainment industry has failed to offer as alluring and intriguing a group since the Rat Pack; no one has even come close. They were the harbingers of the “we do as we please” attitude which so many have since attempted to emulate.

There is a great scene in the film The Rat Pack in which Dean Martin turns to Joey Bishop after their show at the Sands hotel and says:

The world is drunk, and we’re just the cocktail of the moment, paly. One of these days, everybody’s going to wake up with a heck of a hangover, down two aspirin with a glass of tomato juice, and wonder what the hell all the fuss was about.”

Martin, the perpetual cynic, foresaw that his merry gang was perhaps only a fleeting trend, but he was wrong. Sorry, Dino. You, Frank, and the rest of our favorite bad boys can rest assured that the Rat Pack may be gone, but not forgotten. Martinis are still being ordered, there are still smokers in this world, and most of us still tap our feet when we hear your tunes. R.I.P. Amen.