They were cooler than cool. They were the guys men wanted to hang with. The guys women wanted to be with. They drank. Smoked. Gambled. Caroused. They lived hard and played harder. So what was there about the ‘rat pack’ that made them so cool?
To begin with, let’s go back to the origins of the so called pack.
The original rat pack, formed in the 50’s, referred to a group of entertainers whose habit it was to party, hang, and generally drift in and out of the Holmby Hills home of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Those belonging to this group included such laudables as: Errol Flynn, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, David Niven, and yes, Frank Sinatra.
By the sixties, the group had evolved with Frank Sinatra, more or less, becoming the head honcho. This newer group did not, for the record, call themselves ‘the rat pack’ but rather ‘the summit’ or ‘the clan’. (The press and the public, however, continued to refer to them as the rat pack). Aside from Sinatra, members included: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The women in their sphere included: Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Shirley MacLaine, and Juliet Prowse, many of whom appeared in movies with them.
And speaking of those movies (Ocean’s Eleven, Some Came Running, 4 For Texas, Robin and the Seven Hoods, The Cannonball Run, and others), though they weren’t too weighty in subject matter, they were memorable for one thing: the fact that it looked as if these hell raisers always seemed to be having an incredibly good time.
Audiences wanted in on that good time.
They often showcased in Las Vegas, particularly at hotels such as the Dunes and the Sands. (For the record, our family managed to save a Sands coffee mug before the hotel imploded in the nineties). Here, the pack would arbitrarily ‘crash’ one another’s performances by adlibbing, coming up with crazy antics, and tearing up the joint, so to speak. As Sinatra was known to say, “You gotta love livin’ ‘cause dyin’s a pain in the ass.” Their act always seemed to include plenty of in jokes and an adoring public ate it up and romanticized them -- so much so that they always appeared before sell-out crowds.
Each man had different personas. Sinatra was the chief and everyone knew it. Others deferred to him. Martin presented himself as an amiable fellow with a love affair with alcohol (this probably was somewhat of an exaggeration, at least until his later years.) Sammy Davis was possibly the most gifted entertainer of them all. He sang, danced, joked, acted. You name it, Sammy did it and he did it to perfection. Bishop was the mascot, a jokester with deadpan humor. And then there was Lawford. Film actor Peter Lawford’s role in the group was very interesting.
He was married to Patricia, President John Kennedy’s sister. As brother-in-law to the president, he was the conduit between the White House and Hollywood. As such, he was instrumental in having “introduced” Kennedy to actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. (It might be said that Lawford was the ultimate Hollywood pimp). He also drew his friends into the political arena. The pack entertained at the Democratic Convention in L.A. in 1960, campaigning heavily for JFK’s election.
In 1963 Lawford made what would turn out to be a monumental mistake. He asked Sinatra to have Kennedy be his guest at his Palm Springs home. Sinatra was understandably honored and went to great lengths to prepare for the president’s visit. However, Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and, then, Attorney General, quickly intervened. He felt that Sinatra’s home was unsuitable due to the singer’s questionable connections with mobsters such as Sam Giancana. (For the incredible irony here, I refer you to a previous blog of mine about mistresses entitled, “My Wife Doesn’t Understand Me…Yada, Yada, Yada.) Instead, Kennedy would spend time at the home of another crooner -- Bing Crosby. When Lawford informed Sinatra of the change in plans Sinatra became outraged and cut Lawford out of his life from that point forward.
Sinatra, Davis, and Martin went on a revival tour in the eighties and when Martin had to drop out he was replaced, successfully, by Liza Minelli.
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in the rat pack, particularly amongst young people who, having rediscovered what is often referred to as martini music, have embraced the group’s irreverent behavior.
There’s no doubt that these guys left their marks in the fifties and sixties and that their “ring-a-ding” ways represented a seemingly carefree and often enviable lifestyle.
Peter Lawford died at 61 in 1984 as a result of cardiac arrest due to liver failure.
Sammy Davis Jr. died at 64 in 1990 due to complications of throat cancer.
Dean Martin died at 78 in 1995 as a result of heart failure due to emphysema. It’s been said that Martin’s health deteriorated after his son Dean “Dino” Martin, Jr. was killed in a plane crash in 1987. Martin never really recovered from this devastating loss.
Frank Sinatra died at 82 in 1998 from heart failure.
Joey Bishop, the only one of the pack to remain married to the same woman for 58 years, outlived them all. He died in 2007 at the age of 89.
Thanks for joining me on this week’s journey along,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED,