Fly Me To The Moon

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On January 19, 1961, at a gala in Washington’s National Armory on the eve of his Inauguration, President-elect John Kennedy made a remarkable gesture. He rose to tell the crowd, “We’re all indebted to a great fnettes—Frank Sinatra.”

 

On January 19, 1961, at a gala in Washington’s National Armory on the eve of his Inauguration, President-elect John Kennedy made a remarkable gesture. He rose to tell the crowd, “We’re all indebted to a great fnettes—Frank Sinatra.”

It was an act of legitimation, Camelot’s ;; first knighting: it marked the official ascendancy of Sinatra and, through him, of the rakish group of confederates known as the Rat Pack. For a few brief years the Rat Pack would be the swinging minstrels of Camelot, and the values and aspirations they embodied would have the imprimatur of presidential authority and enormous cultural cachet.

Just a year before, this unlikely group of entertainers, all loosely gathered around Sinatra, had been in Las Vegas to shoot a movie and do two nightclub shows each evening, spending most of the hours in between at all-night parties. Billed, with intentional swagger, as “the Summit” (a reference to the coming conference of Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and Khrushchev), their act took off like a rocket, its momentum carrying them beyond the three-week club date into movie and record and business deals, reprises in Miami, Atlantic City, and Palm Springs, power and influence unusual even for movie stars. The Rat Pack would do more than dominate show business. They would be both actors in and emblems of the carnivalesque, Janus-faced period called the Swinging Sixties, a postwar moment that staged the last stand of a half-century-old urban popular culture and contained the seeds of the suburban, post-ethnic America that would, in the course of that cataclysmic decade, supplant it.

On stage and off, the Rat Pack “swung” in every sense of the term, sending up the square world with a bravado that took mainstream the rebellious poses of rock and roll and predicted the sexual revolution we now associate with a different generation and a slightly later period. The Rat Pack announced that a new generation was laying claim to American tradition and to the right to define American Cool: one black, one Jew, two Italians, and one feckless Hollywoodized Brit, three of them second-generation immigrants, four raised during the Depression in ethnic city neighborhoods. Successful, self-assured, casual, occasionally vulgar, they were sign and symptom of what the war had done to the American WASP class system. The Rat Pack were more than entertainers, and the Summit was more than a stage act. It was a giddy version of multiethnic American democracy in which class was replaced by “class.”

 
When Bogart’s wife saw the drunken crew in the casino, she told them, “You look like a goddamn rat pack.”

No one understood how fragile it was. The brassy music, the camaraderie, the power, sex, and sharp male stylishness—it all depended on a potentially explosive mix of elements held together for a moment in a high-wire drama: Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and the Las Vegas underworld; white and black; sophistication and vulgarity; rebellion and tuxedoed respect for tradition, especially the Tin Pan Alley and theater song tradition that with the Rat Pack had its last run at the hit parade.

That night at the Armory was the zenith. In months the glue that held the complicated moment together would begin to dissolve.

Can’t We Be Friends?—Rat Pack Origins

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, like Perry Como and others of their generation, had cut their teeth on Bing Crosby’s intimate, crooning style, made possible by the microphone. Earlier singers trained in the music hall—Jolson, for instance—had been belters. Crosby sounded as if he were singing from his bedroom, and the younger performers learned from him new ways of using their voices to insinuate emotional nuance and sexuality. With Crosby, though, the sexuality, like the public persona, always remained polite and avuncular. Sinatra and Martin and the Rat Pack instead exuded machismo and danger, a style lent authority by their known associations with powerful and violent men. Postwar Americans had learned to take their popular culture spiked with a touch of risk, and Sinatra had molded his adult image on the sensitive tough guys portrayed in the movies by Humphrey Bogart.