- Historic Sites
Fly Me To The Moon
Reflections on the Rat Pack Everybody knows what they did. This is what they meant.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
For a number of years the two cultures coexisted. Dean Martin’s biographer Nick Tosches tells how, a few days after “The Times They Are A-Changin'” was released, Martin confidently set to work on a new album. His twelve-year-old son, Dino Jr., was a Beatles fan. “I’m going to knock your little pallies off the charts,” Martin told him. A few months later “Everybody Loves Somebody” unseated the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” as the number one hit record. In 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, Martin had the number one Nielsen TV show. In 1968 Reprise had three gold albums: Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and two Dean Martin records.
But it was a last hurrah. Sinatra as usual was the first to sense the shifting of cultural winds, and for the third time in his career, he brilliantly reinvented himself. His 1965 hit “That’s Life” appropriated the bluesy sound of Ray Charles’s organ and backup singers to fashion a new white blue-collar soul that was about survival within the system rather than opting out or changing it. It perfectly anticipated the moment when many Democratic, white, post-ethnic Americans would abandon their traditional political affiliations to create a powerful neo-conservative Republicanism. It is a straight line from there to Sammy Davis’s famous embrace of Richard Nixon in 1972 to Martin’s and Sinatra’s joining their former political adversary John Wayne in support of Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1985, twenty-four years after producing Kennedy’s Inaugural celebration, Sinatra was back in D.C. to produce Reagan’s.
In the meantime, though, it was the newcomers who were winning the culture war, assisted by the fact that the Rat Pack’s swinging, cavalier attitudes toward sex shaded so easily into callous indifference to women. In 1972 Life magazine called Dean Martin’s TV show “the witless reign of King Leer": The sexual humor was “calculated degradation.” In 1973 the National Organization for Women named Martin’s show, along with Last Tango in Paris , winner of the Keep-Her-in-Her-Place award. Within a year it was off the air.
In Vegas and Atlantic City, Sinatra and Martin were still heroes to their traditional audience. But to the new generation the Rat Pack, who a few years earlier had epitomized racy, progressive cool, were macho boors whose patriotism masked a self-serving complacency.
There’s irony in the fact that the Rat Pack, like the cocktail and the cigar, has lately been taken up as an emblem of a new political incorrectness. The drinking, the smoking, the swinging insouciance seem like a vacation from the economic and political pressures of nineties America.
But there is more to the Rat Pack than adolescent swagger, more even than the sharp-edged dash of their masculine style, though they had plenty of both. For a few short years America’s greatest entertainers kidded and sang their way through our last cultural consensus.