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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
Bogart in fact is central to Rat Pack history. In 1949 Sinatra had moved his family from L.A.'s Toluca Lake to Holmby Hills, just blocks from Bogart’s house, and the Hollywood rookie was inducted into a group of the film star’s drinking buddies. In June 1955 a dozen of them rented a train to catch Noël Coward’s opening act at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas: Sinatra, Bogart, Judy Garland, David Niven, the agent Irving (“Swifty”) Lazar, the composer Jimmy Van Heusen and his date, Angie Dickinson, and a few others. The story goes that when Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, saw the drunken crew all together in the casino, she told them, “You look like a goddamn rat pack,” and they laughed. A few nights later at Romanoff’s restaurant in Beverly Hills, she repeated the wisecrack: “I see the rat pack’s all here.” Bogart thereupon formally founded the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, devising a coat of arms—a rat gnawing on a human hand—and a motto: “Never rat on a rat.” Frank was named Pack Master; Bacall, Den Mother; Garland, Vice President; Lazar, Treasurer and Recording Secretary. Bogart was Rat in Charge of Public Relations. He declared the Rat Pack was formed “for the relief of boredom and the perpetuation of independence. We admire ourselves and don’t care for anyone else.”
Sinatra liked having people around him, and after Bogart died in 1957, he assembled his own court. Some had been beneficiaries of Frank’s patronage. Joey Bishop, who grew up Joseph Gottlieb in South Philadelphia, the son of a bicycle repairman, was known as the Frown Prince of Comedy for his world-weary style. He had knocked around the burlesque and nightclub circuit for years when Sinatra spotted him in New York in 1952 and saw that he was booked on the same bill with him. Sammy Davis, Jr., was another. Singing with the Dorsey band in 1941, Frank had befriended the aspiring dancer, then part of the Will Mastin Trio; they reconnected after Sammy was discharged from the Army, and Frank helped the trio get work. In 1946 he insisted that New York’s Capitol Theater book the Mastins as his opening act at $1,250 a week, a sum that stunned Sammy’s partners.
Dean Martin had come up as a singer very much in Sinatra’s mold. In September 1943 reviewers touted a new act at New York’s tony Riobamba Club: “In Sinatra’s singing spot is a chap . . . who sounds like him, uses the same arrangements of the same songs and almost looks like him.” They didn’t meet until June 1948 after Martin had teamed up with Jerry Lewis, and the first impression didn’t impress. “The dago’s lousy,” Sinatra said, “but the little jew is great.” (Rather different was Louis B. Mayer’s assessment of the duo’s film prospects: “The guinea’s not bad, but what do I do with the monkey?") By the early fifties, though, the fellow Capitol recording artists had grown close, and they sealed their friendship in 1958 on the set of Some Came Running , which also featured the future Rat Packette Shirley MacLaine. In January 1959 Sinatra joined Martin for the first time on the stage of the Sands, setting the tone and format for the Rat Pack shows. Variety reported: “Martin, a heavyweight who appeals to both distaffers and their gaming escorts, sparks casino activity even if he doesn’t double as stage performer and blackjack dealer—which he usually does. First-nighters got an extra added attraction—Frank Sinatra joined his Great & Good friend onstage, and the pair put on one of the best shows ever seen at the Sands.”
It was a good thing, for the Sands, for Las Vegas, for the people whose money built all those modernistic hotels. Earlier that month Fidel Castro had marched into Havana and seized casinos that earned the mob millions annually. The pressure was now on Las Vegas, where the mob—with financing courtesy of the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund—had in the course of the 1950s invested in such new hotels as the Fremont and the Dunes. The Sands was the classiest, and it offered incentives to hold on to top talent. In 1958 Sinatra’s percentage in the hotel and casino was raised from two to nine points, and Dean Martin was sold a point. With Davis and Bishop already signed to long-term contracts, the Sands was the de facto home of the Rat Pack well before the Summit.
The fifth member of the Pack, suave, London-born Peter Lawford, was an actor and entertainer who had landed a contract with MGM when he was twenty but never broke into serious leading roles. By the late fifties he wasn’t doing much, but he had other assets: His wife was Jack Kennedy’s sister Pat. Sinatra chatted up the Lawfords in 1958 at a party at Gary and Rocky Cooper’s house, and they all got so close so quickly that when the Lawfords’ daughter was born in November of that year, she was christened Victoria Frances, for Uncle Jack’s re-election to the Senate that day and in honor of their new best friend. Sinatra clearly relished the Kennedy connection; his Rat Pack nickname for Peter was Brother-in-Lawford.