- 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
Early-sixties America, the writer Thomas Hine observes, was both obsessed with the future and preoccupied with America’s pioneering past. Disneyland had Frontierland and Tomorrowland. JFK had the New Frontier and the space program. The American suburban house had a futuristic kitchen and an Early American dining room, where families watched “The Jetsons” and “Bonanza.” The Rat Pack offered the same doubleness, at once exhilarating and reassuring: a past of the guys on the block, coming up the hard way, ethnic jokes and attitudes; a future of complete assimilation, wealth, swinging fun, and acceptance.
Consider two standard ethnic jokes from the Rat Pack stage show: (1) Joey Bishop to Frank Sinatra: “Stop singing and tell people about all the good work the Mafia’s been doing.” (2) Frank Sinatra, offstage, to Sammy Davis: “Hurry up, Sam, the watermelon’s getting warm.”
The second “joke” makes for such unamused queasiness now, one wonders if audiences in 1960 really experienced the two remarks as equivalent. It’s impossible to know, because we stand on the far side of a watershed that was fast approaching, in which ethnicity (white) definitively diverged from race (black). American reality in the early 1960s moved so fast that in a very brief time the Rat Pack and the democratic vision they offered would go from daring to embarrassingly stereotypical. They hadn’t changed so much as been outrun.
What’s perhaps hardest to imagine now is how daring their interracial act still was in the Las Vegas of 1960. It was only five years since Davis himself, at the Last Frontier, and Harry Belafonte, at the Riviera, had broken the color line, finally permitted to use the facilities of the hotel and casino rather than be whisked from the stage to their rooms to wait until it was time for the next show. Typical of postwar conditions was the management of the Sands agreeing to drain the pool after some Southern guests saw Sammy swimming in it.
Sinatra, who practiced what he preached about intolerance, was a pioneer as well. Among the earliest proponents of civil rights in show business, he worked and traveled with black musicians, demanding equal treatment for all in restaurants and hotels. Even though Davis was already a star, his inclusion in the Rat Pack was a courageous move. Mixed-race acts were practically nonexistent.
The pressures fell of course mostly on Davis. When, in the summer of 1960, the Rat Pack took the stage to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the Mississippi delegation booed him, and he fought back tears. Frank whispered to him: “Those dirty sons of bitches! Don’t let ‘em get you, Charlie.”
As election time approached, the situation got uglier. When Davis’s fiancée, the Swedish actress May Britt, had come to see the Summit show, Sinatra bearded for him. But now that the wedding plans were public, racist demonstrators picketed him wherever he went. In early September, Davis decided to postpone their October wedding, after invitations had already gone out, to avoid embarrassing the best man, Sinatra, and through him the Kennedy campaign. (Sad as the gesture was, it was not paranoid. Nixon’s people had been making serious political hay out of the insinuation that Kennedy condoned interracial marriage.)
The bitterest blow came in January 1961. After Davis had tirelessly campaigned for JFK, the Kennedy White House asked him please not to attend the Inaugural festivities, which were being produced by Sinatra and other Rat Packers, because an interracial couple might offend elements among Kennedy’s political support.
When JFK was nominated, Sinatra slapped Lawford on the back: “We’re on our way to the White House, buddy boy.”
What the world never tired of reminding the Rat Pack was that race, in postwar America, was not the same as ethnicity. If ethnic identity for white Americans was increasingly symbolic and nostalgic, for blacks race was all too real. Soon the attacks came from the left as well as the right. As the sixties began to gather momentum, the simple fact of Sammy Davis’s inclusion, his symbolic integration in the gang, no longer made a statement. What stood out instead were the watermelon jokes, the Amos ’n’ Andy accents, Sammy’s demeaning role as comical cringing whipping boy. Civil rights would do to the Rat Pack’s implicit racial attitudes what it did, in a few short years, to the Swinging Sixties: make it seem a relic of a backward time.