- 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
James Baldwin, the prophetic conscience of the movement, sounded the note as early as 1960: “people . . . are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence—the public existence—of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare—at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare—and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. . . . Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big times reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered.”
For Sammy, the goal had always been his own pioneering inclusion: “Long before there was a civil rights movement I was marching through the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, of the Sands, the Fontainebleau, to a table at the Copa. And I’d marched alone. Worse. Often to black derision.” Now his consciousness began to change. Perhaps his last racially unself-conscious performance was the October 22, 1962, duet with Frank Sinatra of the old soft-shoe standby “Me and My Shadow,” with special lyrics and a witty Billy May arrangement: “We’re closer than smog when it clings to L.A. / We’re closer than Bobby is to JFK. . . . Our clocks don’t chime—they ring-a-ding-ding!”
Sammy was already a committed civil rights activist when, in August 1963, he joined Martin Luther King and a crowd of 250,000 at the historic rally in Washington, D.C. Two weeks later Dean Martin opened at the Sands, and Davis and Sinatra joined him onstage for some Rat Pack routines. “Sammy wanted me to march on Washington,” Martin joked. “I wouldn’t march even if the Italians were marching.” As the disparity grew, it ate like an acid into the humor and good spirits. By the time of the Dismas House benefit in 1965, Davis joked about asking Martin Luther King’s permission to appear, and said at one point, to uneasy laughter from the audience, “I been waitin’ back there so long I was about to call some troops.” He seemed angered by the old NAACP-award gag and by Sinatra’s bossiness. For the Rat Pack, as for the optimistic generation who idolized them, the realities of race seemed to have ended the good times, changed the rules. Davis would continue to perform with the Rat Pack, but from 1963 on he was more and more occupied with solo projects, including a Broadway production of the Clifford Odets play Golden Boy , rewritten as a musical with an interracial romance.
Despite the Rat Pack’s swank, ethnic version of American democracy, they still aspired to forms of authority and power more respectable and “serious” than those available through money and stardom.
One night a special guest came to the Las Vegas Summit. Frank stopped the show to introduce the glamorous young Massachusetts senator John Kennedy. Dean, allergic to politics and most forms of seriousness, broke in: “What did you say his name was?”
The connection between the Rat Pack and Kennedy was no secret, nor was it particularly surprising. Apart from Lawford, all the members had grown up in the urban neighborhoods that were the Democratic party’s strongholds; Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, was a ward boss in Hoboken. The Kennedys were only a generation or two removed from the world of the Irish families Sinatra, for one, had grown up with (his father had boxed under the name Marty O’Brien). It was not hard to see JFK, the Catholic son of a bootlegger, with his chic wife, Harvard polish, and now-respectable wealth, as a fully achieved version of the trajectory of assimilation. Besides, Kennedy’s macho liberalism had much in common with the tough, populist postwar progressivism that Sinatra had long espoused and that the Rat Pack embodied.
Peter Lawford was the key. He provided the personal connection to Kennedy that satisfied at one stroke Sinatra’s idealism and his attraction to power. In 1959 Senator Kennedy had extended a Los Angeles trip and stayed two nights at Sinatra’s Palm Springs estate.
Led by Sinatra, the Rat Pack threw themselves into the Kennedy campaign. Three weeks before the Summit, JFK announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination; his campaign song was “High Hopes,” the theme from Sinatra’s hit 1959 movie A Hole in the Head , with new lyrics by Sammy Cahn: “Everyone wants to back Jack / Jack is on the right track.” The association between politician and entertainers was so close that they were nicknamed the Jack Pack, and Time fretted that “some of JFK’s biggest headaches may well come from the ardently pro-Kennedy clique that is known variously as the Rat Pack or the Clan.”