- 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
It was,still great entertainment, but it was more about music and less about America.
But a fuse lit at the Vegas Summit was about to blow up in their faces. On February 27, 1962, J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to Att. Gen. Robert Kennedy: Judith Campbell’s telephone records showed calls to both JFK’s personal secretary at the White House and Giancana in Chicago. RFK, alarmed and angry, knew where the problem lay, and he insisted his brother cut off relations with Sinatra and friends. On March 22, two days before the scheduled Palm Springs visit, Peter Lawford was told to inform Sinatra that the President would stay with Bing Crosby instead. When Lawford left the house, Sinatra grabbed a sledge-hammer and destroyed the heliport.
Though Sinatra cursed out Bobby Kennedy, Lawford took the brunt of it. “He felt that I was responsible for setting Jack up to stay at Bing’s—Bing Crosby, of all people—the other singer and a Republican to boot.” Sinatra never forgave him, and Lawford never performed again with Sinatra or any other member of the Rat Pack.
Any illusion of Sinatra’s influence with the Kennedys evaporated. “He can’t get change for a quarter” is how Giancana put it, who felt Sinatra owed him and who was having trouble getting performance dates out of the Rat Pack for his clubs. “Let’s show ‘em,” one of Giancana’s men says to him in a secret FBI recording. “Let’s show those asshole Hollywood fruitcakes that they can’t get away with it as if nothing’s happened. Let’s hit Sinatra. Or I could whack out a couple of those other guys. Lawford and that Martin.” “No,” Giancana replies, “I’ve got other plans for them.”
In November, Sinatra, Martin, and Davis played three free nights for the grand opening of the remodeled Villa Venice, Giancana’s restaurant and casino in Northbrook, Illinois. FBI agents interviewed them in their suites at the Ambassador East Hotel. Sinatra said he was performing as a favor to the owner, Leo Olsen. And Sammy? “Baby, that’s a very good question. But I have to say it’s for my man Francis.” “Or friends of his?” “By all means.”
All that was left of the astonishingly hubristic attempt to marry the dark, powerful forces of ethnic past and the new might of American present was indebtedness to the dark side. Moreover, the rift with the Kennedys began a drift away from the buoyancy of the early sixties and would culminate on the day in November 1963—the Rat Pack was filming the graveyard scene in Robin and the Seven Hoods —that the President was assassinated in Dallas. Sinatra didn’t attend the funeral. “It just wasn’t possible to invite him,” Lawford said. “He’d already been too much of an embarrassment to the family.”
With the end of Camelot, the high spirits and the high hopes the Rat Pack embodied seemed somehow off the point. Sinatra, Martin, and Davis would continue to perform together—Bishop’s services were no longer required as the act evolved away from its loose free-for-all—but became increasingly invested in their solo careers: Frank went from Leader of the Rat Pack to Chairman of the Board, Sammy became the Golden Boy, Dean became Matt Helm and got his own TV show. They were bigger successes than ever, but the heart had gone out of it. When they did work together, the improvised Army buddy camaraderie gave way to a rehearsed show business routine. It was great entertainment, funny, riveting, swinging, but it was more about music and less about America.
Or, rather, what “America” meant was changing, and fast. The pivotal year was 1964. In January, while “Dean Martin & Friend” performed at the Sands with a bar cart on the stage, a Capitol record titled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit the charts. Two months later Bob Dylan released “The Times They Are A-Changin'.” Martin himself introduced the Rolling Stones on a TV special that year.
A new generation was flexing its cultural muscles, and to it, the sixties would mean not Vegas and Miami, casual suburban luxury, and postwar success, but civil rights and Vietnam. For the newcomers the tuxedoed Rat Pack with their smirks and highballs evoked not the giddy upward flight of successive generations who hoped to scale the walls of the Establishment but the crass materialism that made the Establishment the horror it was.
The rock music that defined the new culture was a radical break from the Rat Pack’s modernism: earnest rather than sly, naive rather than sophisticated, “countrified” rather than urbane, striving for a rough authenticity rather than a swinging polish. In this new culture, ethnicity seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant; it was meaningless to ask what the ethnic background of the Byrds, the Beach Boys, or Jefferson Airplane was. In music, as in other aspects of suburbanizing post-modern America, the multifariousness of ethnicity would be eclipsed by the polarity of race.