Call it the Rat Pack Inaugural.
Frank Sinatra will produce and direct the two inaugural galas later this week. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. will join in the weekend's festivities. Movies and millions of records, television and Broadway, nightclubs and charity benefits have made these three men as recognizable as the president they honor. They are fixed and familiar icons, with nicknames that suggest the iconic: "The Chairman of the Board," "Mr. Entertainment."
Nearly forgotten is their membership in what came to be known as the Rat Pack, a group that forged a brand of '50s cool and whose way of life, in its various revisions, is also beginning to coalesce as '80s style. In the history of style, the Rat Pack may be as important as the Lost Generation.
The Rat Pack always maintained more than a passing acquaintance with politics. The fourth member, Peter Lawford, who recently died, was for a time the most celebrated of the Kennedy in-laws. Shirley MacLaine, the group's "mascot," quibbled with Sinatra over the 1972 election (she supported McGovern, he Nixon). Davis literally embraced Nixon in what became perhaps the most vivid photograph of that campaign (this week, he'll also headline a NCPAC soiree). And Sinatra himself, after raising millions for Kennedy, became a golfing buddy of Spiro Agnew.
But if members of the Rat Pack have attended and entertained at inaugurals past (Joey Bishop, the last member, was the master of ceremonies at the Kennedy gala, produced by Lawford and Sinatra), it is no coincidence that Reagan would tap Sinatra (as he did in 1981) as major-domo. Reagan is intimately acquainted with Rat Pack cool -- he's a sort of seventh member come late to the party.
The Rat Pack originated as an informal nightclub act at the end of the '50s, playing the "big rooms" at the casinos in Las Vegas (always just "Vegas"). Billed as "four kings and a court jester" (Bishop), the act arose serendipitously from offstage friendships, of which Sinatra was the ringleader and common thread: Martin knew Sinatra from the old days at the Paramount Theater (now an office building); Bishop kicked off Sinatra's nightclub act as early as 1951; Lawford seems to have met him as a fellow MGM actor; and Davis had been a longtime friend and prote'ge' (as part of the Will Mastin Trio, he introduced Sinatra at New York's Capitol Theater in 1947).
"Originally, we would draw straws to see who would appear that night," recalls Bishop. "And one night I drew the small straw. I was up there, and they decided to have some fun. So from that night on, we all did it instead of one person."
A reporter for Life, unable to penetrate their privacy, christened them "The Clan." But Sinatra, as one of Humphrey Bogart's best friends and the sometime escort of his widow, Lauren Bacall, inherited the trademark "the Rat Pack" -- Bacall had given it to Bogart's carousing crew dedicated to his maxim, "The whole world is three drinks behind and it's time it caught up." Members denied that any such thing existed. "Now look -- that Clan business -- I mean that's hokey," Lawford once said. "I mean it makes us sound like children -- like we all wore sweat shirts that said 'The Clan.' "
Onstage, the Rat Pack's "Summit Meetings" consisted, remembered columnist Earl Wilson, of "unpredictable performances, which they enjoyed as much as the audiences and, in some cases, when they were drinking more than the audience." The atmosphere was casual, no different, really, than when any five guys sang songs, told jokes and did impressions at a party in a finished basement in the Bronx. When the act was over, their raillery would continue into the odd hours of the night, trailing showgirls and assorted hangers-on, drinking bourbon (and often pouring it on themselves or the performers they good-naturedly heckled). Drinking a lot, Davis wrote, was "a prerequisite for being a Clan member."
"It carried on offstage like any group of guys who have a mutual admiration society," remembers Bishop. "It was fun. If somebody went to the health club, we all went to the health club. Most of the time, I must say in all respect to Frank, we were being led somewhere after our show to go help a lesser-known performer. Rickles, for example. Shecky. They were working in lounges then. Frank said, 'C'mon, let's go over there, cheer 'em up.' And that was kind of an endorsement."
The Rat Pack became "the innest in group in the world," according to Playboy, driving identical expensive Dual Ghias and wearing clothes from Sy Devore's Hollywood boutique. Taking their lead from Sinatra, they became avatars of middle-aged abandon, rebels with receding hairlines. As Gay Talese would later write, Sinatra was "the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has the money, the energy, and no apparent guilt."
But Sinatra couldn't do precisely anything; the Kennedys distanced themselves from Sinatra, perhaps because of stories of alleged underworld connections, perhaps because the Rat Pack got too much publicity of an unpresidential kind. Reportedly, Sinatra was enraged when Kennedy, vacationing in Palm Springs, decided to stay with Bing Crosby instead; and Lawford, the messenger bearing the bad news, was excommunicated. The Rat Pack, unofficially, was disbanded.
Bishop says they drifted apart "when television came along. You see, prior to television, if we were working at a club somewhere Frank could make a call and get us out of a club. He can't get us out of a television series. That was the beginning of it. And the same thing held true for movies.
"And," he adds, "we got older."
A Rat Pack Glossary:
"Clyde" -- a loser, a shmendrick. Also, "a cantaloupe."
"Bird" -- the male organ. Used in jovial greeting, as in "How's your bird?"
"Mechanic" -- a man who's good with his bird; a ladies' man.
"The Big G" -- God.
"The Big Casino" -- death.
"When the refrigerator light goes on, he does 45 minutes of his act" -- highest praise from a member of the Rat Pack.
"Broads" -- all women besides Mother. Also "dames," "dolls."
"Definite" -- all-purpose Rat Pack prefix, as in "I'll hail a definite cab."
"A little hey-hey" -- a good time. Not to be confused with "the name of the game," an overlapping concept meaning, roughly, "the meaning of life."
"The Pope" -- Sinatra. Also "the General," "the Dago."
"Dullsville, Ohio" -- anywhere but Vegas.
During the years they played the clubs, the Rat Pack also made movies, rising at dawn to start shooting, then "taking a steam" (a shvitz being the Rat Pack's most cherished ritual, as if the soul could be kept as well pressed as their meticulously kept trousers) before going on stage at night. "Ocean's Eleven" was the first, shot on location in Vegas; for "Sergeants 3," the Rat Pack commuted every morning to Utah; "Robin and the 7 Hoods," shot years later, shows the Rat Pack in its late manner, with Peter Falk subbing for Bishop, and Bing Crosby for the purged Lawford. (MacLaine, who met Sinatra on the set of "Some Came Running," has a brief but lively cameo in "Ocean's Eleven.")
In the book "Hollywood in a Suitcase," Davis remembers how Sinatra laid down the esthetic for the movies. "We're not setting out to make 'Hamlet' or 'Gone With the Wind.' The idea is to hang out together, find fun with the broads, and have a great time. We gotta make pictures that people enjoy. Entertainment, period. We gotta have laughs."
Whatever the intent, the Rat Pack movies were more than entertainment -- they were parables of Sinatra's life, portraits of Rat Pack values and the subtle mechanisms of their pentangled paldom so transparent as to be almost ingenuous. Always, Sinatra is the padrone, the center of attention who alternately bullies and nurtures his cadre, whether it be as Danny Ocean, the man who pulls together his old paratrooping comrades to heist the big five casinos in "Ocean's Eleven," or the sergeant ruling the garrison in "Sergeants 3," or Robbo, the Chicago casino owner who transfers his profits to charity in "Robin and the 7 Hoods."
Sinatra is always Sinatra (braying "G'wan back tidda fawt" in "Sergeants 3," his accent identifies him as an anachronism, just as Lawford's British cadences, or Bishop's Brooklynisms, are decidedly out of place and period). They're boys playing army, or (in "Robin and the 7 Hoods") partygoers at a Halloween wingding with a gangster theme. Only in the Vegas of "Ocean's Eleven" -- Vegas, a fake city, the capital of Nowhere -- do the Rat Pack movies approximate a degree of naturalness.
The four sidekicks provide carefully orchestrated contrasts that highlight distinct Sinatra leitmotifs, as they play off or recapitulate him. Bishop, for example, appears as a ludicrously reduced image of Sinatra himself -- in "Ocean's Eleven," his voice is roughly the same, he affects the same Palm Springs attire (sweater, gray slacks, golf shirt), and his ears are identically akimbo. His encroaching baldness even describes the same pattern. Bishop functions as the Fool to Sinatra's Lear, a motif representing the Pope's own self-pity (Sinatra is famously put-upon), and a reminder of his humble origins.
Everything that is hard in Sinatra is soft in Dean Martin -- Sinatra's brassy, clipped diction becomes in Martin a boozy slur, and where Sinatra is all bone, Martin is all flesh. Sinatra is Rome, Martin Naples. And the dangers inherent in Martin's style motivate Sinatra's own; Sinatra has to be hard to protect Martin, whose flaccidity or, particularly, his easy concupiscence, does nothing but get him into trouble.
In all the Rat Pack movies, women are not so much contemptible (although there is that) as threatening to these men's self-sufficiency. Independence is the summum bonum of the Rat Pack world, a value intrinsically threatened by sex. Perhaps more emphatically, women represent a threat to male camaraderie ("You just gonna stand around and let her take him away like that?" Martin asks Sinatra in "Sergeants 3," as Lawford strolls off with his fiance'). Like all the Rat Pack's themes, this nostalgic yearning for boys-only bonhomie evokes the specific historical circumstance of GIs back from the war -- it's not male bonding simply, but the male bonding of the barracks. Everything in the Rat Pack ethos is colored by the experience of World War II.
And the Rat Pack was studiously constructed as a microcosm of second-generation immigrant melting pot: two Italians, a Jew, a black (the World War II Army being the best of integrators). Sammy Davis, then, is included as a badge of racial tolerance, specifically Sinatra's own. Davis may have been patronized (in "Ocean's Eleven," he drives a garbage truck), but he was included, and, at Sinatra's insistence, well paid. Lawford, in this context, with his refined airs and noble heritage, symbolizes the old order -- it's no coincidence that he's weak-willed and overindulged, and susceptible to the thrall of women (that ultimate Rat Pack sin). Lawford is there to show how, in the postwar world, class transcends heritage, how the sons of Harlem and Hoboken and Steubenville, Ohio, do him one better time and again.
But the mood underlying the Rat Pack was not the happy triumph over circumstance. The men of "Ocean's Eleven" live in a nightmare world of hotel rooms and commiseration over Jack Daniel's and cigarettes, the massage-for-hire and the barbershop shave, the failed marriages and casual pickups. The void is organized by rituals of activity (the steambath, the barbershop shave), of dress (the skinny lapels and ties, the absurd emphasis on keeping your crease), and of movement -- the Rat Pack strut is almost a dance, an abbreviated fighter's crouch with hands held loosely in front, jaw leading teasingly, hips rolling in a syncopated rhythm. There is a rigidly enforced code of behavior, consisting of loyalty to friends and "having a ball," that, like any abstraction, relies more on form than content. And the epitome of e'lan is the commando, with his disregard of regulations, his hatred of the organization, and his celerity of action.
Rat Pack Pense'es:
"In my book, bravery rhymes with stupid."
"Repeal the 14th and 20th Amendments, take the vote away from women and make slaves of them."
"If you want to try to catch lightning in a bottle, go ahead, but don't try to catch yesterday."
"I don't carry hundreds. I might get picked up for vagrancy."
"When your opponent's sitting there holding all the aces, there's only one thing left to do -- kick over the table."
"Awright, girls, time for your nap -- beat it."
The Rat Pack drew on black style -- its obscure patois derived in large part from the members' friendships with black artists and Sinatra's roots in jazz (he once credited Billie Holiday as "the greatest single musical influence on me"). So it was in a way natural for the style to return to its origins, and when reggae became the hip music of the mid-'70s, it brought the Rat Pack along in revised form. Consider Desmond Dekker's reggae number, "Shantytown," included in the soundtrack for "The Harder They Come":
007. 007. At Ocean 11.
And now rude boys have a wail.
'Cause them outta jail.
During the '60s the Rat Pack was embraced by Middle America, still finding its by-then curiously archaic brand of rebellion "outrageous." (Hunter Thompson, the arbiter of '60s hip, could in 1972 deride someone as the kind of person who still considered Sinatra and Martin "far out.") Through the reverse snobbery that is often a fertile source for the self-consciously avant-garde, Rat Packerie made its way (with a heavy ironic overlay) into the streets of SoHo.
There can be little doubt that the Rat Pack has heavily influenced '80s cool. You can't watch "Purple Rain," a signal artifact of black '80s style, without seeing the similarities between Prince and Sinatra: the abuse of subordinates, the misogynistic brio. The Sensitive Man scurries in retreat, replaced by a male assertiveness that, again with irony, eerily evokes Danny Ocean. The Kennedy suits and spiv hats have returned, and with them the brooding emphasis on couture and "cutting a figure."
What's fascinating is that Rat Pack style has also resurfaced, simultaneously, at the very center of national life -- in the person of Ronald Reagan. The essential points of JFK's appeal -- the carefree smile, the crisp suits, the nostalgic commandoism, the inner despair -- were pure Rat Pack. When Reagan sought to alchemize certain elements of the Kennedy elegance as his own, he inevitably adopted the Rat Pack esthetic as well.
With this inaugural, Reagan emerges as a seventh member of the Rat Pack, the first since Kennedy (a sort of honorary member, till he bailed out) who is not a foil, but Sinatra's equal. There are important similarities to their careers. Both went into a period of exile and reemerged in new media (movies for Sinatra, politics for Reagan). Both began on the political left and moved right. Both share the ethos of a generation of war veterans, although neither was a veteran himself (Sinatra was 4-F with a punctured eardrum, Reagan made movies for the Army).
And most important, both have subsumed their personal contradictions beneath individual panache. Although Sinatra's been investigated by grand juries for 20 years and never indicted -- we can finally conclude that he is, indeed, no gangster -- the aura of gangland resonances provides him with the danger and sense of doom that are key to his legend. On the other hand, Reagan's appeal is founded on a connection to Middle America, a rootedness that is implausible for anyone who spent as much time in Hollywood as he, and that is belied by the facts of his wealth and his circle of friends.
What's important is that for both, the link to a larger reality is a self-willed attitude. Together, Sinatra and Reagan have designed attractive personas that effortlessly complement each other, stylized myths of guilt and innocence, sin and expiation, corruption and Kiwanis. Live. At the inaugural gala. The Rat Pack, back to first principles and back again.