The Rock and Roll lifestyle existed before Rock and Roll, and it was lived by the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jr were the core, with Peter Lawson and Joey Bishop key members and any number of showbiz chums, gangsters and girlfriends rounding out the numbers. The name was originally coined by Lauren Bacall, a slightly condescending term for the guys who hung out with her husband Humphrey Bogart. After Bogie’s death Sinatra became The Leader and his merry band went on to become loved and hated in equal measure.
Rat Pack Confidential takes the filming of Ocean’s Eleven as the starting point of the Pack’s heyday and looks first back, at how the main players got there, and then forward at the slow disintegration of the group.
Sinatra comes across as a prick, a spoilt child given to tantrums if he didn’t get his way and always over estimating his closeness to his mobster friends and influence with the Kennedy clan. He so misread the Kennedys that it almost got him killed by the mob after promising far more than he could deliver.
The hero of the group, albeit tragic and terribly flawed, had to be Sammy Davis. A black man who converted to Judaism, he fought prejudice throughout his career. At first he just wanted to be let onto the floor of the Vegas casinos he played at, if only to gamble away his earnings and chase white women, but along the way he had an epiphany and started working for full integration. His friendship with Sinatra certainly helped, and Ol’ Blue Eyes put his weight behind better pay and billing, but Sammy’s mentor would still stand in the wings making racist heckles whilst Davis was on stage.
Dean Martin was just along for the ride, that little bit distant and possibly the only person who could stand up to Frank and still stay in favour. But it is Joey Bishop who comes out of the tale with the most dignity. Brought in to emcee the Pack’s chaotic “Summit” shows he was the only person who could keep some semblance of control on stage without causing a Sinatra hissy fit. Lawson, last and certainly least of the five, was a tragic figure. Mostly he was courted because of his position of brother in law- and pimp for- John F Kennedy and suffered at the whim of the egos on both sides.
Fascinating stuff, and all told in a conversational style that reads like the patter of the Pack, or at least one of their closer hangers on. Of course, after reading a book like this it’s hard, no matter how great his talent, to have any affection for Sinatra the man, but that’s a risk you take.