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The Tragedies That Destroyed the Rat Pack

Las Vegas was a dusty desert town in Nevada with a few hotels and casinos before the Rat Pack arrived. It was experiencing growth after the Second World War as gambling was legal in the state. The town was attracting the attention of investors as well as money from organized crime.

Las Vegas, however, was lacking the one thing that would eventually make it the gambling capital of the US – it had no glamor! The Rat Pack came and brought the glamor with them. In 1951 Frank Sinatra made his first live performance in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn. He would only perform wearing a tuxedo and only went out when wearing a sports jacket. He set the standard for dress that epitomized Las Vegas for years to come. Patrons would dress up to visit the casinos and the entertainment venues. Sinatra led the way and others were only too willing to follow.

When the Sands Hotel and casino opened – the seventh hotel resort to open in the town – Sinatra and his buddies made it their favorite venue. The Rat Pack drew thousands of people to Las Vegas just to see them and to be seen themselves. Las Vegas became a destination town and the Rat Pack were the magnet that drew people in.

Who were the Rat Pack and how did they get started?

Essentially the Rat Pack was a group of friends who were all entertainers. At first the membership of the group was quite fluid, but settled to be the five men who dominated Las Vegas in the 1960s. These were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr, and Joey Bishop. They never called themselves �The Rat Pack’ preferring instead to use the name �the Clan’ and sometimes �the Summit’. Sinatra particularly hated the term �Rat Pack’.

The name Rat Pack was a media invention that stuck as it suggested a certain rebelliousness that appealed to young people. It is thought that the first use of �Rat Pack’ to describe the group was by Lauren Bacall. This came about when the gang used to meet at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s house in Los Angeles.

In the early days, the group had a fluid membership that included both men and women. Apart from Frank Sinatra other actors like David Niven, Robert Mitchum and Spencer Tracy, along with Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor gathered at Bogart’s house. Bogart died in 1957 and that marked a change in the make-up of the group.

From that time the membership of the group settled at the five people already listed. Their promotion of Las Vegas as the place to be seen meant that other A-list Hollywood stars were willing to perform there. Regular Las Vegas stars like Liberace, Marlene Dietrich and Elvis Presley brought in the crowds. Actors like Debbie Reynolds and Ronald Reagan appeared there too.

Television was rapidly becoming a feature in American homes, and TV stations were filling their schedules increasingly with live shows. Those that were broadcast from Las Vegas were immensely popular and helped to boost the town as a destination. In the early 1950s over eight million people flocked to The Strip in Las Vegas to gamble, see a show and mingle with the wealthy and famous.

Then in 1960 the Rat Pack made a movie – Oceans 11 – and Las Vegas was never the same again. The movie tells the story of a World War II veteran – Sinatra as Danny Ocean – and his wartime buddies, attempting to rob five casinos in Las Vegas. This was to be the ultimate heist, and pulling it off made for a great movie finale. In the last scene the five Rat Packers walked away from the Sands hotel with their names in lights behind them.

The Rat Pack were now true stars. None, though, could outshine Las Vegas itself which had become the most glamorous, glitzy, and starstruck town in the US.

The members of the Rat Pack

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra was a singer who specialized in an easy-listening style of singing. He launched his career in 1935 singing with big bands like those led by Harry James and later Tommy Dorsey.  He enjoyed enormous success with Tommy Dorsey and then as a solo artist. Sinatra was the idol of the �bobby soxers’ the teenage female fans of 1940s pop music.

During the period just before and during the Second World War Sinatra released dozens of records and appeared in a number of films. He did not serve in the US military being classed as unfit for service – he suffered with a perforated eardrum and also was considered mentally unsuitable. He did, however, entertain the troops on USO tours with the popular comedian Phil Silvers. He also broadcast regularly on the Armed Forces Radio Service. His frequent release of singles continued and many were smash hits.

It was 1946 when he recorded and released his first album The Voice of Frank Sinatra. During the late 1940s his popularity dipped and when he divorced his wife Nancy in 1951 and married Ava Gardner, his reputation had reached a low point. Sinatra was Catholic and divorce was frowned on by the Church. His fans were slipping away as other singers like Bing Crosby and Frankie Laine came to prominence.

His decision to take up a residency in Las Vegas and the links he forged with the Rat Pack brought a revival in his career. In 1953 he appeared in the film From Here to Eternity cementing this new stage in his career. Sinatra was considered the leading performer in the Rat Pack and he performed with them in Las Vegas and appeared in all the films they made together.

Dean Martin

Dean Martin was the original King of Cool and was a comedian and actor as well as a popular singer. He rose to prominence just after the Second World War in partnership with Jerry Lewis. When they parted after exactly ten years together, Martin pursued a successful solo career. His membership of the Rat Pack did much to aid his solo career.

By the mid-1960s Martin was a star, both in movies and as a singer. He had a prolific movie career and appeared in several high profile films, including adventures like The Young Lions with Marlon Brando and Rio Bravo with John Wayne. His early singing career was as a crooner, but as that style of music grew less popular, he adapted to emulate Bing Crosby and Perry Como, gradually creating his own style of singing. During his career he recorded 600 singles and 100 albums. He had his own TV show which featured improvised material that sometimes got Martin in trouble with the censors.

Dean Martin was renowned as a drinker, and also was a heavy smoker. It was cancer caused by his smoking that resulted in his death in 1995.

Joey Bishop

Joey Bishop made his name as an entertainer with his own comedy show on TV from 1948 onwards. He also hosted a late night talk show on ABC. He made guest appearances on various TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1960s and 1970s he was the guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in excess of 175 times, which was a record at the time.

He appeared in Las Vegas with his friends in the Rat Pack, and performed with them on many occasions. He also acted in the Rat Pack films.

Joey lived longer than any of the other Rat Pack members and was able to work with younger actors in 1990’s. This group were dubbed the Brat Pack by the media.

Peter Lawford

Peter Lawford was a high profile movie actor who became friends with Frank Sinatra and joined the Rat Pack as a result. He is perhaps best known for being the brother-in-law of US President John F Kennedy, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy. Lawford had married Patricia Kennedy, their younger sister in 1954.

As a result of this connection, the Rat Pack put their weight behind the presidential campaign of John F Kennedy. Once he was President, a visit to Sinatra’s home was arranged, but security issues led to a switch of venue. Sinatra blamed Lawford for this snub and banned him from the Rat Pack.

Sammy Davis Jr

Sammy Davis Jr was considered by many to be the best all-round entertainer in the United States. Even a very young child Sammy was performing with his father in vaudeville venues. He was an accomplished dancer, singer, actor and comedian.

During his career he appeared in many films including those with the Rat Pack. He also starred in musicals on Broadway, undertook tours, released records and appeared on TV. He had his own TV shows and appeared in Las Vegas. All this led to his being called �Mister Show Business’.

Sammy’s success made him a household name. He did much to overcome the barriers that African-American performers faced. His reply when playing golf with Jack Benny and was asked what his handicap was has become legendary: “Talk about handicap. I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

The barrier to African-Americans appearing on TV in the US was such that even famous and popular performers like Sammy were not able to smash through. So in 1959 he went to Canada to appear in his own show Sammy’s Parade on CBC.

In the 1970s he made guest appearances on popular shows like All in the Family and I Dream of Jeannie. In 1988 a Rat Pack tour was advertised with him, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra but Dean Martin dropped out after five shows and was replaced by Lisa Minnelli. Now called The Ultimate Event the shows continued but amid controversy over finances

What tragedies were suffered by the Rat Pack?

The heyday of the Rat Pack ran through the 1960s. They performed frequently together in Las Vegas, made four films, although Peter Lawford was not involved in the last two. It was a given that a number appeared in the title of each film: Oceans 11, Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas and Robin and the 7 Hoods.

The feud between Sinatra and Lawford over the Presidential visit to Sinatra’s home led to Lawford being excluded from the Pack. His role in 4 for Texas was written out and in Robin and the 7 Hoods his part was handed to Bing Crosby.

Lawford had suffered a life changing injury as a teen when he fell through a glass door. He damaged on arm and hand to such an extent that it hampered him throughout his life.

Sammy Davis Jr suffered racial abuse throughout his career, and although this lessened as he became more famous and society’s attitudes began to change, it never quite went away. It is rumoured that John F Kennedy even prevented him from performing at his inauguration.

Sammy had a clandestine relationship with actress Kim Novak which resulted in Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures ordering a mob attack on Sammy. The threat was so severe that he gave in and married a black woman. He was so distraught at having to do this that it is said he threatened to kill himself at one point.

Frank Sinatra had real trouble during the Second World War convincing fans that he did not dodge the draft. Rumors abounded about his efforts to avoid military service. They were all proved untrue when the FBI stated that Sinatra was rejected for legitimate medical reasons.

The FBI kept tabs on Sinatra for the remainder of his life. They wanted to know just how deep his connections with mobsters went. They also checked up on his supposed communist sympathies and his role supporting the fight against racism.

Frank Sinatra also drew criticism for his affair with Ava Gardner while still married to his first wife. It is also thought that he made several suicide attempts during his life. One reason he had been refused the draft was perceived psychological problems. Clearly, in private, he was fighting demons that threatened to overwhelm him.

Dean Martin was a renowned drinker and in later life became dependent on various prescription drugs. In the 1980s Martin became increasingly reclusive, and morose. The death of his son in an air accident pushed him further into solitude. Even Sinatra was concerned about his long-time friend and proposed the 1988 tour as a way of bringing Martin back into the limelight. The attempt failed as Martin withdrew from the tour after five shows.

The Rat Pack were the ultimate �cool’ guys in the 1960s, but once Robin and the 7 Hoods was released, the cracks really began to show. The men remained friends – other than Lawford and Sinatra – but ceased performing together as a unit. They had made a mark on show business that would endure but each had their own careers that took them on different roads.

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