They sipped Scotch on the rocks and smoked with panache. Wore tuxedos and mohair suits. Made movies and spoke their own brand of slang. Chased women (or, as Joey Bishop said, had to chase them away!). Sold out shows at the Sands in Vegas, where audiences lined up for hours for a seat.
They were talented, they were hip, and, for a brief but golden period, they were the coolest of the cool.
They were the Rat Pack.
Five names are familiar today: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop, but their “founder” was actually Humphrey Bogart, who dubbed a group of his drinking buddies the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack” in the ’50s. Another story has it that Bogie’s wife, Lauren Bacall, upon witnessing the aftermath of her husband’s and pals’ carousing, told them they looked like “a pack of rats.” Whatever its origin, the name stuck, although Sinatra wasn’t too fond of it and referred to the group as “The Summit” or “The Clan.” Other original members included David Niven, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland.
After Bogart’s death in 1957, Sinatra became the group’s leader (“It’s Frank’s world; we just live in it,” Martin famously quipped), and in the early ’60s he and the boys charmed audiences at the Sands with their irreverent jokes, impressions and, of course, songs. They also made three films: Ocean’s 11, Sergeants 3 and Robin and the 7 Hoods. Noted Sinatra of these efforts: “Of course they’re not great movies! But we are not setting out to make Hamlet or Gone With the Wind. We are out to make films the people enjoy. It’s called entertainment.”
The group didn’t confine themselves solely to entertainment, though. In 1960 they publicly supported John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, donating publicity, photo ops and even a new version of “High Hopes” from Sinatra that Kennedy would take as his campaign song. That summer, Sinatra, Lawford, Davis and pack “mascot” Shirley MacLaine sang the national anthem at the opening of the Democratic National Convention, forging a link between politics and celebrities that continues to this day.
Those seemingly carefree times couldn’t last forever, of course. Relations between Kennedy and Sinatra cooled, then Frank’s friendship with Peter Lawford soured as well. After just a few years, the heyday of the Rat Pack was over.
In 1988 Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. tried to rekindle the old magic with a “Together Again” tour that Sinatra felt would be good for Martin, who had not performed for several years, but Dean was forced to drop out due to illness after just a few shows, and Sammy was diagnosed with throat cancer the following year. In 2007, Joey Bishop, the last surviving member, passed away.
By present politically correct standards, the Rat Pack might seem hopelessly outdated, but “The Rat Pack & Friends” tribute shows, featuring member impersonators and a big band, still delight fans around the globe. For a memorable 90 minutes, old-style Vegas cool lives again.