Dean Martin, who died two weeks ago at the age of 78, was a man no one really knew. His wife of 22 years, Jeannie, concluded that he was a man beyond knowing.
Newspapers eulogized him as a “pop crooner,” an “easygoing crooner” and a “happy-go-lucky pro.” His persona was that of the drunkest and coolest member of the Rat Pack, those avatars of a moment when smoke, booze, broads and plenty of linguine on the side were all of life worth living.
Frank and Dean’s consulship of cool began in January 1959, while “Some Came Running,” a movie in which they starred, was in theaters. Sinatra conducted the orchestra for Martin’s new album, “Sleep Warm,” and joined him onstage for the first time at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev.
Soon they and their acolytes - Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Shirley MacLaine - were known as the Clan, a phrase later dropped because it seemed too evocative of that other Klan. In homage to the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, the bygone drinking circle that had gathered around Humphrey Bogart, Sinatra’s Clan became the Rat Pack.
Frank Sinatra’s most successful recording of 1959 was “High Hopes.” In January 1960, at a news conference in the Senate Caucus Room, Lawford’s brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Sinatra threw his support behind Kennedy, and “High Hopes,” with new lyrics by Sammy Cahn, became an anthem of the time’s dumb optimism and Kennedy’s campaign song.
JFK and the Rat Pack. In retrospect, we may hope they were opposites but fear they were one and the same.
Between them we had all the symbols, all the spirit, of that carefree time. As Kennedy campaigned, the Rat Pack made “Ocean’s 11.” The group filmed by day and took the stage of the Sands by night. In between they drank and smoked and sat around telling stories. Kennedy showed up at ringside.
That summer, Sinatra, Davis, Lawford and MacLaine helped lead “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
On the night of Kennedy’s nomination, Martin opened at the Sands. He said, “I’d like to tell you some of the good things the Mafia is doing.”
In his new book, “Bottoms Up: The Cocktail, Shaken and Stirred,” Joseph Lanza writes: “The Rat Pack era is renowned not only for bolstering Kennedy’s election but for binding American politics to the entertainment industry.
“These were the new gentlemen of leisure whose cavalier antics had sparked existential hunger in a world-weary middle class finally convinced that the ‘good life’ had nothing to do with the afterlife.
“All the Depression babies who had won the Big War could get at least some kind of door prize with a trip to Vegas, a stab at a slot machine and highballs to keep them fueled.”
But Dean Martin saw what Frank Sinatra did not: that there would be no place in Camelot for them. Sinatra organized a Washington gala on the eve of Kennedy’s swearing in.
That night, Sinatra appeared in a satin-lined Inverness cape, silk top hat, swallow-tailed coat and white kid gloves. Martin stayed home.
On a trip west in March 1962, Kennedy was to stay at Sinatra’s Palm Springs, Calif., home. But Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, advised his brother to stay elsewhere. After that, the FBI began monitoring the Rat Pack’s movements: at Skinny D’Amato’s joint in Atlantic City, at Sam Giancana’s joint outside Chicago.
The Rat Pack was filming “Robin and the Seven Hoods” when Kennedy was shot in November 1963. The end of Camelot was the end of the Rat Pack. The carefree days were done, the party was over.
America became aware of a place called Vietnam. Broads turned out to be women, songs grew sensitive and serious. There were whales to be saved, profundities to be pondered.
Sinatra took to playing it straight, went the dignified bel-canto route. But Martin - “I hate guys that sing serious,” he said - would not quit.
Into the ‘70s and beyond, Dino remained, with a leer and a laugh, at the bar, fading thus in the end from public consciousness.
Now, after decades as anathema and embarrassment, the Rat Pack has begun a resurgence. BBC radio did a six-part Rat Pack documentary in late 1993. The Jazz Hour label has issued a two-CD set of Sinatra, Martin and Davis captured live at Giancana’s Villa Venice in 1962.
The trend toward retro-cool has brought attention from other quarters as well. Esquire is planning a Rat Pack feature, and the ultrahip Caroline Records plans a Dean Martin collection on its Scamp label later this year. (Expect to hear “That’s Amore” in yet several more movies this year.)
The Rat Pack “embodied Hollywood’s most elemental myth, its deepest unspoken appeal,” Ronald Brownstein wrote in “The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection.” It was, he said, “a life without rules, without the constraints of fidelity, monogamy, sobriety.” Has that appeal subsided, or merely been suppressed by the appearance of sobriety and responsibility?
With Davis, Lawford and Martin gone, and Sinatra mostly silent, the Rat Pack is only a memory in these smoke-free, politically correct times. But the memory captivates. Drinking! Smoking! Hanging out in Vegas!
Who would not prefer such innocent worldliness to Alcoholism! Lung cancer! Losing it all!
Perhaps nostalgia for those days is an escape, no matter how fleeting or illusory, from safe sex and sobriety. Nostalgia stirs, for our own youth and our fathers’ youth. And we long to return to sharkskin and to shades. But - hey, it might be a song lyric - you can’t go home again.
Dean Martin died on Christmas Day. The following night on television, Jay Leno - bland and earnest - asked Harrison Ford if he had “overindulged” on the holiday.
“Yeah,” the equally bland and earnest actor replied. “I ate so much I had to use the Stairmaster for an hour and a half this morning.”
Has it come to this? When overindulging means an extra slice of apple pie? Dean Martin and his pallies would have had a good laugh at that one.
MEMO: Nick Tosches is the author of “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams,” published in 1992.