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Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Showbiz Party

Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Showbiz Party

3.6 16
by Shawn Levy

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For the first time, the full story of what happened when Frank brought his best pals to party in a land called Vegas

January 1960. Las Vegas is at its smooth, cool peak. The Strip is a jet-age theme park, and the greatest singer in the history of American popular music summons a group of friends there to make a movie. One is an insouciant singer of


For the first time, the full story of what happened when Frank brought his best pals to party in a land called Vegas

January 1960. Las Vegas is at its smooth, cool peak. The Strip is a jet-age theme park, and the greatest singer in the history of American popular music summons a group of friends there to make a movie. One is an insouciant singer of Italian songs, ex-partner to the most popular film comedian of the day. One is a short, black, Jewish, one-eyed, singing, dancing wonder. One is an upper-crust British pretty boy turned degenerate B-movie star actor, brother-in-law to an ascendant politician. And one is a stiff-shouldered comic with the quintessential Borscht Belt emcee’s knack for needling one-liners. The architectonically sleek marquee of the Sands Hotel announces their presence simply by listing their names: FRANK SINATRA. DEAN MARTIN. SAMMY DAVIS, JR. PETER LAWFORD. JOEY BISHOP. Around them an entire cast gathers: actors, comics, singers, songwriters, gangsters, politicians, and women, as well as thousands of starstruck everyday folks who fork over pocketfuls of money for the privilege of basking in their presence. They call themselves The Clan. But to an awed world, they are known as The Rat Pack.

They had it all. Fame. Gorgeous women. A fabulouse playground of a city and all the money in the world. The backing of fearsome crime lords and the blessing of the President of the United States. But the dark side–over the thin line between pleasure and debauchery, between swinging self-confidence and brutal arrogance–took its toll. In four years, their great ride was over, and showbiz was never the same.

Acclaimed Jerry Lewis biographer Shawn Levy has written a dazzling portrait of a time when neon brightness cast sordid shadows. It was Frank’s World, and we just lived in it.

Editorial Reviews

Mary Elizabeth Williams

One of the weirdest things to happen to the '90s, without a doubt, has been the '50s. One minute, the air stank of grunge and heroin chic; the next, flannel-wearing slackers had become a cocktail nation of martini-sipping swingers. What could be cooler than that which for decades was considered the apotheosis of cheese? And who else could be at the epicenter of retro swank but the undisputed kings of Vegas cool -- Frank, Dino, Sammy, Peter and Joey -- the Rat Pack?

But as Shawn Levy's history of "the last great showbiz party" reveals, it was not all fraternal bonhomie and harmless hangovers in the desert with Sinatra and the boys. And what across the distance of time looks like the ultimate fraternity -- a luxurious club where the bar was always stocked, the dames were always beautiful and every show ended on a high note -- was in reality a self-made and highly self-destructive dysfunctional family.

The Rat Pack's verminous sobriquet was an apt one. Its members were haunted, hunted creatures, scurrying from one place to the next, scrapping for every morsel of success that came their individual and collective ways. They were bound by the common experiences of tragedy, poverty, prejudice and physical limitations; they were suffocated by mobsters on Frank's side and the Kennedy dynasty on "brother-in-Lawford" Peter's. They were in so deep in all the wrong pockets that they couldn't sing, joke or dance their ways out, and they were too fucked up to notice even if they could have. Maybe it was, briefly, a great party, but the tab turned out to be higher than anybody expected.

Levy's chronicle is no breezy read -- something to flip through with one hand while snapping your fingers to "Come Fly with Me" with the other -- though the author does provide plenty of the rat-a-tat scandal-sheet style befitting a book with the word "confidential" in its title. He plunks "broads," "suckers," "dames" and "schmucks" throughout the text like ice cubes in a highball glass. He populates it with seedy joints like a nightclub called El Dumpo, poetically located in Cleveland. And he throws in moments of purely Rat Pack-era machismo -- giving us Sinatra, brushing off an overly familiar U.S. senator with a terse, "Get your hands off the suit, creep."

But despite the author's forays into lounge lizard lingo and his positively schoolgirlish adoration of Sinatra's voice ("a gift no more explicable than those of Joyce and Picasso"), the book still packs an emotional wallop. It isn't the crooning or the banter or the suits that matter all that much in the end, despite their current ironic allure. It's that, for all of them except Frank, the King Rat, that moment of glory on the stage of the Sands was so desperately hard-won, and so quickly lost to betrayal and personal decay. The golden light that shone on them must have, for a while, felt very real and very warm. But, as Levy heartbreakingly demonstrates, it was only neon, cold and easily extinguished. -- Salon

Library Journal
It used to be Frank Sinatra's world: Women were broads, the whole world was a smoking section, and booze flowed freely. And at no time was it more Frank's world than when the Rat Pack was in session. Sinatra was the center of the group, with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. completing the nucleus. Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Shirley MacLaine, the only female admitted, comprised the periphery. Since Sinatra's 80th birthday in 1995 was commemorated by at least a half-dozen books, one might think that all that could possibly be written about Sinatra already has. Indeed, most of the material in these books has been seen before in the biographies and autobiographies of the various Rat Pack players, but each book finds its own angle. Quirk (author of a string of movie-star biographies) and Schoell (a novelist and author of books on film) concentrate a bit more on the various Rat Pack films. Levy (author of a Jerry Lewis biography and former editor at American Film) digs somewhat deeper into Sinatra's connections with politics and organized crime. In light of Sinatra's recent death, there will likely be demand for more material on him, and these boks will be welcome additions to circulating popular culture collections.Michael Colby, Univ. of California at Davis Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Levy shifts the focus from one of show business's great egotists, Jerry Lewis (King of Comedy>o?, 1996), to entertainment's most hedonistic gathering of narcissists, the Rat Pack. Most of its members were larger than life—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford. Joey Bishop wasn't, of course, but that was his charm. They gathered in Las Vegas in 1960 for the shooting of the less-than-immortal film Ocean's Eleven, an event that turned into one huge party, a lengthy day-and-night celebration of booze, broads, and bucks. With this lunatic extravaganza as its pivot point, the book traces the rise and fall of this quintet of famous men, trying somewhat vainly to explain their hipper-than-thou attitudes as some part of the Zeitgeist that produced the wretched excesses of the Kennedy White House. As Levy himself notes in the acknowledgments to the book, the lives and peccadilloes of these men are amply documented in dozens of books. We are treated to a snappily written retelling of Sinatra's rise from working-class Hoboken, NJ, fueled by his mother's high-octane shoving, to his success as teen idol and band singer, his catastrophic fall from grace in the early '50s and no less meteoric return with the film From Here to Eternity and a series of classic recordings for Capitol Records. Levy embroiders on the story of Martin's even more improbable success, which he touched on in the Lewis bio. Indeed, except for the material on Joey Bishop, which is (surprisingly enough) downright delightful, there isn't much that is unfamiliarþthe Rat Pack's dalliances with the Kennedys, ties to the Mob, decline and fall. And although Levy's take on all this issuitably critical, there is something creepily voyeuristic about the relish with which he peddles these tales. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

From the Publisher
Acclaim for Shawn Levy's King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis:

"Superb....Levy's ambitious (and entirely successful) biography is a model of what a celebrity bio ought to be--smart, knowing, insightful, often funny, full of fascinating insiders' stories, always respectful but never worshipful."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Among the finest, most show business-savvy screen biographies ever written."
--Boston Phoenix

"One of the great, clear-eyed showbiz biographies of our time--a book worthy of comparison to the genre masterpiece, John Lahr's Notes on a Cowardly Lion."

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

While the screenplay was undergoing its patchwork genesis, Frank was casting his buddies and cutting them deals. Peter had been willing to sell the picture outright to Dorchester and Warner Bros., but Frank took care of him -- just as he had in Puccini -- by giving him $20,000 for the story, plus $300 per week for the shoot, plus -- and this was the biggie -- one-sixth of the gross: a phenomenal back-end deal which resulted in nearly a $500,000 profit on the Lawfords' $10,000 investment. Dean got $150,000 flat out; Sammy got $125,000; even guys like Richard Conte (more than $8,000 per week) and Cesar Romero ($5,000-plus per week) got healthy. (Some who were rumored to have parts, such as Jackie Gleason, Tony Curtis, and Milton Berle, never showed; others, such as Shirley MacLaine, Red Skelton, and George Raft, worked for scale.)

Frank got $30,000 for the story, $200,000 to act, and one-third of the gross -- not to mention, of course, all that he stood to make as a 9 percent owner of the Sands, which was guaranteed to be packed with high rollers during the five weeks the Rat Pack planned to spend in Vegas working on the film.

February was traditionally the nadir of business in Las Vegas, so the town went out of its way to welcome the production. Police chief R. K. Sheffer read over the script drafts -- with heart in throat, no doubt -- for accuracy; special editions of the Las Vegas newspaper welcomed the production; the owners of the five hotels featured in the film -- the Riviera, the Sahara, the Flamingo, the Desert Inn, and the Sands -- accommodated the actual filming and made rooms available to the 225 actors, extras, and crew members who stayed in town on Warner Bros.' tab (the company dropped nearly $20,000 a day in out-of-pocket costs during the five weeks). The town positively boomed. The Sands, with only two hundred or so rooms to its cluster of two-story garden buildings, turned away eighteen thousand reservation requests during the first week of the Summit alone.

[Director Lewis] Milestone and three dozen advance men converged on Las Vegas on January 12. Five days later, Frank flew in from New York (his luggage got lost in the confusion attendant on a rare southern Nevada snowstorm), and the Lawfords arrived by train with Peter's manager, Milt Ebbins, and Frank's secretary, Gloria Lovell. Sammy and Joey arrived the next day; Dean rolled into town two days later with his wife and his factotum, Mack Gray.

Work began with three days of shooting at the Riviera. The earliest call was for 5:30 P.M., and no actor had to be on the set for more than three hours. On the first day of the Summit, January 20, there was no filming done at all. Thereafter, Milestone usually got one Rat Packer at a time, occasionally two, having the whole quintet at his disposal only once -- to film the closing credits on a workday cut short by high winds. Most days found a single member of the Rat Pack on the set for about three hours, usually from about 3:00 P.M. to 6:00; Sammy and Peter had the most frequent morning calls (9:00 or 10:00 A.M.), with Sammy easily spending the most time in front of the camera throughout the month. After they finished at the Riviera, Frank worked only six more days, only two of which lasted more than two hours (he even skipped town for a few days to tape a TV special in Hollywood); the only time anyone was filmed in the wee small hours was when Frank showed up one day at 5:00 A.M. for about two hours of work. Other than that, only Joey ever had a call before 9:00 A.M. -- once.

So it really wasn't the film-all-day, perform-all-evening, drink-all-night scene that has become the legend of the Summit and the making of Ocean's Eleven. There's no doubt that there were twenty-four-hour hijinks -- "They were taking bets we'd all end up in a box," Peter recalled -- but precious few hours were actually given over to Milestone. Indeed, when the brief filming days and the relatively short stage shows are added up, nobody really put in more than a six- or seven-hour day the whole month. Oh, sure, it looked like a lot of work -- a high-profile film shoot and titanic nightclub engagement all in one -- but it was cushier than, say, shooting a western in the desert or playing a series of gigs on the road. What with all the amenities and the attention, it was more like a premiere party held while the film was still being made: a P.R. event aimed at boosting the box office. The whole world watched the Summit unfold in the entertainment pages of newspapers and magazines, and when the film came out, they dutifully lined up as if to kiss St. Peter's bronze toe.

Of course, not all of it was for the public. Take Sunday, February 7, when the boys entertained and partied with a Democratic presidential hopeful, Peter's brother-in-law Jack Kennedy. Kennedy was blitzing the West in the lull before the big eastern primaries. He had a complete entourage with him, including his youngest brother, Ted, and -- in an era of press coverage so cooperative it was virtually comatose -- he was at least as busy dallying with Peter and his chums as he was currying favor with Nevada's political powers. Kennedy and his party were ensconced at the Sands and held court there: drinking and schmoozing in the lounge, dining on Chinese food in the Garden Room, holding press conferences, attending fund-raising receptions, and, of course, digging the scene in the Copa Room as the Rat Pack entertained.

During each show Jack attended, Frank introduced him from the stage with a bunch of sugary bullshit; Jack stood and took a bow; Dean waited for the applause to die down: "What'd you say his name was?" Big laugh.

Meet the Author

SHAWN LEVY is the author of six previous books, including the New York Times bestseller Paul Newman: A Life.  He served as film critic of The Oregonian from 1997 to 2012 and is a former senior editor of American Film and a former associate editor of Box Office. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco ChronicleThe GuardianThe Independent, Film Comment, Movieline, and Sight and Sound, among many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Showbiz Party 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rat Pack Confidential is definitely a book you cannot put down. After the seeing the move on HBO; I had to read the book. At first the Rat Pack was just a bunch of boozing entertainers. But in the end, you find out that these men struggled to become the superstars they were and what power they had in the entertainment. After reading the book, you truly find out how JFK became President and how he lost his control, power and a best friend in Frank Sinatra.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the book. I like the way the writer writes, telling the facts straight-up. It was very interesting to see how these performers came into power and what their true persona was. The only thing I didn't like about the book was the order it was presented. I like things to go chronologically to see how things progress but this book seemed to be jumping back and forth between the years and between each performer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Frank, Dino, Sammy, and those other two bums. What more is there to say? Great book. Levy writes with an almost Rat Pack-like attitude. He doesn't sugar-coat the bad times. He flat out states what many denied when Frank was still alive. But, Hell, they still were the coolest bunch of swingers ever to hit show business.
MariaD54 More than 1 year ago
You feel like your a member of the "Pack". A must for any fan of these one of a kind entertainers. Also, the pictures are classic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nothing new here if you know anything about the Rat Pack. If you read the sample, you've got the whole idea. Or wait until it's $1.99. I did enjoy the photos.
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