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'The Way You Wear Your Hat' by Bill Zehme
When Sinatra Was Leader Of The Pack
Sunday, April 12, 1998
By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette
The 1960s - the years of Kennedy, civil rights, Vietnam, Johnson, the Beatles, the Pill: The decade's seemingly a bottomless pit of ideas and issues to write about. That's why it's tough to takke the antics of the Rat Pack Frank Sinatra's gang, seriously.
But, in the hands of Shawn Levy, who's also written a balanced portrait of Jerry Lewis, the Pack's brief run appears to be the last gasp of postwar America before its values were trashed by the events of the '60s.
"The high hopes of one generation - a delusional sham which obscured a corrupt, licentious core - were replaced with the simple adolescent cheeriness of the next, Levy concludes his heartless account of Sinatra's reign from 1959 to '63, from Las Vegas to Hollywood.
Sinatra would survive; this book and Zehme's bit of adoring fluff are timed for Sinatra's death, which occasionally seems imminent. His pallies - Dean
Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford - are dead, and Joey Bishop is forgotten.
Led by Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and sometimes Bishop joked and jerked their way through shows at the Sands Hotel in Vegas on and off from '59 to '63. In the crowd were the usual showbiz celebrities and lackeys, but sometimes Jack Kennedy or Sam Giancana took a seat.
The routines were just that - routine joshing and giggling about booze and broads. The fall guy was usually Davis. The standard gag was to pick up Davis and say, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for this award. The other gag was a booze cart Martin would roll on stage. "Time to mix a salad," slurred Deano, a fair crooner who made a lucrative career out of being a drunk.
Commanded by Sinatra, the boys would carouse till dawn, fueled by an endless supply of liquor and women. Now and then, they'd make a movie - "Ocean's Eleven" or "Robin and the Seven Hoods" - or a TV special, but the bits stayed the same.
Levy believes the Pack reflected the male ideal in an era thirsty for a good time, then he sets out to rip away the facade. His chief target was the
Chairman of the Board, the smooth crooner whose reputation as a singer is unassailable.
It's his reputation as a human being that leaves room for criticism. As Levy tells it, Sinatra's position as a major player in the growth of Vegas was secured by his connections to the mob, chiefly Giancana.
The writer then connects the dots between Giancana and Kennedy, and it's Francis' smiling face that does the linking. The whole seamy scene, featuring the president's brother-in-law, Lawford, as court jester and pimp, has never been described with such style.
Levy's writing is similar to James Ellroy's, who wrote "L.A. Confidential" - fast, punchy and slangy.
Vegas was "a place where A-bombs exploded, drinks were free and whores were legal. At a campaign party, a tired Kennedy "perked up when Sammy walked in, bearding for him with Marilyn on his arm. Sinatra buys into the Cal-Neva lodge and casino in the mid-'60s and has some bad luck: "Dead hookers, shootings, overdoses. Frank had bought the Cal-Neva because he thought the place exuded quietude and class." Instead, it was more like the wild West.
"Rat Pack Confidential" is not really history, but gossip. Still, it adds further evidence to the feeling that the country was in for a hard kick in its hypocritical pants.
Today, we continue to pick at the scabs covering the unpleasant truths of the past 40 years. The Rat Pack is one of them, a tiny one to be sure, but a vivid memory of how easily we were fooled.
After reading Levy, Zehme's homage to Sinatra seems a sad joke. A writer for Esquire, Zehme started a correspondence with the singer several years ago that became a laudatory profile in the magazine two years ago. This book is a reworking of that article.
"Men had gone soft and needed a help, needed a Leader, needed Frank
Sinatra," Zehme wrote. "I wanted what might approximate Frank's rules of order. So he sought Sinatra's "philosophy" on such things as how to dress, drink, smoke and raise children. As to that subject, let's quote Sinatra's son, who tried a singing career in clubs, via Levy:
"I'm going to devote exactly five minutes to my father because, as he once confided in a moment of weakness, that is exactly how much time he devoted to me. Try to find that quote in Zehme's book.
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