Rat Pack Confidential

Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Showbiz Party

by Shawn Levy


Reviewed by Linda Richards

Rat Pack Confidential, non-fiction by Shawn Levy, Doubleday, 1998, 344 pages, hard cover 0385487517

If nothing else, you can say that Shawn Levy's timing was incredible. The publication date for Levy's new book Rat Pack Confidential, fell almost on the eve of senior rat packer Frank Sinatra's death. This and the fact that the current North American martini craze has thrust all things rat pack practically into the mainstream should ensure Rat Pack Confidential isn't overlooked at the bookseller's. That's a good thing, because as far as over-the-shoulder looks go, Rat Pack Confidential is an excellent one: modern history with a touch of show biz and dark side. It's pretty interesting stuff.

Author Shawn Levy is no newcomer to this material. In fact his biography of Jerry Lewis, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis was widely acclaimed and no doubt provided the first important research steps for Rat Pack Confidential.

Rat Pack is a portrait of not only the five members of the group of men who were dubbed by that name, but also of the youthful Las Vegas that seemed to grow almost in their shadow. It's not always a pretty picture. You can't, after all, have an epoch of debauchery without messing up some toes: life is funny that way. And the toes that were stepped on were occasionally pretty well shod. It was a story waiting to be told.

It's tempting, in retrospect, to tell the whole thing as if it is was Frank's idea: that Frank knew what he was doing when he mixed these men as his brothers; that he consciously tried to bring the mob into the White House and drag the president into the shadows; that he didn't think of himself as merely a source of income and amusement for Giancana and of sex and laughs for Kennedy; that he thought he'd united these two earthly potentates out of the sheer force of his will and personality just as he had Sammy and Joey and Peter and Dean.

In Rat Pack Confidential we meet stars and starlets, mobsters and politicos at a pivotal time in history. It's an intimate glimpse. The Rat Pack were, of course, five showbiz types who defined their era: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. At the time of writing, only Bishop -- considered by some to be the least important of the group -- is still living.

And while the story of necessity includes many others -- Lauren Bacall, for example, who we learn the guys called "den mother" and who gave the Rat Pack their name -- it is the five uneasy stars that command center stage of Rat Pack Confidential. The portraits Levy paints contain some surprises. Frank Sinatra's charisma and charm are well known and his underworld connections widely suspected, but Sinatra comes across as -- basically -- a fairly unpleasant person. Driven, talented and charm-laden: yes. But also arrogant, somewhat twisted and a-moral.

On the other hand, the ever-cheery and smiling Davis experienced almost unthinkable racism at the hands of the casino owners and impresarios that employed him. Imagine, if you will, this headlining star denied off-stage access to the Las Vegas he played to. And worse.

Back then, even the biggest black stars got shafted in Las Vegas. It was a Jim Crow town, plain and simple, and all the more awful for being not some Deep South backwater but a major entertainment center and a vacation spot for people whose opinions mattered so much in showbiz. Black showpeople got used to ill treatment as they traveled throughout the country, but they had never experienced Vegas' strange combination of big-time facilities and salaries and Mississippi backwater segregation.

Rat Pack Confidential is the sort of tell-all-carefully tale currently in vogue in American biography. There's lots of inside stuff you might not have heard before, but nothing so scandalous or risqué you might not see it on one of the better-researched episodes of A&E's Biography. The book is Biography -like in tone, as well and it is perhaps that easy ramble that contributes to making Rat Pack Confidential a very comfortable and entertaining read.