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

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Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey & the Last Great Showbiz Party. Shawn Levy. New York: Doubleday, 1998. 344 pp. $23.95.

The major figures of Hollywood's "Rat Pack" are all gone now, since Frank Sinatra checked out earlier this year for The Big Casino in the sky at age 82.

But these days, in "swing" clubs across the country, young adults are wearing tuxedos and formal dresses, drinking martinis and digging the music of their grandparents--or music that sounds like it. (Ask the nearest college student about Squirrel Nut Zippers or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.)

As Sinatra himself might say were he still around, the Rat Pack's brand of adult fun is making a comeback,Jack.

The Rat Pack, of course, was the show business fraternity led by Sinatra and including such entertainment heavyweights of the late 1950s and early 1960s as Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. During their brief heyday as an entity, this group turned Las Vegas, Nevada, into a theme park for grown-ups, where actors, singers, songwriters, and even politicians and gangsters partied with them and shared a little of their fame. And for the price of a ticket to their shows, the average Joe could feel like he was in on the action, too.

But as author Levy unfolds in engrossing detail, it wasn't always such a swell party. There was a dark side, complete with sex, drugs, violence and arrogance-which eventually took its toll on the principals and almost everyone they associated with.

The action revolved largely around Sinatra, who hated the term "Rat Pack," preferring to call the group "The Clan." Levy paints a stark portrait of Sinatra, then at the height of his creative powers as a singer and at the height of his box office appeal as an actor. "No one in show business was as talented or as powerful," Levy writes. Sinatra used that talent and power-and his friends-to gain the favor of both underworld titans and of a president, connections which eventually blew up in his face and left lost and broken lives along the way.

The Pack member who gets the most sympathetic portrayal is Davis, who was originally to be the sole subject of the book. "Pound for pound, he was the best of them ... the one who had come from the furthest, and who had most fully lived what they were reputed to be," Levy writes. "Even Frank had to realize that although he himself was the brains of the operation, Sammy was its soul."

The son of a showgirl and a song-and-dance man, Davis endured the racism of his time in the entertainment world, and also weathered the criticism of African Americans who saw him as "Uncle Tomming" to succeed in a white world. He, too, is portrayed as a man of paradox. In the Sixties, he embraced both the nascent civil rights movement of the early part of the decade and the presidency of Richard Nixon in the latter part of it.

The rest of the cast included:

* Martin, handsome and carefree, who succeeded as a singer, and a TV and movie actor without really trying.

* Peter Lawford, aristocratic, British-born brother-in-law to President John F. Kennedy, and a B-movie actor with serious drug problems and sexual hangups.

* Joey Bishop, a nightclub comic of middling success before achieving Pack-hood. …