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The Guardian G2

When The Rat Pack Ruled Supreme

Fifty years ago Frank Sinatra and his buddies helped catapult JFK into the White House. Richard Williams on an unforgettable moment in US history.

They had it made. The booze, the broads, the banter. The handmade suits, the swimming pools, the automatic welcome into backrooms of restaurants owned by men of discretion. From Las Vegas to Palm Springs to Miami, they lived in a world of endless sunshine. Nothing surely, could be as much fun as the life of the Rat Pack at the dawn of the 60s. The more they drank onstage, the more they indulged a liking for the obscure in-group nonsense, the louder the audience cheered. During one four-week season at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, 34,000 people flocked to see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford exude the glow of an effortless hedonism, behind which flickered the shadows of organised crime and political corruption.

Sinatra sang, Martin boozed, Davis danced, Bishop did the standup thing and Lawford, a handsome English actor of aristocratic background and indeterminate talent who happened to become the brother-in-law of the next president of the United States. Occasionally they were joined by a woman, perhaps the singer Keely Smith, whom Sinatra dated, or Shirley MacLaine, who had a walk-on part in Ocean’s 11, the film that celebrated their camaraderie. Their glamour was such that they didn’t need to sing properly and their jokes didn’t need to be funny. Their drooling audiences picked up the patented slang. Something (or somebody) good was “a gas” or “a gasser”; something (or somebody) tiresome was “a bunter”.

Not that they were entirely lacking in genuine wit. “I’d like to tell you some of the good things the Mafia is doing,” Dean Martin drawled one opening night at the Mob-run Sands, pausing to wait for the half-shocked, half-delighted laughter to build.

Fifty years ago this month the Rat Pack were on the campaign trail, backing a presidential candidate whose youth and vigour appeared to mirror their own. The first meeting between Sinatra and John F Kennedy had taken place five years earlier, during a Democratic part rally at which the singer performed The House I Live In, a song advocating racial and religious tolerance that won an honorary Academy Award in 1946. Sinatra and Kennedy started spending time together at the singer’s home in Palm Springs and the young senator’s hotel in Washington. Each had something the other wanted, and by the time Kennedy made his run at the presidency, the Rat Pack had become a chorus of cheerleaders.

To boost the campaign, they opened the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles with a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner, to the dismay of the delegates from Mississippi, who objected to the presence of a black man among the whites on stage. Sinatra himself performed at Kennedy rallies, including one in Hawaii while on location for a film (The Devil at 4 O’Clock), at the actor Janet Leigh’s Women for Kennedy tea, and at a £100-a-plate dinner in Chicago, where he shared the bill with Judy Garland. He appeared on radio and TV with Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late FDR, and recorded a new version of the show song High Hopes, with an amended lyric: “Everyone wants to be Jack/Jack is on the right track”; it was played by a loudspeaker truck preceding the motorcade that took JFK through small-town America that summer.

This was the very pinnacle of the Rat Pack’s power, influence and charisma. Sinatra had already been granted a shareholding in the Sands, one of the ritziest joints on the Vegas strip, operated by the New Jersey mobster Joseph “Doc” Stacher, where he and his friends made regular appearances, setting the tone for the town’s explosive growth. In 1960 he and a group of associated bought the Cal-Neva Lodge, a casino hotel on the shores of Lake Tahoe, literally straddling the states of California and Nevada (the state line ran through the gaming room). Joe Kennedy, Jack’s father, knew it well from the years of prohibition, when he was collaborating with the Mob to compile a fortune from Bootleg liquor. A silent shareholder in the new ownership was the Chicago gang boss Sam Giancana, who had earned Sinatra’s gratitude by giving his career a useful push when it fell into the doldrums in the early 50s.

As the presidential campaign hit top gear, the Cal-Neva became the place where Jack and Frank got together with starlets and showgirls. They and Giancana each had an affair with Judy Campbell, a former model. The singer and the president-to-be shared the favours of Marilyn Monroe, who was kept out of sight in a chalet overlooking the lake, particularly when her former husband, the baseball hero Joe DiMaggio, came calling. When Joe Kennedy, masterminding and bankrolling his son’s campaign, needed votes in the crucial West Virginia primary, he asked Sinatra to enlist Giancana’s help, which was readily forthcoming. Using Sinatra as a conduit, Giancana also passed a covert donation to the campaign from Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union.

Once Joe’s boy was in the White House, however, the dream began the fall apart. The Rat Pack – minus a sceptical Martin – performed at the new president’s inaugural gala, but when Robert Kennedy, the younger brother, took the job of attorney-general and made it his mission to chase down organised crime, Sinatra’s days as a casino owner were numbered. In 1962 he was named in a justice department report. Monroe spent the last desperate weekend of her life at the Cal-Neva, in the company of the usual crowd, before being flown back to Los Angeles in Sinatra’s wood-panelled private jet.

Then Giancana, a known gangster, was spotted at the Cal-Neva by state gaming board agents, an infringement that cost the singer his casino-operator’s license and led to an abrupt, enraged switch in his political allegiances. In 1963 he sold his shares in both the Lodge and the Sands; a year later the Beatles invaded America, changing the face of the music business and banishing the whole ring-a-ding-ding shtick that had captivated the Copa Room. The next inaugural event at which Sinatra performed would that of a Republican, Ronald Reegan, in 1980, by which time the Rat Pack, once the life-force of the entertainment industry, had faded into a sepia legend.

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08 Oct, 2010 Richard Williams