15 Things You Never Knew About The Rat Pack: Sinatra's Vegas Crew
We know them as the coolest cats in entertainment in the early 1960s -- the Rat Pack. But who were they? How many of them were there? Everyone can name the leader, Frank Sinatra, and most people know the next two familiar faces: Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. But then it gets a little fuzzy. The Rat Pack of the 1960s was in the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) -- does that mean there were 11 of them? And the cast of that movie brings up another question -- was the Rat Pack a boys' club, or did they let Ocean's Eleven co-star Angie Dickinson in? And Sergeants 3 (1964) was also a Rat Pack movie; what about 4 For Texas (1963) and Robin And The 7 Hoods (1964)? All these numbers aren't helping.
The very simple question of who was in the Rat Pack has a very simple and definitive answer. But from our vantage point in the 21st century, it's not so simple -- we can come up with big names that we think should have been in the Rat Pack. This Mandela Effect might include Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Tony Curtis, President John F. Kennedy, Sammy Cahn, Cesar Romero, Mel Tormé, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Trini Lopez, Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas... no, now we're on to the cast of The Dirty Dozen (1967), which was definitely not a Rat Pack movie, even though it sort of has a number in the title.
None of those guys made the Rat Pack cut. And as much as we might wish for it to have been a co-ed social club, it wasn't. No Angie Dickinson, no Shirley MacLaine, no Marilyn Monroe.
The Rat Pack of the 1960s was five guys, no more and no less. Sinatra, Martin, Davis and two others. Have you come up with them yet?
Known for chasing women, drinking booze, and taking pleasure in the nightlife and gambling scene that Las Vegas had to offer, the Rat Pack was a supergroup of entertainment and comedy who often appeared together in concerts, on TV or in movies. They sang, they told jokes, they did comedy sketches -- most of all, they had a blast. The official roster was Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and of course, Frank Sinatra. All five stars appeared in Ocean’s Eleven, which was filmed in Las Vegas, and frequently performed together at The Sands, also in Las Vegas.
Although the group didn’t always perform together, when one member of the Pack was scheduled for a live show, there was always a chance that one or two others might join them onstage. The marquee at The Sands Hotel would often read, “DEAN MARTIN—MAYBE FRANK—MAYBE SAMMY.”
Rat Pack shows were popular not just for the quality of the entertainment, but also for the glimpse into showbiz's most exclusive fraternity. The Rat Pack had their own drinks tray, rolled out on stage during performances. They told stories, made spontaneous jokes at each other's expense, casually dropped names of other entertainers who were friends or rivals, but (obviously) not cool enough to be in the Pack.
More like 'Jerk Pack'
There were downsides to the Rat Pack, for sure -- they were social bullies, they didn't respect women. Though their inclusion of Sammy Davis, Jr., was remarkably progressive in the Civil Rights Era, Davis was often the butt of mildly racist jokes onstage. They were rich, flashy, macho and unapologetically hedonistic -- what we fondly remember as "swagger" might go by less flattering names if we experienced it today.
How did we get here?
What most don’t realize about the Rat Pack is how the group came to be created. It all started in the home of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, who lived in Holmby Hills, in western Los Angeles, near Beverly Hills. The couple hosted many late-night parties where several of Hollywood’s mainstream movie stars and entertainers could be found including Judy Garland, Angie Dickinson, David Niven and his wife, talent agent Swifty Lazar, restaurateur Mike Romanoff, and of course, Frank Sinatra.
Breaking down the Rat Pack
Getting to the bottom of the actual members of the Rat Pack is more like trying to remove rodents from a rat king. Their tails are so tangled that it's hard to tell where one rat begins and the other ends. We'll try to break down the members, hangers on, and orbiting celebrities going forward. First, let's take a look at the original members of the group and then we'll see how the players changed over time.
The Holmby Hills Rat Pack
As the story goes, during one particularly loud and carousing night of drinking and partying in 1953, Bacall walked into see Bogart and friends enjoying themselves a bit too much. She stopped and said to them, "You look like a pack of rats." The name stuck.
Stephen Bogart, son of Humphrey and Lauren, lists the members of the original Rat Pack as follows, with titles as appropriate:
- Frank Sinatra, the "Pack Master"
- Judy Garland, the "First Vice-President"
- Nicole Bassing, "Den Mother." Bassing does not seem to have been in show business.
- Sid Luft, "Cage Master." Luft was a former boxer who worked in the Hollywood film industry, and was Judy Garland's husband from 1952 to 1965.
- Bogart, "Rat in Charge of Public Relations"
- Swifty Lazar, "Recording Secretary and Treasurer." Lazar was a Hollywood super-agent whose clients included Bogey and Bacall.
- Nathaniel Benchley, Historian. Benchley was a writer, son of Algonquin Round Table co-founder Robert Benchley and the father of Peter Benchley, who wrote the shark-hunt novel Jaws. Nathaniel Benchley's most enduring book is probably Bright Candles: A Novel Of The Danish Resistance, which is read by many junior high and high school students to this day.
Lesser known official members
The following members of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack associated with the group and are considered official members, but they often don't make it into the history books:
- David Niven
- Katharine Hepburn
- Spencer Tracy
- Cary Grant
- Rex Harrison
- George Cukor. Cukor directed numerous Hollywood classics, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (starring Garland, 1952), and My Fair Lady (1964).
- Jimmy Van Heusen. Van Heusen was a composer who teamed with lyricist Sammy Cahn to write numerous hits for Sinatra and other crooners.
- Mike Romanoff, owner of the famous Beverly Hills restaurant Romanoff's.
The following celebrities may not have been full members of the crew but they were certainly around whenever shenanigans went down:
- Errol Flynn
- Ava Gardner
- Nat King Cole
- Robert Mitchum
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Janet Leigh
- Tony Curtis
- Mickey Rooney
- Lena Horne
- Jerry Lewis
- Cesar Romero
The second incarnation of the Rat Pack formed after Bogey's death
Following Bogart's death in 1957, Sinatra took over as head of the Rat Pack (and briefly dated Bacall), but it wasn't until Sinatra and his buddies became fixtures in Vegas that the five-man lineup was formalized as the second Rat Pack.
Except it wasn't. One of the peculiarities of the Rat Pack story is that the 1960s quintet did not call themselves the Rat Pack. They preferred "The Summit" or "The Clan." Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and Bishop were called the Rat Pack by outsiders or paparazzi -- but privately, Sinatra hated the name.
It's also said that Davis, understandably, wasn't too jazzed about being in a group called The Clan.
Joey Bishop: The Comedian
Bishop’s path toward the Rat Pack began in the 1950s when he struck up a friendship with Frank Sinatra. He was becoming one of America’s most beloved comedians of the era. Bishop was not as flashy as other members of the group and tended to remain in the background, becoming the crew member who coordinated most of the Rat Pack’s routines. It’s often stated that he played the most minor role in the Rat Pack, but at one point, Sinatra referred to him as the "Hub of the Big Wheel." He was also only one of two members -- the other being Dean Martin -- who could get away with telling jokes at Sinatra’s expense. Bishop was the longest-living member of the Rat Pack, passing away of cancer in 1999, at the age of 89.
Peter Lawford: The Socialite
British actor Peter Lawford had made a name for himself before he ever joined up as a member of the Rat Pack. He became John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law when he married the President’s sister, Patricia Kennedy.
Even with all his entitlements and advantages, there was still trouble with friendships within the pack. He and Sinatra went their separate ways when another of Lawford’s brothers-in-law, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, shared well-founded objections to Sinatra’s alleged ties with the Mafia. Unfortunately, this event harmed their friendship and they were never close again. Suffering from liver and kidney failure, due to years of substance abuse, Lawford died on Christmas Eve 1984, at the age of 61, from cardiac arrest.
As an actor, Lawford had the privilege of being the first to kiss Elizabeth Taylor on camera. He was also the last person to speak to Marilyn Monroe before her mysterious and untimely death.
Sammy Davis, Jr.: Mr. Show Business
Sammy Davis, Jr. became one of the most well-known entertainers, singers, and dancers during his time with the Rat Pack, and beyond. Sinatra was a protector and defender of Davis, specifically when it came to apparent and prevalent racist practices in Las Vegas. At one point when Davis was denied entrance into the Copacabana, Sinatra used his reputation and swagger to ensure he was allowed. In his career following the Rat Pack years, he became known as “Mr. Show Business” due to his popularity as a singer, dancer, and film star. Davis passed away in 1990, at the age of 64, due to complications from throat cancer.
Dean Martin: The King Of Cool
Known as “The King of Cool,” Dean Martin falls into the same class as Sinatra, with his onstage antics as a boozing and gambling playboy. Although he played up his image as a cocktail-drinking and woman-loving comedian, later in life he claimed it was all about his public presence. He was immensely popular not only as an actor and singer but also as a comedian, starring alongside fellow members of the Rat Pack in Las Vegas nightclubs and casinos. As a teen, he was involved in illegal activities which included transporting liquor across state lines during prohibition and working as a card dealer in local gambling hangouts. Steven Van Zandt (of E Street Band and Sopranos fame) called him “the coolest dude I’d ever seen, period.” Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993 and refused any surgery to help improve his remaining years. In 1995, at the age of 78, he passed away on Christmas Day of respiratory failure brought on by emphysema.
Sinatra: The Chairman Of The Board
All women adored him and most men wanted to be him. Known for his class, charm, and sophistication, Sinatra was the main attraction at Caesar’s Palace during his years with the Rat Pack. Along with his high-class reputation, he was also known to be a heavy drinker, an obvious womanizer, and proficient gambler. Sinatra is very well-known for his highly successful career as an actor, and the smooth, mellow voice that made him a most beloved singer. All you have to hear is "Ol' Blue Eyes" and images of a tux-wearing Sinatra with a microphone in his hand immediately pop into your head. The last few years of his life were wrought with medical issues such as heart problems, pneumonia, and bladder cancer. He died in 1998, with his wife by his side, at the age of 82, from a heart attack.
The 'Jack Pack'
Though John F. Kennedy wasn't in the Rat Pack, he was related by marriage to Lawford and did enjoy hanging out with the boys when he came to Vegas. Sinatra, always keen to cultivate friendships with the (ahem) powerful, took to calling his crew the "Jack Pack" when Kennedy was among them. In the late '50s and into the campaign year of 1960, the Rat Pack backed Kennedy as he campaigned for the Presidency, and supported him initially after the election.
Things got awkward when John F. Kennedy's brother, Bobby, who was the U.S. Attorney General, very publicly declared war on organized crime and the Mafia. Sinatra, who had ties to mobster Sam Giancana, was no longer the ideal drinking buddy for the President. In 1962, after Lawford convinced Sinatra to host the Kennedys at his Palm Springs home, the President opted to stay at Bing Crosby's home instead.
The Jack Pack ceased to exist, and Lawford was bounced from the Rat Pack. Sinatra had him replaced in the next quasi-Rat Pack movie, Robin And The 7 Hoods (1964) -- with Bing Crosby.
Follow Up Question: Who Were The Rat Pack Mascots?
The five core members of the Rat Pack had a few friends, and even though there were no women in the Rat Pack, there were women around. The list of mascots of the Rat Pack included (but was surely not limited to):
- Marilyn Monroe
- Angie Dickinson
- Juliet Prowse, a dancer and actress
- Buddy Greco, a singer, composer and pianist
- Shirley MacLaine
That's a wrap on the Rat Pack -- more than you need to know, perhaps. We hope by now you've fired up Sinatra At The Sands (1966) and are well into your second serving of gasoline -- what Ol' Blue Eyes called his liquor of choice, Jack Daniel's.
Ring-a-ding, baby, ring-a-ding-ding.