They were the toast of Hollywood, the ultimate kings of cool: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The group of actors, singers and entertainers known as ‘the Rat Pack’ became synonymous with Hollywood glamour, late night jam sessions at the fabled Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and the heady golden days of Camelot.
The iconic group’s first incarnation centered around Humphrey Bogart’s tight circle of Hollywood friends. As showbiz legend would have it, they earned their moniker from Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, who shouted at her disheveled husband and alcohol sodden friends: ‘You look like a god*** rat pack,’ after a debauched gambling weekend in Sin City, Las Vegas.
After Bogart’s death in 1957, the press resurrected the name ‘Rat Pack’ and used it to refer to the ensemble stars in the original 1960 Ocean’s 11 movie. It was this second incarnation that would have a lasting effect on popular culture, one that would reach far beyond Hollywood and put Las Vegas, a fledgling resort destination on the map.
‘Say Cheese!’- Rat Pack members Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra with comedian Jan Murray (left) unwind backstage at Carnegie Hall after entertaining at a benefit performance in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961
Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra met in Detroit in 1941 after Davis stepped in as the opening act for Sinatra. They bonded over a shared sandwich between shows and became lifelong friends with Sinatra serving as his protector and mentor. Davis said: ‘I wanted to be like him, I wanted to dress like him, I wanted to look like him, I took my hair and had it all done up, Sinatra style, with the little curl here and all’
The Rat Pack performed on stage for The Johnny Carson Show (far right) in 1965 with The Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Quincy Jones (not pictured). Sinatra allegedly never liked the name ‘Rat Pack,’ instead he referred to his group as ‘the Summit’ or ‘the Clan’ and years later chided a reporter ‘for using that stupid phrase”
‘The Three Musketeers’ of the infamous Rat Pack were-Dean Martin (left), Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra (right). Above they are pictured during the taping of ‘The Dean Martin Variety Show’ circa 1967 in Los Angeles
The Copa Room at The Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was home base for the Rat Pack that included: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop (left to right). It was Hollywood actor Peter Lawford who originally brought Sinatra onto the Ocean’s 11 film project. Lawford (who was married to JFK’s sister, Pat Kennedy) purchased the film rights to a story about a group of veterans that pull off a casino heist. Upon hearing about the project, Sinatra’s first response was: ‘Forget the movie, let’s pull the job!’
Bacall and Bogart’s lavish Los Angeles mansion in Holmby Hills served as a de-facto clubhouse for the reigning members of the original Rat Pack that were given titles like ‘Pack Master’ served by Frank Sinatra. Judy Garland was Vice-President, her husband Sid Luft was ‘Cage Master.’ Lauren Bacall was den mother and mega-agent, Swifty Lazar was Secretary and Treasurer. Humphrey Bogart served as the group’s ‘Spiritual Leader’ and ‘Public Relations Master Rat.’
Many boozy nights were spent entertaining other visiting members such as: Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, Robert Mitchum, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Lena Horne, Jerry Lewis, and Cary Grant.
After Bogart’s death in 1957, the press resurrected the name ‘Rat Pack’ and used it to refer to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and comedian Joey Bishop – the ensemble stars in the 1960 Ocean’s 11 movie. It was this second incarnation that would have a lasting effect on popular culture as the unrivaled kings of show business.
Sinatra being the oldest and arguably most famous at the time was crowned leader and he preferred to call his group ‘the summit.’ Years later during a reunion tour, Sinatra chided a reporter for ‘using that stupid phrase’ when she referred to the group as the Rat Pack.
Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra enjoy dinner wearing cowboy costumes circa 1960
Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are pictured in a Los Angeles recording studio in 1962. Sinatra launched his own record label called Reprise Records in 1960 and signed Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. He offered his artists what always eluded him at other labels: creative freedom and ownership of their music
Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin drive around the Warner Brothers Studio during the filming of ‘Marriage on the Rocks’ in 1965. After Ocean’s 11 massive box-office success, the Rat Pack released more than a dozen films throughout the 1960s that included Sergeants 3 and Robin and the 7 Hoods
The Rat Pack poses in front of a cake celebrating the 11th Anniversary of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, with Lucille Ball in the background holding a pair of giant dice with 11 pips. The casino became known as ‘the house the Rat Pack built’ from their nightly sold-out performances
Though famously synonymous with the glitzy cocktail culture of Las Vegas, the Rat Pack’s performances weren’t as playful as the appeared. Tina Sinatra explained in her memoir, ‘Dad and his friends were consummate pros who never drank the day of a performance. The ‘bourbon’ in Dean’s glass – and in my father’s as well was iced tea or apple juice, at least at the first show.’ Likewise comedian Joey Bishop, who was an original member of the Pack said: ‘I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances, that was only a gag’
The sultans of swing set up shop at the Copa Room in the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Their nightly performance became so popular that the whole city would sell out of hotel rooms, forcing some out-of-towners to sleep in their cars.
Creating a ‘cool’ mystique was the secret to their success. The core members were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., the latter of which Sinatra had known since 1941 after Davis stepped in to open for Sinatra during a last minute gig in Detroit. Hollywood on-screen legend, Peter Lawford was also part of the original lineup, having known Sinatra since their early days as MGM studio talents. Comedian Joey Bishop wrote all the Rat Pack jokes and banter that took place between the crooner’s bourbon swilling performances.
The famous Las Vegas shows starring the Rat Pack began when other members of ‘the Pack’ started showing up unannounced to a fellow rat’s solo performance. Then much to the audiences’ delight, the group would collectively perform an impromptu show together. An iconic image of the Sands Hotel and Casino marquee during this time advertises ‘DEAN MARTIN’ across the center following the words: ‘MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY.’
Though known for their on stage high jinks and off stage bacchanals, according to Tina Sinatra in her memoir titled, ‘My Father’s Daughter’ she said: ‘Dad and his friends were consummate pros who never drank the day of a performance. The ‘bourbon’ in Dean’s glass – and in my father’s as well, was iced tea or apple juice, at least at the first show.’ Joey Bishop echoed the sentiment in his autobiography: ‘I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances, that was only a gag.’
Needless to say, the singing sensations made a big splash off-stage, fueled by J&B Rare in their Manhattan cocktails (always, up), risque jokes and ever-present cigarette.
A group of associate members that were called ‘mascots’ included Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Greco, Don Rickles, a never-ending conga line of showgirls as well as Angie Dickinson (who was rumored to have had an affair with both Sinatra and Martin).
Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaine, and Frank Sinatra, during the filming of the 1984 comedy, Cannonball Run II. In addition to the core group, the Rat Pack had several associate members that were called ‘mascots’ that included Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Greco and Angie Dickinson (who was rumored to have had an affair with both Sinatra and Martin)
The stars of Ocean’s 11: Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Married to Pat Kennedy, Sinatra gave Peter Lawford the nickname ‘Lawford-in-law’ for his familial connection to President John F. Kennedy but the two lifelong show business friends had a falling out after the Kennedy administration forced Lawford to severe his relationship with Sinatra over his connection to the Chicago mob
Despite being a member of Las Vegas’ biggest act, Sammy Davis Jr. suffered tremendous discrimination throughout his entire career – he was often denied a hotel room at the very same establishment he was headlining but Sinatra changed all that, demanding that Davis receive equal treatment. In his memoir, Davis credited his successful career to Sinatra: ‘Nobody but Frank Sinatra could have put Sammy Davis where he was. Sinatra, first of all, was never a racist kind of guy. He cared about everybody being equal. When Frank said, ‘this guy’s great’ – they all paid attention’
Actor Tony Curtis snaps a photo of Frank Sinatra (left) and Peter Lawford on the set of Soldiers Three. Curtis, who was not in the movie, was trying the other end of the camera for a change and snapping photos for his first magazine assignment
By 1960 with the release of Ocean’s 11, the Rat Pack had truly arrived. Their expertly tailored suits and tilted hats defined glamour in the gambling desert town. Indeed it was Peter Lawford, who originally brought Sinatra onto the Ocean’s 11 film project.
Lawford was given the cheeky nickname ‘Lawford-in-law’ by Sinatra for being married to President John F. Kennedy younger sister, Pat Kennedy. Pat and Peter purchased the film rights to a story about a group of veterans that pull off a casino heist. Upon first hearing about the project, Sinatra’s response was: ‘Forget the movie, let’s pull the job!’
The movie was a box-office sensation, netting the Lawfords $500,000 while Sinatra earned $200,000 plus one-third of all profits.
Despite a long friendship in show business, Sinatra and Lawford suffered a falling out over politics shortly after the filming of Ocean’s 11. As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy ramped up his crusade against organized crime and Lawford was forced to severe his ties with Frank due to his connection with the Chicago mob.
Sinatra, who tirelessly campaigned for President John F. Kennedy and jokingly referred to his group as ‘the Jack Pack’ after many late nights partying with the red-haired politician – felt utterly betrayed. Lawford was immediately replaced by Bing Crosby in the movie Robin and the 7 Hoods and written out of Rat Pack history.
Aviation millionaire, Howard Hughes purchased the Sands Hotel and Casino in 1967 and slashed the generous budget for talent, effectively putting an end to the Rat Pack’s reign over Las Vegas. Sinatra defected to the Caesar’s Palace, Martin moved to The Riviera while Davis stayed at the Sands
Dean Martin fell into a deep depression after his 35-year-old son died in a plane accident in 1987. Sinatra tried to help by reassembling the Pack in 1988 for a 29-stop tour called ‘Together Again’ but Martin quit after only five shows (one of which he flicked a lit cigarette into the audience). Sinatra and Davis were forced to continue with Liza Minelli filling in for Martin