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Afterhours in Camelot

[whitespace] Rat Pack

The Last Days of Innocent Ring-a-Ding-Ding Hedonism

By Christina Waters
Illustrations By Terri Groat-Ellner


I want to wake up in a city
That doesn't sleep
And find I'm king of the hill
Top of the heap
"New York, New York" (Bernstein)

THE YEAR WAS 1963. America wouldn't lose its innocence until Nov. 22. JFK was still alive and kickin' around those White House back bedrooms with a series of dangerous broads from the twilight worlds of movies and crime. The British Invasion, aka the Beatles and Stones, was mounted and ready to launch. Sean Connery as "Bond ... James Bond" was busy bedding bosomy babes and dispatching villains without even creasing his tux. The sexy Scotsman may have ruled our bedroom fantasies, but Americans ruled the world and the world wanted to be American. As our unofficial ambassadors, the Rat Pack mined that desire and took it out for a freewheeling spin.

Frank Sinatra Sure, the sun was setting on the Old West-- which now lived in Hollywood and vacationed in Vegas. The virile Galahads playing poker and swilling scotch at the after-hours Round Table were a ragtag band of immigrant sons led by Francis Albert Sinatra, a skinny crooner from Hoboken whose voice permeated the postwar years like a throbbing hangover.

Joining him at the all-night party were boozy songster Dean Martin, black dynamo Sammy Davis Jr. (these were the days before everybody became hyphenated, as in Italian-American or African-American), a deadpan Jewish comedian named Joey Bishop and a pretty-boy Brit, Peter Lawford, who, by marriage to the president's sister, wedded the Pack to American royalty. They had it all and they knew it. Looks, talent, broads, power, money and all the perks fame could bestow.

They did shows in Vegas, strutting, singing, joking and high-lifing their way into audiences' fantasies. They made movies--Robin and the Seven Hoods and the cult fave Ocean's Eleven. They smoked and drank to excess. They went through women like razor blades, and while they went to the dolls for a bit of "hey-hey," their emotional bonds were with the guys.

This was a boys-only club. Don't let the token presence of a few women fool you. Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine, for example, were essentially mascots, or in Shirley's case tough enough to pass for men in drag.

Sammy Davis Jr. The '60s were the era of men-in-groups entertainment. After all that postwar safety and prosperity, thrills were needed in the form of unsafe stuff like gambling, drinking, whoring and even flirting with a bit of the old ultra-violence. Fistfights, swearing and brushes with the law (and the underground) hovered on the margins of their world like hurricanes gathering humidity.

The quest for deep male bonding during times of high excitement and danger permeated the films of the day. The Dirty Dozen, Spartacus, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven--all these '60s films illuminated the thrilling scars American men had acquired during the war. The Rat Pack mythologized that camaraderie, carefully packaging its homoerotic subtext in bottles of Seagram's and Old Spice. Masculine pastimes became sexy. Fate was to be tempted, caution cast to the winds.

Smoking was required because it looked so existential, drinking was an Olympic sport and fashion statements were the moral equivalent of Save-the-Whales activism. Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy set the dress code of cool, crisp elegance. Today Macy's women's departments are filled with little black shifts accessorized with simple pearl necklaces. It's no mere coincidence that just this year the Franklin Mint issued a Jackie Collector's Doll with a dress designed by the First Lady's personal designer, Oleg Cassini.

[line]

Silicon Valley bars and clubs list.

Rat Pack drinking, but no driving.

The ugly realities about the day after.

How to speak Rat Packenese.

Portraits of the Pack:
Dean Martin
Sammy Davis Jr.
Joey Bishop
Peter Lawford
JFK
Jackie Kennedy
Angie Dickinson
Marilyn Monroe
Joe DiMaggio
Shirley MacLaine
Kevin Bacon
Frank Sinatra

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The Edge of an Era

IN THE '90S, THE '60s have become big again, especially the once-ubiquitous dangerous pursuits now outlawed by public opinion. In the '90s, which has been described as a decade wearing a condom, political correctitude has forced innocent vices and personal hedonism underground. No more one-night stands. No more smoking. No more drinking. No more messing around.

In an era yearning for some edge, the Rat Pack revival is a caper with a mission. In a unisex culture, it's fun to dress up in gender-specific clothes and slow dance. Sipping the ultimate sophisticated drink, the martini, men and women are rediscovering each other's charms. Sex appeal is sexy again, and Frankie, Dino and the boys all had that number down cold.

The revival of interest in the pre-hippie-era '60s can be seen as a backlash against the fascism of environmental extremism, where pleasure has been replaced by politics and naughtiness isn't allowed. So it's no surprise that Rat Pack hobbies are indoor activities. These weren't outdoor boys--oh, no. The only adventure sport these guys were into was high-stakes gambling.

Dean Martin Led by the Chairman of the Board (Sinatra) and the Toastmaster (Dino), the Rat Pack exuded a cosmopolitan, urban aura. Cufflinks were as important to a man as a shapely companion. Martinis were required drinking, but manly pours--scotch, bourbon, vodka--were quaffed briskly and, like many a Rat Pack marriage, on the rocks.

Sinatra's voice extracted the same bluesy mood from a song as his onstage style did with a cigarette or a highball. Drinks were to be savored, like memories of loves lost. In its macho, go-to-hell way, 1963 was a contemplative year. Cocktails bought these tough guys time to sit and meditate without looking like sissies. The cigarettes were just another way of flaunting attitude. Smoke created an instant melancholy atmosphere, the impression that one had drunk deeply from the cup of experience. Smoking was erotic foreplay that could be conducted in public.

They put on expensive suits and gave sartorial swagger its strongest renaissance since Louis XIV. Gold bracelets and rings glittered on their hands, and expensive brilliantine gleamed in their hair. These guys were coifed--a group retort to messy, sloppy, unkempt personal style. A generation that had slogged through Normandy and Guadalcanal wearing mud and fatigues was grateful for the chance to strut some personal style.

Joey Bishop Here We Go Again

AND HISTORY REPEATS: After a decade of relentlessly ugly grunge attire, late-'90s hipsters are exploring the idea of tailored threads, spaghetti straps and high heels.

While the rest of the former GIs married their sweethearts, quickly produced 2.5 children and held down quiet jobs in the suburbs, Frankie and the boys acted out the swinging bachelorhoods they all still craved.

With the death of Sinatra last month, the world paused to hum along with a body of impeccably phrased torch songs that bespoke of experience, heartache, long nights and lost dreams. It's a romantic legacy that appeals to those for whom body piercing stands in for sexual penetration and Web-surfing is a substitute for getting tipsy.

With moderation taken to an all-time extreme these days, there's a collective itch that needs scratching. Ain't that a kick in the head? However childish the behavior of the inebriated, cocktails are still the archetypal adult drink. And we're not talking chardonnay here. The martini is back. Big time. Cognac is joining cigars in fashionable salons of urban restaurants and clubs. The Cosmopolitan is becoming the hottest drink among twentysomethings as we head toward the year 2000.

America on the eve of JFK's death was at an apocalyptic showdown--and it is again in the year 1999. The eat, drink and be merry Zeitgeist that infused the last days of Camelot--when it was better than OK to be sexy and frisky--is here again. You can repress the genes of fun only so long before they rebel. And at the end of the century, girls and boys just wanna have fun.

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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