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Saturday, December 12, 2015

December 12-13, 2015: Circles of Friends: The Rat Packs

[December 12th will mark the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and since Sinatra was as well-known for his famous group of friends as for his individual achievements, I wanted to spend the week AmericanStudying such circles of friends. Leading up to this special weekend post on the Rat Pack!]
On how the famous group of friends started, how it changed, and why the shift matters.
I’m not going to pretend that I knew the slightest bit about the original, 1950s version of the Rat Pack, one centered on Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall and featuring such Hollywood luminaries as controversial couple Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, David Niven, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, and many others, until I started doing research for this post. Indeed, I very much doubt that many people, outside of Rat Pack completists, hard-core Bogie/Bacall or Tracy/Hepburn fans, and historians of mid-20th century Hollywood, know about this originating iteration of the group, with a nickname allegedly drawn from Bacall’s assessment of the men at the end of a long night of carousing (“You look like a pack of rats”) and a full name (the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack”) honoring the neighborhood of the Bogart/Bacall residence where the group most often gathered.
With Bogart’s death in 1957, the group’s de facto leadership shifted to singer and actor Frank Sinatra, who had been an occasional member in those early years and who even briefly dated Bacall after (or, possibly, just before, although the Daily Mail is always to be taken with a pound of salt) Bogart’s death. Leaving such gossip aside, this 1960s version of the Rat Pack is the one that came to be thoroughly associated with the name: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, performing in concerts together, making films together, becoming legendary partiers and womanizers together, and coming to define collectively a certain version of cool for a generation. Perhaps to differentiate themselves from that prior version, and perhaps because rats aren’t exactly the coolest creatures in the animal kingdom, the members of this group apparently preferred the names “the Summit” and “the Clan” (although Davis of course was less fond of that latter option); but “Rat Pack” was too catchy and irresistible, and has not only stuck but even spawned imitations such as the Brat Pack on which I focused in Thursday’s post.
So the leadership and membership significantly shifted from Bogart’s Pack to Sinatra’s—but is the shift worth analyzing in more cultural or historical terms? I would say that it is, for at least two reasons. For one thing, Sinatra’s Rat Pack was far more of a professional partnership, one where the members would not only make art together but would also consistently contribute to each other’s artistic efforts; this was distinctly different from the more purely social nature of Bogart’s group, and would link Sinatra’s more fully to the professional collaborations of the Algonquin Round Table (for example). And for another thing, Sinatra’s Pack was notably more diverse, with not only the African American Davis but Sinatra (son of two Italian immigrants), Martin (son of an Italian immigrant father and Italian American mother), and Bishop (born Joseph Gottlieb to two Polish Jewish immigrants) as core members. There’s certainly value in better remembering Bogart’s Rat Pack, but the significance of Sinatra’s, well beyond just notions of cool, remains and endures nonetheless.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

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