Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Rat Pack Confidential

Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy
3 stars

Reasons for reading: I've always been quite interested in learning more about the Rat Pack and reading
Cease to Blush earlier this year made me even more intrigued; Nonfiction for the Triple 8 Challenge

Book description: "January 1960. Las Vegas is at its smooth, cool peak. The Strip is a jet-age theme park, and the greatest singer in the history of American popular music summons a group of friends there to make a movie. One is an insouciant singer of Italian songs, ex-partner to the most popular film comedian of the day. One is a short, black, Jewish, one-eyed, singing, dancing wonder. One is an upper-crust British pretty boy turned degenerate B-movie actor, brother-in-law to an ascendant politician. And one is a stiff-shouldered comic with the quintessential Borscht Belt emcee's knack for needling one-liners...

Around them an entire cast gathers: actors, comics, singers, songwriters, gangsters, politicians, and women, as well as thousands of starstruck everyday folks who fork over pocketfuls of money for the privilege of basking in their presence. They call themselves The Clan. But to an awed world, they are known as The Rat Pack.They had it all. Fame. Gorgeous women. A fabulous playground of a city and all the money in the world. The backing of fearsome crime lords and the blessing of the President of the United States. But the dark side--over the thin line between pleasure and debauchery, between swinging self-confidence and brutal arrogance--took its toll. In four years, their great ride was over, and showbiz was never the same."

My thoughts: This definitely satisfied my Rat Pack curiosity. I don't think I'd have been interested enough to read a separate biography of each man, but I liked Levy's approach of viewing "the Rat Pack as a kind of organic phenomenon, a being that lived for a few years around the turn of the sixties with roots stretching back into its principals' childhoods and effects haunting them until their deaths."

While parts of their lives were very exciting and glamorous, my main feelings about the various members were mostly pity or disgust. Frank Sinatra appears to have had three main modes - baby, bully, or coward. His loyalty is often touted, yet he cut many of his so-called friends dead for months or years at a time over any slight, real or imagined. Peter Lawford wasn't really liked by anyone in the Rat Pack or his Kennedy in-laws and is mostly a laughable figure who ended his days as a truly sick individual. Dean Martin seems to have been the most normal and likeable of all, probably because he managed to stay the most detached, but even he seems to have had his moments of being a real asshole. Sammy Davis Jr. is presented as having extreme self-loathing issues, despite being probably the most talented of them all. Failed marriages, drug and alcohol problems, estrangement from their children...doesn't sound like it was quite the swingin' life it appeared to be.

I did enjoy reading about the heyday, Summit years and reading about the fiascos involved in filming it made me want to see the original Ocean's 11 even more. Even after reading about all of the negative things they did and that happened to them later, it's really hard not to view it all in nostalgia-tinted glasses - the oh-so-modern, cool Sands, the jokes, the songs, the glamour. There really hadn't been anything like them before. And it was quite astonishing to realize how truly on top Sinatra managed to be for so long (despite a few slumps). Levy also repeatedly points out the true gift he had for singing, which was like nothing seen before it (or presumably since). I've always liked his music (mainly because I love Cole Porter and the other standards he's known for), but the book made me interested to hear some of his earlier work, I think I've only really ever heard the middle-aged Frank with all of his "Pow! Zoom!" type stuff. And I have to say, I've simply got to listen to an album called Ring-a-ding-ding! just for the title. :-)

The part I liked the least was all the mob stuff. I know they were connected to the Rat Pack, especially Frank, but the lists of Italian guys with dumb nicknames got a bit old, as did reading about how many points various mobsters had in various casinos. The history of Las Vegas is pretty interesting, especially when you consider how immense and family vacation-oriented it is now, but there was still just a bit too much of that, too.

This was definitely an interesting book and it was a fairly quick read. For a biography, I felt it read well, almost like a novel. And it made me interested to hear and see more Sinatra and perhaps learn more about that swingin' era itself.


Lauren said...

I love reading your blog. Do you have a contact email address?

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Thanks, Lauren! :) It's tinylibrarian AT hotmail DOT com