Thursday, August 3, 2000
There's nothing better to do on a hot summer day than finding a shady spot and some good trashy reading to go with it.
Thus, with the recent round of heat making me slightly delirious, I decided to spend a couple of days with the salaciously titled "Rat Pack Confidential."
How could I resist? The book had the look and feel of a tabloid piece, supposedly covering Frank's late-'50s/early '60s Rat Pack era in-depth. I assumed I'd be in for some good, juicy trash reading. I wasn't disappointed, although the book's literary raison d'etre still wasn't completely apparent as I finished the final chapter.
The concept of a work focusing on this era isn't a bad one. Sinatra's career spanned so many decades that most biographical works about him fall short of capturing the essence of the man, his music and his pals. While "Confidential" certainly doesn't purport itself to be a serious work, the idea of a detailed account of this ring-a-ding era is certainly book-worthy.
Author Shawn Levy tries hard to match up with the Rat Pack's inimitable dialect and his book is brimming with zingy one-liners and plenty of one-word sentences. Really.
"It was swinging and sighing and being a sharpie, it was cutting a figure and digging a scene," Levy writes of the era. "It was the Rat Pack. It was beautiful."
The Rat Pack, which actually began as a group of friends centered around Humphrey Bogart, later came to be known as a loose collective centered around Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. This is the group that joked and one-taked its way through irreverent dreck like "Oceans 11" and packed audiences into Las Vegas ballrooms with its patented brand of showbiz shtick.
For such a short work, Levy does a credible job of telling the stories of these five men, though it's generally done via sound bites and brief summations.
Still, you get Sammy's amazing fight to overcome racism and personal doubts on his way to superstardom. You get Dino's lackadaisical approach to life, one that partnered him with everyone from Jerry Lewis to Sinatra. You get Lawford as a dumb blond who hit the matrimonial jackpot when he married Pat Kennedy, and Bishop is described as an acerbic wit who would kowtow to no one.
Of course, you get all the other names of the era, too, from famous Sinatra exes like Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow, to the Kennedy family, mob bosses, movie stars galore and just about everyone else of note. Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, John and Bobby Kennedy, Sam Giancana, Harry Cohn, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Black Panthers and Judy Garland all make appearances in Levy's work.
The author's best moments come when he manages to give a visceral taste of the way it was via the insider dialect of the Rat Pack, a secret code of sorts that became the language of the tiny hipster set.
"They were all Charlies and Chicky Babys," Levy writes. "To be a Charlie was in. ï¿½ Peter's manager Milt Ebbins was Charlie Bluecheese because he never sat in the sun. Sammy called himself a million Charlies ï¿½ Charlie Humble, Charlie Suave, Charlie Dapper, Charlie Star, Charlie Boor. ï¿½ Clyde could be anything or anyone ï¿½ good or bad, it didn't matter. 'Pass the clyde' when you wanted the salt. 'How's your clyde?' as a form of greeting. 'Let's lose the Clyde' to get rid of a Harvey."
One particularly hilarious moment comes when Sammy tells a dumbfounded journalist about the Rat Pack's newfound fame abroad.
"Like, we were getting off the boat the other day in Le Havre and this French dame ï¿½ this French reporter ï¿½ comes up to me and says, 'Etes-vous un Rat?' She's asking me, am I a Rat? I don't dig. Then I dig. She's asking me about the Rat Pack, you dig? But there's no word in French for Rat Pack, you dig?"
The "Iliad"? Hardly, Charlie. But it should get your clyde through the last of the summer heat and ready to ring-a-ding-ding in the fall.