Through the early 1960s, Sinatra and his Rat Pack reigned supreme in contemporary culture; they became the “cool guys” of their generation. They brought record-breaking crowds to the Las Vegas nightclub scene and made millions for Hollywood’s box office through the movies they made. The Rat Pack’s network of contacts, friends, and business partners ranged across Hollywood, Las Vegas, and beyond, including movie stars such as Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, Janet Leigh, Angie Dickinson, and Shirley MacLaine, and also some underworld figures such as Sam Giancana of Chicago.Sinatra and the Rat Pack became intertwined with the Kennedy family in part through Peter Lawford’s marriage to Jack Kennedy’s sister, Patricia, and later through Sinatra’s friendship with U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. But the Rat Pack’s Hollywood and business network in the entertainment world also made it a potent force for fundraising and voter turnout, which soon become apparent in the 1960 presidential election and beyond.
Part 1 of the story covers Rat Pack history and the group’s involvement with the 1960 Kennedy campaign, up to and including John F. Kennedy’s election in November 1960. Part 2 of the story picks up here as plans for the 1961 Kennedy inauguration festivities are being made. This part of the story will also cover Frank Sinatra’s falling out with JFK and the Kennedy family during the early 1960s, as well as what became of various Rat Pack members and friends and Kennedy family members in the years following the Kennedy election.
Washington GalaIn December 1960, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford began planning a big, star-studded gala and party fundraiser to be staged at the National Armory in Washington, D.C. on January 19th, 1961, the night before JFK’s formal inauguration.
Among the performers and notables Sinatra and Lawford would gather for this event were: Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Kelly, Frederic March, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mahalia Jackson, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Leonard Bernstein, Fredric March, Sidney Poitier, Bill Dana, Kay Thompson, Roger Edens and others.
Sinatra was responsible for personally recruiting many of the stars, some flying in from filming and performing locations abroad. He and Lawford also convinced several Broadway producers to shut down for one night so actors such as Anthony Quinn, Ethel Merman and Laurence Olivier could attend.
One account had it that Sinatra personally bought out the theater tickets for the performances of the Broadway plays in conflict so the those actors could partake in the Kennedy gala.Several thousand seats at the National Armory would be sold for $100 each and 72 ringside boxes for small groups were sold at $10,000 apiece. “We’ve already sold out the 72 boxes,” Peter Lawford told Time magazine in early December. Sinatra added, “This will be the biggest take in show-business history for a one-nighter. We expect to raise $1,700,000 for the one night…” In January, Sinatra and Lawford flew to Washington on Kennedy’s private Convair plane to begin work on the gala. The Hollywood stars, producers, directors, conductors, and musicians involved were housed at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Washington, reportedly taking over the top floor or so. Sinatra also hired a Hollywood photographer named Phil Stern to document the entire enterprise, later giving each of the participants their own photo albums. But in arranging the gala there was also some nastiness for Frank’s friend, Sammy Davis, slated to be one of the gala performers. Davis had planned to take leave from his engagement at the Latin Casino near Philadelphia in order to perform at the gala. But given his recent mid-November 1960 mix-race marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, Sammy was still too hot politically for the Kennedys. Reportedly, there had been discussions with Bobby, Jack and Peter Lawford on Sammy’s participation in the gala, concern being that Southern Democrats would object to Sammy and his new wife attending. Three days before the gala, after Sammy had bought a new tux and his wife a new gown, he received a call from the White House. It was Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary. She told Sammy the president didn’t want him at the inauguration, a decision by the president described as being forced upon him by the politics of the moment, and counterproductive to fight. Sammy said he understood. Peter Lawford called Davis to try to smooth things over, but Sammy was crushed. On gala day, there was a snow storm in Washington, dumping eight inches on the city through the evening. But the show went on. There was singing, dancing, poetry, stage skits, dramatic readings, and tributes to the presidential and vice-president.
Gene Kelly danced; Sydney Poteir read poetry, and Pat Suzuki sang. Kelly sang “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore” and did an amazing dance routine. Fredric March did a recitation invoking God’s help to “give us zest for new frontiers, and the faith to say unto mountains, whether made of granite or red tape: Remove.”
Bill Dana, famous in that era for portraying a fictional Chicano character known as José Jiménez, did a well-received comic routine with Milton Berle. Nat King Cole sang and so did a young, 34 year-old Harry Belafonte, whose 1956 Calypso album had become the first long-playing album in history to sell over one million copies.Jimmy Durante sang a version of the “September Song,” a JFK favorite. Sinatra sang twice that evening, once with “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and also “That Old Black Magic,” putting a few new twists on the old standard with lines like: “That old Jack magic had them in its spell / That old Jack magic that he weaves so well…” There was also a long biographical tribute sung to Kennedy describing his rise to power, using a parody of popular songs composed by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. This skit began with Sinatra and Berle doing a send up of that era’s famous news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.“…[I]t may have marked the moment when popular entertainment became an indispensable part of modern politics.”
– Todd Purdum “High Hopes,” was also used in this segment, now reworked by Sinatra with new lines that included: “Jack and Lyndon B /… Let’s follow their lead / They’re the men that our America needs!”
Todd Purdum, writing a Vanity Fair retrospective on the famous JFK gala 50 years later, summed it up this way: “It was an only-in-America blend of high culture and low comedy, of schmaltz and camp, and it may have marked the moment when popular entertainment became an indispensable part of modern politics.” In fact, Bette Davis said as much during the show in part of skit she did, reading from a script by radio dramatist Norman Corwin: “The world of entertainment—show-biz, if you please—has become the Sixth Estate…”At one point near the show’s end, with an introduction from Sinatra, JFK rose to speak as a single spotlight shone on him. “We saw excellence tonight,” Kennedy said, while commending Sinatra and Peter Lawford for their work on the gala. “The happy relationship between the arts and politics which has characterized our long history I think reached culmination tonight,” he said.
Of Sinatra’s role in the gala Kennedy said, “You can not imagine the work he has done to make this show a success.” Kennedy called Sinatra “a great friend,” and added: “Long before he could sing, he used to poll a Democratic precinct back in New Jersey. That precinct has grown to cover a country, but long after he has ceased to sing, he’s going to be standing up and speaking for the Democratic Party, and I thank him on behalf of all of you tonight.”The gala would raise millions to help reduce the Democratic campaign debt, and despite the snow and difficult logistics, Sinatra had pulled off one of the greatest Hollywood-on-the-Potomac fetes the city had ever witnessed.
JFK’s Late Night
Even though it was nearly 1:30 a.m. when the gala ended, and Jackie Kennedy had long since gone home as she was still recovering from the Cesarean birth of John Jr., JFK went to another party that night given by his father, Joseph Kennedy, at Paul Young’s restaurant in downtown D.C. JFK didn’t get home until 3:30 a.m.
However the next morning, Inauguration Day, Kennedy was up at eight, reviewing his speech and preparing for a full slate of official and ceremonial meetings with outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then on to Capitol Hill for his swearing in and one of the more memorable inaugural speeches in U.S. history.On the evening of the inauguration, as the President and first lady were making the rounds to the various inaugural balls being held in Washington, Sinatra threw a party at the Statler-Hilton Hotel for all the cast and crew who had been involved in the preceding night’s gala. The President, on a visit to the Statler-Hilton for one of the balls that evening, managed to slip away to join Sinatra’s party and mingle with the guests there. Frank Sinatra was very pleased, and went home to California feeling pretty good about himself and his friend in the White House.
The Sinatra File
Following the inauguration, the ties between Frank Sinatra and the Kennedy’s – especially those involving JFK and the White House – would gradually become strained and eventually would be severed. But this would not occur for another year or so.Sinatra had been monitored by the FBI stretching back to 1946 when he attended social gatherings in Cuba as a guest of some organized crime figures. The FBI had an active file on Sinatra which continued for years (Sinatra’s full FBI file would not be released publicly until December 1998, ultimately revealing nothing criminal, subversive, or unpatriotic; a file filled with mostly unsubstantiated complaints and anonymous sources).
But in February 1961, within weeks of JFK’s inauguration, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a pointed memo to the new U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. The memo detailed Sinatra’s extensive connections to organized crime figures. Robert Kennedy would later impress upon his brother, the President, that he needed to distance himself from Sinatra.Still, exchanges between the Kennedy family, Sinatra, and members of his Rat Pack continued through 1961 and beyond. In early July, Sinatra and Peter Lawford joined U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy to attend benefit dinner for the Cedars-Sinai Hospital at the Beverly Hilton in Hollywood. Another report had Sinatra, the Dean Martin family, Peter Lawford and family, Sammy Davis and May Britt, and Janet Leigh using the French Riviera home of Joseph P. Kennedy during a ten-day vacation in August 1961.
Then, in late September 1961, ten months after the election, Joe Kennedy threw a thank-you party for Frank Sinatra at the family’s Hyannis Port, MA compound. At that point, JFK as president was still talking with Sinatra, as Sinatra would approach the president during the Hyannis Port visit to ask for a small favor.
Screenwriters in Hollywood had come to Sinatra about starring in a film, The Manchurian Candidate, based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon.The Manchurian Candidate is a story about a Korean War hero, brainwashed by the Chinese Communists, who then returns home programmed to assassinate the president as part of a larger conspiracy to take over the White House. In addition to starring the film, Sinatra also had business interests in its distribution. However, the head of Universal Studios at the time, Arthur Krim, was queasy about the film project and its Cold War politics. Krim was also then national finance chairman of the Democratic Party. So, when Sinatra was visiting the Kennedys in Hyannis Port in September 1961, he told Jack Kennedy of the plan for the film and Arthur Krim’s reluctance to make it. President Kennedy called Krim and the movie project went forward, with Krim later saying that Kennedy’s call had made the difference.
Despite Kennedy’s help on the Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra’s access to the President and the White House would soon be ending. Later in the fall of 1961, Sinatra visited the White House as part of a larger group that included Peter Lawford and others. And during that year, press Secretary Pierre Salinger had been questioned by members of the press about Sinatra’s relationship with the president. The inner circle around Kennedy – including Robert Kennedy and the President himself – became less comfortable having Sinatra around the White House. But soon, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI would provide some additional information on Sinatra.
Rat Pack PopularityMeanwhile, the Rat Pack in 1961 seemed to gain in popularity and public notice. The first book arrived that year using the term “Rat Pack” in its title.
A writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania named Richard Gehman published a paperback volume with Belmont Books in New York titled, Sinatra and His Rat Pack. The book sold reasonably well and went into at least three printings according to one source.
In the fall that year, a late night talk show hosted by David Suskind featured a Rat Pack roundtable on one of its shows with a mix of journalists and Hollywood celebrities who debated the Rat Pack’s merits and maladies. Even a New Yorker cartoon appeared with a psychiatrist addressing the concerns of a middle-aged man lying on the treatment couch, with the psychiatrist saying: “What makes you think Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and all that bunch are so happy?”
There were also continued stage and club performances of the Rat Pack as a group, or in various combinations. Work on films with one or more members of the group continued as well, and Sinatra had a film or two of his own. The Devil at Four O’Clock, a volcano disaster film with Sinatra and Spencer Tracey came out in October 1961. Sinatra’s music continued to be popular. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford would have their notices as well.The Kennedy Administration, meanwhile, had a full plate of activities in 1961. In March, Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps. The president also held a press conference that month to discuss communist involvement in Laos. In April, in his first international and military crisis, U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy appeared on TV taking full responsibility for the fiasco, an operation inherited from the Eisenhower Administration. The Soviet Union that month put the first human in space, as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in a Soviet spacecraft. In May, speaking before the U.S. Congress, Kennedy committed the U.S. to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In June, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev held a summit in Vienna. Cold war tensions escalated in August, as construction on what came to be known as “the Berlin Wall” began; an actual brick-and-block wall that would divide East and West Berlin with the purpose of preventing people from fleeing communist-held areas of the country for sanctuary in the west. Elsewhere in the world, Kennedy Administration officials were working on foreign policy initiatives such as the “Alliance for Progress,” a joint U.S./Latin American economic development program. In December the President traveled to Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.
Stay At Frank’s?
As JFK’s presidential schedule for early 1962 was being plotted out, it was revealed he would be making a trip west to California in March of 1962. Early on, it was decided Kennedy would have an overnight visit at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs estate on March 24th, 1962. This planned JFK visit became a big event for Sinatra; a very prideful moment – much more than the pre-election partying the two had shared.Sinatra went all-out for the anticipated JFK visit – remodeling the house, adding new cottages, extra rooms, communications gear, and more. . . He even had a helicopter landing pad installed. This was now the President of the United States who was coming to stay overnight. Sinatra had initially built this Palm Springs residence in 1954. It included a main house, a movie theater, guest houses, a barbershop/sauna, two swimming pools, tennis courts, and a personal art studio. But now, he would make improvements.
Sinatra went all-out for the anticipated JFK visit – remodeling the house, adding new cottages, extra rooms, communications gear, and more to accommodate a president and his staff. He even had a concrete heliport landing pad installed. But within days of the planned visit – on March 22nd, two days ahead of the planned arrival at Sinatra’s – Peter Lawford was told by JFK and Bobby Kennedy to inform Sinatra that the President would not be staying at Sinatra’s place. Lawford tried to convince the President and Bobby not to cancel the visit, to no avail. It was then arranged that the President would stay at singer Bing Crosby’s place. Lawford then called Sinatra, fabricating a story about how Sinatra’s place was more open and more vulnerable and that the Secret Service had instead approved Bing Crosby’s “more secure” place, backing up against a mountain. Sinatra was stunned by the news, and tried appealing to Bobby Kennedy with no success. At one point, Sinatra reportedly took a sledge hammer to the heliport he had built to vent his frustration, and he was quite unforgiving of Lawford and others even remotely connected to the cancellation. From that point on, Sinatra and JFK pretty much parted ways.Bobby Kennedy and the President had both heard from J. Edgar Hoover about Sinatra and the fact that Sam Giancana – who Bobby’s Justice Department was then investigating – had stayed at Sinatra’s place. Hoover had lunch with the President only a few days before his scheduled March 1962 trip West, and it is believed he discussed Sinatra and Judith Campbell with the President, among other things. JFK knew Hoover played hardball and he wasn’t about to give him any more ammunition by staying with Sinatra. But Sinatra was wounded badly by the cancellation. Years later, Sinatra would say he would have understood if JFK had personally spoken with him about why, politically, he could not be seen with him, given his ties, etc. Sinatra said he would have accepted that. But Kennedy never did that, and Sinatra remained forever hurt by the slight. JFK, meanwhile, had a pleasant visit at Bing Crosby’s place on March 24th, 1962, where guests at that time reportedly included Marilyn Monroe.
“Happy Birthday”Less than two months later, on May 19, 1962, Monroe made a famous public appearance singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to JFK at a Madison Square Garden event for the President’s 45th birthday. It was a huge gala affair, with a number of Hollywood entertainers. Monroe, who arrived late to sing the birthday greeting, was introduced by Peter Lawford. Her appearance came toward the middle-end of the program, and she performed the song in her very best, most sexiest voice. More than 15,000 people attended the JFK gathering, also a Democratic fundraising event, with many VIPs and politicians in the audience. It was hosted by New York Mayor Robert Wagner with Jack Benny as emcee. Among those performing were: Robert Merrill, Ella Fitzgerald, Danny Kaye, Henry Fonda, Maria Callas, Peggy Lee, Jimmy Durante & Eddie Jackson, Mike Nichols & Elaine May, Diahann Carroll, and Bobby Darin. Richard Adler, a composer and lyricist, famous for Broadway musicals such as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, produced the show. Jerome Robbins, of The King and I and West Side Story fame, choreographed a big dance number. Monroe, in addition to “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” also continued her musical tribute to the president, adding a few lines of thanks — “for all you have done, the battles you have won” — to the tune of “Thanks for the Memories.” Monroe wore a sleek, form-fitting, specially-designed dress for the occasion, made for her by designer Jean Louis. Kennedy remarked at the podium later that evening that he could “now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.” Kennedy would later be photographed briefly talking to Monroe with brother Bobby and others at an after party. According to some reports, Kennedy had first met Monroe at his sister’s house – Peter and Patricia Lawford’s Santa Monica beach house – sometime in 1959-1960 (although some reports say Kennedy knew Monroe as early as 1954-55). Reportedly, other JFK and Monroe get-togethers occurred around the time of Kennedy’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on July 12th and July 13th, 1960, including a dinner at Puccini’s restaurant in Beverly Hills, owned by Sinatra and Lawford, and also at a private party at the Lawford’s Santa Monica home the night of Kennedy’s nomination at the Los Angeles 1960 Democratic National Convention. But Monroe’s appearance at the President’s birthday party in New York on May 19th, 1962 would be her last public appearance.
Frank Sinatra, not long after the President’s cancelled overnight visit, began a world concert tour in a dozen or more cities to raise money for various children’s charities. On that trip, Sinatra did concerts in China, Israel, Greece, Italy, London, Los Angeles, Milan, Tel Aviv and Japan and raised more than one million dollars for various benefits. He returned to the U.S. in late June 1962.
Marilyn’s FallIn late July 1962, according to author J. Randy Taraborrelli, Frank Sinatra invited Peter and Patricia Lawford for a weekend visit to his Nevada resort, the Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe. Marilyn Monroe, a friend of the Lawfords and also of Frank Sinatra, joined them. The Lawfords and Monroe traveled together and arrived by private plane. Monroe, however, was not well by then, suffering from depression and taking medication. Sinatra, in fact, upon seeing her, was shocked and angry about her condition and called her doctor on the spot to relay his concern. But at one point during the visit, Monroe did some self-medication and Pat Lawford later found her in her room collapsed. Sinatra, meanwhile, became worried over the incident, concerned she might die at his resort. He told his valet, George Jacobs, to get Monroe out of the resort. One guest who happened to be in the Cal-Neva lobby at the time reported seeing Peter and Pat Lawford on either side of Monroe helping to carry her out of the resort to a private plane that took her back to Los Angeles.
Other accounts of that weekend at the Cal-Neva report that Dean Martin and Monroe’s former husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, were also at the resort. DiMaggio had never been happy about some of Marilyn’s Hollywood friends. Still other accounts have Peter Lawford telling Monroe at that point that all communication with JFK and Bobby Kennedy was to be cut off. Monroe reportedly had been upset over some things JFK had said to her in private, and she had also seen Robert Kennedy. Monroe that summer was also working on the film Something’s Got to Give, which was never finished.
After the Lawford’s returned home from their weekend visit with Sinatra, Peter Lawford called Monroe on August 4, 1962, concerned about her health. He found that she was still not well, sounding quite depressed. He later tried calling her again but couldn’t get through. He then thought about going directly to her home. However, he was advised, that as the President’s brother-in-law, he should not go there.
On August 5, 1962, Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood home. She was 36 years old. Her death was ruled to be “acute barbiturate poisoning” by Los Angeles coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi and listed as a “probable suicide”.
Late 1962Through the remainder of 1962, Frank Sinatra continued his work. In August and September he was busy making a filmed adaptation of the Neil Simon play, Come Blow Your Horn, which would not be in theaters until the following year. In October 1962, Capitol Records released a new three-record set of his recordings – Sinatra, the Great Years. A few weeks later, near the end of October, The Manchurian Candidate, the film Sinatra starred in and had gone to JFK for help with producer Krim, began playing in theaters. JFK, in fact, had viewed the film at a special White House screening on August 29, 1962, the day a U-2 spy plane over Cuba would discover eight missile installations under construction– information that would lead, two months later, to the “Cuban missile crisis” and a showdown with the Soviet Union.
By October 16th, a day the New York Yankees would beat the San Francisco Giants in game seven of the 1962 World Series, Kennedy was shown new U-2 photos revealing fully-equipped missile bases capable of attacking the U.S. with nuclear warheads. Plans were drawn up for a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba. A massive mobilization of military hardware began, and more than 150,000 active duty troops from the Marines, Army and Air Force were either positioned in Florida or put on high alert, while additional reservists were ordered to report for duty.On Monday, October 22, 1962, President Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. He explained that a Naval blockade had been placed around Cuba to prevent any further Soviet deliveries.
The President also stated that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviets and he demanded the missiles be removed from Cuba.
The “missile crisis,” as it came to be called, was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war in the 1960s. In the end, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned his ships around. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the weapon sites and, in exchange, the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba and remove its missiles from Turkey.
1963Frank Sinatra hosted the Academy Awards ceremony in 1963. Earlier that year, Playboy magazine ran an interview with Sinatra that revealed him to be quite well-informed on a range of domestic and international issues, and in which he mentioned the Kennedy Administration a few times in the context of policy issues.
Sinatra also recorded a new LP in April 1963, titled Sinatra’s Sinatra. This was an album of Sinatra songs from the 1940s and 1950s, updated with new versions for Sinatra’s own label, Reprise. The album did quite well, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard and U.K. album charts. The film Come Blow Your Horn, in which Sinatra starred, was also a major box office success that summer, garnering him a Golden Globe acting nomination.
President Kennedy that spring, among other things, visited Hollywood briefly for a Democratic Party fundraiser. This affair, however, was a limited VIP gathering of about one hundred of Hollywood’s biggest stars, among them: Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Jack Webb and others. “Instead of offering a formal speech the president table-hopped, impressing his guests with a wide-ranging knowledge of movies in general and their careers in specific,” explains Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University who has written on the presidency and Hollywood. Kennedy was a life-long fan of Hollywood, and remained intrigued about its inner working and even its gossip.Back in Washington, meanwhile, JFK had a full agenda of pressing issues, domestic and international, with both difficult and hopeful signs for the future. In June 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused to allow two black students to enter the University of Alabama forcing Kennedy to use the National Guard to ensure the students’ safety. On June 11, Kennedy gave a nationally-televised evening speech announcing a civil rights proposal, a speech that helped calm tensions while also putting front and center the “moral issue” then confronting the nation. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” he said. “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities …[T]his Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free …” Also in June, some eight months after the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke at the American University commencement in Washington, D.C. urging a reexamination of Cold War stereotypes and calling for a strategy of peace. In the final months of his presidency, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was negotiated and signed. June 1963 was also the month that President Kennedy arrived in the partitioned city of Berlin, Germany, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. In popular culture that July, the Beatles’ had become a sensation in Britain, but not yet in the U.S. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A few weeks later, on September 12, 1963 in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Frank Sinatra sang “Ol’ Man River” at a benefit gathering for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Frank Sinatra’s son, Frank, Jr., who was sitting in the balcony for that performance, later observed: “Here was the greatest black leader in history watching this white man sing a song about slavery, and there were tears on his cheeks.”
Elsewhere, however, Frank Sinatra had his problems. In Las Vegas, Nevada, the state’s Gaming Control Board recommended in September 1963, that Sinatra’s casino gambling license be revoked for allowing Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana to visit Sinatra’s part-owned Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe. The Gaming Control Board had a published “List of Excluded Persons” who were not allowed in casinos even as customers, and Giancana was on that list. Sinatra never understood the stigma of his friendship with Giancana and others like him, as he had been friends of theirs since the 1940s. Still, Sinatra had to give up his casino license and sell his interests in the Cal-Neva and the Sands. ( Later, however, Sinatra would have his Las Vegas bona fides restored in 1981 when he applied for license as an entertainment consultant at Caesars Palace, listing President Ronald Reagan as a character reference and having Gregory Peck testify on his behalf. The Gaming Commission voted their approval, 4-1 ).Jack Kennedy, in November 1963, was scheduled to visit Texas to make a series of political speeches across the state. On November 21, 1963, Kennedy flew to Texas making three visits that day in San Antonio, Houston, and Forth Worth. The next day, as his car drove slowly past cheering crowds in Dallas, shots rang out. Kennedy was mortally wounded and died a short time later.
Within hours of the shooting, police arrested 24 year-old Lee Harvey Oswald as the prime suspect. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson – with a shaken Jackie Kennedy beside him aboard Air Force One – was sworn in as President. The nation went into deep shock and weeks of mourning.
An Era’s EndIn late November 1963, Frank Sinatra was filming a scene for Robin and the 7 Hoods in a Burbank, California cemetery when he learned that Kennedy had been assassinated. Stunned by the news, Sinatra reportedly became very quiet and took a series of long walks away from the set, thinking about the tragedy. He also called the White House from the set, and spoke briefly to a staffer there. He then returned to the waiting film crew and said, “Let’s shoot this thing, ’cause I don’t want to come back here anymore.” After the scene was finished Sinatra went to his home in Palm Springs and, according to his daughter, Nancy Sinatra, “virtually disappeared” for three days while the Kennedy family and nation mourned. Sinatra would later say of Kennedy: “For a brief moment, he was the brightest star in our lives. I loved him.” Kennedy’s assassination marked seminal changes for the nation’s character and its culture. America became a less innocent, more somber place. Numerous turning points, public and personal, followed.
For the Rat Pack, Kennedy’s death also marked the end of an era. Rat Pack hijinks-type entertainment would gradually fade from the scene. By 1964, with the arrival of the Beatles, the music had changed as well. Yet Frank Sinatra, for one, would hold his own.
In 1965, Sinatra turned 50, but he still had years of hit music ahead of him. In that year alone, he recorded the retrospective album, September of My Years and starred in the Emmy-winning television special Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music. In early 1966 he scored a recording hit with the blockbuster single, “Strangers in the Night,” a song that would later win three Grammy awards.In July 1966 Sinatra married Mia Farrow, a short-lived relationship that ended in divorce less than two years later. Back in Las Vegas, meanwhile, things were also changing. In 1967, Howard Hughes became the owner of the Sands. Frank Sinatra’s politics would change, too, but not right away.
Sinatra Politics II
In the 1968 national elections, during the Democratic presidential primaries, a number of Hollywood celebrities became engaged in those contests, generally hoping to change national policy as the Vietnam War divided the country. Paul Newman and others were backing Democratic candidates such as Senator Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, or Hubert Humphrey, then Vice President to incumbent Lyndon Johnson who had decided not to run for re-election in a shocking announcement. McCarthy appeared to have the early momentum, then Bobby Kennedy jumped in and was headed for victory before his tragic assassination in June 1968. However, Kennedy had done quite well with Hollywood supporters. But one entertainer noticeably absent from the Kennedy bandwagon was Frank Sinatra.Sinatra’s go-round with the Kennedys in 1960 had left its mark, plus the fact that as Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy had initiated actions against the Las Vegas gambling scene where Sinatra had friends and interests. In 1968, Sinatra supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination. The old Rat Pack was split among the Democratic candidates: Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Shirley MacLaine had endorsed Robert Kennedy during the primaries; Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop backed Humphrey. Sinatra had met with Humphrey in Washington in early May 1968, pledging to make campaign appearances for him. In Oakland, California, on May 22nd, 1968, Sinatra headlined a gala supporting Humphrey and a delegate slate that opposed RFK in the California primary. At the Oakland fundraiser, Sinatra gave an extensive live performance. He also performed for Humphrey at an August 1968 gala at Cobo Hall in Detroit; appeared for Humphrey at the Houston, Texas Astrodome with President Lyndon Johnson; made a TV ad for Humphrey that fall; and re-stated his support for Humphrey on a live election-eve national telethon. However, the Humphrey-Muskie ticket that emerged in that politically volatile season of 1968 was not enough to beat Richard Nixon.
Shift to RepublicansBy 1970, however, Frank Sinatra began shifting his politics to the Republicans. The first signs came when he spoke out in support of former actor Ronald Reagan, then running for re-election as California’s governor. In fact, Sinatra urged his old Hollywood friend Reagan to move more to the center. Sinatra, however, remained a registered Democrat who broke with Reagan on issues like abortion. But in 1971, the Republicans nationally were being drawn to Sinatra’s potential star appeal. A memo then circulating among some of Richard Nixon’s presidential aides on Sinatra noted: “He has the muscle to bring along a lot of the younger lights.” Nixon aide Charles W. Colson wrote of Sinatra: “If we are going to cultivate him, as I believe we should (I also recognize the negatives) then he should very shortly be invited to the White House to entertain.” In July 1972, prior to that year’s presidential election, Frank Sinatra announced his support for Richard Nixon.
“The older you get the more conservative you get,” he explained to his daughter Tina, who at the time was working for the Democratic candidate George McGovern. Sinatra’s old Rat Pack pal, Sammy Davis, Jr., also supported Nixon in 1972.
In April 1973, a time when Sinatra’s “comeback album” Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back had appeared, he was invited by President Richard Nixon to perform at the White House, the first president to do so. Following a state dinner for Italian Prime Minister Guiulio Andreotti, Sinatra performed a number of his songs for more than 200 guests in the East Room of the White House.
During Nixon’s presidency, Sinatra visited the White House several times. He also supported Nixon’s moves to recognize the People’s Republic of China.
For Ronald Reagan
By 1979, when Ronald Regan ran for president, Sinatra campaigned for him, saying at one point he worked harder for Regan than he had since 1960 when he backed Jack Kennedy. And as Sinatra had done for Kennedy 20 years earlier, in January 1981, he now also produced Reagan’s Inaugural Gala, lining up a slate of performers that included Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Charlton Heston. “I don’t view the inaugural as political,” he said when asked about producing Reagan’s show. “If Walter Mondale had won, and if he had asked me to do [his gala], I’d have been there.” Sinatra also campaigned for Regan in 1984. In fact, during October and early November of that election season, Sinatra went to Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Westchester, New York, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and San Diego doing Republican receptions and/or fundraisers on behalf of Reagan.Throughout Reagan’s presidency, Sinatra made frequent trips to the White House, as well as serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. In 1985, Reagan presented him with the Congressional Medal of Freedom at a White house ceremony. It was, according to friends and family, one of the proudest days of his life. Sinatra remained friends with both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and later sang at the inaugural gala for George H.W. Bush as well. And although he identified more with Republican presidents in his later years, Sinatra met Bill Clinton at a small dinner party in Los Angeles after Clinton became president. At that meeting, Clinton later recalled, Sinatra spoke about his admiration for the Kennedys and his pride in having been a part of the Kennedy campaign and JFK’s White House years.
On July 4, 1991, Sinatra, at the age of 75, wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times and summed up one of his life’s major social concerns – race relations:
“[W]hy do I still hear race- and color-haters spewing their poisons?… Why do I still flinch at innuendos of venom and inequality? Why do innocent children still grow up to be despised? Why do haters’ jokes still get big laughs when passed in whispers from scum to scum? …Why do so many among us continue in words and deeds to ignore, insult and challenge the unforgettable words of Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence’s promise to every man, woman and child — the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?”
Sinatra passed away in 1998, ten years before the election of Barack Obama. Yet, had he been around at the time, he might well have returned to the Democrats and supported Obama.
Rat Pack Postscript
The glory days for the Rat Pack had been mostly in the early-and-mid-1960s. Thereafter, there were occasional reunions, benefit shows, some continued film making, and revival tours involving one or more of the group. Some of these gigs involved guest participants, as with Johnny Carson in 1965, shown at left. A few of their later reunion attempts even extended into the 1980s.
As individual performers, however, the Rat Packers of the 1960s pretty much went their separate ways in later years. And for the most part, each fared moderately well, at least initially.Peter Lawford had appeared in the film the Longest Day in 1962 and two Rat Pack- related films with Sammy Davis –Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970). He also had some continuing success on his own in film and on a television series in the 1970s.
But things began unraveling for him after his divorce from Patricia Kennedy in February 1966. They had four children together.
Lawford, who liked the ladies and partying, married three more times after Pat Kennedy, each time to a woman half his age.
Lawford died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 1984 of cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Sammy Davis had continued success in Las Vegas through the 1960s, as well as in film and on stage. During his career, Davis appeared in 39 movies, four Broadway plays, and released some 47 albums and 38 singles. His 1962 song, “What Kind of Fool Am I,” was Grammy-nominated for both song of the year and best male solo performance. In the Broadway musical Golden Boy of 1964 he received a Tony nomination for best actor. He would also host his own TV show on NBC in 1966 and had top music hits, such as “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1968-69 and “Candy Man” in 1972. Davis also had film and TV roles through the 1970s and 1980s. After reuniting with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1987, Davis toured with them and Liza Minnelli internationally. Davis, who suffered from throat cancer, succumbed to the disease in May 1990. He was 64 years old. At his death, Davis was in debt to the IRS and his estate was the subject of legal battles. On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis’ death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip were darkened in tribute to him.Apart from the performing and films he did with Sinatra and other Rat Packers, Dean Martin had his own successful film, singing, and TV career. His 1964 song “Everybody Loves Somebody” was a million-selling top hit. In fact, between 1964 and 1969 Martin released 11 albums that were certified “gold,” which at the time meant sales of more than 500,000 each. All eleven of Martin’s albums were recorded for Reprise, a label founded by Sinatra in which Martin was an investor. Martin also had a sizable holding of RCA stock. He released his final Reprise album, Once In A While, in 1978. Thereafter recording became less prominent in his career. In television, The Dean Martin Show, a variety-comedy series in which he starred, ran from 1965 to 1974 for 264 episodes, often in the top ten. Following that series, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, which he hosted for NBC, and during which Martin and friends would “roast” a celebrity, ran from 1974 to 1984. A late 1980s tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis was attempted, but did not go well. Martin gave some of his last solo performances in Las Vegas at Bally’s Hotel in 1990. A life-long smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in September 1993. Dean Martin died at home on December 25, 1995. He was 78 year old. In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra asked comic Joey Bishop to become his opening act. Soon thereafter, he was opening regularly for Sinatra and also began finding work in first-rate clubs even when Sinatra was not on the bill. After becoming a member of the Rat Pack, he also became a Sinatra loyalist. In mid-1960, Bishop received an invitation from then vice president Richard Nixon to perform at the Republican Convention, which he turned down. Bishop would later acknowledge Sinatra’s help in his his career, including roles in Rat Pack movies. Bishop appeared in 14 films, including Ocean’s Eleven and Sergeants 3, and served as master of ceremonies at JFK’s inaugural gala. However, Bishop felt he was more mascot than full-fledged Rat Pack member, revealed in a 2002 biography by Michael Seth Starr titled, Mouse in the Rat Pack. Still, Sinatra regarded Bishop as central to the Rat Pack’s success, crediting him with writing most Rat Pack jokes and quips, material assumed to be ad-libbed, but much of which was actually scripted. Bishop also went on to star in two of his own TV shows, a sit com on NBC (1961-65) and a late night talk show ABC (1967-1969), both called The Joey Bishop Show. Regis Philbin got his start as Bishop’s sidekick on the later talk show. Joey Bishop died of heart failure in October 2007. He was 89 and at the time, the last surviving member of the 1960s Rat Pack. For nearly three decades beyond his Rat Pack years, Frank Sinatra had a full recording, acting, and performing career. His recordings alone — with some 296 singles and 69 albums – span almost 60 years. He began his professional singing career in the 1940s with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras. Singers in the 1940s began to manipulate the microphone for detail and nuance, and Sinatra learned to do it better than most. And throughout his career, Sinatra would become a master of rhythm, timing, and phrasing and also re-interpreting older standards. By the mid-1940’s he had become a successful solo artist and had made his film acting debut. He would win a Golden Globe and Academy Award for his 1953 performance in From Here to Eternity, and would later win other Academy and Grammy Awards for his music. In television, from the 1950s through the 1970s, he hosted both his own variety shows and various TV specials, winning an Emmy for the November 1965 special, Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music. In addition to other songs, Sinatra’s “My Way” of 1969 – a song written by Paul Anka with Sinatra in mind – became a blockbuster hit on the U.S. and U.K. music charts, especially in the U.K, where it stayed inside the Top 40 for 75 weeks, from April 1969 to September 1971.
Sinatra flirted with retirement briefly in the early 1970s, but by 1973 had a gold-selling album and a television special. He also returned to live performing Las Vegas and elsewhere. Still recording in his later years, he recorded Duets in 1993, an album of old standards he made with other prominent artists which became a best seller. Sinatra died May 14,1998, he was 82 years old. Included among the many honors he received over the years were: Kennedy Center Honors in 1983, the earlier-mentioned Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1997. Sinatra was also the recipient of eleven Grammy Awards during his career, including the Grammy Trustees Award, the Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The U.S. Postal Service issued a 42-cent stamp in his honor in May 2008.
Other stories at this website that deal with and/or touch upon the life of Frank Sinatra include: “The Sinatra Riots, 1942-1944,” “Ava Gardner, 1940s-1950s,” and “Mia’s Metamorphases, 1966-2010.” Other Kennedy family stories include: “Kennedy History–12 Stories: 1954-2013,” “JFK’s 1960 Campaign,” and “JFK, Pitchman?, 2009.” Beyond these, see also the various category pages, archive, or the Home Page for additional story choices. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. —Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 21 August 2011
Last Update: 2 April 2017
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “The Jack Pack, Pt. 2: 1961-2008,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 21, 2011.
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