Brian Viner's Icons of the 20th Century

No 4: The RAT PACK
Click to follow
Hollywood's original rat pack revolved around three true screen icons - Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. According to showbiz legend, the term rat pack was coined by Bacall when, in 1955, she walked into a Las Vegas casino and found her husband Bogart with Sinatra, Judy Garland, David Niven, Angie Dickinson, the agent Swifty Lazar, restaurateur Mike Romanoff, and a few others. They were all rolling drunk. "You look like a goddam rat pack,"she said.

A few nights later, she walked into Romanoff's restaurant in Beverly Hills, and declared, "I see the rat pack's all here". From then, the joke gathered momentum. The group dubbed themselves the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, designed a coat of arms - a rat gnawing on a human hand - and coined a motto, "Never rat on a rat". Bogart was the leader, but Sinatra was named Pack Master, and Bacall, Den Mother. It sounds childish. It was childish. But it was also, at least to start with, decidedly tongue-in-cheek. Bogart and co were disdainful of Hollywood cliquishness, and were tickled by the idea of formalising a clique of their own. A few mutual friends were invited to join, but some were vetoed. When Claudette Colbert was nominated, Bacall objected, saying, "She's a nice person but not a rat".

Five months after Bogart's death in January 1957, Sinatra - who had idolised Bogie - was divorced from Ava Gardner. By the end of the year, he and Bacall - Pack Master and Den Mother - were an item. Indeed, there had been rumours of an affair even while Bogart was alive. In March 1958, Sinatra proposed, but asked Bacall to keep their intentions private. Instead, she told Swifty Lazar, who told gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who told the world. Sinatra was furious. The engagement was broken off. In any case, as Shawn Levy suggests in his book Rat Pack Confidential, perhaps Sinatra also realised that he didn't have to marry Boogie's widow to become king of the rat pack. He could simply start a new pack of his own.

And so a second Hollywood rat pack was formed, comprising Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Jack Kennedy's British brother-in-law Peter Lawford, and comedian Joey Bishop. At first they were known as the Clan, until they realised that the name was too loaded. After all, the group included two Jews and a black guy, and one of the Jews, Davis, was also the black guy. Sinatra liked to call them the Summit. He wasn't sure about rat pack, because it implied that he was simply copying Bogart. But the rat pack they became, and Lawford and Bishop, icons only by association, held on to Sinatra's coat tails for all they were worth - which thanks to Sinatra, who effectively sponsored their careers, was increasingly quite a bit.

Shirley MacLaine was less clingy. When both Sinatra and Dean Martin visited her hotel room, hoping for a quickie, the 24-year-old actress rebuffed each in turn. They were sufficiently impressed with her spirit to make her an honorary member of the rat pack, and she was not too proud to refuse.

The heyday of the rat pack was from about 1958 to 1961, and in 1959 they starred together in the best of their buddy films, Ocean's Eleven. It was shot over six weeks in Las Vegas, and the pack performed every night at the Sands Hotel. It was, says Levy, the hottest ticket Las Vegas had ever seen - and at $5.95 it included dinner. Times, and prices, have changed. Which is not altogether a bad thing. For Sinatra's standard line to Davis at the Sands was, "Smile so they can see you, Smokey".