One of the weirdest things to happen to the '90s, without a doubt, has been the '50s. One minute, the air stank of grunge and heroin chic; the next, flannel-wearing slackers had become a cocktail nation of martini-sipping swingers. What could be cooler than that which for decades was considered the apotheosis of cheese? And who else could be at the epicenter of retro swank but the undisputed kings of Vegas cool -- Frank, Dino, Sammy, Peter and Joey -- the Rat Pack?
But as Shawn Levy's history of "the last great showbiz party" reveals, it was not all fraternal bonhomie and harmless hangovers in the desert with Sinatra and the boys. And what across the distance of time looks like the ultimate fraternity -- a luxurious club where the bar was always stocked, the dames were always beautiful and every show ended on a high note -- was in reality a self-made and highly self-destructive dysfunctional family.
The Rat Pack's verminous sobriquet was an apt one. Its members were haunted, hunted creatures, scurrying from one place to the next, scrapping for every morsel of success that came their individual and collective ways. They were bound by the common experiences of tragedy, poverty, prejudice and physical limitations; they were suffocated by mobsters on Frank's side and the Kennedy dynasty on "brother-in-Lawford" Peter's. They were in so deep in all the wrong pockets that they couldn't sing, joke or dance their ways out, and they were too fucked up to notice even if they could have. Maybe it was, briefly, a great party, but the tab turned out to be higher than anybody expected.
Levy's chronicle is no breezy read -- something to flip through with one hand while snapping your fingers to "Come Fly with Me" with the other -- though the author does provide plenty of the rat-a-tat scandal-sheet style befitting a book with the word "confidential" in its title. He plunks "broads," "suckers," "dames" and "schmucks" throughout the text like ice cubes in a highball glass. He populates it with seedy joints like a nightclub called El Dumpo, poetically located in Cleveland. And he throws in moments of purely Rat Pack-era machismo -- giving us Sinatra, brushing off an overly familiar U.S. senator with a terse, "Get your hands off the suit, creep."
But despite the author's forays into lounge lizard lingo and his positively schoolgirlish adoration of Sinatra's voice ("a gift no more explicable than those of Joyce and Picasso"), the book still packs an emotional wallop. It isn't the crooning or the banter or the suits that matter all that much in the end, despite their current ironic allure. It's that, for all of them except Frank, the King Rat, that moment of glory on the stage of the Sands was so desperately hard-won, and so quickly lost to betrayal and personal decay. The golden light that shone on them must have, for a while, felt very real and very warm. But, as Levy heartbreakingly demonstrates, it was only neon, cold and easily extinguished.