DATE December 7, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Shawn Levy discusses his book "Rat Pack Confidential:
Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey & the Last Great Showbiz Party"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new remake of "Ocean's 11" opened today. We'll have a review of it a
little later, but first we talk about the stars of the original "Ocean's
the Rat Pack.
(Soundbite from 1960's "Ocean's 11")
Unidentified Actor #1: This is our objective: Las Vegas, Nevada. Mission:
to liberate millions of dollars. Now these are the five casinos we hit:
Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, the Sands and the Flamingo. H hour is New
Eve. Units involved: special combat teams made up of former members of the
Mr. DEAN MARTIN: Just for curiosity, how did you figure this is a job for
old paratroopers? Why didn't you just get some regular heist guys?
Unidentified Actor #2: For the best reason, Mr. Harmon. A man with a
criminal record can't get near Las Vegas, much less the casinos.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I guess that lets me out.
Unidentified Actor #1: Don't be ridiculous. You're no hoodlum. You've got
no connection with the underworld.
Mr. MARTIN: Hoods are always mixed up with other hoods. Where there are
hoods, there are stool pigeons. But with us, no stoolies, no leaks.
Unidentified Actor #1: Now you five guys working in the hotels, which
Unidentified Actor #3: Flamingo.
Mr. MARTIN: The Sands.
Unidentified Actor #4: Desert Inn.
Unidentified Actor #5: Riviera.
GROSS: A scene from the 1960 film "Ocean's 11."
Shawn Levy is the author of the book "Rat Pack Confidential," which covers
the years 1958 to '63. It's the story of how Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis
Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop became known as the Rat Pack, got
connected with the mob and the Kennedy campaign and epitomized some of the
best and worst of show business. On and offstage their behavior ranged
from very entertaining to incredibly crude. Here's Sammy, with Frank and
Dino, from a new CD featuring them live at the Sands in 1963.
(Soundbite from CD)
Mr. SAMMY DAVIS Jr.: This song has always held a very special spot in my
heart because it was the first song I ever recorded.
(Singing) Hey, there.
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: Yes?
Mr. DAVIS: I'll never make a ...(unintelligible).
Mr. SINATRA: You want to laugh, Sam? Go out and sit in the audience.
Mr. DAVIS: Hey, there.
Mr. SINATRA: What the hell do you want, Sam, baby?
Mr. DAVIS: Run to you. You think someday she will come to you.
Mr. SINATRA and Mr. JOEY BISHOP: (In unison) Better forget her.
Mr. SINATRA: Look, Sam, what else do you want to sing?
GROSS: I spoke with Shawn Levy about his book, "Rat Pack Confidential," in
1998. I asked him how the Rat Pack got its name.
Mr. SHAWN LEVY (Author, "Rat Pack Confidential"): There was a Rat Pack
to the Sinatra Rat Pack. Humphrey Bogart and his cronies, including
had been in Las Vegas for a kind of debauched weekend. They actually went
see Noel Coward at the Desert Inn. And Sinatra and Bogart and these folk
all there--David Niven I believe, Judy Garland, and Lauren Bacall walked
in on them after they'd been partying for a few days and said, `Jeez, you
look like a rat pack.' And a few nights later she said it to them again and
this time they went through the motions of forming a society with this name,
and they had, you know, official titles. They even had stationery. After
Bogart's death, Sinatra sort of drew on that energy and put together his own
coterie of friends. Some of Bogart's circle were in it but mostly it was
Sinatra's buddies. And the Rat Pack name sort of got dragged along. Frank
always hated it, but the alternative was The Clan. And The Clan didn't
too good once civil rights had started, so the Rat Pack they became. Years
later, Frank dismissed it as `that stupid phrase,' but he could never shake
GROSS: Let me run through some of the people who were in the Rat Pack and
you to briefly describe what their place in that group was, starting with
Mr. LEVY: Sinatra was the padrone, the pope. They all worked for him. You
know, he produced the movies that they made. He owned the record company.
owned the casino, or at least parts of the casino. And he was also the
who set the style. He chose the people. He showed them how to dress, how
order food at a restaurant. He was really the sort of center of the
for this group.
GROSS: Dean Martin?
Mr. LEVY: Dean was like Frank's blood brother. He was the only guy who
consistently tell Frank no when Frank wanted to party at 2 AM or when Frank
wanted to go into some business deal. And, you know, Dean was a perfect
for Frank on stage. He'd been Jerry Lewis' straight man and then Frank
his. Dean was exquisitely funny.
GROSS: Sammy Davis?
Mr. LEVY: Sammy's the kid brother. You know, Frank always, in the best
of the word, patronized minority artists. He always had black groups on the
act with him. He always had black musicians in his band, and he knew Sammy
from when Sammy was a teen-ager performing with his dad and uncle. So he
became the little brother, and he more than anyone, I think, slavishly
imitated Frank's way of life, way of speech, way of dressing.
GROSS: Peter Lawford?
Mr. LEVY: Poor Peter. Peter was a bridge, you know, between Frank Sinatra
and his circle and Jack Kennedy and his circle. Frank explicitly and
deliberately made an alliance with Peter to get to the Kennedy campaign, and
then, when the Kennedys sort of washed their hands of Frank, Frank dumped
Peter. So it was a pretty painful relationship for Lawford, I think, on
sides of the equation, because the Kennedys didn't really respect him as a
man's man either.
GROSS: Peter Lawford was married to one of John Kennedy's sisters.
Mr. LEVY: That's right. And it was kind of an embarrassment because he was
a man whose movie career had sort of washed out. His TV career had washed
and then he became known, in the Sinatra household anyhow, as the
brother-in-Lawford. So it was not a position, you know, demanding a lot of
respect, you know, in and of itself.
GROSS: OK, and Joey Bishop, the comic?
Mr. LEVY: Well, Joey was the comic and he was sort of the emcee when the
Pack performed together in Vegas and Miami, and he was a traffic cop on
who kept the act going. And I think also he was kind of a beard who--you
know, during those years anyhow, before the sort of darker sides of the
era became known widely, I think Joey was sort of a way to say, `Hey, it's
show biz. Joey Bishop is here. What else could it be? This isn't a
real-life scene. This is an act.'
GROSS: What were some of the most famous shticks within the Rat Pack's
Mr. LEVY: Oh, gosh. They would perform sort of a pastiche of a nightclub
act. One of the three singers would come out and start to sing and be
interrupted; sometimes, you know, really coarsely. You know, it was Vegas.
It was, you know, adult entertainment and things that they said would be
of outrageous to us now, say, in terms of race or ethnic identity or gender.
Sammy, for instance, would get lifted up into the air by Dean or Frank and
they'd to the mike and say, `I'd like to thank the NAACP for this award.'
know, we can't imagine laughing at that now and it would just bring down the
house. But they would bring a bar cart out and mix drinks. Dean would
say, you know, `I'll make me another salad' or something like this. Someone
would start to sing a song and the three or four others would just trample
over it. They worked always toward the same finale. When it was the entire
Rat Pack, they sang "The Birth of the Blues," with special lyrics. And you
even see Johnny Carson sing it with them in the 1965 Dismas House special.
So it was a routine. It was about an hour and a half show that they could
to two and a half hours if they were feeling spirited, you know, at the end
the night. Pretty corny old burlesque stuff, though; nothing as penetrating
as Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl.
GROSS: Now they made a lot of homophobic jokes and jokes about Jews and
blacks and Italians, so they were putting down each other and then also
putting down people who were not represented on stage. I think that stuff
doesn't play back very well right now.
Mr. LEVY: No, it doesn't. And surely that's the sort of thing that people
objected to, you know, as the '60s went on and people became more aware of
ways in which humor and language could be hurtful. I think that that helped
the Rat Pack fall from favor, that they were still--you know, Frank would
Sammy to hurry up and finish the song, the watermelon was getting warm; you
know, things like that. I mean, that just makes me cringe to, you know, see
and there's Sammy, you know, slapping his knee the way he does with the
open-mouth laugh. It's kind of a grisly sight in retrospect.
GROSS: But it seemed to not bother them at the time.
Mr. LEVY: Well, it didn't bother Frank and Dean, at any rate. Sammy, in
autobiography, wrote about knowing that there was a double edge to the humor
but also knowing how Frank had always stood behind him and thinking, `Well,
this is shtick. This is what we do. It's part of an act.' His wife at the
time, a Swedish actress by the name of May Britt, was very upset with
treatment at the hands of Frank and Dean, even though he always said to her,
`Honey, it's in jest. They're stand-up guys. They don't mean it.' She
it was very demeaning and she really couldn't make him see that.
GROSS: The Rat Pack's artistic home was Vegas. What was the role of the
Pack in attracting people to Vegas and in creating the identity of Vegas?
Mr. LEVY: If you speak to old-timers in Vegas, they all credit the Rat Pack
with kind of saving the town. In the mid-'50s, after the first boom on the
strip, Vegas became built up very quickly. But the tourism wasn't matching
the construction. People were still going to Havana to gamble and party.
Miami was still a huge entertainment capital as well as a vacation capital.
And, as Sinatra became more and more associated with Las Vegas--he bought
the Sands hotel. Dean Martin owned a share of the hotel. He played there
more and more. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Rat Pack Summit,
appearance of the five big stars on the stage at the Sands, is roughly
the time that the hotels were nationalized in Havana. You know, Castro took
the casinos away from their stateside owners; fellows like Myer Lansky. And
suddenly there was this big tourist attraction in Las Vegas, the Rat Pack.
And the town that had been sort of teetering, was overbuilt and had too many
rooms and not enough guests, suddenly seemed a lot more stable. Within a
years, there were more hotels. There was a convention center. And the Rat
Pack really are credited by people in Las Vegas with sort of helping define
that change, helping to turn things for the city.
GROSS: Was it just what they did on stage that attracted people to Vegas or
was it their partying and stuff offstage that also helped make the Vegas
Mr. LEVY: I think it was a little of both. I think, you know, one of the
allures of the act was that you didn't really think all the time that you
seeing an act, that it seemed like, `Hey, this is what they're really like.'
You know, Vegas was so small then. You know, we think of these monolithic
hotels they have there today. The Sands had 200 rooms in 1960 and that was
the most luxurious hotel on the Strip. So it was a very tiny place. And
these guys would walk around the casino after they performed or on their way
to performing. You know, there were no sort of security alleys for them to
duck through the way there are in the large hotels today. And I think the
idea you could go to Las Vegas and maybe Sammy would show up at the Riviera
and get on stage with the lounge act drew a lot of people to the city.
GROSS: My guest is Shawn Levy, author of "Rat Pack Confidential." More
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Shawn Levy, author of "Rat Pack Confidential."
What do you consider to be the end of the Rat Pack?
Mr. LEVY: Well, the way I wrote about it is to take a period of time when
they were working on a film together. "Robin and the Seven Hoods" was in
production on November 22nd, 1963, when John Kennedy was killed. When that
film came out the following August, The Beatles, who had never been in the
United States prior to the beginning of the filming, had five top 10 hits.
And there's the sea change right there. In about an eight- or nine-month
span, the whole mystique of, you know, adults and a kind of licentious sort
ribbing lifestyle had been replaced by a very innocent-seeming teen-age
idealism that, you know, Frank, Dean, Sam and Peter, they couldn't compete
GROSS: Of course, Sinatra still went on to have hits and to make some
Mr. LEVY: Oh, they all did. They--you know, Dean had his NBC TV series.
Sammy was still years away from "Candy Man" and, you know, his biggest hits,
but they were playing to a smaller crowd. You know, I've written that they
lost the main room and were playing in the lounge. The kids definitely took
over the center stage and they really have ever since. You know, no adult
entertainers have consistently outsold youth acts in the music business ever
since, you know, the arrival of The Beatles. And sort of, you know, in
of who controls the cultural, you know, conversation, I think we still look
youth culture to this day.
GROSS: How did writing your book affect your opinion of the Rat Pack? Did
change your mind about anybody?
Mr. LEVY: Well, I particularly felt more and more empathy with Sammy Davis
Jr. You know, in our time, he's, you know, something of a joke and he ended
badly. You know, he was hounded by the IRS. He suffered, you know,
ill health during the last year or so of his life and he became kind of
shorthand for showbiz insincerity and glitz and sleaze and, you know, a lot
bad comedians, you know, made hay out of imitating him.
GROSS: A lot of good ones, too.
Mr. LEVY: A lot of good ones, too. But when you look at his story--you
I always thought of him as the Jackie Robinson of showbiz. And you look at
what he had to endure. You know, Las Vegas was not an integrated town
most of this Rat Pack period. And Sammy, as a result, was the first black
entertainer to be allowed to stay on the Strip, the first black entertainer
be allowed to gamble in the hotels and on and on like this. And, you know,
tend to think of him as this kind of little, you know, guy capering around
there with Frank and Dean, but when he got off that stage, he was subject to
completely different kind of treatment from the rest of them. And I grew to
admire his ability to sort of plow through that and, you know, sort of stay
true to his intention of being, you know, a great entertainer and a great
of example to people who he hoped could follow him.
GROSS: Shawn Levy is the author of "Rat Pack Confidential." I spoke with
in 1998, when the book was published.
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Tom and Phil Kuntz discuss their book "The Sinatra
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town.
Chicago, I will show you around. I love it. Bet your bottom dollar you
the blues in Chicago, Chicago, the town that Billy Sunday couldn't shut
On State Street, that great street, I just want to say they do things they
don't do on Broadway. They have the time, the time of their life. I saw a
man, he danced with his wife in Chicago, Chicago, my hometown.
GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra from the new CD, "Eee-O Eleven: The Best of
Rat Pack." A little later, we'll have a review of the new remake of
Eleven." The original 1960 version starred Frank Sinatra as gambler Danny
Ocean who's planning a heist on five Vegas casinos. During the Rat Pack
Sinatra was one of the most written about celebrities. But it wasn't just
journalists who were chronicling his life, it was the FBI. The bureau
a 1,275-page dossier on the singer and actor. That dossier is excerpt and
analyzed in the book, "The Sinatra Files." The book recently came out in
paperback. Last year, when it was first published, I spoke with the
Tom Kuntz, who's an editor with The New York Times, and his brother, Phil
Kuntz, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. During the Rat Pack era, the
FBI investigated Sinatra's connections to the mob.
Mr. TOM KUNTZ ("The Sinatra Files"): The one thing that the FBI files
beyond any doubt is that Frank Sinatra hung out with mobsters; there's
doubt about that. They have firsthand accounts of, you know, witnesses
describing Sinatra hanging out with these people. They have--for a time
were actually observing Sinatra hanging out with Sam Giancana. There are
recordings of mobsters talking about their having had conversations with
Sinatra. All this, you know, proved beyond any doubt that he was hanging
What the FBI was suspicious of, and one could say somewhat legitimately, is
that Sinatra was a popular singer of the time, and he was also entertaining
and getting involved in business deals in Las Vegas and elsewhere. The FBI
was concerned that the mob was going to infiltrate those business
and they were always on the lookout for people who were acting as fronts for
the mob. Sinatra, being a close friend of some of these mobsters, was an
obvious suspect. They never got anything, you know, definitive in that
regard. Later, Sinatra was--also befriended some prominent politicians, and
don't think anybody can dispute that that made him worthy of attention if he
was hanging out with mobsters and presidents and other prominent politicians
at the same time.
GROSS: A famous or a Rat Pack evening, it was the grand reopening of the
Villa Venice in suburban Chicago, a club either owned or financed by Sam
Giancana, the head of the Chicago mob. And an informant tells the FBI--and
this is in your book--that the Villa Venice is financially in trouble and
this reason Sinatra and his associates are scheduled to entertain. They are
not going to receive the amount of money they reportedly were scheduled to
receive in return for their services. The implication being that they're
doing this as a benefit for their buddy, Sam Giancana. In fact, Dean Martin
kids about this in a medley of songs that he does. Why don't we hear his
satirical lyric, see the "Lady is a Tramp?"
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) I love Chicago, it's carefree and gay. I'd even
work here without any pay. I'll lay you odds it turns out that way. That's
why this gentleman is a tramp. My clever agent, he worked out this deal.
said, `Go to Chicago, it won't be for real.' And I believed him. I'm such
schlemiel. That's why the gentleman is a tramp.
GROSS: That's Dean Martin from an evening of the Rat Pack at the club Villa
Venice, which was financed by Sam Giancana.
How--what was the nature of Sinatra's relationship with Giancana?
Mr. PHIL KUNTZ ("The Sinatra Files"): They work--in looking over the files,
struggled with that, and I think I've come to the conclusion that they both
were kind of, on some level, sycophantic. The mobster liked to hang out
Sinatra because he was famous, and Sinatra liked to hang out with mobsters
because he was a bad boy. You know, Giancana had a vested interest in
courting Sinatra in the 1959-1960 era because he wanted to somehow gain
influence to get the FBI to back off its crackdown on the mob. At this
the FBI was really getting serious. Hoover, for years, had denied the
existence of the mob. He had recently been proved wrong, that there was
organized crime in the United States and as a result started a huge
on them. Sinatra offered a way for them to get friendly with--or least have
entree to President Kennedy when he started running for president. There's
people quoted in the documents saying that Sinatra was working for the
campaign for Jack Kennedy in order to get the mob to have an entree.
GROSS: Now Sinatra was also close to John F. Kennedy during the period that
Kennedy was running for the presidency. What are the connections that are
documented that Sinatra made between the mob and Kennedy?
Mr. T. KUNTZ: Well, from early on, Sinatra was introduced to Kennedy by
Lawford, who was a Kennedy in-law. And from early on, the FBI, which was
watching presidential candidates--from early on, the FBI knew about
relationship with Sinatra because Kennedy at this point was clearly a
presidential aspirant. This is in the late 1950s. So you have the FBI kind
of watching, almost in real time, as their relationship unfolds.
And what a relationship it was. I mean, they had a mutual--Sinatra liked
power, whether it was legitimate or illegitimate, and Kennedy and Sinatra
liked sex, if you believe the FBI files. And the files chronicle their wild
partying. One memo refers to--quotes a gangster as saying something about
those broads Sinatra brought JFK, showgirls running in and out of the
senator's suite in Las Vegas where he and Sinatra were partying. So early
and through the Kennedy administration, the FBI was watching Sinatra very
Mr. P. KUNTZ: One of the evidence of that is that Sinatra--it was Sinatra
introduced a former girlfriend of his, Judith Campbell, to President
who we now know became his mistress when he was in the White House. And he
introduced her to him in January of 1960. Kennedy came to Las Vegas, I
to do some fund-raising but ended up hanging out with Sinatra and the rest
the Rat Pack. They were there filming "Ocean's Eleven," their first big
movie, and they were also doing shows at the Sands. Frank Sinatra
Judith Campbell to John Kennedy during that visit, and three weeks later, a
memo appears on Hoover's desk saying that just--you know, part of it said
Kennedy had been compromised with a woman there. It didn't name who she
but it's pretty clear that that's who they're referring to. So we didn't
out--meaning the American public didn't find out about Judith Campbell until
1975 or so. J. Edgar Hoover at least had a good hint of what was going on
three weeks after it happened.
GROSS: Did Sinatra also introduce Judith Campbell to Sam Giancana, 'cause
was his mistress as well?
Mr. P. KUNTZ: She became his mistress at some point. It's not quite clear
that there was overlap there; there's some dispute about that. And that is
actually how the FBI came to find out for sure about Judith Campbell,
Judith Campbell was associating with Sam Giancana, so the FBI started
her. Then they noticed that she was--by looking at her phone records
that not only was she talking to Sam Giancana, one of his underlings named
Johnny Roselli and Frank Sinatra at the same time that she was, on a fairly
regular basis, calling the White House, President Kennedy's secretary.
As a result of those phone calls, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo to the
general, Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, informing him, `Hey, I
wanted to let you know this woman who's, you know, apparently calling your
brother is also hanging out with mobsters.' That letter started a chain of
events that caused Robert Kennedy to finally confront his brother about,
basically, his relationship with both Sinatra and Judith Campbell. And as a
result of that, President Kennedy backed off Sinatra. At one point in March
Mr. T. KUNTZ: 2.
Mr. P. KUNTZ: ...2, Sinatra was supposed to host Kennedy at his home in
Springs, and the administration decided that, instead, the president would
to Bing Crosby's house. That sent Sinatra into a rage, and he later
eventually--not much later, but later eventually broke off his relationship
with Judith Campbell.
It's one of the more interesting things about what this book says about J.
Edgar Hoover because a lot of people look at the memos that J. Edgar Hoover
would write and look at it and see in it some sort of an evil signal that
Hoover was trying to tell Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy, `Look how
dirt I have on you. If you guys fire me, I'm going to bury you.' When, in
fact, looked at another way, one could say that Hoover did us all a favor
because the mob was fairly close to getting some influence in the White
and Hoover very quickly, very privately without letting anybody else know,
a stop to it.
GROSS: So was it Sinatra who introduced Judith Campbell to Sam Giancana?
Mr. P. KUNTZ: Yes, it was. It was--he introduced Kennedy, I believe,
and later, she was introduced to him.
GROSS: So did the FBI ever find any hard evidence that Sinatra was involved
in any illegal mob-related activities, any activities beyond palling around
with members of the mob?
Mr. T. KUNTZ: They never got the goods on Sinatra. Sinatra was guilty of
association, but guilt by association is not a crime. In fact, freedom of
association is enshrined in the Constitution.
GROSS: My guests are Tom and Phil Kuntz, editors of "The Sinatra Files."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Tom and Phil Kuntz, editors of "The Sinatra Files,"
about the FBI's dossier on Sinatra.
I thought it was interesting that in April of 1963 this special agent in
charge of the Los Angeles FBI office asked Hoover to consider bugging
Sinatra's home in Palm Springs, and Hoover denied the request.
Mr. T. KUNTZ: Exactly. It was another example, kind of surprising example,
of Hoover's restraint, if you can imagine that with Hoover. For some
at this time, he decided that a microphone surveillance of Sinatra's Palm
Springs home was legally unjustified. They didn't have probable cause, I
suppose. But imagine if he had approved the bug, what that bug might reveal
about Kennedy, Sinatra and the mob.
Mr. P. KUNTZ: Some of the more interesting things in the book are tape
recordings. Hoover was not above, as you can imagine, bugging somebody's
house; and he had bugs all over the place in Chicago where Sam Giancana was
known to hang out with his associates. And in those recordings, after--the
mob helped get Kennedy elected. Sam Giancana used his political muscle in
Chicago and in West Virginia with the unions to help get out the vote for
Kennedy in some pretty crucial ways; that's fairly well documented. After
election, the mob expected Frank Sinatra to get the Kennedys to go easy on
them. Instead, President Kennedy appointed his brother, who was an anti-mob
crusader from way back, as attorney general, and the crackdown only
intensified. That enraged the mob, and Sam Giancana and his associates can
heard on tape just fuming that Sinatra hadn't made good on his promise to
the FBI to back off.
At one point, Johnny Roselli, an underling of Giancana's, quotes Sinatra in
conversation with Giancana--quotes Sinatra as saying, "I took your
Giancana's name--"and I wrote it down on a piece of paper and I gave it to
Bobby Kennedy, and I said, `Bobby, I want you to know this man is my friend.
I want you to know that, Bob.'" If that's true, it's a rather extraordinary
thing to have a popular singer going to the attorney general of the United
States and asking him to lay off a mobster. Now it's not quite clear that
Sinatra actually did that because some of the mob in the--Giancana and his
friends voiced doubt about whether or not Sinatra was doing actually what he
said he was doing, because at one point Sinatra, according to Giancana, also
promised to talk to Joseph Kennedy, the president's father, and if that
work, to go to the president himself. And then Giancana starts acting--gets
very, very angry when he says, `Who knows what this guy is doing? I don't
know whether to believe him or not.'
Later these underworld figures are quoted as actually either fantasizing or
thinking out load--it's not quite clear what they're doing--about
assassinating Sinatra, maybe his friend Dean Martin, maybe--at one point
talked about poking Sammy Davis Jr.'s other eye out. And one mobster
fantasizes about throwing a bomb in the face of Bobby Kennedy and says he'd
gladly go to jail for the rest of his life if he had a chance to do that.
This stuff is kind of--it's troubling in retrospect, and it also--although
neither Tommy nor I are conspiracy theorists about the assassination of
President Kennedy, it certainly does give one pause when thinking about
long-standing allegations that have never been proven that the mob may have
GROSS: Frank Sinatra actually got his FBI files through the Freedom of
Information Act in 1981. Do you know what impact it had on him to read them
and what he did with the information?
Mr. T. KUNTZ: I don't know if he was--I think what he said publicly about
files was that it didn't prove anything illegal on his part, mobwise or
otherwise. I don't think he elaborated very much about what was in the
He got the files released to him so that he could show them to Nevada gaming
officials so that he could get his casino license restored. Neither the
gaming officials nor Sinatra made the files public at that time. And
got his gaming license back, which suggested at the time that there was
nothing untoward in the files. However, Sinatra also exerted great
influence to get his gaming license back. He had a letter of recommendation
from President Reagan to also help him get his license back. So it didn't
answer questions about Sinatra, it only raised further ones, I think.
GROSS: He had gone from being an alleged communist sympathizer to being a
Republican. He sang at President Reagan's inaugural.
Mr. P. KUNTZ: Right. And he entertained at the Nixon White House. You can
see, however, that during Hoover's lifetime, and even a little bit after
Hoover's lifetime, every politician who cozied up to Frank Sinatra was given
detailed memo from the FBI saying, `Here's--you know, just thought you'd be
interested in the background of this person that you're cozying up to.' The
Nixon White House got these detailed memos, you know, laying out all of the
times that Frank Sinatra is known to have associated with mobsters; and two
months later, the White House is actively considering whether or not to take
advantage of--Sinatra's started leaning rightward and whether or not they
should take advantage of that, and eventually, they did. Spiro Agnew
playing golf with him regularly. He also played golf with President Nixon,
and he was invited to state dinners. And the peak of that relationship came
when Sinatra entertained--came out of retirement, he had announced his
retirement in the early '70s and, at the request of Richard Nixon, he came
of retirement to entertain the visiting Italian president at the White House
at a state dinner.
Mr. T. KUNTZ: It's testimony to his iconic status that presidents, even
despite, you know, the downside of his associations with mobsters and what
have you, saw a political benefit in, you know, currying favor with this man
of great talents and a great hold on the popular imagination.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Mr. P. KUNTZ: Thank you very much.
Mr. T. KUNTZ: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Tom and Phil Kuntz are the editors of "The Sinatra Files." We spoke
last year when it was first published. It's now out in paperback.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) Be wise, be smart, behave, my heart. Don't upset
your cart when she's so close. Be soft, be sweet, but be discreet, don't go
off your beat, she's so close for comfort. Too close, too close for
Please, not again. Too close, too close to know just when to say when. Be
firm, be fair, be sure, beware. On your guard, take care while there's such
temptation. One thing leads to another, too late to run for cover. She's
much too close for comfort now.
GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews the new remake of the Rat Pack movie
"Ocean's Eleven." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film "Ocean's Eleven"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The 1960 film "Ocean's Eleven" was the first film that starred the Rat Pack.
The new remake has plenty of star power, with a cast that includes George
Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Don Cheadle. It was
directed by Steven Soderbergh, who also made "Erin Brockovich" and
Our film critic John Powers has a review of "Ocean's Eleven."
JOHN POWERS reporting:
When the original "Ocean's Eleven" first came out, I was too young to see
but I always thought it sounded great. Who wouldn't want to see a Vegas
picture starring Frank and Dino and Sammy. But when I finally caught up
it years later, I was shocked. Almost insolently slack, the movie felt like
time capsule of pathetic swinger fantasies from the early 1960s. It was all
boozy camaraderie and cheap racism. Sammy Davis Jr. was actually forced to
drive a garbage truck. And it celebrated a manly style in which you said
goodbye to a woman by giving her a nice slap on the rump.
Things have been thoroughly modernized in Steven Soderbergh's new version,
of the rare remakes that can justify its existence. This "Ocean's Eleven"
all the things the original was not: crisp, well acted and lighthearted.
George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, an ex-con who gets out of jail with a
He wants to knock off three big Vegas casinos. He enlists his old pal,
Ryan, that's Brad Pitt, who's off in LA teaching smug, young Hollywood
how to play poker. Once Dusty's on board, Danny starts putting together his
all-star team, including a pickpocket played by Matt Damon, a con man played
by Carl Reiner, an electronics whiz played by Don Cheadle, a croupier played
by the suddenly ubiquitous Bernie Mac, not to mention a Chinese gymnast.
They head off to Vegas where things certainly get tricky. It turns out that
Danny's beloved ex-wife Tess--that's Julia Roberts--is now the squeeze of
Garcia's character, a ruthless businessman who owns all three of the
casinos. Of course, no one has ever robbed even a single casino before.
Here, Clooney explains to Pitt's character why they should risk doing the
(Soundbite of "Ocean's Eleven")
Mr. BRAD PITT ("Dusty Ryan"): I need a reason. Don't say money. Why do
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY ("Danny Ocean"): Why not do it? Because yesterday I
walked out of the joint after losing four years of my life, because the
always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes
you, unless when that perfect hand comes along you bet big, and then you
Mr. PITT: Been practicing that speech, haven't you?
Mr. CLOONEY: A little bit. Did I rush it? Felt like I rushed it.
Mr. PITT: No, it was good. I liked it.
POWERS: "Ocean's Eleven" is hardly an artistic breakthrough for director
Steven Soderbergh. Still, coming off "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," two
socially conscious dramas, Soderbergh doubtless felt that it would be fun to
make a movie as light and empty as a bubble. The amazing thing is he pulls
off. Shimmeringly frivolous, "Ocean's Eleven" makes "The Importance of
Earnest" seem like "Oedipus Rex." Soderbergh photographed the movie
and he gives Las Vegas an alluring glamour. There's nothing cheesy about
these casinos. And he knows how to let all his performers register, winning
sharp comic performances from old pros like Reiner, and from Elliott Gould,
who plays a bad-taste casino owner with chest hair springing from his gaudy
shirt like steel wool come to life.
Soderbergh also gets the most from the pairing of Clooney and Pitt, the yin
and yang of today's male stars who have the easy rapport of real friends.
Danny, Clooney's a Hollywood lead of the old school, handsome, virile, with
easy way around a wise crack. He's so in command of his scenes he doesn't
need to hog them. He plays perfectly off Pitt, the most beautiful of our
actors, whose comic timing may be even better than Clooney's. These two
the movie its sex appeal, and compared to them, even co-stars like Matt
seem like, well, extras.
If the original film is better in any way, it's that it had more cultural
resonance. After all, the members of the Rat Pack weren't just real-life
friends, they were players in Vegas; saloon singers and entertainers who
out with criminals and exuded so much late-50s cool that even JFK dropped by
as they were shooting. In some strange way, their movie was a training
for that particular idea of being hip.
This new version carries no such charge. Just as today's Las Vegas aspires
be a playground for families, so stars like Clooney, Pitt and Damon exude a
wholesomeness that makes their robbing a casino seem like a boyish prank.
two movies offer very different visions of life. Without giving anything
away, it's the difference between a movie steeped in boozy nightclub
romanticism and one imbued with the values of a Beverly Hills health club.
"Ocean's Eleven" is assuredly not a great film, but it is a superb piece of
escapism. It's like riding in a stretch limo filled with movie stars.
a Ferrari might be faster and more exciting; a Rolls-Royce might be plusher
and more elegant; but Soderbergh drives the star vehicle smoothly. The
conversation is amusing, and you get to watch people who are cooler, luckier
and better looking than we could ever be.
GROSS: John Powers is the editor of LA Weekly.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) It was just one of those things. Just one of
those crazy flings. One of those bells that now and then rings. Just one
those things. It was just one of those nights. Just one of those fabulous
flights. A trip to the moon on gossamer wings. Just one of those things.
we thought of it, 'bout the end of it, when we started painting the town,
have been aware...
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