The term "Rat Pack" is said to have originated from the lips of one exasperated Lauren Bacall at the moment when the actress took one look at her husband Humphrey Bogart and his friends returning from a night in Las Vegas some time in the late 50s and proclaimed, "You look like a goddamn rat pack." One can only imagine the dishevelment! In those early days, Chez Bogart and Bacall was the epicentre of celebrity mischief, with the likes of Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Lena Horne, Jerry Lewis, and Cesar Romero regularly swinging by to chew the fat, drink the bourbon and get up to no good. The couple's son, writer Stephen Bogart recalls the original members of the group as Frank Sinatra (pack master), Judy Garland (first vice-president), Sid Luft (cage master), Bogart (rat in charge of public relations), Swifty Lazar (recording secretary and treasurer) and Nathaniel Benchley (historian) among others, but as the 50s faded into the near distance, the 60s entered stage left, ushering in some new faces that stuck, namely Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and the British-born actor Peter Lawford. Sinatra was still very much pack master but for a relatively brief period, this stylish quintet was the talk of Tinseltown.
Lawford was something of the odd one out from the very beginning. Not only was he British, he also wasn't much good at singing or dancing. Lawford's real talent was acting, and he flourished at Elstree Studios where he started his career before moving to Hollywood and to MGM when he shot to fame in the 40s and 50s, becoming one of the highest paid actors in the world and still only in his late 20s. His first major role was opposite Mickey Rooney in the 1942 flick “A Yank At Eton,” before his turn as quarterback Tommy Marlowe in the 1947 collegiate film “Good News,” earned him critical acclaim.
Naturally, Lawford played the debonair Englishman with aplomb. Handsome and tall with great screen presence, it was easy to see how he would fit into the Hollywood machine. He had a fine sense of style both on and off screen, and looked every bit the sophisticated ingenue in a suit. His turn as Jimmy Foster in the 1960 film Ocean's 11 (perhaps the Rat Pack's best film) was notable for the beautiful midnight blue New Year's Eve suit that Lawford wore.
In a way, he was always viewed as Cary Grant's apprentice, never quite reaching the lofty heights that Grant himself reached (although the latter was powered by LSD and one can't get any higher than that!). Yet Lawford's inclusion into the Rat Pack was something of a brow-wrinkler on the surface, but dig a little deeper and the cynics among you will discover that it wasn't Lawford's performances that were so powerful but rather his contacts.
The Kennedy Connection
In 1954, Lawford married socialite Patricia Kennedy, JFK's younger sister. Having been the arch womaniser for the best part of his life, the decision to marry into one of the most powerful families in the world was met with some degree of cynicism but from the outside the marriage seemed genuine in so far as they had four children together. Here was a true star of film, in cahoots with the most famous entertainers in the world and married into the most powerful family on the planet. A charmed life, until it isn't.
Lawford campaigned voraciously for JFK, and the Rat Pack too were vocal about their Democratic support. Sinatra famously called him "Brother-in-Lawford" and used Peter's political connections to further his own agenda, which would ultimately be Lawford's downfall. Lawford had assured Sinatra that while JFK was in Palm Springs, he would stay at Frank's house. Everything was setup, and Sinatra had gone to great pains to build a helipad in the grounds of his property. However, at a proverbial minute to midnight, JFK pulled out having been advised that Sinatra's well-publicised links to the Mob would be severely detrimental to his campaign. He opted to instead stay with Bing Crosby. Sinatra was apoplectic. He destroyed the helipad in a fit of rage, blamed Lawford entirely and cut him out of the Rat Pack, refusing to talk to him ever again (it was only when Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped on 8 December 1963 that he picked up the phone to Lawford, but only to ask for the help of Lawford's brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general). While Lawford still made movies after that, his career was never quite the same. He and Patricia divorced in 1966, a few years after JFK's assassination, and after years of becoming numbed to Lawford's infidelities, drinking and drug abuse.
Drink, drugs and Marilyn
Another Kennedy connection was Marilyn Monroe. Lawford was the last person to ever speak to Monroe, having called her the night of her death. He knew her well, obviously moving in the same circles, but also through their mutual relationships with the Kennedys. Monroe reputedly had clandestine affairs with both Jack and Bobby Kennedy and it's said that it was actually Lawford who introduced Jack to Monroe. Ever the pawn in the middle, Lawford would find himself at Monroe's apartment after she had died, making sure that there was no evidence that would give away her relationship with JFK.
Soon cast out by the Kennedys and with a career in freefall, Lawford turned to the only three friends who would listen to him - drink, drugs and women. His second marriage lasted two years, while his third lasted no more than two months. Lawford eventually married a fourth time in 1984, but died only a short time after. Fast living had eventually caught up with him, and so had his creditors. He died of kidney and liver failure and was cremated, but due to the fact that no one would stump up the fee for it, his ashes were removed from the cemetery and scattered into the Pacific Ocean by his widow. The boat was paid for by the tabloid rag the National Enquirer so they could get the scoop on it.
Lawford's tale is a cautionary one, a charmed life beset by self-destruction. His disjointed upbringing can certainly shoulder some blame, but ultimately Lawford fell victim to his own delusional place in the world. He wasn't the only member of the Rat Pack to die on their sword, but he'll always be remembered as the one rat who went from the highest echelons to the lowest of gutters and from there, never could climb out.