The Rat Pack and the Mafia

The Rat Pack
The Rat Pack

The connection between Frank Sinatra and the mob can hardly be classified as late-breaking news. But he was not the only celebrity in the mob's barn. As the acknowledged leader of the Rat Pack, Sinatra was one among other members, including such Hollywood stars and showbiz people as Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Van Heusen and others.

Rat Pack members performed regularly in Las Vegas, and their circle attracted many admirers and hangers-on, including mobsters like Johnny Roselli, the Hollywood–Las Vegas honcho for Chicago's Sam Giancana. Much has been made of Sinatra's closeness to mob figures and his alleged desire to "run" with gangsters, but the idea that he sometimes cooperated out of fear—as did many of the Rat Packers— should not be dismissed.

It was said that Sinatra talked to Giancana about the value of the Chicago Outfit aiding the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Giancana, as his biographer, William Brashler, has stated, "made no commitment without expecting something in exchange."

Clearly, what Giancana expected—and informed his mob associates he expected—were connections in the White House through Sinatra to get the federal government off his back. (Giancana had also tried to achieve that goal by cooperating with the CIA in the ill-fated plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.)

It turned out Giancana expected too much from Sinatra, whose influence on John Kennedy was less than generally believed and virtually nil with Bobby Kennedy, attorney general. (Bobby Kennedy forced J. Edgar Hoover, that less-than-zealous Mafia fighter, to have the FBI get tougher with the mob.) Giancana was furious—with Bobby Kennedy, Sinatra and the whole Rat Pack. It turned out the only Kennedy whom Sinatra had any "in" with was old Joseph, and by that time the elder Kennedy's influence on his sons was itself rather limited.

The boys from Chicago grew more angry as under the Kennedys the heat intensified, as we can hear in a famed conversation between Giancana and a tough outfit hoodlum named Johnny Formosa, recorded for posterity. Formosa told his boss: "Let's show 'em. Let's show those fuckin' Hollywood fruitcakes that they can't get away with it as if nothing's happened." Formosa's solution on Sinatra: "Let's hit him." And of the Rat Packers: "I could whack out a couple of those guys. Lawford, that Martin prick, and I could take the nigger and put his other eye out."

The offer was undoubtedly attractive to Giancana's psychopathic heart-of-hearts, but even Giancana could temper his natural inclinations when money was concerned. "No," he said. "I've got other plans for them."

Thus it was that a short time later Sinatra and a number of the Rat Packers were appearing at the Villa Venice, a former sleazy clip joint turned plush nightclub outside Wheeling, Illinois. Whoever the owners of record, there was firm knowledge that Giancana and the mob were the real operators. Among those performing before big-spending crowds were Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Outside, a bus shuttled customers to a plushly furnished quonset casino a mere two blocks away.

The FBI descended on the Rat Packers and learned that all of them were performing gratis as a personal favor to Sinatra. Fisher rambled in his talks with the FBI but said very little. Davis was more outgoing, informing agents he had cut short some lucrative Las Vegas dates to work the Villa Venice gratis "for my man Francis."

The FBI wanted to know if he was also doing it for friends of Sinatra. "By all means," Davis said. Sam Giancana? "By all means." Davis added only one other thought: "Baby, let me say this. I got one eye, and that one eye sees a lot of things that my brain tells me I shouldn't talk about. Because my brain says that, if I do, my one eye might not be seeing anything after a while."

The Chicago Daily News reported, "During the past 20 days since singer Eddie Fisher started off the new star policy at the Villa, a heavy toll has been levied at the hut on the [Villa] patrons. Individual losses of as much as $25,000 have been reported."

Basing an estimate on overheard conversations, the FBI determined that the one-month operation of the Villa Venice and its shuttle service had brought Giancana and the boys a cool $3 million.

Giancana's "other plans" for the Rat Pack had been taken care of. The mob leader was still unhappy about the Kennedy problem, but consoled himself counting the net. And the Rat Pack was alive and well.