It was a warm summer evening in 1965 and the stage was set at the Kiel opera house in St. Louis, Missouri. The lights dimmed and the crowd waited in anticipation. Suddenly, five men coolly took the stage: a Jew, an Englishman, an African-American with one eye, and two Italian-Americans. As the crowd erupted, the men were smiling a each other -mesmerizing the audience with a style and glamour that overwhelmed. Everyone knew they were in for an electric evening of laughter, song, and overall charming artistry that was unknown just a handful of years earlier. They were Frank Sinatra, DeanMartin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and JoeyBishop: The Rat Pack. Sinatra, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and leader of the Rat Pack, was born to two Italian immigrants in a small town in New Jersey. His family was extremely poor and from a very young age he found himself singing at local bars and begging for meals and cigarettes.
Dean Martin, nicknamed “the King of Cool,” was said to be one of the best overall entertainers of the mid 20th century. He was born in a small town in Ohio to Italian parents; his father was a poor barber. Young Martin dropped out of high school to help provide an income for his family by bootlegging liquor, working in a steel mill, working as a blackjack dealer, and prize fighting.
Sammy Davis Jr. grew up in Harlem, street performing at age 7, which kickstarted his musical career.
Peter Lawford grew up in a very wealthy household as the only child of Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Turing who had strong connections to the English aristocracy. Young Lawford was rejected by the British military after suffering an arm injury while on vacation in the south of France.
Joey Bishop was born in The Bronx to two Polish-Jewish immigrants. He grew up doing stand up comedy with his older brother on the streets of South Philadelphia. After being discovered, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1950 which launched his career as an entertainer.
Though these men clearly came from a wide array of upbringings, they were somehow able to reach the pinnacle of world entertainment in a very short time. Their rapid rise to fame showed that it was a time when there was opportunity for all to realize their dreams. America was relatively free during the rise of the Rat Pack, and although the implementation of Keynesian principles was just beginning to occur, it was too early in the process to restrain market forces. The government was not yet as interested in top down central planning – an economic system rooted in what F. A. Hayek would describe as “a pretense to knowledge.” Flawed government programs concerning low income areas were still in their experimental phases and were much less prevalent than they are today.
The government was also absorbed by the war against communism in Vietnam, and by the mid 60’s, a mass movement promoting free thought and questioning of
authority was on the rise in America. People had the ability to exchange goods, services, and ideas in an open market, and artists enjoyed the freedom to innovate and work toward the creation of wealth while pursuing their passions.
Sammy Davis Jr. explained their success very simply: “The success of the Rat Pack was due to the camaraderie, the five guys who work together and kid each other and love each other.” His words captured the essence of the moment: Only in a free society are people able to climb life’s ladder of success so quickly, simply by doing what they love. They may not have recognized the timeless, universal truths behind their journey, but their accomplishments clearly demonstrate the anarchic beauty of markets. The Rat Pack truly lived the American dream. They showed that markets treat all equally, no matter their race, income, or nationality, all while working toward the creation not only of wealth, but of beauty. As stated by Leonard E. Read, “The free market ignores the poor just as it does not recognize the wealthy.” All that’s needed is sheer hard work, enjoyment of what one does, and the freedom to charge a wage for one’s service in the open marketplace. The Rat Pack’s freedom, grit, perseverance, and ability to entertain, coupled with hands off government policy, allowed these men to reap the full benefits that came to mark their success on a level no one had expected from the new age in which they were living.
In the early 60’s, we caught a glimpse of the possibilities of a free society. The Rat Pack enjoyed the new level of social and ideological freedom of the day, and also held a similar level of economic freedom to the 50’s. This wider boom of creativity in the early 60’s is another perfect example of how the dreams and plans of individuals and
their personal initiative create wealth far more effectively than top-down central planning.
While presenting his plan to eradicate poverty and racial injustice through bigger government, President Lyndon B. Johnson said that as a result, “We will have an opportunity to move not only towards a rich society, or a powerful society, but a great society.” Though this rhetoric sounds promising, these social programs did quite the opposite of what the president predicted. The government programs that were just being introduced at the time have grown unchecked since the mid 60’s. This growth has rapidly diminished the equality of opportunity that made The Rat Pack great. Occasionally, extraordinary individuals manage to break free of this government tyranny and change the world through innovation. As described by Ayn Rand, they are “the men who take first steps, down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision.”
The Rat Pack, on that magical summer evening in 1965, embodied the immense freedom and possibility available in the America of the time.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop all lived freely; they entertained for their own pleasure and gain, and also brought immense joy to those around them: and, maybe not so surprisingly, they still do.