And Then There Was One

  • Joey Bishop, 80 years old now, is not at all sentimental about the Rat Pack's renewed cultural currency. Nor is he pleased. On the phone from Newport Beach, Calif., where he lives with his wife of 57 years, Sylvia, he says he doesn't much like giving interviews (while graciously agreeing to this one). So, I ask, to what does he attribute the ongoing obsession with his early '60s apotheosis, the nights in Vegas clowning around on stage and off with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford? "Could it be anything else but money?" he snaps, resenting all the new books, the tributes, the upcoming HBO movie, the kids pretending to be swingers. More or less retired, he could have used this interview for an autumnal victory lap, but deflating show-biz pretense was always part of his act, and apparently still is. Now he's good and crotchety too.

    The problem, as he sees it, is that the Rat Pack's story has been corrupted by "so many lies" and a fetishistic--my word--tendency to make too big a deal out of trivia such as Rat Pack slang and haberdashery. "I don't understand this searching for things that weren't there," he says. "It's like a hunger." One senses that being a living legend--the others, of course, are no longer with us--is an awful kind of limbo. It is as if the world were telling him, "Roll over, let go already. It's our fun now."

    "Everything you're hearing now is hearsay," he starts out. "Let me give you an example. Are we remembered as being drunks and chasing broads? I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances. That was only a gag! And do you believe these guys had to chase broads? They had to chase 'em away!"

    One issue Bishop is particularly sensitive about is his position in the Rat Pack. He was the pro comedian who anchored the group's anarchic stage performances and conceived much of its material--Sinatra called him "the Hub of the Big Wheel." He and Martin were also the only ones who could make jokes at Sinatra's expense. Yet Bishop is often portrayed as the expendable member, the one who was lucky to be along for the ride, the Ringo. In books he usually has fewer index entries than even Lawford. "One guy wrote that I worked with the Rat Pack occasionally. Occasionally! Another talks about how I kissed Frank's ass. That hurt me a little bit. I know I sound bitter, but I have a right to."

    He cites an offending item from a long ago Earl Wilson column: "'Would you believe that not once has Joey Bishop sat down to dinner or drinks with Frank Sinatra without being invited?'" The slight isn't that Wilson got it wrong, exactly. What rankles Bishop is Wilson's mocking disbelief. "I'm the comic on the bill. He's having dinner, O.K.? If he wanted me present, he would invite me. How do I know he's not talking business? I knew my place. You people"--journalists--"don't believe the truth."

    Despite Bishop's mostly patient efforts, the nuances of it all--the fine line, say, between friendship and deference where Sinatra was concerned--still lie beyond my grasp. Why, I ask, were people so afraid of him? "They weren't afraid of Frank Sinatra. They were afraid of honesty. The one thing that he demanded above all else was honesty." All the same, and even though Bishop had "carte blanche" with Sinatra (as he tells me more than once), "I always dealt with him with humor." That would include up to the last time the two men spoke, about a year ago. "I told him, 'Frank, you've got to get well because I haven't worked since you got sick.'"

    "I'll give you an example about Frank Sinatra," Bishop continues. "We were at the Fountainbleu Hotel. One night a young lady was standing on my balcony. These are her exact words: 'I paid the bellhop to let me in. If I don't meet Frank Sinatra tonight, I'm going to jump.' I said, 'Honey, just give me a chance.' I ran over to his suite. Joe DiMaggio and somebody else were playing cards. At the time, Frank was going with Juliet Prowse, and they were already in bed. So I said to Joe and the other guy, 'I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but there's a broad who's going to jump off my balcony if she doesn't meet Sinatra.' They didn't want to wake him up, but in the meantime he heard me." The upshot was that Sinatra--Sinatra!--got out of bed, went over to Bishop's suite with an autographed picture and some flowers, and invited the girl and her parents to be his guests at the next night's show.

    "Now who's going to believe that?" Bishop wonders. "But I give you some bulls__ story about a fight, and you'll believe that in a minute." He's right. I was half-expecting the anecdote to end with Sinatra calling the girl a hooker and tossing her over the rail himself (let's say there's a pool below). Is my version better? Bishop sighs. "I don't understand why honesty doesn't prevail."