Rat Pack Vernacular


“We sat out on the patio, which ran the whole length of the penthouse floor, a tremendous area, and though the drinking was pretty heavy, the conversation was light and airy. Frank and Pete– somehow Peter never seemed right for Peter Lawford– communicated in a language of their own. It was a mixture of slang, a vernacular that originated with hip musicians, comics, hoodlums, and teenagers. Their favourite words were gas and gasser, clyde, bunter, cool, crazy, harvey, fink, mother, hacked, smashed, pissed, charley, and, of course, ring-a-ding, or ring-a-ding-ding, depending on the enthusiasm of the moment. The meaning of many of these expressions seemed to change daily. This was at a time when Frank was known as The Leader (he was also The General, The Dago, The Pope) of the Rat Pack, which he inherited from the late Humphrey Bogart. The name of the group was later refined to the Clan. Besides Lawford, the membership included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Sammy Cahn, Sy Devore, Mike Romanoff, Jimmy Van Heusen, and for a time, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor.

Much of the time their conversation, as I was soon to learn, was inconsequential. They communicated by using only the punch lines, or buffo lines, as they called them, to in jokes. If you didn’t know the joke, you had no idea what the words meant. They might just as well have been talking Chinese. Much of the time I sat there smiling while they slapped their thighs and guffawed. There was little said worth remembering. When people use words or talk about subjects or people that I’m not familiar with, I have a tendency to daydream.”

My Story, Judith Exner, as told to Ovid Demaris, Circus Books, 1977.

Photo by Alan Light