Lowbrow Cool : DINO: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, <i> By Nick Tosches (Doubleday: $24; 446 pp.)</i>
George Raft was Dean Martin’s idol. As a kid, he studied his every move in “Scarface.” To Martin, a raw, untutored greaseball from Steubenville, Ohio, Raft had what really counted: class. Even after Martin became a star, he remained awe-struck, visiting Raft’s Coldwater Canyon digs, a gaudy Playboy-mansion prototype, soaking up the gilded atmosphere.
“It was like the temple of a brothel,” Martin explained. “The most gorgeous women in town would be there. It wasn’t just sex. They would swim nude in the pool, or we would sit around and talk. George would lounge all day in his silk robe at poolside. He never swam. In fact, the only exercise he ever had was with broads or shuffling a deck of cards.”
That was Dino’s dream. Broads, a deck of cards and maybe a round of golf. Work was for working stiffs.
As Mickey Cohen, Los Angeles’ premier gangster, once put it: “Dean had the perfect makeup to be a racket guy, although he is a little too lackadaisical, if you know what I mean.”
That’s Dino--America’s original Leisure Class Celebrity, the epitome of lowbrow cool. According to Nick Tosches, author of “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams,” Dino’s real racket was love, whether it was the romantic spell he cast while crooning his pop ballads or the sexual stirrings he aroused in the many women who pursued him.
For those of us who grew up watching Dino’s tawdry TV series, “The Dean Martin Show” (remember his scantily clad sidekicks, the Golddiggers?), it’s hard to imagine Martin as anything more than a sex ‘n’ suds Las Vegas self-parody. His days as a romantic icon are long forgotten. Today, Martin’s reputation rests largely on a few comedies he made with Jerry Lewis, a stellar dramatic performance in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and some charming pieces of pop fluff that once topped the Hit Parade.
It seems fair to ask: Why would anyone even bother with Martin, especially a gifted writer like Tosches, whose Jerry Lee Lewis biography, “Hellfire,” was a brilliant account of rock’s original hell raiser? A vivid, high-octane stylist, Tosches has little in common with today’s Hack Pack of celebrity biographers.
At first glance, a superstar as remote as Dino hardly seems much of a challenge. With Jerry Lee Lewis, Tosches could wrestle with a boundless mythic character, a man too wild to be tamed by fame. With Dino, Tosches has the opposite--a man eagerly succumbing to fame’s pleasures.
Perhaps what intrigued Tosches wasn’t so much Martin’s meager career achievements as the mystery of superstardom itself. What kicks did Dino give 1950s-era America? What enthralled audiences about his easy-going balladry and high jinks with Lewis?
Tosches chalks it up to the emergence of “mob culture,” the age of mass entertainment that Henry James foresaw as the coming “reign of mediocrity.” Early 20th-Century America spawned nickelodeons, dime novels and cheap music--all prevailing influences on Martin’s fans. It was the birth of pop culture, a culture where every common man could be a king, or what passes for royalty today: a celebrity.
Born Dino Crocetti in 1917, Martin was raised by a family of hard-working Italian immigrants. Bored with school, eager to avoid a life in the steel mills, Dino looked for a shortcut to success. At 14, he was helping his pals, the Rizzo brothers, run bootleg whiskey during Prohibition.
Dino’s dealings with various gangsters gives the expression “mob culture” an intriguing double meaning. But by Tosches’ account, Martin’s relations with certain celebrated underworld characters were more cordial than cozy--he would occasionally perform freebies to help launch a mob-funded club or casino.
Dino first sang in public at age 17. At 23, rechristened Dean Martin (after a brief stint as Dino Martoni), he was crooning for Sammy Watkins and His Orchestra at Cleveland’s Vogue Room when he he received his first Variety review. Having sat through a bill featuring Sigrid Dagnie, the Beauteous Ballerina, and Floretta and Boyette, “Mental and Mystic,” Variety’s Glen Pullen gave Martin a glowing notice: “He backs a personable kisser with a warm, low tenor and an agreeable manner.”
By 1944, Martin had signed with the powerful MCA talent agency and made his New York debut (he got the gig when another young Italian wonder, Frank Sinatra, canceled). The personable kisser was improved on, thanks to a $500 nose job courtesy of his manager, comic Lou Costello.
Costello had company. To keep himself in scratch, Dino sold off pieces of himself until there was nothing left: Costello got 25%. MCA got 10%. Agent Lou Perry got 35%. Dick Richards, another manager, got 20%. And Sammy Watkins took 10%. By 1946, mired in lawsuits, Dino declared bankruptcy.
Less than two months later, lightning struck. Dino was on a bill with Jerry Lewis, who did a pantomime novelty-comedy sketch. When the two men took the stage together, screwing around during an after-hours show, Martin & Lewis was born.
By the early ‘50s, they were mob-culture Renaissance men, starring in films, hosting TV and radio shows, cutting albums and making $50,000 a week at club dates.
Tosches devotes a healthy chunk of “Dino” to chronicling the Martin & Lewis saga--and rightfully so, since it’s easily the most psychologically complex chapter of Martin’s life. The act was an inspired twist on vaudeville’s old Straight Man-Banana Man act: The Handsome Man & the Monkey.
Dino personified romance and sophistication. Lewis represented delinquency and anarchy. Anchored by these warring impulses--sex vs. slapstick--Martin & Lewis were the harbingers of things to come. In the repressed 1950s, Las Vegas was center stage. But off in the wings were a host of underground cultural forces--brooding film-noir thrillers, beat poetry and fierce avant-garde jazz--forces too unruly and subversive to be embraced by the pop mainstream.
Nothing was as unruly as Martin & Lewis on stage. The act was virtually all improv and spontaneous mayhem. Unfortunately, no record of the duo’s nightclub performances survives. To hear Tosches tell it, Martin & Lewis were a distinctly Cold War-era creation, the frenzied response to the dread inspired by A-bombs and McCarthyism.
“It was a catharsis, a celebration of ignorance, absurdity and stupidity,” Tosches writes. “A denial of darkness itself, a regression, a transporting to the preternatural bliss of infantile senselessness.” Call them show-biz terrorists, a 1950s version of Axl Rose and Andrew Dice Clay.
The partnership finally disintegrated, prompted by Lewis’ delusions of movie-directing grandeur, Dino’s inability to communicate and a stream of reviews hailing Lewis’ jive antics at the expense of Martin’s straight-man crooning. As early as 1948, no less an authority than Frank Sinatra opined: “The dago’s lousy, but the little Jew is great.”
After a final 1956 engagement, Dino delivered the kiss-off. Lewis’ manic insecurities had pushed him too far. Hoping to salvage a few memories, Lewis told Martin: “I think it’s love. I think it’s how we still feel about each other.”
Dino cut him cold. “You can talk about love all you want,” he responded. “To me, you’re nothing but a (expletive) dollar sign.”
After his split with Lewis, Dino never ventured near the cutting edge again. Still, he remained a huge star. He earned $200,000 a picture loafing in Hollywood, doing Matt Helm movies and dozens of even worse films (only Elvis, who idolized Martin, made more bad movies).
It hardly mattered. The lousy pictures, the tasteless TV show--they all made money. In the late ‘60s, Dino was making $15 million a year.
He was always in demand in Vegas, America’s halfway house for aging celebs on the downhill slide, where he could rake in $25,000 a week, doing one set a night, making fun of himself, rarely ever getting to the end of a song. The hotel owners didn’t care. Dino was the their meal ticket, the act that brought in the highest rollers. Dino was so masculine, so at ease with his sexuality that men would gladly push their wives into his lap just to bask in the manly warmth of Dino’s erotic glow.
Between jobs, Dino played golf, halfheartedly hung out with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and did benefits, mostly for charities like SHARE and the City of Hope. (Dino also performed freebies to help out gangster pals like Sam Giancana.) By the 1970s, having gone through three wives and dozens of girlfriends, Dino had become the ultimate hack celebrity, showing up at show-biz TV roasts, adrift in a fog of Percodan and Scotch.
Never a man to confide in anybody, even his wives, Dino represents a stiff challenge for any biographer, even one of Tosches’ talents. Without Martin’s cooperation, Tosches relies on interviews with Jeanne Martin, Dino’s second wife, Jerry Lewis and a raft of second-rung actors. (Martin’s only in-depth interview, conducted in 1967, was given to, of all people, Oriana Fallaci.)
Dino turns out to have been a stranger to his buddies as well as to himself. Jeannie, Dino’s wife of nearly 30 years, puts it best: “The most important thing to say about my husband is that I don’t understand him. He’s one of the rare human beings who’s not comfortable with communicating. He’s just not interested.”
After a while, Dino’s opaqueness seems to wear on Tosches, who gets bogged down detailing Martin’s real-estate holdings and various legal skirmishes. A dazzling stylist, Tosches operates like a be-bop sax player, using Martin’s resume as his basic melody, then bursting into frenzied improvisational solos as he tries to liven up Dino’s lowbrow antics. Summarizing Martin’s tawdry ‘60s sex comedies, Tosches writes: “Dean would become the personification of tastelessness itself, projecting the image of one in whose scales of aesthetics a single good tit joke would outweigh all of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Allardice.”
In the end, Tosches seems both enthralled and exasperated with his subject, as are we. Eyeballing the world’s most impersonal celebrity, we find ourselves chilled by his icy detachment. The source of this aloofness is the true unsolved mystery of Dean Martin. Perhaps his aura of inexpressive desire comes from the world around him, the flashy mob culture that produced such equally enigmatic icons as Elvis, Brando and James Dean.
Call it the inscrutable nature of cool. Dino had it, but he couldn’t share it. Not with his wives, not even with himself.
Maybe that’s why Dino loved golf, the most solitary of sports, as soothing as shuffling a deck of George Raft’s cards:
“One could be with other men but apart from them, in silence in the open air,” Tosches writes. “The driver clubface and that little white rubber-cored ball barely met: 450 millionths of a second, that was it. It was the sort of contact Dean liked.”