Living La Vida Loca

Over the years, interpreters of Hollywood tea leaves have learned that the happening place to be if you were a kid in swinging ’60s Tinseltown was Dean and Jeanne Martin’s Beverly Hills pad, preferably poolside. Previously, this information had been gleaned from secondhand sources, winking hints, and name-checks dropped in puffy interviews with celebrity children in fluffy magazines.

Now, Martin’s youngest son Ricci delivers a splash-by-splash account of just how incredible this pee-wee playhouse really was. His book, That’s Amore: A Son Remembers Dean Martin, begins, in fact, with a walking tour through his fabled home at 601 Mountain Drive, from grand foyer to literal home theater (it included two 35mm movie projectors—the same furnace-size machines used in commercial theaters, for which a studio projectionist was required). The original house was expanded greatly to contain the large brood—four children from Dean Martin’s first marriage (Craig, Gail, Claudia, and Deana) and three he had with second wife Jeanne (Dean-Paul, author Ricci, and Gina), as well as Jeanne’s mother and the usual flotilla of servants, secretaries, bodyguards, and hangers-on. In fact, the rarified quality of life at the Martin home is perhaps best captured in one of the book’s snapshots which depicts a gaggle of Martin kids, their pals—and, hey, there’s Ursula Andress!

Dean Martin and his Rat Pack pals continue to hold a particular fascination for both boomers and their offspring (witness the otherwise unnecessary re-make of Ocean’s Eleven and the overextended swing revival). After all, most of the sources of ’50s and ’60s nostalgia were part of the youth culture—James Dean, diners, etc. But the Rat Pack was associated with boomers’ parents’ culture. Part of the appeal was, of course, the music. But another reason was the Rat Pack style. It embodied an ethic of hedonism and permissiveness that, through their popularity, came to be understood as quintessentially American. Conservatives prefer to blame the decline of values and rise of self-indulgence on the ’60s generation, but clearly, kids didn’t learn these traits on their own. It was already being celebrated in the broader American culture of their parents, which adored Rat Pack cool. As the saying goes, quoted several times in That’s Amore, “It’s Frank’s world, we only live in it.”

Young Martin provides a car-seat view of life in the American fast lane, unintended evidence of what becomes of a child raised in that culture. Interestingly, Ricci paints a picture of his supposedly swinging dad that’s straight out of “Father Knows Best.” “I never saw him drunk in my life,” he writes. “With all the demands of his superstar status, I hardly remember him not being home as I grew up.” When he wasn’t making the occasional movie or spending a few weeks in Vegas, Dean’s “job” was golfing all day, home by 6 for dinner with the family, then to bed by 9 or 10 so that he could rise early to repeat the process. “Mom loved to throw parties,” Ricci tells us, “Dad hated them.”

Aficionados of celebrity biography have grown accustomed to such scorching tell-alls as Christina Crawford’s standard-setting Mommie Dearest, about her mother Joan Crawford, and Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer’s Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man. That’s Amore represents the other extreme: memoir as hagiography. “Dad did not take himself seriously,” Martin tells us in the introduction. “I suspect that always perplexed the people who chronicle the fortunes and misfortunes of celebrities, pushing them to find reasons why he did not seem to be the least bit self-absorbed or obsessed with polishing his image. A few concluded that, at his core, he was empty. Maybe that’s the downside of not being too full of yourself.” It’s a nice line and a nice sentiment from a loyal son. It’s also clearly a shot across the bow of an earlier Martin biography, Nick Tosches’ brutal 1992 book, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, which credulously accepted the Rat Pack’s don’t-give-a-damn style.

In attempting to reclaim his father’s reputation, however, Ricci does no favors to his own. The sense of entitlement common to baby boomers is particularly keen among the Martin kids, and this book leaves little doubt that it was an attitude learned at home. Ricci’s childhood was astoundingly privileged. At 16, he was awarded an exotic Italian sports car. Guests at his 21st birthday party included John Lennon and Ringo Starr. That Martin, now nearly 50, seems not to have changed is equally astounding. But perhaps we shouldn’t blame the child. Dean Martin “was never one to preach to us kids about anything,” writes Ricci. “Discipline at home, as far as [older brother] Dean-Paul and I were concerned, basically came from older siblings.”

School was no different. Enrolled, fittingly, in a curious private school, Martin admits that “the learning pace was slow and discipline was lax, so we took full advantage of the situation.” What kid wouldn’t? But in this case, “lax discipline” included taking teachers out for martini lunches during his senior year.

But that’s not nearly as unsettling as another favorite Martin pastime, the author’s love of speed and explosions. Rather than forbid her underage kids from riding motorcycles, Mrs. Martin built them a private road. When that didn’t slow them down, she asked their idol Steve McQueen to drop by and give the kids pointers.

Before they had a driver’s license, Ricci and Dean-Paul had guns. Lots of guns. “The walls of our rooms were lined with gun cabinets and gun racks, filled with every manner of rifle and handgun,” Martin writes.

These were not, mind you, farm kids required to learn the art of hunting as a means of gathering food or managing wildlife. No, these were young teens in the big city who liked to blow things up. Not an uncommon trait in teenagers, to be sure. But the Martin brothers went way beyond knocking over tin cans with BBs. They collected machine guns, mortars, anti-tank cannons—and even, incredibly, an armored personnel carrier. The semi-automatic weapons they acquired were modified to become fully automatic. Then the boys moved on to explosives.

“We developed a profound respect for firearms,” Martin writes—a respect not much on display in the many giddy accounts of foolhardy demolition sprinkled throughout That’s Amore. Martin suggests that this enthusiasm “may have stemmed from idolizing Dad, who played cowboy gunslingers, soldiers, and secret agents in his various films.” Maybe. But in many ways the Martin brothers exemplified permissiveness-run-amok to such an extreme that even the most conservative social critics probably hadn’t envisioned it. Eventually, it caught up with them. Dean-Paul ran afoul of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms when he sold machine guns to undercover agents. Even though he got off with probation and a measly $200 fine, Mom was “steamed” that her son was “treated like a gun-running kingpin by some head-hunting federales.” The family, writes Ricci, believed that the 22-year-old was “targeted in the first place, because he was Dean Martin’s son.” Writes Ricci, “I felt the prosecution of Dean-Paul had been ludicrous.” Need more evidence of hubris? Ricci later admits to keeping season tickets to Dodgers games in the glove compartments of the Martins’ cars to “ease the tension of a speeding pullover.”

Ricci has not only lived in the considerable shadow of his father, but also of his older brother, an exponential combination of his parents’ impossible good looks and charm. Dean-Paul was a teen idol by 12, scoring bubblegum hits with fellow celeb-kids Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Billy Hinsch in Dino, Desi, and Billy. He would marry movie star Olivia Hussey, then court Olympic sweetheart Dorothy Hamill before dying prematurely—perhaps unsurprisingly, given his childhood enthusiasms—in a jet fighter accident at age 35. It is generally agreed that Dean Martin never recovered from the shock of this 1987 tragedy. There are more pictures in the book of Dean-Paul than of the author.

A dabbler in show biz throughout his life, Ricci Martin has been unable to live up to the family name—who could? But he has finally replaced his older brother in the recently reconstituted oldies act, Ricci, Desi, and Billy. For the author, it must be an anticlimactic ending to the life described in That’s Amore. But fans of his book can be assured that the cultural trope of the hedonistic celeb kid is certain to endure. With the recent movie Orange County starring the offspring of Tom Hanks and Sissy Spacek and directed by the son of writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, it’s clear that we will be blessed with many more books by and about the children of wealth and fame and Hollywood and Vine. The author has perhaps ensured this: He named his own children Pepper Jazz, Montana Sage, and Rio-Dean.