Why you should care
His unconcerned cool made him the archetype for a generation of entertainers — what if that perfect don’t-give-a-shit pose was all a feint?
Dean Martin, née Dino Paul Crocetti, was born in 1917, during a time in America when if your last name ended in a vowel, you were largely suspect by those whose names did not. The self-same America where he dropped out of school and took up boxing, largely in response to having his Italian accent mocked by residents of Steubenville, Ohio, who, just a generation earlier, were probably working to drop their own German accents. Martin was, by all accounts that recount his early days, an outsider who was most frequently seen around town singing as he odd-jobbed everything from bootleg liquor, to crap games and steel mill work.
Dean had managed to be, in total, the man who no one knew.
The boxing career never panned out, so he dropped his nom de ring Kid Crochet for his first nom de stage Dino Martini. Martin did not so much craft as embody the quality that made him an archetype for a generation of entertainers that followed: He seemed not to give a shit. At all. Sure, there were forbears — the laid-back Bing Crosby, Harry Mills and other assorted crooners aping those two — but Martin hid well, better and in plain sight. First as part of a comic duo with Jerry Lewis and then for the whole latter portion of his career as a dipsomaniacal skirt chaser, martini glass ever ready.
Which is what old boxing fans would have called the okey doke or, better yet, a feint.
Because there was something there beyond cool. There was an obsessive dedication to craft that set him apart in the 50-some-odd movies he made, some of which were dreck (Cannonball Run II), some of which were genre-defining (Rio Bravo). There was the fact that the whole fun-loving drunk thing was a front (one of his sons claimed he drank apple juice disguised as booze on stage). But it was more than all that. It was the fact that after years of casinos, gambling and hanging out with Rat Pack buds Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest, semi-immortalized in films like Oceans 11, it turned out that Dean had managed to be, in total, the man who no one knew.
Were the ways in which he was passionate, about the song and the voice, too sublime for us to believe they came from a tipsy son of Steubenville?
Surviving three marriages, three divorces and the untimely death of one of his eight kids, Martin was quicksilver. Genial and gentle but inaccessible to all but the muse that kept his voice producing almost up to his death at 78 from lung cancer. Commenting on Nick Tosches’s bio, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Vince Cosgrove, co-author of the NYC police corruption memoir Tin for Sale opined: ”Maybe Martin was just a cold sonuvabitch.”
Tempting to think that yes, behind the cool was just more cool — but on hearing a selection of Martin’s more obscure works, you can hear the wonder working through them, and they leave you pondering whether or not a man’s focus could be mistaken sometimes for lack of focus. Did we latch on to “cool” to describe Martin because the ways in which he was passionate, about the song and the voice, were too sublime for us to believe they came from a tipsy son of Steubenville?
Questions, and more questions, but then perhaps the only answer that really matters is in the watching.
Exhibit A, B, C and well, whatever, of how clearly Mr. Martin was the man. Forthwith: ”Blue Moon.”