When Deana Martin published her excoriating story of life as the neglected daughter of Dean Martin, shock waves rippled through the fan base of a star equally at home on a Las Vegas stage or a Hollywood film set.
It’s not that anyone thought Dean Martin was a saint. He was, after all, one of the legendary hell-raisers of the booze-fuelled, womanising, insouciant Rat Pack alongside Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
However, as a new compilation of Martin’s love songs is released tomorrow, showcasing the softer, more romantic side of the King of Cool (as Elvis Presley dubbed him), another two of his children have spoken out in passionate defence of the man they called Dad.
For all her love for her father, in 2004’s Memories Are Made Of This, Deana portrayed a man much more interested in his drinking buddies, the golf course and even shoplifting than his children. “He was not a good father,” she claimed. “We were left to fend for ourselves. He was emotionally absent and didn’t want to know our thoughts or problems.”
Martin had seven children: four by his first wife Betty, who descended into alcoholism after he left her; three by the love of his life, Jeanne. Both Deana, now 61, and Gail, 64, were Betty’s daughters and, according to Gail: “When that book came out, my brothers and sisters looked at each other and said, ‘Did she grow up in the same house? Is she kidding?’ We were just dying laughing.”
Laughing? If her claims were untrue, surely it was no laughing matter? “We got really mad at her,” Gail concedes. “We’re not as close now as we were but Deana just wanted to do a book. It’s a good job Claudia [their sister, who died of cancer in 2001] wasn’t around; she would have decked her.”
Gail’s account is corroborated by Martin’s youngest son by Jeanne, Ricci, 57, who refused to read Deana’s book. “I don’t think Deana was not telling the truth, she just had that type of relationship with Dad,” he says. “He treated everyone differently depending on the relationship so everyone has a different take. Of course I would say this because this is my side of the story but he was always there for me.”
Still, when Martin was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award last year, all of his surviving children accepted the award together on his behalf. “That was fun and we had a big hug with Deana,” says Gail. So the family have agreed to disagree, with Gail remembering a “fun and fun-loving and funny and easy” father.
Ricci remembers him being away, typically, for a couple of seven-week Las Vegas runs then maybe one six-week film shoot over the course of a year but, otherwise, playing a conventional paternal role, always home for dinner at 6pm: “I remember him getting home from golfi ng, walking down the hallway and into the kitchen where he’d go to the bread drawer, butter one slice, take a bite then say: ‘Now that’s living…’ ” Then, after dinner, everyone would watch TV as a family.
Still, there are moments when Ricci’s account sounds airbrushed, however unwittingly. Despite only being a
teenager when his parents divorced, he insists he was completely unaffected; that he “knew” they would be happier apart. He was also oblivious to his father’s womanising until his mother revealed the affairs two years ago but he insists he laughed off the revelations.
In Deana’s defence, Jeanne is also on record describing Martin as a “cold, calculating and impersonal man” but, while we may never know whose account most accurately captures Martin’s personality, the truth presumably lies somewhere between the two extremes.
However, what is indisputable is the prodigious talent of a man who changed gear from television to movies to music with apparent ease. He’s said to have sold more movie tickets and records and achieved higher viewer ratings than anyone before or since. Martin’s big break came when he met Jerry Lewis, the pair’s bantering dynamic making them America’s biggest double act for a decade from the mid-Forties, with Martin playing the straight man to Lewis’s zany mischievousness.
The pair landed their own radio series, going on to make films together, yet Martin’s ego took a battering from the critics’ sense that Lewis was the driving force in a partnership that slowly deteriorated over the course of a decade. It finally severed after Martin told Lewis he was nothing to him “but a dollar sign”.
It was two decades before the two repaired their friendship but, when Martin died 15 years ago, Lewis sent a touching tape of remembrances and comic anecdotes to his children and Deana still sees him from time to time.
After the split from Lewis, Martin turned his attention to a serious acting career. A critically acclaimed performance in The Young Lions (1957), alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, cemented him as one of Hollywood’s hottest properties and Ricci believes his father saw serious movies like Rio Bravo (1958) and Toys In The Attic (1963) as his greatest career achievements.
At the same time, he was developing his own style as a singer, recording immortal interpretations of Volare, Memories Are Made Of This and Return To Me, while building a friendship and working relationship with the infamous Rat Pack, their on-stage banter and camaraderie as integral a part of their act as the songs they sang together.
Martin became legendary for Las Vegas performances both with and without the Rat Pack and Gail remembers pulling up alongside her father at traffic lights on Sunset Boulevard with his latest solo show blaring out. He quipped: “I’m rehearsing my ad-libs.”
His shtick was a heavy-drinking persona that came to the fore in the mid-Sixties in the well-loved Dean Martin Show. The jury is still out on whether it was a glass of Scotch or apple juice in his hand but both Gail and Ricci remember their father leading a clean-living lifestyle.
“He never stayed up late because he always had to be on that golf course!” smiles Gail, adding: “When my sister Gina was five somebody asked her, ‘What does your dad do for a living?’ and she said, ‘He’s a golfer’.” Since 2002, Ricci has toured a nostalgic tribute to his father comprising songs, anecdotes and family pictures.
He was once moved to tears by glimpsing a photograph of himself aged six with his father and, since then, has avoided looking at the photos while performing: “I have to detach myself because it’s so personal. Dad’s gone, we’ve all dispersed, it’s bittersweet.”
Gail also became a performer in her own right. She used to open for her father’s shows and she remembers him watching her from the wings one evening. “I was singing this over-arranged song and there he was pointing to his pocket,” she recalls. “What on earth? I go offstage and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘That note you were looking for, I’ve got it right here in my pocket!’ You had to laugh.”
By the mid-Seventies, Martin was losing momentum, suffering a mortal blow in 1987 when his son Dean Paul died in an air crash. His health was suffering, his ailments included emphysema, the lung cancer that killed him and, reportedly, Alzheimer’s. His legacy endures, though, even in a fickle age obsessed with novelty. As Gail puts it: “To make your first recording in 1948 and to still be so popular that you get a Grammy in 2008? That’s lasting a lifetime.”