"IT'S OKAY, DEAN, IT'S OKAY TO GO," JEANNE Martin said to her ex-husband on Christmas Eve as he lay in bed in his Beverly Hills home. "Your mom, your dad, your son, everyone is there on the other side waiting for you." Suffering from an acute respiratory problem brought on by emphysema, the 78-year-old crooner and actor weakly replied, "You're the only girl I ever loved."

Later that night, Jeanne, 60ish, who was divorced from Martin in 1973 after 23 years of marriage, returned from her own house just down the street and curled up with the unconscious Martin in his bed. On an earlier Christmas morning, in 1967, Jeanne had sat a similar vigil with Dean's mother, Angela, who died of bone cancer at 3:15 a.m. Martin breathed his last on Christmas morning 1995, at 3:30 a.m. "I put my hand in his hand," says Jeanne, "and stayed that way until they took him away."

It was a downbeat end to a soaring celebrity that Martin had played out with an endearing and singular nonchalance. First as part of a hit duo with screwball comedian Jerry Lewis in the '40s and '50s and then on his own in movies and on TV, Martin projected a debonair and slightly soused kind of cool, seemingly unaffected by the storms of real life. Over the past two decades, though, the image slowly evaporated like uncorked Scotch. After his third and final marriage ended in 1976, Martin, always a taciturn loner, became something of a recluse. By 1980, rarely performing, he had retreated into a daily cycle of golf at his beloved Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., a drink or three, and a western on TV.

Martin's long slide steepened in the late '80s after a series of personal losses that pierced his devil-may-care shell. He endured the deaths of his old pal and assistant Mack Gray, 75, and Jeanne's mother, Peggy, 86, whom he adored and who had lived with him and his wife all their married life. But the most crushing blow was the death of his beloved and lavishly gifted son Dean Paul in 1987. Known as Dino Jr., the tall, dashing blond had become a convincing actor, a ranked tennis pro, a USC premed student and a California Air National Guard pilot. He married two glamorous women: first, actress Olivia Hussey, then gold medal Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill. But, at age 35, Dino died when his F-4C Phantom jet crashed into a mountainside on a training mission. It took rescue workers five days to reach the site and confirm the death. "They found his body on my birthday," says Jeanne. "Dean held out a lot of hope. He thought if anyone could survive, it was Dean Paul." For Martin, the wound never healed. "He couldn't handle it," says singer and friend Jerry Vale. "After [Dino's death] it seemed he was just walking through life."

The ripples spread. Martin's four-decades-long friendship with Frank Sinatra crumbled in 1988 when Martin . left a 29-city national tour with Sinatra and fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr. after some six performances. Martin couldn't remember lyrics, slurred his lines and was so contemptuous that he flicked a live cigarette into an Oakland audience. Furious, Sinatra later dumped a plate of spaghetti on his head. Martin went back to L.A. and checked in to a hospital, claiming kidney trouble. But he provoked Sinatra's wrath again when he appeared days later in Las Vegas, quipping, "Frank sent me a kidney, but I don't know whose it was."

Meanwhile, Martin's physical condition was deteriorating. A heavy smoker most of his life, he wheezed constantly from emphysema, each painful breath seeming to sap his strength. Beginning in the mid-'70s, he began having dinner at a favorite Beverly Hills Italian restaurant, La Famiglia, most every night. When the place closed last year, Martin simply switched destinations, to Da Vinci, arriving punctually at 7:30. His order never varied: a Scotch on the rocks, followed by spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil and creamy tiramisú for dessert. Sometimes he put his false teeth on the table.

"He decided to quit smoking and cut down on drinking a year or so ago," recalls son Ricci, 42, a composer. Martin improved for a while. But it was too late to halt the decay of his lungs. Finally, says Jeanne, "what made [dying] easier was when he stopped eating about two weeks ago. We sort of knew he wanted to go soon. He was perfectly lucid. I've known Dean Martin since I was a year out of high school, and this is what he wanted to do. He's always done what he wanted to do."

That single-minded stubbornness was forged early on. Born Dino Paul Crocetti on June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, Martin, who spoke only Italian until the age of 5, was ridiculed at school for his broken English. The son of immigrants Angela and Gaetano Crocetti, a barber, Dino dropped out of school at 16, had a few amateur fights as Kid Crochet and became a croupier in a backroom club called the Rex. Wired into the underworld of club owners, he began singing around the Midwest, and by the early '40s he was a regular at New York City nightspots. Untrained but gifted, Dino Martini, as he was known, shamelessly imitated the easy, jazzy Bing Crosby. "I copied Bing until I had a style of my own," Martin said.

When developed, that ultra-relaxed style made him the perfect foil for the take-no-prisoners bedlam of Jerry Lewis (who remained too distraught to comment on Dean's death). The 10-year installation of Martin and Lewis at the pinnacle of showbiz began as an accident. In 1946, when a performer who was ill canceled at the tony 500 Club in Atlantic City, the pair (who were performing there separately) took the stage together, and their riotous hour made them sensations nearly overnight. "I've been around 50 years," says comedian Alan King, "and no one created the kind of pandemonium they did." Martin was a natural comic and a peerless straight man. Frank's daughter Nancy remembers her "Uncle Dean" as "probably the funniest man I ever knew in my life. He was hysterical." The act had Lewis setting the band's sheet music on fire while Dean crooned ballads. "You never had [just] a handsome man and a monkey," Lewis reflected in biographer Nick Tosches's Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. "[It was] sex and slapstick."

The pair made their first film, My Friend Irma, in 1949 for producer Hal Wallis. Through 15 more comedies, the money rolled in. "Can you pay two men $9 million to say, 'Did you take a bath this morning?' 'Why? Is one missing?' " Lewis wondered aloud years afterward. "Yet that's what we did."

There were tensions, however. Soured on each other by overfamiliarity and screen personae that were set in stone, Martin and Lewis split in 1956. Lewis, of course, went on to become a French cultural icon. Dean went on to become, well, Dean. By the late '60s, according to Tosches, Martin's contracts over three years would bring him $15 million per year. The lubricated baritone of his chart-toppers (like "Everybody Loves Somebody," which nudged the Beatles out of a No. 1 slot in 1964) captured a vast TV audience for his variety show in the '60s and '70s and made Elvis wish he could sing like Dean.

His easy insouciance made Martin the clown prince of Sinatra's Rat Pack, which gathered in 1959. The Pack, writes Shirley MacLaine, were "primitive children who would put crackers in each other's beds and dump spaghetti on new tuxedos." Says Debbie Reynolds, an old friend of Martin's: "A lot of people wished they could have a third as much fun as they [the Pack] did."

The star shared the spirit of naughty fun on NBC's The Dean Martin Show, which became a top-rated TV variety series. Its unrehearsed air and saucy repartee captured a nation bored with the blandness of the era's play-it-safe sitcoms like Gidget and My Mother the Car. Martin always seemed half-bombed on the show ("Boy, I was so loaded last night that when I fell down, I missed the floor"), but the family and friends insist that the drinking was mainly an act. "On TV you always saw him with a drink," says Ricci, "but that was apple juice."

Dramatic roles in films, including Rio Bravo and Some Came Running, gave him status as an actor. He later made four Matt Helm pictures as a sort of American-roué James Bond. "He loved making westerns," Jeanne recalls. "He was happiest when he headed to Mexico on location. He would have a motel with a TV and room service. That's all he asked for."

He had not started out as such a homebody. In 1941 the young singer had wed fun-loving Betty McDonald, the daughter of a distillery salesman. The couple fought over Martin's indifference and his cheating. His infidelities became more flagrant in Hollywood, where he was linked with the likes of Ann Sheridan and Lana Turner.

Before his 1949 divorce from McDonald, Dean had been smitten by a young Miami model, Jeanne Biegger, a stunning blonde whose face was famous from ads for Wildroot Cream Oil and Dr Pepper. Wed in Los Angeles, the couple settled in at 601 Mountain Drive in Beverly Hills for some two decades of heady but uneasy family life. To his four children from his first marriage (he eventually won custody after the divorce), Martin added three more with Jeanne, beginning with Dino Jr.

Jeanne was no pushover. Sinatra, writes honorary Rat Packer MacLaine in her 1995 memoir, My Lucky Stars, called Jeanne "the U-boat commander, because he saw her as a Nazi who controlled Dean." But Jeanne always had Martin's love and respect. A few years after 1976, when he divorced third wife Cathy Hawn after three years of marriage, Martin and Jeanne began a quiet friendship, though they would not reconcile.

The shy actor's legendary disdain for pretension and small talk extended even to close friends, who valued his company for his kindness, his calm and his pranks. Sammy Davis Jr. told PEOPLE in 1988, "I don't think Dean ever did 2½ pages of conversation in his life." Jeanne recalls that during their marriage, family dinners were hysterical. "Dean wasn't much for chitchat," she says. "So I'd put the television behind me where he could see it, and we'd all sit there and watch Soupy Sales while we ate." Says Ricci: "He joked that it wasn't the chat that bothered him, it was the chit."

Although he wouldn't allow old pals like Don Rickles to come to his house to cheer him up, in his final years Dean seemed to enjoy his family, including his grandchildren, in small doses. "On Saturday nights I'd get dressed up and go down to Da Vinci, and we'd have a drink and talk," says Jeanne. "Then I'd come home and make myself a hamburger. He didn't want me to see him eat without his teeth." Even 01' Blue Eyes caved in. Just weeks before Martin's death, Sinatra joined him for dinner. The two were soon laughing and even indulged in a bread-throwing salvo. After Dean's death a sorrowful Sinatra echoed the feelings of many when he said, "There will always be a place in my heart and soul for Dean."

J.D. REED
TOM CUNNEFF, MICHAEL ARKUSH, DANELLE MORTON, TODD GOLD and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Michael Arkush,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Todd Gold,
  • John Hannah.