I was born in 1951 and don’t recall a time when Sammy Davis was not a celebrity along with the rest of the Rat Pack. Although I learned as a teenager that he had overcome obstacles galore on his way to the top — I read his memorable autobiography, Yes, I Can — the story stopped with his marriage to May Britt, before he became something of a laughingstock, and he left out a lot of the pre-Britt story in any event.
Tomorrow’s Sunday New York Times Book Review carries Gary Giddins’s review/essay on Davis and two new biographies about him. Giddins is a gifted writer; his essay is probably superior to either book. His take on Davis’s life is brilliantly sympathetic, and Davis’s life is worthy of consideration — don’t laugh! — at least in part because of the great human story and in part because of the angle it provides on an important piece of American history.
Take, for example, Giddins’s account of the event that made Davis an overnight star after 20 years in vaudeville and on the road:
Davis had to wait until 1951 — after two decades on the road — for his breakthrough. Janis Paige was opening at Ciro’s, a much-publicized event and a good bet to be seen by Hollywood powers. As Paige had the only dressing room, the [Will Mastin] trio [including Davis and his father] was consigned to a corner of the attic. Still, it was the most elegant place they had ever worked. Fishgall [the author of the better of the two biographies under review] writes that Davis refused to rehearse at the club, not wanting to reveal the power of his performance and frighten the star. After one mock rehearsal, the owner said, “I still don’t know what you boys do. I’ll tell you what. You open the show, make it fast and take only one bow.” Paige’s contract forbade them from taking more than two bows. In the event, they took eight. A stunned Paige had the sense to reverse the order of the show; on the second night, she opened for the trio.
Or take his account of the event that made Davis a laughingstock — his hug of Richard Nixon and extraordinarily uncool endorsement of him for president in 1972:
[H]e embraced Nixon, a story with a personal dimension worth exploring. As vice-president, Nixon had attended the trio’s show at the Copa in 1954, introducing himself afterward and impressing Davis. In 1960, along with the Sinatra gang, Davis worked diligently to elect Kennedy, who treated him abominably. Fishgall says that he was disinvited from the inauguration so as not to upset the Dixiecrats; Haygood [the author of the other biography under review] recycles Richard Reeves’s account of Kennedy demanding May Britt be hidden at an unpublicized meeting of Negro leaders before photographers saw her. When, nearly a decade later, Nixon asked for his support, Davis felt honored.
The reaction among blacks especially was devastating, and Davis was horrified and confused by it. In Haygood’s account, Jesse Jackson requested a $25,000 contribution “for my charity” in return for repatriating Davis at a convention of Jackson’s organization, Operation PUSH. It didn’t work; insistent as he was, Jackson could not still the relentless booing as Davis stood silently. Fishgall, who says nothing about this financial transaction, quotes Davis’s response: “Nothing in my life ever hurt me that much” — not even, he said, the accident that cost him an eye. He never completely recovered…
The last story unfortunately includes an element that has not yet receded into history, as well as the first cynical reference I have ever seen in the Times to Jesse Jackson’s long-perfected modus operandi. Giddins’s review is — what else? — “What made Sammy run?” Don’t miss it!
BIG TRUNK comments: I originally posted this item on December 27, 2003. I hope you find it worth a look if you didn’t come across it then.
UPDATE: Ed Driscoll adds a pertinent footnote to the story, with a link to a terrific interview of Burt Boyar by the Brothers Judd. Boyar is the ghost writer of Yes, I Can.
Reader Mike Daley writes to add his own eyewitness testimony:
My interest in Sammy came about in the late 60’s where, a few weeks after catching a truly horrible and self centered Bill Cosby show at Harvey’s in Lake Tahoe (he chastised his worshippers, from his LP’s and “I Spy” series persona, in addition to doing a show of exactly 28 minutes, total) I caught Sammy at a midnight show at Harrah’s, also Lake Tahoe. Never had I seen such talent and energy and true — love is the only word — for the audience as Sammy exhibited. The show started at about 12:30AM and we walked out, almost as exhausted as Sammy, at 5:45AM.
On returning home I was in possession of Sammy’s autobiography Yes, I Can within days and my respect and admiration for this man rose exponentially. I’ve seen Elvis, Frank, The Beatles, & The Stones, and Sammy was the greatest live act that ever performed. Thanks for showing your readers some of the class and tribulations this wonderful man exhibited and endured.