Tonight in his concession speech Barack Obama riffed on the theme of “Yes, we can,” a slight variation of the title of Sammy Davis’s autobiographical Yes, I Can. I would guess that many Obama voters are too young to have caught the allusion, but I don’t recall a time when Sammy Davis was not a celebrity along with the rest of the Rat Pack. I learned as a teenager from his autobiography that Davis had overcome obstacles galore on his way to the top. The autobiography, however, stopped with his marriage to May Britt, before he became something of a laughingstock, and left out a lot of the pre-Britt story in any event.
In 2003 the New York Times Book Review carried Gary Giddins’s review/essay on Davis and two biographies of him. As I noted at the time, 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 at least in part because of the great human story and in part because of the angle it provides on a piece of American political history.
Giddins recounts 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.
Giddins also takes up the event that made Davis a laughingstock — his hug of Richard Nixon and 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 only cynical reference I have ever seen in the Times to Jesse Jackson’s long-perfected modus operandi. Giddins’s review is “Yes he could.”
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