In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

by Wil Haygood

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He was, for decades, one of the most recognizable figures in the cultural landscape, his image epitomizing a golden age of American show business. His career spanned a lifetime, but for years he has remained hidden behind the persona he so vigorously generated, and so fiercely protected. Now, in this surprising, illuminating, and compulsively readable biography, we are taken beyond the icon, into the extraordinary, singular life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

In scrupulous detail and with stunning powers of evocation, Wil Haygood takes us back to the era of vaudeville, where it all began for four-year-old Sammy who ran out onstage one night and stole the show. From then on it was a motherless childhood on the road, singing and dancing his way across a segregated America with his father and the formidable showman Will Mastin, struggling together to survive the Depression and the demise of vaudeville itself.

With an ambition honed by poverty and an obsessive need for applause, Sammy drove his way into the nightclub circuit of the 1940s and 1950s, when, his father and Mastin aging and out of style, he slowly began to make a name for himself, hustling his way to top billing and eventually to recording contracts. From there, he was to stake his claim on Broadway, in Hollywood, and, of course, in Las Vegas.

Haygood brings Sammy’s showbiz life into full relief against the backdrop of an America in the throes of racial change. Sammy grew up trapped between the worlds of blacks and whites, with so much invested in both. He made his living entertaining white people but was often denied service in the very venues he played. Drafted into a newly integrated U.S. Army in the 1940s, he saw up close the fierce tensions that seethed below the surface. Dragged into the civil rights movement, he witnessed a hatred that often erupted into violence. In his broad and varied friendships and alliances (with Frank Sinatra; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Richard Nixon; Sidney Poitier; Marilyn Monroe, to name just a few), not to mention his romances (his relationship with Kim Novak and his marriage to the blond beauty May Britt drew death threats), he forged uncharted paths across racial lines. Admired and reviled by both blacks and whites, he was tormented all his life by raging insecurities, and never quite came to terms with his own skin. Ultimately, his only true sense of his identity was as a performer.

Based on painstaking research and more than 250 interviews, Wil Haygood brings us a sweeping and vivid cultural history of the twentieth century, chronicling black entertainment from its beginnings and the birth of popular culture as we know it. In Black and White transcends simple biography to become an important record, both celebratory and elegiacal, of a vanished America and its greatest entertainer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804172523
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 1,020,619
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Wil Haygood is currently a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post. For seventeen years he was a feature writer, and national and foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. He has received numerous awards, including the Sunday Magazine Editors Award, which he received twice; the New England Associated Press Award; the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Foreign Reporting (which he also won twice); the James Thurber Literary Fellowship; an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship; and a Yaddo Fellowship. He is also the author of Two on the River; King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; and The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir, which was awarded the Great Lakes Book Award. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


Although Sammy Davis, Jr., was descended from the dangers of the Negro plantation-this one located in rural North Carolina-it was the Cuban blood that would confuse him for a lifetime. Family members on the Cuban side would refer to it as "this Cuban thing." They meant the currency implied in a particular shade of skin color. And, linked to that, they meant the way love and resentment and distance and abandonment can infect any family, the way it could zoom in and out of mothers and sons and daughters, like a storm whooshing sideways on a horizontal force of its own, missing no one. So it was with his own family.

"My mother was born in San Juan," Sammy Davis, Jr., proclaimed. But it was a lie, and he knew it. She was born in New York City, of Cuban heritage. The Cuban ancestry, in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev battle to a standoff over nuclear arsenals, made Sammy nervous. Anti-Cuban sentiment had swept the land. The Cuban-haters might begin to dislike him, and Sammy was not in the business of losing admirers and fans. So he flipped the Cuban history-telling relatives to keep quiet about it-with made-up Puerto Rican history. And what the hell, he used the invented history for a joke that made many laugh, all the while lancing piercingly into his own insecurities: "My mother was born in San Juan. So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman." A pause for the punch line: "When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time."

All his life, he hewed to a talent that enabled more than a few brilliantly tragic minstrel performers to endure: he had the mysterious gift to laugh away a deep, nearly unfathomable pain that finds one scratching for an identity while lost in the beguilingly lit world of make-believe.

.  .  .

Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, maternal grandmother was born Luisa Valentina Aguiar on February 14, 1884, at 111 Thompson Street in lower Manhattan. Her father, Enrique Aguiar, had given her the middle name Valentina because she was born on Valentine's Day. Enrique, born in Cuba, often talked of family wealth and respect back home in his native land. He had handsome eyes, looked like a man who supremely believed in himself, and carried himself with a regal bearing. Connecticut-born Ida Henderson had a soft round face and long, lovely hair. Enrique first spotted her strolling past a Manhattan laundry and gave pursuit. The romance led to marriage. Both Enrique and Ida were extremely light-skinned and could have mixed with the white citizenry of Manhattan easily. They made a striking couple walking in afternoon sunshine. Her pregnancy greatly delighted both. Then came sudden tragedy: Ida died giving birth to Luisa.

Enrique Aguiar had been very much in love with his wife, and her death devastated him. He was now forced to ponder, alone, how he would care for his only child.

Enrique Aguiar vowed to hold on to Luisa, and was proud of himself for doing so. The dynamic imbued her with a fierce and independent spirit of her own. Over the years, Luisa's light complexion and flowing hair would come to strongly resemble her mother's. The two of them-Luisa would often talk of it in the decades to come-weathered the violent blizzard of 1888 in New York City. The city suffered $20 million in damages during that storm. Many, trudging home in feet-high snow, had been forced to find shelter in the city's jails.

Like many Cubans living in New York City in 1898, Enrique Aguiar couldn't have helped but notice the screaming newspaper headlines about the bombing of the U.S. ship Maine while it was anchored in Havana Harbor, on the night of February 15. In the blast, 254 soldiers died instantly; eight more died later. The Maine was in Havana on a fact-finding mission following constant reports of Cubans being abused by the Spanish. A little less than a month before the explosion, the Spanish military in Cuba destroyed the offices of four news-papers criticizing its presence. The attacks sparked rioting, which alerted American diplomatic officials on the island.

Spain had upward of 500,000 troops serving in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in a desperate attempt to keep its imperialist grip on the region. The infamous Alfonso Guards of Spain-who fancied wide-brimmed white sombreros-easily outdid the Cuban insurgents, and over the years, every rebellion was put down. There were times when the Alfonso Guards would line captured rebels up alongside a fort wall on bended knee-faces toward the wall, hands tied behind them-and raise their heavy rifles. The snap-crack of shots would fill the air, blood would color the dirt, and revolution would be stayed for a while longer.

When Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean in 1492, its lush vistas must have dazzled his senses. It was Diego Velázquez, however, who would, in 1511, conquer the island for Spain and launch the Spanish Conquest. In 1526, African slaves were brought into Cuba to work the coffee and sugar plantations. Throughout the decades there would be slave and Indian uprisings. The islands of Cuba intrigued antiabolitionists during the American Civil War. They had a peculiar dream of annexing it and turning it into a slave-holding state. Disease eventually vanquished the Indians of Cuba. (Sammy's maternal grandmother, Luisa Sanchez-née Aguiar-was still, as a centenarian, reminding family members: "I am Cuban-and Indian.") With the Indian gone-though still coursing through their blood-blacks and Hispanics made up the Cuban populace. The Spanish delighted in pitting darker-skinned Cubans against lighter-skinned Cubans, and in the Spanish press, there often appeared reports of dark-skinned Cubans plotting uprisings. It became known as miedo al negro ("fear of the black"). Light-skinned Cubans considered themselves members of the ruling class, and it was from that class that Enrique Aguiar, father of Luisa, hailed.

Spanish officials denied involvement in the bombing of the Maine. In the blast's aftermath, President William McKinley urged caution, but Theodore Roosevelt, his assistant secretary of the navy, did not. The hyperactive Roosevelt browbeat administration officials into readying for war. He sent cables, made speeches, and harangued those close to McKinley. The Hearst news-papers urged war. William Randolph Hearst had been lucky: Richard Harding Davis, a star American reporter, was in Havana when the Maine was hit. Davis wrote feverishly, and Hearst ran emotional headlines that all but urged America to action.

Hearst's headlines were one thing, the words of Vermont senator Redfield Proctor quite another. Politicians of both stripes respected Proctor. He was not a man to idly commit American forces to foreign soil. On March 17, Proctor-who was a close McKinley ally-addressed the Senate to report on his thoughts following a trip to Cuba in the explosion's aftermath. He talked of the presence of concentration camps in Cuba that were filled with thousands. He said the loss of the Maine was tragic enough, but went on to say that if any appeal were made for war, it must be made because of "the spectacle of a million and a half of people, the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge." It was simple yet stunning oratory coming from a man of Proctor's revered caution. And it set loose whoops of war talk.

"Cuba Libre," went one cry.

"Remember the Maine / To hell with Spain!" went another.

As screaming headlines merged with patriotic fervor, it was becoming clear that Americans now wanted the Spanish out of Cuba. Battleships were prepared, though the month of March fell from the calendar with guns still silent. Crisscrossing the nation's capital like a man possessed, Theodore Roosevelt predicted that the country would "have this war for the freedom of Cuba." Roosevelt rose before a podium at a Gridiron Dinner and saw that Senator Mark Hanna, who was steadfastly opposed to war, was in attendance. Roosevelt ran down a litany of reasons why it was necessary for America to enter into battle. He assailed business interests, who he felt were screaming against a declaration of war, and implied that Hanna himself was unduly sympathetic to those interests. Realizing the sentiments of those in attendance at the dinner were in his favor, Roosevelt turned to Hanna with a sneer and asked, sharply: "Now, Senator, may we please have war?"

Death pushes hearts in all directions. A man, any man, scarred by the un-expected calamity of family death might well seek a strange kind of adventure where the heat of life itself can be felt, minute by minute, hour upon hour.

On April 21 the United States declared war on Cuba. McKinley asked

for volunteers. Enrique Aguiar, a widowed father, had to choose between country-Cuba-and daughter, Luisa. There were 125,000 who volunteered, and Enrique Aguiar was among them. He placed his fourteen-year-old daughter with a New York City foster family and promised her he would return. Then he left to go fight the Spaniards and free his countrymen.

We do not know if Enrique Aguiar fought at the Battle of El Caney, or at the campaign waged at Las Guasimas during the three-month Spanish-American War. We do not know if he was, at any time, in the vicinity of San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. We do not know if Enrique Aguiar, like other soldiers in the conflict, was felled by yellow fever or malaria while in a makeshift hospital on the island. But we do know this of Enrique Aguiar: he never returned home from the Spanish-American War to his daughter, Luisa.

For months after the campaign's end, Luisa Aguiar would gaze out windows and worry of her father's whereabouts. She would swear he was returning to her, as he said he would. She had no other family in New York City. Maybe he was arranging passage for her to Cuba. Or maybe the next knock at the door would be his knuckles rapping. Or maybe a messenger was on his way just now with tickets for her from New York to Tampa, where he was simply collecting himself in one of the city's hotels, as so many men did coming and going from Cuba. She hoped and wished and dreamed, and brushed away reports of his likely death. But there was no messenger, no telegram, even as young Luisa continued to tell acquaintances that she knew her father was returning to her. She was Catholic; she held to her faith.

But time passed, and it was as if Enrique Aguiar had vanished from the face of the earth without a trace. If Luisa Aguiar's world hadn't already cracked enough-boarding with a foster family she did not like-the presumed death of her father must have been an unimaginable blow. She couldn't quite let go, however, of the vision of her father striding into her eyesight. "My daddy," she would begin conversations in the years to come, before trailing off. The habit, according to her granddaughters, would remain with her into the tenth decade of her life. (Luisa Sanchez lived to be 112 years old.)

There was a powerful reason Luisa Sanchez did not like her foster family: they beat her. Welts and deep bruises appeared on her head. For her granddaughters, listening to the horror stories became a huge part of their upbringing. First they would hear all about Enrique and his disappearance. "She never saw him again," says Gloria Williams, the granddaughter, "and that's the thing that made her cry." Then Gloria would be treated to tales of Luisa's sufferings. "She would point to her head, parting her hair, to show bruises. She would say, 'Look. Look!' " recalls Williams.

Fearful of running alone into the streets of New York City, young Luisa Aguiar-a beauty, her skin a soft milky white-couldn't help but hope she'd meet someone to take her away from her foster family. That person was Marco Sanchez, himself of Cuban ancestry. Marco Sanchez sold Cuban cigars. Sometimes he bartered them for liquor, which he sold-and drank in heavy quantities, as well. Their marriage was tempestuous. Still, Luisa gave birth to four children, but only two-Julia, born in 1899, and Elvera, born in 1905-

survived beyond infancy. The heavy-drinking Marco Sanchez didn't survive long either-he died of cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind a young widow and two daughters.

First her father, now her husband. Once again, feelings of being abandoned and left adrift washed over Luisa Sanchez. But she was determined that such feelings would neither overwhelm nor defeat her.

By 1915, Luisa had found an apartment in Harlem, at 47 West 129th Street. Waves of Negroes had recently started migrating to upper Manhattan. It wasn't that Luisa followed the plight-or the momentum-of the Negro in New York. In fact, Luisa Sanchez did not keep company with Negroes. Her move to Harlem was purely for economical reasons. The rents were cheaper than in lower Manhattan. Sanchez found work as a personal maid and dresser for Laurette Taylor, a much-admired Broadway actress. Born, like Sanchez, in New York City in 1884, Taylor had made her New York stage debut at the age of nineteen in a production of From Rags to Riches. For years she toured the country in stock companies, honing her craft. On December 21, 1912, she opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre-it was that theater's grand

opening-in Peg o' My Heart, an Irish family drama written by Hartley Manners. Taylor played Peg, and the role made her a star. Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, came to see it and predicted that "within five years" Taylor would become "the foremost actress" in America. The play ran for 1,250 performances. Taylor had other memorable roles, in The Devil, The Great John Ganton, and The Ringmaster. Her reputation soared. Directors wooed her; she was an incandescent presence on a stage.

Being a personal maid for Taylor came with perks: Sanchez traveled with the actress, dined with her in fine restaurants. There was just enough color in Luisa's complexion that there were times she'd be mistaken for a nonwhite-perhaps Mediterranean. She took being called Negro or Puerto Rican as the worst kind of insult. "We don't serve Negroes," a restaurateur once said to Sanchez. "I don't speak English," she replied, unrolling her stock answer. "I'm Cuban."

Meeting other actors and actresses-John Barrymore had seemed taken with her beauty-delighted Luisa. Still, she was not one to swoon easily over men or their advances. Her physical beauty was one thing, but inside she seemed possessed of something hard and impenetrable. She did not have a timid tongue, and she was noticeably temperamental. Suitors found out quickly enough she was fiercely independent. Two men, on separate occasions, had each provided Luisa Sanchez with the services of an automobile. Grateful though she may have been, she married neither man, though both had hoped their generosity might move her heart. Relatives believed she had been so shaken by her first marriage that she forever lost faith in the institution.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Yes He Can3
1Vaudeville Dreams34
2Long Shadows57
3The Kid in the Middle81
4And Sammy Shall Lead Them105
5White Sammy, Black Sammy116
6Through a Glass Eye Brightly151
7The Great White Sammy Way205
8The Wonder of It All228
9A Hitchcockian Affair252
10On to Catfish Row273
11The Sands of Las Vegas and Beyond294
12Sammy and Hilly317
14Fade to Black357
16Sammy and Tricky Dick399
17Ode to the Vaudevillian439
18The Ides of Time465
19The Final Curtain475
Epilogue: Mother of a Motherless Child481
Source Notes487
Selected Bibliography497


A Conversation with Wil Haygood

Q: Of the 250 people you interviewed for this book, which included amazing people like Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis, Eartha Kitt, and others, which people were you most excited to interview about Sammy?

A: Harry Belafonte was a wonderfully intriguing person to talk to. He flat-out dismissed the oft-heard notion of Sammy as missing-in-action during the height of the civil rights movement. A major confidante of Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte told me–for the first time, he admitted–how King wanted to recruit Sammy to the movement and how he (King) was enamored of Sammy's skills and committment. Sammy, as is shown in In Black and White, staged major one-man fundraisers on behalf of King and others; often his money was used to bail King and others arrestedduring marches, out of jail. Jerry Lewis was insightful because he had been around Sammy since 1953, before Sammy was a known name. Lewis, himself a child of vaudeville, had wonderful insights on Sammy's need to be loved. Both Eartha Kitt and Chita Rivera were important, inasmuch as Sammy had wooed both and intimated marriage desires towards both. As much as each seemed to be fascinated with Sammy, they were perceptive enough to realize the demons that tormented him. Tony Curtis was amazingly forthcoming: because he and Sammy arrived in Hollywood around the same time (late ‘40s), he had powerful insights about their friendship, about Sammy's conversion to Judaism (Curtis is Jewish), and about Sammy's complex relationship with his father and the vaudvillian, Will Mastin. Peggy King and Helen Gallagher were two white entertainers who had never talked about theirinterracial romances with Sammy, and when they did, it opened a whole new level of understanding for me about Sammy, namely his curiosity about other cultures, his overwhelming need to be accepted, and, something both women realized, his painful relationship with his mother, Elvera.

Q: Your book provides an amazing sweep of the history of vaudeville and black entertainers in vaudeville, including the amazing years of the Harlem Renaissance.  How much research did you have to do and where to find out about all of this?

A: I thought the history of vaudeville was critical to understanding the life of Sammy Davis, Jr. because Will Mastin, the founder of the vaudeville troupe Sammy danced in, was a creature of vaudeville. Mastin, early in his life, in the 1890s (Mastin was born in 1879) danced in both white and–as they were then known–Negro vaudeville troupes. Just as Mastin danced in vaudeville, so did the more-famously known Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Mastin was smart enough to take little Sammy to Robinson for tutelage. So the circle had begun to form; the ashes of true vaudeville were an integral part of little Sammy's life. The best repository for information about Negro vaudeville was the Negro press, which flourished during the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Newspapers such as the New York Age, the Amsterdam News, and even Billboard had writers and even columnists assigned to Negro vaudeville. Many of the newspapers are stored at the the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Harlem and the Harvard University Library in Cambridge, MA, both places I ventured. One can sit in front of the microfiche screen and look at microfilm from the ‘20s and ‘30s and see the old world of vaudeville flash by as if on daguerrotype. There were also a number of people I interviewed who themselves danced at the end of the vaudeville era, such as Eileen Barton, Jerry Lewis, Leroy Myers, all of whom came in contact with the young Sammy.

Q: Is it true he never went to school a day in his life? 

A: It is true, Sammy never went to school a single day in his life. Since his mother was busy with her vaudeville career, he was taken by his father, Sammy Davis, Sr. at the age of 4, and grew up on the road. There were correspondence courses with a correspondence school based in Baltimore, but Sammy never took his correspondence courses very seriously. Still, he was far, far from a non-intellectual. Throughout his life, when he was on the road, he would insist on visiting military bases, photography studios, machinery plants. He was self-taught: everything intrigued him, from newly invented gadgets and architecture to books and even the occult fascinated him. His school became the whole of America.

Q: How old was he when he first performed with his dad, Sammy Davis, Sr., and Wil Mastin in the famed Wil Mastin Trio?

A: Sammy was 4 years old in 1929 when he first performed with the vaudevillian Will Mastin, in an outfit known as Will Mastin's Gang. Sammy became so popular in the intervening years that the name of the troupe was changed to the Will Mastin Trio. By the late 1930s, Sammy had become so popular, that his all-around entertaining skills was singularly responsible for keeping the trio alive, especially at a time when many other vaudeville troupes were dying and/or fading fast. In order to keep the troupe going, Sammy became a mimic, a dancer, a singer, a drummer–all rolled into one. His father and Mastin might have been out of vogue, as two aging hoofers, but not Sammy.  His skills kept them in vogue. To get Sammy, nightclub and hotel owners had to take his father and Mastin both.

Q: You write about how wonderful a dancer he was, as well as a great mimic and singer.  But was dancing his greatest art?

A: Sammy's greatest art was flat-out all around performing, doing everything, swallowing whole audiences up inside his gifts. His dancing was as remarkable as his mimicry, which was as stunning as his musicianship,which was as amazing as his standup comedy routines. Born unto the wicked world of vaudeville, where the judgments were quick and furious, Sammy always feared rejection, thus he burnished his image upon the nightclub and hotel owners by giving them not only what they wanted but more of it: dancing, singing, mimicry, quick-draw contests with his six-shooters. He'd just move from the vibraphone to the saxophone to the drum set. And then, toward show's end, he'd do the most beautiful soft-shoe dance number one ever saw. The great Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney himself, once said Sammy was amongst the best dancers he'd ever seen. It is no small feat for the entertainer to endure; Sammy aimed to, and did.

Q: Sammy was able to mimic famous white movie stars in a way that dazzled people, especially because being a star was so important to him.  Who is he known best for doing?

A: Sammy gave dead-on impersonations of Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Dean Martin, Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis, and Bobby Darin, among others.
Q: Early in his career, he got to work with amazing talent–mentors who saw something in him and encouraged him.  Who were they?

A: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson served as an early teacher of Sammy's. Others who kind of mentored him were Jerry Lewis, Sinatra, Eddie Cantor, Mickey Rooney, and Jack Benny.

Q: Sammy's stint in the Army, virtually illiterate at age 19, was not a great experience for the young kid, but he did learn a certain kind of survival skill there, didn't he?

A: Sammy served in World War II, all stateside on a military base in Wyoming. It was a crucial time for him, inasmuch as he had never been away from his uncle and father. They'd coddled him and kept him as far removed as possible from the ravages of racism and mistreatment. So there, in the mountainous regions of Wyoming, he was on his own for the first time, and there were brutal fights with Sammy having to defend himself from soldiers who loathed the idea of an integrated military. The assaults fairly knocked Sammy out of the cocoon in which he'd lived for so long. His military career was a mere 10 months, but it was a searing time for him as he was made aware of the history of America, the history of white and black.

Q: When Sammy lost his eye in a car crash in '54, did everyone, including him, think his career might be over?

A: The eye accident was a terrifying event for most everyone around Sammy–except Sammy. Here is where his bravery, his sheer willpower, is shown to stunning effect. Many of Sammy's friends–Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Janet Leigh–rushed out to the hospital in San Bernardino hours after they heard news of the crash. Many wondered if he'd ever recover emotionally. But not Sammy. Amongst his first questions to his doctor concerned the condition of his legs. If his legs were okay, he knew he'd recover. The loss of an eye might have sent others into an emotional tailspin. To be sure, Sammy expressed doubts about how his career would move forward, but he never doubted his own ability to keep performing. He was even hungrier for succes now. One of the more remarkable finds, to me at least, in this chapter about the car crash, was finding Sammy's doctor, Dr. Fred Hull, who was still alive! He was wonderful, taking me step by step through the whole eye surgery and sharing with me his insights about Sammy.

Q: His return engagement after the eye surgery–THE comeback night at Ciro's in Hollywood, when everyone from Cary Grant to Bogie and Bacall, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, etc. were there.  Just how big and how great was that?

A: Sammy's first major nightclub performance after the eye accident was in early 1955 at Ciro's. It was a royal and unforgettable night in the history of Hollywood. For years prior to the accident Sammy had been impersonating white performers in and around Los Angeles, mimicking them: Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart were among those whom he impersonated, with usual roaring approval and astonishment. Fans of these entertainers would tell the stars about this kid, this little Negro kid, who was impersonating them, and doing a magnificent job at it. So they'd come out to see him, and they would, as well, be amazed. So Sammy's fan club included many Hollywood legends. And those very legends wanted to support him on his comeback night. Taking the stage, now with one eye, and performing for nearly two hours, Sammy seemed to bewitch Hollywood. The stars were out, and they were crying, saluting, even howling at him. That night he was like a great and wounded athlete, back and showing he still had the skills that made him great. He sang and danced, did his mimicry, played his instruments, and then danced some more. There had actually never been such a singular night in Hollywood when a Negro performer had so entranced the town. It can be said that it was the night that Sammy Davis, Jr crossed over–into worlds both black and white.

Q: You make the point that there were very few black stars alowed to get famous in Hollywood before Sammy: Paul Robeson and Lena Horne, who both later suffered the blacklist consequenses, Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge.  But how big was it that Sammy broke through and did he more than anyone else?

A: Sammy's breakthrough was epic. For the simple reason he did not break through as solely an actor (like Sidney Poitier), or a singer (like Eartha Kitt, even though she later went into acting). Sammy's breakthrough tackled various forms of entertainment: movies, nightclub, recordings. There hadn't been a Sammy before Sammy. If one door would have closed on him, he'd of simply gone through another. Hard to categorize, Sammy eluded being pigeon-holed. Sammy, more than Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, cultivated his own career with a blinding pursuit. While many sometimes found it shameless, that blind pursuit was the road Sammy felt comfortable traveling.
Q: How important was the Rat Pack, and Frank Sinatra in particular, to Sammy's life?

A: Sinatra was Sammy's first big hero. Sammy listened to him in the early ‘40s and finally met him at the Paramount theatre in New York City before World War II. Sinatra–like those in Hollywood would come to–was fascinated with Sammy's drive and skills. (Sinatra also just loved the way Sammy kept his father and Will Mastin in tow.) So he managed to open some very important doors for him concerning nightclub owners. In the early 1960s, America saw Sammy on stage with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford: the Rat Pack. The country, however, was of two minds of this merging: many whites loved Sammy, were intrigued by him, wondered about the rest of black America. Blacks were wary, and many felt Sammy was subsuming his talents in allegiance to the Rat Pack. It was wrought with psychological subterfuge, but most potently, it was one of the most integrated moments in early ‘60s America, via the television screen. Sammy was all of black America, and black America suddenly had a presence.

Q: Sammy had complicated relationships with women, and seemed obsessed with blondes. Why?

A: In a very real way, Sammy came of age sexually in Canada, where he had been traveling in the 1930s. The attitudes about interracial relationships were far more relaxed and less dangerous there than in America. So when Sammy started dating in America in the ‘40s, he gravitated toward white women. It was a decision fraught with peril. Before Sammy's relationships with Kim Novak, the actress, and Mai Britt, the Swedish actress he married, he had affairs with two other white women that were just as fascinating: Peggy King, a singer from Philadelphia, and Helen Gallagher, a chorus dancer, in the 1950s.
Women bewildered and bewitched Sammy. A hyper soul his whole life, introspection often frightened him. But his nonexistent relationship with his mother only made it all the more sad and tragic. Sammy found it difficult to give his wives anything other than Sammy–the name in lights, the motherless child of his own childhood. Upon the death of his grandmother, Rosa, Sammy lamented to Virginia Capehart, a friend of his grandmother's, that no one loved him for himself–except his grandmother Rosa. Virginia thought it amongst the saddest things she had ever heard.

Q: What would you say are some of the major differences between your biography and the less-than-truthful autobiography, Yes, I Can, that Sammy co-authored in '65.

A: My book is the first major biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. there is. I open the book, in fact, with a dissection of Yes, I Can for the simple reason that the book is outdated and yet is still a fascinating document. It's intriguing because of what is NOT in that book: nothing about Sammy's parents, nothing about Sammy's sister, nothing about Sammy's obsession with blondes. It is a book devoid of psychological insight. And yet, when first published back in 1965, it gripped America. It became a bestseller. It was such a new kind of book–a Negro entertainer who'd sprung from the ashes of vaudeville–that no one could point to a precedent. However, Sammy did not write that book. It was written by a husband and wife team, Burt and Jane Boyar, who were entranced with Sammy, and I say that in the kindest way. I visited at length with Burt Boyar and he revealed just why the book was so skewed. He blamed it on the times the book was begun–pre-1960s America, which meant before the civil rights movement. So the book not only lacked candor but honesty as well, even pride. Something else about Yes I Can: Sammy practically willed that book into being, as it was unwanted by many publishers, and finally found a home with FSG.
Q: What, in your opinion, is his best work on film?

A: Sammy's best work on film, sadly, is the rather difficult-to-see Anna Lucasta (the movie based on the Phillip Yordan play) and Porgy and Bess, the Otto Preminger-directed movie version of the Gerswhin play. In both movies Sammy dazzles. In Anna he plays opposite Eartha Kitt. It was his first leading role since childhood. In Porgy and Bess he plays Sportin' Life, a scheming hustler on the riverfront of Gershwin's imagination. While that movie featured the likes of Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandrigde andPearl Bailey, Sammy–and the critics testified to it at the time of the movie's release–stole the film. Sammy also turns in a finely nuanced performance in A Man Called Adam, a movie he executive-produced. Sammy plays a struggling jazz musician in the film–many believed it was a veiled portrayal of Miles Davis. Sammy's last bigscreen performance was in Taps, a movie about a tap dancer (played by Gregory Hines) looking to find his way back to his roots. Sammy plays an aging tap dancer in the film and gives a beautiful, quiet, and touching performance. In real life, his health was beginning to fail. In the film, his very presence looks like bravery.

Q: Sammy had a mother who was less than there for him, to say the least. Can you talk about that and what it was like to meet her all those years later?

A: I had no idea, going into the research and writing of the Sammy biography, that I would find his mother, Elvera Davis, still living. But I did. She was living in Manhattan, alone. For years, after giving up on a life of being a showgirl, she had worked in Atlantic City as a barmaid. My interviews with her were challenging. I believe, after all these years, she harbored guilty feelings about not being around Sammy during his childhood. He was out on the road with his father. He missied, and never understood, why she never came to visit him. The reality of that never set well with Sammy, and the tensions between the two were lifelong. (In her later years, Elvera would go visit with a psychiatrist, trying to unravel her role as a mother.) In a real way, he was motherless. And yet for me, how wonderful to have found her! She took me into the world of vaudeville, she took me into the world of the Harlem Renaissance, and she took me into the world of her own family: her father an alcoholic who died in her youth, and her mother an assistant to a famous actress. (Upon Elvera's death, her nieces and great-nieces related to me the story of the family's Cuban history, which Sammy, for reasons I explain in the book, never talked about.)

Q: What were the most amazing things you learned doing this book?

A: Sammy's life story is nothing less than the story of America itself–the heartbreaking saga of vaudeville, the lost childhoods of every child performer, the muscular climb up the ladder of the American dream which he waged, the issue of race and sex and white and black–all of it explodes within the contours Sammy's life. He was far, far from the modern media image we've come to know of him that was delivered unto us in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a complex soul, internally a hurt man much of his life, and yet, a large-scale success.  As much as he often tried to run away from his history, it was that very history that would give such ballast to his life in the end.

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