Robert S. Ensler Presents
Tribute To Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader
The life and times of the last great American hipster -- From Vaudeville to Vegas -- as seen through the eyes of his public.
A compendium of writings on a man hidden at the center of American life, from the editor of the Muhammad Ali reader
("The best book ever written about Ali" --Salon)
Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-90), rose from childhood stardom on the vaudeville stage to become one of the most famous African American entertainers of the 1950s and '60s (and the only black member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack). At the same time, he spent most of his career surrounded by controversy and ridicule -- over his affairs with white film stars like Kim Novak and Jean Seberg; his 1960 marriage to Swedish actress May Britt; his conversion to Judaism; his closeness to the Kennedys and, later, Richard Nixon; and his problems with alcohol and drugs.
In an original, frank, and compassionate introductory essay, editor Gerald Early brilliantly examines Davis's career and its significance for African Americans. Other writings in the collection include a 1966 Playboy interview by Alex Haley: an excerpt from the 1983 autobiography of porn star Linda Lovelace; profiles from The New Yorker, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post; and articles from The Pittsburgh Courier, Confidential, and other newspapers and magazines. The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader is a composite portrait of a complex, self-conscious man and the society that treated him, for more than forty years, with passionate ambivalence.
The thing to do is to exploit the
meaning of the life you have.
Why must I always keep proving
myself? . . . Why must I always prove what I'm not
before I can prove what I am?
When Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, oldest and only biological child, Tracey, turned five, he promised her that he would be home in time for her birthday party. Hours passed by, the partygoers came and went, Davis did not show up. In fact, his daughter did not see him until the next day, when he apologized for failing to appear. He handed her an envelope that contained her birthday gift. Later, Davis and his wife, Swedish actress May Britt, had a heated exchange about his broken promise to his daughter. Britt was especially annoyed that Davis did not come to his daughter's birthday party because he was carousing with his Rat Pack buddies. Davis himself shrugged it off, saying that Tracey "would have other birthdays." When she opened the envelope that her father had given her, she found one hundred dollars. "He couldn't even go out and buy something special for his daughter," Tracey wrote in her autobiography, Sammy Davis, Jr.: My Father, "or even ask one of his assistants to select a gift ... And so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a $100 bill."
A $100 bill is a strange gift, even for a neglectful father, to give a five-year-old child. What could she possibly do with it? But when Davis was five years old, he was already performing with his father and Will Mastin; his relationship with money and his understanding of it were formed in an entertainer's world of boom and bust times. Davis's mother, Elvera Sanchez -- a Puerto Rican dancer -- was also a member of the Will Mastin Gang, although she did not participate in the rearing of Davis. She and Sam Davis, Sr., broke up two years later after having a second child, a daughter named Ramona who was not reared with Davis, Jr. "I was in show business by the time I was two years old ... Most kids have a choice of what they want to be -- I guess you could call it a misery of choice. Not me. No chance to be bricklayer or dentist, dockworker or preacher -- I guess I was meant for show business even before I was born," he said in an interview with Roy Newquist. One is struck here not simply by Davis's sense of predestination but by his comfort with his fate. Show business makes him a different order of being from people with more mundane occupations. Even as a kid, Davis liked to throw money around, the few times he had any. He describes such an instance in Yes I Can, his first autobiography, when he tried to impress a group of unfriendly neighborhood boys by buying several dollars' worth of baseball cards, then proceeded to humiliate himself by trading away the most valuable ones. (Davis knew nothing about baseball or any sport as a child or as an adult.)
What killed Davis's highly publicized marriage to Britt -- according to his account in his second autobiography, Why Me?, and according to his daughter's book -- was that she wanted a conventional bourgeois life and he had no fundamental understanding or appreciation of what that was. He could collect, but he could not save; he enjoyed instant gratification and found bourgeois morality hypocritical and unrewarding. He could be extraordinarily generous with his time and his money but he could only really give himself in the context of a stage act, in relation to an audience. Everything else provided sensation, varying jolts to the nervous system; nothing but the act provided meaning. Shirley MacLaine was right when she wrote about Davis: "He had been cultivated and nourished in the spotlight since he was three years old. He was only at home when the spotlight was on. So his sense of his life was BIG and theatrical, because that's what was real to him."
On the one hand, we might dismiss the entire story of the missed birthday as typical of an overly hardworking father who had little interest in filling his leisure time with domestic activities. On the other hand, the incident reflects Davis's twin passions: his candid, tense passion about his work and his career, and his equally tense but exquisitely wrought fixation on himself as the only important person to himself. In a 1966 interview, Davis said, "I'm not Sammy Glick [the cruel and unscrupulous anti-hero of Budd Schulberg's 1941 bestselling novel, What Makes Sammy Run], stepping on people, destroying people. Why should you be put down because you're ambitious, because you want to succeed -- so long as you're not hurting anybody? Jesus! Is it criminal to have drive?" It is true that malice never seemed to form a part of Davis's character. His climb to the top was relentless, not brutal; obsessive, not pathological; self-inventive, not power hungry. Clearly, Tracey found her father's drive the most dominant facet of his personality: "It would be easy to dismiss Dad as merely a workaholic. But he was more than that. He couldn't just be good; he had to be great. He couldn't just fulfill a contract; he had to give 300 percent. And each success just made him crave more . . . Dad was so focused on making it and staying on top that he had no idea about half the things that were going on in his life. By the time he was able to look up, everything he had truly loved -- besides entertainment -- had changed or was harmed in some way." This, too, was true.
The obvious question to ask about Sammy Davis, Jr., is what made Sammy run. It is, alas, too obvious, and several journalists have asked the question in just that way over the years, describing Davis as a variant of that familiar mid-century type: the salesman sweating to get a promotion, the hustler ingratiating himself with the boss while cutting his colleagues. Yet Sammy Davis is right. He was never Sammy Glick. His insecurity and ambition transcended the rise of the salesman, the exertions of the hustler, to make Davis a profound symbol of the complexities of American success and American liberalism. What made him interesting, aside from his enormous talent -- which, much to his chagrin, was probably not enough by itself to make him interesting for as long as he was interesting to the American public -- was that he was so publicly desperate as a Negro. This desperation, so naked, so dramatic, so often self-serving, made his Jewish conversion seem understandable, even appropriate, to many people. There are two things that frighten the gentile about the Jew: that the Jew wishes to be Jewish and alien, and, more chillingly, that the Jew does not wish to be Jewish and does not wish to be alien but to be absorbed. For many people, it made perfect sense for him to identify with another group that was often despised for its desperateness to fit in, to erase itself, to assimilate.
By becoming a Jew, Davis came to personify the crisis of postwar American liberalism in its quest to sanctify equality and merit, difference and assimilation, rebellion and conformity, all as expressions of democratic values. As both a Jew and a black, Davis represented the two groups that were fighting the hardest for liberalism in postwar America, or, rather, were fighting hardest for their own version of the liberal state. When this uneasy coalition, with its myth of cross-cultural cooperation, failed to make a liberal state that would suit the ends of both groups, some liberal Jews then insisted that only a colorblind state could support true liberalism, while some liberal blacks took up the quasi-nationalist or quasi-deconstructionist position that only a state that continued to acknowledge the political significance of the absurd color code it created could support true liberalism. This difference was inevitable since, after all, most American Jews were white and very few American blacks were Jews. Davis never thought about these questions in such an abstract way; he spent his life torn by what Jews had and by what blacks wanted.
To many, Davis's public desperation for acceptance, for success, appeared unseemly, tasteless, and cowardly underneath its guise of defiance. For instance, Sammy Davis, Jr., as a Jew (a conversion that some thought he made simply because he hung around so many Jews in the show business world and wanted to penetrate what seemed a powerful and influential clique that had transformed stigma into exclusivity) showed, to some minds, that only a Negro could be that desperate not to be a Negro. A preoccupation with racial self-hatred appears repeatedly in Davis's interviews of the 1950s and 1960s, and suffuses Yes I Can. On the other hand, it is worth noting that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and a man who had some considerably racist notions, wished to return to this world as Sammy Davis, Jr. ("He's the most incredibly gifted man I've ever seen . . .," Fleming said.) As a public figure, Sammy Davis, Jr., was a puzzle to himself; people loved him unconditionally and despised him violently. But this was only a reflection of how he felt about himself.
The question -- what made Sammy run? -- remains, even today, a real question about an inescapably real man, who seemed both larger than life and not large enough for the life he wanted or perhaps for the life he deserved -- if it is possible to speak in any useful way about people deserving a particular life. At the height of his career, he was arguably the most famous black man in the United States, his only possible rivals being Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. By the mid-1960s, Davis was a Broadway star (having headlined in Mr. Wonderful and Golden Boy, unmemorable shows with respectable runs); a successful recording artist, with signature tunes like "The Birth of the Blues" and "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)"; a movie and television actor so big and so widely accepted that he could appear, for instance, on The Patty Duke Show playing himself, something that no other black actor, no matter how accomplished or famous, could do at the time; the host of his own television variety show; one of the biggest nightclub acts in history, earning more money than any other black act in the country, almost as much as Sinatra; a bestselling autobiographer, whose book, Yes I Can, was one of the most widely read of its time, read by far more people than the autobiography of any other black person except possibly that of Malcolm X; an ardent civil rights activist who attended the March on Washington and the second Selma march, and did innumerable benefits for the cause. (In the mid-1960s, Davis was donating over $100,000 annually to various civil rights and charitable causes, and performed in so many benefits that he collapsed from nervous exhaustion.) Despite these considerable achievements, instead of being loved by blacks, many of whom weigh the achievements of their heroes by quantity or the shrillness of their racial rhetoric rather than by importance, he was largely despised as an Uncle Tom and a sellout. He was the butt of jokes, an object of blatant disrespect. Davis never stopped trying to gain acceptance from African Americans; yet, as he wrote in Why Me?: "I was a member of the black race but not the black community." In his 1966 Playboy interview, Davis said, fervently: "I would voluntarily die to have my own people love me as much as they love some of those goddamn phonies they think are doing so much fighting for civil rights!" Yet Davis at times seemed willing, even grateful, to define himself as an outsider, more fixated on himself than his group, as when he said in Yes I Can: "I wish I could say I live my life as a crusade, it would be nice to get medals like 'He's a champion of his people.' But, what I do is for me. Emotionally, I'm still hungry and let's face it, paupers can't be philanthropists. I can't do anybody else much good until I get me straightened out." This was a crucial contradiction but far from the only significant one that defined the man.
Davis was clearly disciplined and dedicated to his craft, yet he was subject to bouts of debauchery and dissipation that nearly wrecked his life and threatened to compromise his career. For instance, he spent periods of his life hanging out with the denizens of the hard-core porn industry and with practitioners of Satanism. He even suggested marriage to porn star Linda Lovelace when she was at the height of her career, cruising Hollywood and Las Vegas as a sex toy for the rich and famous. By Lovelace's account, Davis was not deterred by the fact that he was married to Altovise Gore at the time or that Lovelace was married to Chuck Traynor, or by how scandalous it would be, how much of a joke he would become before his public, how much he would embarrass his family, by marrying a woman he later described as "telling stories that were obviously the product of a tortured mind that has been pushed, as I understand she admits, across the boundaries of fantasy by a life of abuse and humiliation." Davis, according to Lovelace, performed the act of fellatio on Traynor, much to the latter's discomfort, to see how it felt to "deep throat" someone, and, predictably, faced public humiliation when Lovelace told all in her controversial autobiography. He was the subject of another tell-all graphic sex article by Kathy McKee that appeared in Penthouse in September 1991. Davis had died a year earlier, so was spared further embarrassment.
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Gerald Early
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