Book Excerpt: Sammy
By Sammy Davis Jr. and
Jane and Burt Boyar
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, December 2000; $16.00US/$26.95CAN; 0-374-29355-4
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Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) rose from childhood stardom on the vaudeville stage to become one of the most famous African-American entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s (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, his 1960 marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, his conversion to Judaism, his closeness to the Kennedy’s (and later to Richard Nixon), and his problems with alcohol and drugs.
When Davis published his first memoir, Yes I Can, in 1965, it was a critical and popular success — acclaimed for a candor and thoughtfulness rare in celebrity autobiographies and for its painful evocation of life as a black performer in segregated America. Davis’s 1980 memoir, Why Me?, laid bare Davis’s troubled relationship with the Kennedys, his ambivalence toward the black pride movement, the end of his marriage to Britt (and his complex open marriage with Altovise Davis), and his flamboyant, self-loathing misbehavior, from ruinous extravagance to flirtations with Satanism.
Davis’s co-writer Burt Boyar has revised Davis’s memoirs, incorporating material from unpublished interviews, and has added a new prologue and epilogue. The result is not only the life story of one of the most popular entertainers of his era, but also a testament to Davis’s role as an unacknowledged — and often uncomfortable — leader in the struggle for racial equality.
Jane and Burt Boyar collaborated with Sammy Davis, Jr., on Yes, I Can and Why Me? The Boyars were married forty-four years and lived, until Jane’s death in 1997, in Marbella, Spain.
The following is an excerpt from the book Sammy: An Autobiography
by Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; December 2000; $16.00US/$26.95CAN; 0-374-29355-4
Copyright © 2000 Burt Boyar Investments LLC
They liked me.
The audience was leaning in to me, nodding, approving, and as I finished big with “Birth of the Blues” their applause was a kiss on the lips.
It was November 1954, we were playing the New Frontier in Las Vegas, and after twenty-six years we were starting to make our move. People were hearing about the Will Mastin Trio and “the kid in the middle.” We were contenders and they were rooting us in.
The glow from the casino was lighting up the desert, and as the doors swung open and people came out, the sound of money, laughs, and music poured past them as if there was just too much hilarity inside to stay bottled up. It was out of my way but I felt like walking through there for the sheer joy of knowing I could.
"Swingin’ show, Sam.” . . . “Here, make room for Sammy.”
“Thanks, not tonight. Gotta run into L.A. Catch ya tomorrow."
The crowds opened up for me and I circled the room twice, getting loaded on the atmosphere they’d kept us away from the other times we’d played Vegas, when there’d been a law against me, when it had been “Sorry, but you’re not allowed in the casino — you understand.” While the other acts had laughs and gambled, we went back to the colored side of town and we "understood.” But now we didn’t have to understand.
Two of the chorus chicks at the roulette table made room for me. I had no desire to gamble, but people were gathering around. I dropped five one-hundred-dollar bills on the table. “On the red, please.” I heard “Sammydavis . . . Sammydavis . . .” The chicks were digging the big-time move. The dealer spun the wheel. I shook my fist at him. “If you yell ‘black’ there’s gonna be a race riot.” It got a laugh. The ball clicked into the red six. I split my winnings, slid one pile to each of the girls, and playing it “Cary Grant on the French Riviera,” I turned and rode away on their gasps.
Walking to my suite, I enjoyed the bittersweet of contrast, remembering, “You people can’t stay here. You’ll have to find a boardinghouse in the — uh, on the other side of town.” Now they wanted us enough so that we were bigger than Jim Crow. They were paying us $7,500 a week, the best money we’d ever made, but that was the least of the payoff. A genie had materialized out of show business and said, “You’re going to be a star, now you’re as good as anybody,” and he’d handed us a solidgold key to every door that had ever been slammed in our faces.
I called room service for a hamburger. There was a knock at the door. One of the chorus kids was standing there wearing skintight blue jeans. I laughed. “They’ve got crazy room service here.” She didn’t understand the joke but she laughed anyway. When you’re making it you get laughs with “Good morning.”
I told Charley, my dresser, “You drive the first half while I catch a few hours’ sleep in back.” As the car rolled down the Strip toward the highway, I saw the big neon sign flashing my name across the desert. I could smell the brand-new leather as I rested my face against it and I kissed that expensive seat with all the love I had for everything it represented.
I was glad to take over the driving. Nobody’s invented booze that’ll give you a kick like the first few times you drive your first Cadillac convertible. The sun was coming up over the mountains and I saw the day growing bigger, brighter every minute. It seemed as though nothing bad had ever happened. I was actively aware that the edge of the window was exactly the right height for my left elbow. My fingers fit perfectly into the ridges around the steering wheel, and the clear desert air streaming in through the window was wrapping itself around my face like some gorgeous, swinging chick giving me a facial.
I turned on the radio and I heard my own voice singing “Hey, There.” Oh, God! What are the odds against turning on the radio to the exact station at the exact moment when a disc jockey is playing your first hit? For a second I was afraid that life was getting so good that something would have to happen to take it all away. But the car, the suite in Vegas, the hit record, were the start of a new life. It had all come from show business and as long as God let me keep my talent it would keep on coming. We were building, and any day now we’d really break wide open and I’d be a star. A real goddam star! And nobody could ever again tell me, “Here, this is your corner of the world. Stay there.” And that would be it, that would be goddam it!
We were on a double-lane highway. A green car passed me, the first car I’d seen in ten minutes. I was on my way to record my first movie sound track. I visualized myself driving through the gate at Universal in my own Cadillac convertible. The guard was tipping his hat. “Good morning, Mr. Davis. They’re waiting for you on sound stage Number One.”
The green car was slowing down but it wasn’t pulling over to the right; they were pulling over to the left. I knew a woman was driving because I’d noticed her hat. I moved into the right lane but as I did she started moving into it, too, but not all the way, she was straddling the two lanes. Now what the hell is she trying to do? Oh, she’s not going to make a U-turn on the parkway! Or is she? Why else would she be slowing down? She must have missed her turnoff. I got way over to the right to give her room but still she stayed in the middle . . . then a little left . . . a little right . . . now it looked like she wanted to stop. Make up your mind, lady. She cut sharp to the left, hooking out to make a wide U-turn, then stopped, stretched out across both lanes like a roadblock. I had to use the oncoming lane to swing around her. But suddenly several cars were coming toward me. I was boxed in. I hit my brakes. Only a second ago she had seemed to be a mile away. I was jamming on the brake with all my strength and pulling back on the wheel as though hoping I could pull the car to a stop with my two hands. I knew I was going to hit her. I cut the wheel as hard as I could toward her rear fender, trying at least not to make it broadside where the driver was sitting . . . . I saw the impact spin her car completely around and hurl it out of sight, then my forehead slammed into my steering wheel.
Then I heard Charley moaning in the back. Thank God, he was alive too. I felt blood running down my face and into my eyes.
I was afraid to see what had happened to Charley. When I turned around he was trying to get up off the floor. “Charley? You okay?” I opened my door and got out to help him. I reached into the back seat and took hold of his arm. When he stood up I could see his jaw hanging loose and blood coming out of his mouth. “Oh, God! I’m sorry, Charley.”
Someone said, “It’s Sammy Davis.” I started up the road to see what had happened to the woman, but a soldier stopped me. “They’re all right over there. We better get you to a hospital.”
I pulled the soldier over to Charley. He had both hands in front of his mouth and the blood was pouring through his fingers. I put my arm around him. He looked up at me and made a horrible choking sound, trying to speak. He pointed to my face, closed his eyes, and moaned. As I ran my hand over my cheek I felt my eye hanging there by a string. Frantically I tried to stuff it back in, like if I could do that it would stay there and nobody would know, it would be as though nothing had happened. The ground went out from under me and I was on my knees. “Don’t let me go blind. Please, God, don’t take it all away . . . . ."
I heard a siren, and I knew I was in an ambulance. Can it really happen this way? Twenty-six years of working, and taking it, and reaching — was all that for nothing? Can you finally get it and blow it so fast? Was that little touch all there was for me? For my whole life? I’m never going to be a star?They’re going to hate me again.
Copyright © 2000 Burt Boyar Investments LLC and The Multiracial Activist