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The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader
    
    
By Gerald Early, editor
    
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
    October 2001; $20.00US/$33.00CAN; 0-374-25383-8

  

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.

  

Author
    Gerald Early is the author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on     Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture and the editor     of The Muhammad Ali Reader. He is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters     at Washington University in St. Louis.

  

Excerpt
    The following is an excerpt from the book The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader
    by Gerald Early, editor
    
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October 2001; $20.00US/$33.00CAN;     0-374-25383-8
    Copyright 2001 Gerald Early

  


    RAGGED DICK AND FAUST 

  

The thing to do is to exploit the meaning of the life you have. 
    --Ralph Ellison in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, 1960 

  

Why must I always keep proving myself? . . . Why must I always prove what     I'm not before I can prove what I am? 
    --Sammy Davis, Jr., Yes I Can 

  

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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