Four decades ago Lenny Bruce sentenced Sammy Davis Jr. to “30 years in Biloxi,” stripping him of “his Jewish star” and “his religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor.” Now we have two new biographies of Davis that spring him from ridicule, if not from doubts about his legacy, and restore a measure of dignity to a black entertainer whose huge fame and success never overcame his devout wish — indeed his lifelong effort — to be white.
Sammy’s White Dreams
Reprinted from Seeing Black.
October 20, 2003
By JAN HERMAN
Four decades ago Lenny Bruce sentenced Sammy Davis Jr. to “30 years in Biloxi,” stripping him of “his Jewish star” and “his religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor.” Now we have two new biographies of Davis that spring him from ridicule, if not from doubts about his legacy, and restore a measure of dignity to a Black entertainer whose huge fame and success never overcame his devout wish — indeed his lifelong effort — to be White.
“The joke was that Sammy didn’t start walking until he was two, and the first person he walked toward was a White woman,” Davis’s mother, who abandoned him before he could walk, tells Wil Haygood in In Black and White. And for much of his life Davis scarcely changed direction. “He did so want to be White,” his first love, Helen Gallagher, tells Haygood. Everyone who knew him said the same.
But it wasn’t just his many affairs with White women (including Gallagher; his deepest love Kim Novak; and — most famously — his second wife May Britt) that brought out the bigots and the death threats. It wasn’t just his worship of White celebrity and power (his adulation of Frank Sinatra, his embrace of President Richard Nixon) that saddened friends and sent detractors around the bend. It wasn’t just his physical cowardice that would have kept him from marching in the South with Martin Luther King Jr., until Harry Belafonte, for one, refused to let him not march.
It was something else, something that Davis himself recognized. “I think Sammy was smart enough to know he had no common link to Blacks,” an old friend of his tells Haygood. The reverse was also true. “Blacks didn’t support Sammy,” a longtime associate says. “White America made him.” Late in his career, Davis even attempted the feeble joke of “introducing himself to audiences as the only Black actor who didn’t appear in ‘Roots,'” Haygood writes. “Ha ha ha. But the more he repeated it, the more a kind of sadness crept into his voice.”
The irony, of course, is that Davis had been steeped from childhood in the traditional heritage of Black entertainment. Born in Harlem in 1925, he was raised on the chitlin circuit by his father and Will Mastin, tap-dance performers in Black vaudeville. Davis never went to school a day in his life. His only education was standing in the wings and joining them onstage, for the first time at the age of four. Self-trained, he was shaped by a cultural inheritance handed down from the minstrel tradition of the 19th century. More than any other Black performer of his generation, he had mastered its art and was himself the last great link to consummate Black vaudevillians like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. If anybody had earned the right to be in “Roots,” it was Davis.
Haygood traces all of this from beginning to end — the long struggle to escape vaudeville and the rise to the heights of showbiz — with a rich sense of context. You get the feeling of well-rounded history. Even when details are necessarily offered only in glimpses, he evokes them with deft strokes based on remarkable, first-hand reporting and thorough research. Above all, Haygood writes with a strong point of view. He’s big-hearted yet skeptical, sympathetic but no pushover: “There was White culture and there was Negro culture. There was also the culture of success. That was the best culture of all to Sammy.” Haygood’s tone is also poetic and personal, making In Black and White wonderfully readable.
That’s no small feat, especially compared to the alternative — Gary Fishgall’s Gonna Do Great Things — which gives a much sketchier version of things, despite massive amounts of trivia. Scribner’s claim that Fishgall’s is “the first definitive biography” of Davis is obviously not true. But even if it were, it’s definitive the way a local train schedule is: No stop is too minor to list. So we get page after wooden page detailing every television appearance Davis ever made.
Fishgall’s diligence would have been better served by more stylish writing and less reliance on secondary sources (“Assuming Davis and Novak slept together, it is probable that the relationship represented more than merely physical attraction.”). He also goes in for oversimplifications and makes some preposterous claims. Fishgall writes, for example, that under the tutelage of an Army sergeant with a large book collection, Davis, who could barely read when he was drafted at 19, “worked his way through The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Carl Sandurg’s multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln, a history of the United States, tales by Poe, Dumas, Dickens, and Twain. …” What, no Chaucer?
Both biographies tell how Davis met Sinatra (for the first time in 1941). They recount the mutual admiration and recriminations through the Rat Pack years. They tell how Davis lost his left eye in a car crash in 1954, converted to Judaism later that year and was whipsawed by the racial identity politics of the 1960s and ’70s. They also count the millions he earned and lost, highlight his obsessive work habits, and let us in on his hedonism, his porn collection (Linda Lovelace became his live-in house guest, tending him with her “deep-throat” skills; he then promoted her as “a talent”) and his dabbling in Satanism. Davis made it to all the stations of the cross. Before he died in debt in 1990 at 64 of throat cancer, the world’s most famous Black entertainer was possibly its loneliest.
Also setting the two biographies apart is Haygood’s comprehension of “the color divide” within the Black world; his reporting on Davis’s maternal grandmother, Luisa Sanchez, a light-skinned, Manhattan-born beauty whose Cuban-rooted “miedro al negro (fear of the Black)” made her feel “smothered by Black Harlem” and who encouraged her grandson’s abandonment; and an appreciation of the man who was more father to Davis than his real father: Will Mastin. “In Black and White” pays him the tribute of a full portrait.
“It was a shame upon his death,” Haygood writes of Mastin, dead in 1979 at the age of 100, “that there was no one around to take measure of his life. He had outlived his obituary writers who might have offered proper tributes.” Davis had enormous talent, yes, along with “a checkered family history in Wilmington, North Carolina” on his father’s side and the “brutal Cuban heritage” on his mother’s side, Haygood notes. But most important, Davis had “a vision of old Will Mastin swinging a cane.” And like “Uncle Will” — who was abstemious, careful with money, not to be trifled with, every inch his opposite — Davis was possessed by the old man’s ghost:
The ghost was the business itself — the shoeshine box you kept and the rack of suits you owned and the names of theaters you had committed to memory and the money you had saved and the celebrity you had earned and the way your ear pressed against the velvety curtains backstage. … The ghost was the smooth road out of every town that had treated you right and with respect. The ghost was the Negro side of town, the folks who point to you as if you were some kind of hero. …
The ghost was the soft bed in the good hotel. The ghost was all the edgy headlines of the day — Negroes on the march, Negroes jailed — which sailed right over you because you did not bleed from those wounds. … You had a matinee in Pittsburgh, another gig in Vegas. … The ghost had kept you away from your deep southern roots, where blood had roiled and men had been treated as less than men. … The ghost was the diamond ring on your pinkie. It was the way you tipped your hat to the lovely lady walking toward you. …
Haygood riffs about that ghost for pages. He writes like a demon, with perspective, understanding and compassion to burn. It’s a pleasure not to be missed.