Rising above the Rat Pack

David Hajdu is the author of "Positively 4th Street" and "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn" and teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.

Somewhere in the netherworld of Hollywood’s unborn, the place where failed TV pilots go, there is an unsold dramatic series called “Poor Devil.” It was to have starred Sammy Davis Jr. as a dutiful minion of Lucifer struggling each week to lure another unwitting earthly soul to his or her eternal doom. For some reason, it didn’t sell, although the casting was inspired. Sammy always had a way of tempting people to devilish thinking, and, more than a decade after he died of throat cancer at 64, he is still doing so.

Part African American, part Latino, a converted Jew, diminutive, funny-looking, blind in one eye and wildly theatrical in manner and attire, Davis has long been a multipurpose target of enmity. “When I move into a neighborhood,” he used to joke, “people start running four ways at the same time.” Even his famous buddies -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack -- ridiculed Davis mercilessly under the cover of macho shtick. “Hurry up, Sam, the watermelon’s getting warm,” Sinatra would bark, and Martin would hoist Davis up and announce, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this award.” Desperate for acceptance, Sammy only diminished himself with his indiscriminate sycophancy, fawning over Richard Nixon and falling off Johnny Carson’s couch in convulsive laughter at middling patter. Today our collective image of Davis is largely inseparable from Billy Crystal’s blackface impersonation of the aging entertainer as a pandering show-biz phony, a glitzy minstrel act. We don’t remember Davis for who he was or what he did when he mattered most as much as for the wicked joke he let himself become.

Two new biographies, Wil Haygood’s “In Black and White” and Gary Fishgall’s “Gonna Do Great Things” (both of which are subtitled “The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.”), do their subject a great service by casting light on his early glory as a singer, dancer, actor, musician and impressionist, regarded in his prime as “the world’s greatest entertainer.” Haygood, a staff writer for the Washington Post who is the author of a poignant family history (“The Haygoods of Columbus”) and a lively, piercing biography of ‘60s political gadfly Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (“King of the Cats”) does even more by portraying Davis’ Herculean achievements and epic decline in intimate detail while also putting them in historical and social context. “In Black and White” is nearly as ambitious as its subject was. Fishgall, a Hollywood biographer who has written about Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck and James Stewart, lays out the facts of Davis’ life in a breezy fashion. Of the two books, Fishgall’s provides the greater wealth of raw information, particularly on Davis’ recordings and television work; however, it leaves the reader to make sense of it all. As a biographer, Fishgall presents his findings in black and white; Haygood aims to do great things.

Both books follow the broad contours of the story Davis told in his two memoirs: “Yes I Can,” the critically acclaimed bestselling epic of youthful vainglory published in 1965, when Sammy was 40 years old, and its 1989 follow-up, “Why Me?” which had none of its predecessor’s charm or success. (Both books were ghostwritten by Burt Boyar, a former gossip columnist and press agent, and Boyar’s wife, Jane, from tape-recorded interviews with their subject.) Like Buster Keaton, who was similarly blessed and cursed by his inwrought theatricality, Sammy was born into show business, in his case as the son of an African American vaudeville hoofer, Sam Davis, and a Cuban American chorus girl, Elvera Sanchez, who met while performing in a touring revue staged by the “Chitlin Circuit” impresario Will Mastin. (Davis avoids the issue of his mother’s ethnicity in “Yes I Can,” which was published three years after the Cuban missile crisis; for much of his life he claimed to be partly of Puerto Rican extraction. Haygood, who tracked down Davis’ mother and interviewed her shortly before her death in 1996, is illuminating on this count.)


Sammy began performing in Mastin’s troupe at age 4, and through the compound benefits of his genetic inheritance, the nurturing of his father and Mastin (his mother having left to dance elsewhere) and the laxity of the child labor laws -- particularly for Negro children -- he developed with stunning precocity. At age 8, he starred in his first movie, a demeaning all-black musical short called “Rufus Jones for President” wherein imagined African American lawmakers shoot craps and eat fried chicken in the Senate chambers, but which Sammy almost redeems with a wonderfully arch rendition of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” By the time the boy was 10, his savvy boss had reformulated the act as Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy. Davis grew up without a day of education apart from his round-the-clock schooling in showmanship.

In academic circles, it has been the rage for some time to view human behavior as performance and see identity as a social “construct.” One wonders what the theorists of this school would make of Sammy Davis Jr., who was essentially custom-bred solely to perform -- in conditions close to laboratory isolation from the society that shapes the rest of us. When he reached adulthood, Davis was already a show-business veteran and a master of virtually every art of popular entertainment: a virtuoso tap dancer, a powerful singer, a musician adept at no fewer than six instruments (piano, vibraphone, guitar, bass, trumpet, drums) and, perhaps most significantly, an impressionist of unnerving skill. He could mimic anyone he heard. “I just decide, ‘I think I’ll do Bing Crosby,’ ” he once explained, “and I can do him.” As a theorist might theorize, the young Sammy Davis Jr. had little sense of his own identity, a plight compounded significantly by being black in a white-dominated world. He could do everything as anyone except himself.

In Haygood’s “In Black and White,” the author cites one of Davis’ 1950s girlfriends, the singer and actress Peggy King, as saying she believed that “Sammy simply wanted to be someone else.” Drawing upon the substantial evidence of his interviews, Haygood concludes that the person Davis wanted to be was a white man. We hear it over and over: From another of his lovers, Helen Gallagher: “He did so want to be white.” From the producer Hugh Benson: “He wanted to be white. His close friends were white. Deep down in his heart, he wanted to be white.” From the director Richard Donner: “I think he would have given anything to be white.” From Sammy himself to Alex Haley in his 1966 Playboy interview: “You’d just like to look like everybody else so that people wouldn’t automatically start hating you a block away. White cat sees you walking down the street, maybe from across the street, and he never saw you before in his life, and he’s not even close enough to distinguish anything about you except that you’re not his color -- and just for that, right there, snap, bop, bap, he HATES you! That’s the injustice of it, that’s what makes you cry out inside, sometimes, ‘Damn, I wish I wasn’t black!’ ”

Davis’ comment doesn’t really address white identity; it is a call for equal treatment, a point of view predicated on a healthy sense of self-worth. Sammy may not have always known who he was, but he knew full well what he could do, and he was convinced that his talent made him no one’s inferior. Haygood quotes him, in reference to the racism he faced during his brief stint in the Army: “While I was performing they suddenly forgot what I was and there were times when even I could forget it.... It was as though my talent was giving me a pass which excluded me from their prejudice.” Fishgall likewise cites him as saying: “My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight ... the only way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.... I lived 24 hours a day for that hour or two at night when I could stand on that stage, facing the audience, knowing I was dancing down the barriers between us.” I wonder: Did Davis really want to be white or merely to gain the social acceptance that he saw whiteness conferring in his youth? After all, he was reared on the stage, trained to work for applause. Public approval was the only validation he knew.


If Sammy wanted to be white, why did he convert to Judaism at age 31? Shouldn’t he have become an Episcopalian? While Fishgall portrays Davis’ pursuit of the Jewish faith as Sammy always did -- as a purely spiritual matter that began with the 1954 auto accident that cost Davis his left eye -- Haygood is more cynical, even sarcastic about it: “He became a Jew. He was a Jew. A Negro in Jew’s clothing. It was tender, and it was strange.... Actually, it was just Sammy being Sammy -- shrewd, opportunistic, heart-touched, and childlike.” Perhaps; just as significantly, though, Davis’ choice of Judaism rather than any of the Christian denominations of the white mainstream was a claim to exceptionalism rather than a submission to conformity. In embracing the faith of an ethnic minority with a legacy of transcending subjugation and persecution, Sammy sought to retain his otherness without accepting subordination -- a coded blackness in the tradition of the early 20th century Church of God (the “Black Hebrews”), which appropriated Judaica as a way to elevate Negro pride. “These are a swinging bunch of people,” Davis said of his adopted tribe. “I mean I’ve heard of persecution, but what they went through is ridiculous. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t take a shot at ‘em. The whole world kept saying, ‘You can’t do this’ and ‘You can’t do that’ but they didn’t listen!” No, Davis might have added, they said, “Yes we can.”

As the civil rights movement gained momentum and Davis matured, he grew more comfortable asserting his black identity. He performed on behalf of the NAACP and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who came to value Davis as a stalwart ally. Haygood quotes Gallagher (who is white) on meeting her old beau for the first time in several years in the late ‘60s: “I got backstage.... Everybody’s black. He says, ‘This is my soul brother, this is my soul sister.’ I said ... ‘I knew you when you were white.’ ”

Gallagher must not have owned a radio, because Davis had conducted his struggle with race consciousness in public -- through the music he made in the 1960s. Neither Fishgall nor Haygood delves fully into Davis’ extraordinary recording career, although “Gonna Do Great Things” (whose title comes from one of Davis’ records, “Once in a Lifetime”) provides some details on much of Davis’ most notable music. Like all jazz-pop vocalists of his era, Davis sang a mix of theater songs, popular standards and hit tunes of the day. Everybody recorded “The Way You Look Tonight” and “My Funny Valentine,” as Davis did without distinction. Important singers develop their own signature songs, however, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s are unique in the popular canon for their absorption with the entwined themes of alienation, discontent and pride rather than conventional romance.

In “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” Davis pleads, “What else can I be, but what I am?” In “Stranger in Town”: “Everywhere, everyone I see / Seems to wonder who I can be / But I swear no one seems to care.” In “What Kind of Fool Am I?”: “Why can’t I cast away this mask of play and live my life?” In “Night Song”: “Life is going by and I stand and wonder / Who the hell am I? In “At the Crossroads”: “This way or that way, which way should I go / Toward the left or the right / The day or the night / The dark or the light / Only my heart can know.” As much as any singer at Motown in the same period, Davis put the black experience on the pop charts.


Davis was obsessed with proving his worth through performance. In 1965, the year he turned 40 and broke free from his long-standing contract with Mastin, he starred in a Broadway hit, “Golden Boy,” the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical drama adapted from Clifford Odets’ play. In his hours off, he promoted “Yes, I Can,” which was published the same year, and played the lead in a feature film, “A Man Called Adam,” which he also produced. He made two television specials and, Fishgall tells us, eight guest appearances on the “The Tonight Show” (in addition to hosting the program once); he popped up regularly on TV shows such as “Hullabaloo” and he did a hotel concert in San Juan, Puerto Rico; a benefit in St. Louis; and a nightclub gig in Atlantic City, among other performances around the country. And, oh -- the same year, he released no fewer than five LPs. (One discography lists eight Davis albums issued in 1965.) Still, he never danced down the barrier between his ego and his insecurity. As Fishgall quotes him on the subject of his fellow Rat Packers’ racist taunts, “Yeah, the jokes were offensive. But, man, look at the company I was keeping. I had to put up with it.”

Both new biographies have much to commend them: Haygood’s breadth, vivid portraiture and novelistic scenes; Fishgall’s no-nonsense detail and readability. (To pick nits, I might point out that Haygood makes a few minor errors: Jule Styne was not a lyricist; Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” was not one of Motown’s first hits but a Brunswick release composed by Berry Gordy before he founded Motown; and the veteran actor who did a soft-shoe in “Broadway Answers Selma” was not “the old cowboy movie star Dan Duryea” but the onetime song-and-dance man Dan Dailey.) Still, neither book really succeeds at cutting through Davis’ burnished razzmatazz to illuminate the inner Sammy. Nor did either of Davis’ chatty, anecdotal memoirs, for that matter.

His grave marker -- a small, tasteful marble block at Forest Lawn in Glendale -- is engraved “ ‘The Entertainer’ He Did It All.” Indeed, what Sammy Davis Jr. did may be all he was, although that was quite enough.