As Sammy’s star imploded

Cohen is the author, most recently, of "Sweet and Low: A Family Story."

Sammy Davis Jr. was the epitome of the artist as brilliant naif, blazing as he collapses into a cold, dark star, a posthumous object best described (considering Sammy’s diminutive stature and gargantuan talent) as a giant dwarf, a fate understood most clearly by those who came later, the lawyers and accountants who first realized Sammy had bounced his last check, busted, so left his descendants nothing but memories and debt.

For years, it turns out, the Candy Man, third from the left in the typical photo of the Rat Pack, had been living beyond his means -- making tons, spending a little more, with debt accruing until it loomed over him like an Everest. As my grandfather used to say, the man who earns $100 and spends $90 has a happy life; the man who makes the same but spends $101 dies in squalor. Sammy is a hero for our times, a personification of the current American Dream, living in a mansion owned by the bank, short the mortgage but certain he can dance his way out. As Sinatra sang, “Riding high in April, shot down in May.”

Matt Birkbeck in “Deconstructing Sammy” has done a tremendous amount of reporting into the life of Sammy, but the book is more than a newspaper story. It’s a melancholy dirge: Horatio Alger in his stirring rise, but also in the reckless appetite that hurries his fall. It follows Sammy from his Harlem boyhood to his wrenching deathbed (he died of cancer in 1990) in his Beverly Hills mansion, where various hangers-on, seeing the circling vultures, stripped his corpse even before it was a corpse: “During the months prior to Sammy’s death, his employees looted his home of memorabilia, jewelry and artwork.”


“Deconstructing Sammy” is two narratives spun together. In the first, you have Sammy Davis Jr., “arguably the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century”; in the second, you have Albert “Sonny” Murray Jr., a young black lawyer who rescued Sammy’s estate from its creditors (at his death, Sammy owed the IRS $7 million). Murray was a former federal prosecutor, made famous by the case that brought down E.F. Hutton. Murray’s parents owned a resort in the Pocono Mountains that catered to a black clientele. It was while standing in the yard of this resort that Murray first saw the woman who would bring him into Sammy-land. She was standing across the road, “tall, thin and black . . . somewhat disoriented, head bobbing softly back and forth.” Her name was Altovise Gore, and she was Sammy’s widow. She had washed up in the Poconos like flotsam, alcohol-addicted, broke, the IRS dogging her for the outstanding debt.

Altovise asked Murray to manage the estate. He accepted the job in 1994, determined not only to clear the debt but also to restore the faded star to his proper place in the firmament. By following Sonny in this quest, Birkbeck tells the epic of Sammy Davis Jr: life as a prodigy, dancing with his father and uncle; rise to fame; the car crash that took his eye and made him a Jew; his friendship with Sinatra; his struggles with racial prejudice. Sammy wanted everything Frank had, which meant houses and money, but also women, specifically white women. It was this desire that landed him in trouble, first during his affair with Kim Novak (which got him scratched off the guest list for the Kennedy inaugural), then during his marriage to the Swedish film star May Britt, which made him a Hollywood pariah.

In the late 1960s, when that marriage dissolved, Davis was pressured, less by members of the white community than by members of the black community, into marrying a black woman, which is how he wound up with Altovise, a dancer in his Broadway show “Golden Boy.” The book chronicles that marriage, which devolved into depravity, with Sammy forcing Altovise into all kinds of kinkiness. (These are the passages in which Sammy is “deconstructed”: “So Sammy found solace in drugs, particularly cocaine and amyl nitrate, and experimented briefly with Satanism and pornography.”) By the end, Altovise was sharing her mansion with Sammy’s (white) girlfriend.

In return, Altovise, who reveled in the role of celebrity wife, came away with little more than bad karma and debt. The couple had filed joint tax returns, which meant Altovise was responsible for Sammy’s losses. Murray assigned himself the tasks of untangling the estate’s finances and curing Altovise of her alcoholism and sadness. He was surprisingly successful, settling with the IRS and checking Altovise into a treatment facility, but every step forward was followed by two steps back. In the end, after years of work, for which he went largely unpaid, Altovise fired Sonny. He did so much and came away with so little (I fixed the Sammy Davis Junior Estate and all I got was this lousy book). It’s never clear exactly why Sonny persisted so long, year after year, traveling coast to coast. In Birkbeck’s telling, it seems an act of citizenship, even love. He wanted to restore a great entertainer to his rightful position.

If the book has a weakness, it is an excess of credulity. Birkbeck buys Murray’s entire line, not just the pants and shirts, but also the wraps and stoles. As you read, you can’t help but wonder about the lawyer’s true motivations: Was it the possibility of a big paycheck, or was it the desire to mix his name with those of celebrities? (When you learn that Murray is working on a screenplay, you say, “Oh, so that’s why he wanted in on all those Hollywood meetings!”) At times, Murray seems like one of the characters in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” who give up everything in quest of riches, only to watch the gold blow away in the final scene.

Altovise Gore, according to the book’s closing pages, is penniless. She lives in a roach-infested apartment without a refrigerator and picks through dumpsters for bottles. It makes me think of the first line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel “The Good Soldier”: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”


Only “Deconstructing Sammy” is much sadder. Whereas the Ford book is set in the expatriate resorts of Europe between world wars, Sammy’s story is set in the oxygen-crammed casinos of Vegas, where, as any wiseguy can tell you, the machines are fixed and the house always wins. Sammy stayed at the tables as long as his money held out, then a little longer.