Classic Hollywood: Daughter’s ‘Personal Journey’ with Sammy Davis Jr.
Tracey Davis always knew growing up that her father, Sammy Davis Jr., loved her and her two adopted brothers, Mark and Jeff.
But the legendary performer and member of the Rat Pack “was married to his work. He wanted a family. But he didn’t know how to prioritize family because work was his passion. I am not saying that he didn’t love us, but work was his driving force.”
She admitted that he often didn’t know her phone number. And he didn’t even attend her college graduation. But their relationship evolved when she became an adult.
“We started hanging out,” recalled Davis, a mother of four who works as a TV and commercial producer in Tennessee.
“I said things like, ‘Dad, I always loved you, but I didn’t like you that much,”’ recalled Davis, 52, over the phone from her home in Brentwood, Tenn. “He said, ‘Well, I didn’t like you that much either.’ It turned out the air needed to be cleared.”
By the time the powerhouse singer-dancer-actor was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989, father and daughter had a strong bond. While pregnant with her first son, Sam, Tracey Davis constantly went to his house in Beverly Hills to visit and talk. And on those days when Davis couldn’t talk, they sat and held hands.
Davis recalls these intimate conversations in “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey With My Father,” a new coffee table book filled with family and historical photos, which she wrote with Nina Bunche Pierce.
“A Personal Journey” marks the second book she’s written about her father, who starred on Broadway in “Mr. Wonderful” and “Golden Boy,” appeared in such Rat Pack films as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” headlined in Las Vegas, had his own musical-variety series and guest starred on countless TV shows, most notably as himself in a 1972 episode of “All in the Family.”
“Twenty years ago, I wrote ‘Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father,’ and it did pretty well,” she said. “This was just kind of coming back to it and looking at it later.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was practically born in a trunk on Dec. 8, 1925, to vaudevillians Sammy Davis Sr. and Elvera Sanchez, who was Puerto Rican. The two separated in 1928, and Davis’ father and grandmother, Mama, raised him. At age 3, Davis was singing, dancing and charming audiences as a member of the Will Mastin Trio with his father and Will Mastin, whom Davis referred to as Uncle Will.
Davis never went to school, which prompted him to tell his daughter “What have I got? No looks, no money, no education, just talent.”
But Tracey Davis admitted that it was excruciating at times to listen to her father’s horrific stories about the racial discrimination he had to endure, including physical abuse, in the Army during World War II. Her father and African American entertainers appearing in Las Vegas in the very restricted 1950s had to stay at rooming houses outside of town.
Even to this day, she often thinks about how her father endured despite the odds. “How did he make it and so many others not make it?” she said. “He had talent. But what he went through would have killed a lot of people or make them bitter or just messed with your life so bad you couldn’t get over it.”
Her dad, she noted, “worried about me a lot. I think [about] being mixed-race, especially when I was born. What will the world be like for Tracey? What will our legacy be for our children? Is it going to be any better.”
It wasn’t easy for Davis and her mother, Swedish actress May Britt, when they married in 1960. Britt, who appeared in such films as 1958’s “The Young Lions” and the 1959 remake of “The Blue Angel,” was, according to Tracey Davis, dropped by 20th Century Fox because of her relationship with Davis.
Despite the firestorm of controversy, Davis said, her parents “didn’t regret being together.”
“My mom loved my dad like crazy, and my dad loved my mother,” she said. “My mother was so lucky because her parents didn’t care.”
Davis and Britt, who now lives in Encino, divorced in 1968. But their daughter said they never fell out of love. When she asked her father why they broke up, he confided: “I just couldn’t be what she wanted to me to be. A family man. My performance schedule was rigorous.”
Sammy Davis Jr. also had a bromance with Frank Sinatra. “Dad and Frank were best friends on stage and off,” she said. “He was like a good cushion for Dad.”
And he wasn’t hesitant about throwing his weight around if Davis was being excluded because of his color. “He’d say, ‘Oh, Sammy can’t come in here? Then I am not coming in.’ I think it gave my dad such comfort knowing he had this big brother out there that would go to the mat for him.”
Sinatra also stopped talking to Davis for a time in the 1970s when the entertainer begun using drugs. “Frank was mad he was squandering himself, doing stupid things. He let dad know about it, and dad was kind of well, I don’t care.” Ultimately, Davis did care and apologized to Sinatra.
Tracey Davis had been told by her father’s doctors that he wouldn’t survive to see his first grandson. But her father promised his daughter that he would survive long enough.
And he did. Tracey Davis gave birth to Sam on April 20, 1990. Sammy Davis Jr. died May 16 at age 64.
Davis still gets emotional recalling the day she brought her newborn son to see her father. “When I came up the stairs, he saw Sam. He was sitting up in the chair and tears — just tears.”
Her father, Davis said, “was incredibly driven and had a huge heart, a huge zest for life. He had more energy than anyone I had known. I am grateful for everything he taught me.”
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