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Rising above the Rat Pack

In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.; Wil Haygood; Alfred A. Knopf: 518 pp., $26.95 Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.; Gary Fishgall; Scribner: 430 pp., $26

November 23, 2003|David Hajdu | 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.

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