December 27, 2003


What Made Sammy Run? (GARY GIDDINS, December 28, 2003, NY Times Book Review)

Is it possible for an entertainer who achieved the pinnacles of success -- wealth, fame, power, a critical and collegial regard verging on awe, at least during the long climb to the top -- to be remembered primarily as a cultural martyr? In the case of Sammy Davis Jr., a qualified ''yes'' seems reasonable. Unlike Frank Sinatra, whose music will ultimately obliterate the man's boorish qualities, Davis has virtually disappeared from the cultural landscape while his immense, long-lived celebrity clouds the minds of those who endured it. To many of us born in the 1940's and 1950's, he has become a joke: a bejeweled, Nehru jacket-wearing, women-and-stimulants-pursuing, faux-hipster caricature who cackled at racially stupid jokes that were designed to show how progressively good-natured the tellers and their victim-buddy were.

Yet Davis had once been renowned as a performer of spectacular gifts who could do everything. Sadly, ''everything'' usually proves to be the most evanescent of talents. His early appearances were virtuoso displays of dancing, singing and mimicry that defied indifference; he would stop at nothing until he brought the entire audience into his fold. There weren't many holdouts in the 1950's, beyond the kind of bigots who barraged Eddie Cantor with hate mail because he had mopped Davis's brow after presenting him on the ''Colgate Comedy Hour'' in 1952. Sammy was the dazzling kid (actually 26 years old) in a troupe called the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr. The unbilled partner was Sammy Davis Sr., his father. Mastin, 72 when he made his national debut, was said to be an uncle, though he was unrelated.

It was a strange, unforgettable act. The two older men, natty and understated, offered precision soft-shoe with some winging and spins thrown in, before stepping back to give the spotlight to the prodigal man-boy whose energy and autonomy made you wonder why the others were there at all. Davis had performed with them since the age of 4 -- he never attended school, never knew any other life, never bonded with his mother, who had once appeared in a Mastin revue. Now he was carrying his mentors.

Yet when he died in 1990, the man who had been so generous, so profligate with his talent was largely derided or ignored. Where had he gone wrong?

Here's our interview with Davis's friend, biographer, and ghost writer, Burt Boyar.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2003 8:18 AM


You're interview seems to cut off in mid-sentence. Should I try reading it in a different browser?

Posted by: James Haney at December 27, 2003 4:00 PM


The piece that your interview with Mr. Boyar links to includes this sentence--something I don't think I had read before:

"First Black American guests to spend a night at the White House, star and wife Altovise (bottom) were welcomed by President and Mrs. Nixon."
(I believe it's from a photo caption, but the photo wasn't reprinted with the article.)

Is it because of the reputations of both Mr. Davis and President Nixon that this is so under-reported? Or is it strictly because it would benefit Republicans? This seems like a major event in American history, but it's simply been forgotten down the memory hole, it seems.


Posted by: Ed Driscoll at December 27, 2003 5:00 PM

OJ, What interesting people, the Boyars. I dug into your biblio and found the Franco book site. As a sometime student of WWII I am always pleased to discover serendipitously a new source of information. Your archives are quite a resource. Also, I was always in awe of the talent of Sammy. He made it look effortless; always a sign of the greatest talent and hardest work. Jerry
P.S. Where's the Steven Vincent Benet quote? As a native New Hampshireman, I always appreciated it.

Posted by: jerry dodge at December 27, 2003 5:12 PM

I read the second Davis autobiography (written with Boyar) and thought it was riviting. An amazing life.

Posted by: NKR at December 27, 2003 10:15 PM


Thanks, I reposted the missing text.

Posted by: oj at December 27, 2003 10:28 PM


Odd indeed that he's remembered for visiting Archie Bunker's house but not the White House.

Posted by: oj at December 28, 2003 9:39 AM