The ultimate mystery is one's own self.
Sammy Davis, Jr. should by all rights be mentioned in the same breath with Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, as one of the great pioneers of the civil rights era, blazing a trail that others would soon follow, their paths eased by his efforts. But his reputation suffers from several factors. First is just the fact that whereas Robinson and Parks went where no black person had ever gone before, Davis was part of a great tradition of black entertainers, like Paul Robeson, and that he went further than they and opened more doors does not strike us as quite as remarkable as what someone like Robinson achieved. Second, Davis was never the same kind of hero in the black community that Robinson was. Davis made a conscious decision to fit into white society and this brought down the wrath of many in the black community, who accused him of being an Uncle Tom or wanting to pass for white. Third, the various personas he adopted over the course of his long career were not really conducive to earning him the respect he deserved. He started out as a child novelty act, a three year old song and dance man in an act with his father and Will Mastin, the eponymous leader of the trio. Later, as a member of the Rat Pack, he cultivated a sort of lounge lizard image. And by the end of his career, he had acquired something of the tatty image of the later Elvis, a Las Vegas-style act (back before Las Vegas had cleaned up its act), ravaged by hard living, and somehow a traitor to his own talents. Tragically, like Elvis, perhaps it took his death for us to recall how significant a figure he really was in the history of entertainment.
But whereas Elvis had to await the great posthumous biography by Peter Guralnick before we could clearly see what he had achieved, Sammy Davis, Jr. had coauthored, with Jane and Burt Boyar, one of the really great autobiographies ever written, Yes I Can, all the way back in 1965. Even had he not been such a great entertainer, his shockingly honest and confessional story is so compelling and so wonderfully told that it alone should have cemented his reputation as a man to be reckoned with. Centuries from now, when people want to understand what the sickness of racism was like, they will find no better, more harrowing, depiction of its evil than in the section of this book that details Davis's time in the Army. The discrimination he faced in the music, and movie, business, disgusting as it was, can at least be reasoned away as essentially a problem of the private sphere. But to read of the despicable physical abuse that was perpetrated on him by white goons while he was serving his country can't help but cause us a deep sense of shame. It also makes his ultimate success all the sweeter.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was a man who survived much and triumphed gloriously. If by the end of his life he had proven a more complex man than we might have wished him to be--with his various personal scandals--only when we know the remarkable true story of his difficult life can we begin to understand the sources of that complexity. Raised in vaudeville and on the road, with little or no schooling; denied entry to White America; renounced by much of Black America; hounded by the tabloids and gossip columnists; an eye lost in a car accident; a convert to Judaism; despised; exploited; revered; loved; it's an amazing tale.
As it happens, we became friends with Burt Boyar, one of the coauthors of the book, when we reviewed his fine novel Hitler Stopped by Franco (Mrs. Boyar, a coauthor of both, unfortunately passed several years ago). We thought we'd take advantage of his generosity and ask him a few questions about himself, the book, and Sammy Davis, Jr. :
BROTHERS JUDD : Hello, Mr. Boyar. First off, I was wondering what had you written before this book? Were you and your wife ghostwriters by trade?
MR. BOYAR : Prior to meeting Sammy I was a Broadway columnist in New York, published daily in the Morning Telegraph, the Annenberg owned "bible of horse racing". It was a full sized newspaper devoted entirely to the sport, except for my column, which ran down the front page on the left hand column, and a few others such as a drama critic Whitney Bolton. I was syndicated into other Annenberg newspapers (Philadelphia Inquirer and all Daily Racing Forms) and was picked up by the Newhouse newspaper chain which ringed New York City, as well as elsewhere across the country.
I also wrote a weekly column for TV Guide and articles for them around semi-monthly, as well as articles for Esquire and one piece for New York Magazine. Jane worked with me, first as my wife but quickly became indispensable yet would not have her name on anything until we started writing Sammy's book when I insisted on it and she agreed.
BROTHERS JUDD : One of the most interesting things about the book is how much more revealing it is than most celebrity autobiographies. I was wondering how you and your wife came to the project. Were you already friends of Mr. Davis and he felt comfortable opening up to you, or were you brought in as part of the book deal and he was generally this open with people?
MR. BOYAR : We met Sammy when he opened in Mr. Wonderful on Broadway. I called him as I called all celebrities to see what I could get for my column that day. He suggested dinner because he had been reading me in the Philadelphia Inquirer when Mr. W. was trying-out there, also his father read my column every day as he was a horse player and always read the Telegraph. As dinner ended (at Danny's Hideaway) Sammy apologized for having to go and do his show and said, 'What about having dinner together....' and he thought about it for a moment, then continued, 'five nights a week?'
We had extraordinary chemistry from the first minute and in fact we had dinner together seven nights a week. We were together at dinner, then separated, Sammy to do his show and for us to go to whatever was opening or happening in New York. Then we met at his apartment at the Gorham Hotel on West 55th street and spent from midnight or one until it began growing light, when we had to go home and write the column.
We were with Sammy at all the good times and present for all the bad, the single snarl or snub that would cut through the hundreds of people giving him standing ovations and the like. After a particularly bad incident we went back to his apartment and he was staring out the window at the lights and said, 'We really should let people know what's happening. They don't know, they don't understand...'
We spoke of writing a novel but that wouldn't work because even without mentioning him by name our names would give away who it was, as we were widely known to be extremely close friends. Especially by my colleagues, Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons, Earl Wilson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Louis Sobol, Ed Sullivan, etc.
I mentioned the thought of a biographical or autobiographical book to an agent after [after some difficulty finding a publisher they were all comfortable with] finally Roger Straus read it and bought it.
BROTHERS JUDD : What was the process of writing the book like? Did you interview Mr. Davis? Did he write out remembrances or dictate them to a tape recorder? Did you end up traveling with him?
MR. BOYAR : We started off with a wealth of information on Sammy's life gained simply by being with him every night for a year and talking long into hundreds of nights. Then we began interviewing his family, Will Mastin, all the people around him. Then we would go back to Sammy with questions. He did not enjoy looking back and was ingenious at getting out of those work sessions which always started after his performance.
After he left New York and returned to nightclubs we joined him on the road in Chicago, Miami, wherever I thought I could make do for a Broadway column as well. That was very difficult and I realized that I could not do justice to both so I took a one year leave of absence from the column,. We took nearly six years to finish the book so obviously the column fell by the wayside.
Sammy did not make notes or dictate anything. It was all direct interview with him and Jane and me, and the two of us with his other people.
BROTHERS JUDD : Still, some of the things he recalls are so painful and some so embarrassing, it must have been difficult for him to share them with you. One incident in particular, when he was in the Army and some racists painted him white, just seems like it would be wrenching both to tell and to hear. Why do you think he was able to and why were you able to get him to? Were there specific methods you used to get through the most difficult parts of his story?
MR. BOYAR : I think Sammy opened up specifically with us because he knew us first as friends, for almost a year before we even thought about writing a book.
The army was excruciating for us all. It took a long time to pry it out of him. Sammy never liked to look back, let alone at something so degrading. We had no specific trick or method of dealing with this ghastly treatment he had suffered.
Jane and I did not drink at the time. Sammy sipped constantly but was never drunk. After the sessions were over we played Monopoly, or played different roles in Hamlet. He bought three copies of several of Shakespeare's plays and we acted them out. And I amused him by singing to him ala Al Jolson. I was a big Jolson fan, after seeing The Jolson Story six times, I knew all the songs and did a fair Jolson. When Sammy was down he'd say, 'Do that corny Jolson thing you do.' and I'd get down on one knee and sing "Mammy" or "California Here I Come" and believe me that would make anyone laugh and forget his troubles. You could say we exchanged humiliations.
Repeat, I think the answer to Sammy's openness with us was both his integrity, he always gave a hundred and ten percent when he was working, and his absolute trust in us, first as friends who had been with him through quite a lot in one year and had apparently proven ourselves. Then, as biographers working toward a common goal, to enlighten. Also, Sammy's philosophy of living was, '...once you make up your mind to get into bed with someone, then it's done, go for it with no reservations.'
BROTHERS JUDD : When it comes to the accident that cost him an eye, it seems that Mr. Davis not only had no bitterness, but even felt that it may ironically have catapulted him into the big time and that it helped bring him to Judaism. Was he ambivalent about the accident?
MR. BOYAR : At no time did Sammy ever make a positive or negative statement, or indicate a feeling one way or another, about losing his eye. In fact, he had "made it" at Ciro's with both eyes. He was acutely aware of the value of the enormous publicity the accident received. It was, literally, front page news across the country. And he enjoyed the eye patch for the glamor and identity it gave him. But, I can't say that he was ambivalent about the accident. I think he would have preferred to have both eyes and to have continued his ascent in show business, building on the first Ciro's. Yet, he never complained about having one eye. It was simply a fact of his life.
When we used to hang out all night at his apartment (during Mr. Wonderful) if Jane or Chita Rivera or Michael Wettach (assistant stage manager and part of our "family") got snappy with him he would remove his plastic eye and chase them around the room with it.
I don't think that losing the eye brought him to Judaism. I think racism did. He needed something to help him survive that constant oppression and he clung, with hope, to the Jews' ability to survive thousands of years of being hated, and searched for what it was that they had that made that possible.
BROTHERS JUDD : Unlike so many autobiographies, that come and go as quickly as the star's fame, this one seems of enduring importance. The story of his struggles with racism and to make it in show business is really compelling. Of course it became a bestseller and has been reissued throughout the years since. Did you know when you were writing it just how good a story you were telling?
MR. BOYAR : I don't think Jane or I ever knew what a great story we were telling. We frequently wondered to each other, 'Is this a book?' We were just appalled by what a man, a friend of ours, as he had become, suffered in New York City in the late 1950's. A Broadway star, at that! And, we were just telling people what was happening, in the well founded belief that they really did not know. The injustice and sheer stupidity of it was stunning to us.
The proof that people did NOT know, or care, is that Yes I Can, when it was already a 1000 page early draft, was turned down by almost every publisher in New York until Roger Straus read it and bought it immediately and even personally edited it with us, something he had not done since he edited The Lost Weekend. Harcourt Brace wouldn't even read it. They all, I believe, saw only the glitzy show biz 'Sammy Davis Jr. Story'. Roger saw the racial document, which is what has made it survive all these years.
It cost Jane and me the syndicated daily newspaper column and we were scared to death but irrationally, emotionally compelled to stay with it till we had it right. A one year leave of absence from the column was lost in a six year labyrinth.
In later years, working with Marlene Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, on a biography of her mother we noted Dietrich's comment about her work on The Blue Angel, a film she had embarked on like just another of the anonymous dozen or so before it. After it was a worldwide success, Dietrich said, 'You never know it when you are working on a classic.' It also reminds me of Sammy disliking both The Candy Man and Mr. Bojangles, and not wanting to sing those two songs that were so major in his career. After they were successful he said, 'You think you've got all these smarts, but it's the people who decide.'
BROTHERS JUDD : It sometimes seems that if we read between the lines we can perceive that Sammy is developing into a drinker or a ladies man, but he plays that stuff pretty close to the vest until a problem crops up or a story breaks in the tabloids. Did he have such problems in those years? Was he maintaining his own privacy by discussing such things so tangentially?
MR. BOYAR : Sammy was always (from the day we met) a steady drinker but rarely would he get drunk. Once or twice if he had 'a case of the humbles', his expression for feeling down, the alcohol would cause him to get morose and teary-eyed. I am speaking of the period in New York when there were so many slights every day that you simply wouldn't imagine could happen to a man starring on Broadway. He did his best to ignore or at least not acknowledge them, because they were embarrassing to him, but they would pile up and occasionally they would just overflow.
Sammy was a sipper. Always had a Jack Daniels and Coke at hand but rarely finished one. He usually left them somewhere and his dresser would make another. He would got through a bottle of bourbon (later vodka) in a day, but more than the drinking he liked having the glass in his hand. It was a prop.
He watched his weight and once I suggested he switch to Diet Coke but he stayed with regular Coke because, 'I want the sugar for energy.' Before a show he would have a cup of coffee with four envelopes of sugar in it. He would hold them all together and shake them all at once, tear them all at once and pour them in as if it were a single envelope. He had style.
As to being a ladies' man, Sammy was enormously attractive to many women. More than once Jane and I would dodge requests from friends' wives to meet him after the show because despite the racial difference, their marriages, their husbands present at that moment, they lusted for him. Sammy knew this and tried to downplay all relationships with women because they were all trouble.
Even if he were dating a girl of an appropriate age and color, innuendo would emerge and some column or somebody would create a scandal. That was good and bad. He knew that he had profited by being controversial but he was wise enough to know that it could also turn off members of his audience, so during those years he tried to avoid public comments about his women. Even Chita Rivera who was his girlfriend during Mr. Wonderful (she was the show's dance captain) was not publicly acceptable because she was Latino and that was not acceptable in the 50's for a "negro", the only p.c. term then.
BROTHERS JUDD : The way he talks about his first marriage and the Kim Novack rumors, it seems as if, whether there was anything to the stories or not, he felt there was pressure on him to get her out from under the press feeding frenzy. Was that your understanding or was there more to it than that?
MR. BOYAR : Remember that Yes I Can was published in 1965 and written between then and 1959 or 1958. Jane and I did not know, at that time, that he had married Loray White under 'do it or get your other eye poked out' orders from some hoods under an order from Harry Cohen, Columbia Pictures, owner of Kim's contract. Sammy alluded to it with us, but was too embarrassed to tell us the real story. He played it to us that he did not want to damage Kim's career with an controversy and so he did the smokescreen wedding to Loray White.
Later, in the mid 1980's, researching Why Me? he told us that a contract had been taken out and he was strongly advised by Sam Giancana, a friend, to do something fast to get the heat off of himself. Giancana could protect him in most parts of the country but not if he went back to L.A. I have always been surprised that such a contract could even happen because every place that Sammy played was mob owned and his appearances were money in the bank to any club or casino, thus he would seem to be too valuable to allow to be damaged. Yet, there are always a few renegade thugs somewhere who can be hired, I suppose.
BROTHERS JUDD : You mentioned how stunned you were by the racism that Sammy faced even in New York and I read the passages where you guys were present with great interest. I wonder what that must have been like? Was it simply a matter of being told tables weren't available or shunted to a corner, or comments from people? How overt was this and how covert? Would you have understood what was going on if Sammy had not had such finely tuned attentiveness to such intentional slights?
MR. BOYAR : Jane and I were always aware of the racial pressure on Sammy. In the preface to the present compilation of Yes I Can and Why Me?: Sammy: An Autobiography, we say that we think that among the reasons he might have been attracted to spend a lot of time with us was the fact that we were a wholesome, white, well known New York couple and in a sense when we went out together Jane and I were riding shotgun for him. But, again, remember that this was the fifties in New York and we were entirely aware of the racial barriers.
Not long before Sammy got to New York Walter Winchell had crucified Josephine Baker for going to the Stork Club and protesting (to him) about the slow or no service she received. He went after her like she was a communist and literally chased her out of America.
Few people attempted to climb the barriers before Sammy. Performers like Nat "King" Cole would play the Copacabana and then go uptown to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Sammy had a different point of view, 'They haven't made a hotel that's as luxurious as I want to live in.' So he made the effort to stay, for example, at The Sherry Netherlands, around the corner from the Copa, or the Waldorf Towers, or '...wherever anyone else with my fame and financial ability would be able to stay.'
The result is that he opened a lot of doors that others would go through after him. Just before he died there was a 3 hour ABC-TV special, an homage to him produced by George Schlatter. Michael Jackson appeared and sang a song he had had written for the occasion: I Am Here 'Cause You Were There. In a recent Oxford Television (London) documentary Whoopie Goldberg said, 'There wouldn't be me if there hadn't been Sammy.'
-BOOK SITE : Hitlerstoppedbyfranco.com
-OBIT: Jane Boyar: On March 28, 1997, in Marbella, Spain (NY Times, March 29, 1997
-ESSAY: How I got into show business (Sammy Davis, Jane Boyar, and Burt Boyar, August 1965, Harper's)
-BOOK SITE : Hitler Stopped by Franco (FSB Associates)
-BOOK SITE : Sammy : An Autobiography By Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar(FSB Associates)
-PHOTOS: Candid Man: The secret snaps of Sammy Davis Jr. (Vanity Fair, March 2007)
-PHOTOS: Slide Show (Tavis Smiley Show)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Burt Boyar: : How Sammy Davis Jr. became a Photographer (Shutterbug Magazine Radio)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Burt Boyar (As it Happens, 2007/05/07, CBC radio)
-PROFILE: Burt & Sammy (Nobhill Gazette)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Burt Boyar, author of World Class (Broadcast.com)
-AUDIO AUTHOR INTERVIEW : Burt Boyar (New Homemaker)
-ARCHIVES: "burt boyar" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Everything’s Swinging: Sammy Davis Jr.’s First 35 Years: In Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., the Rat Packer told his incredible life story—from his uneasy friendship with James Dean to the accident that took his left eye. (HADLEY HALL MEARES, JULY 17, 2020, Vanity Fair)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. text by Burt Boyar (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Alan Peppard, Dallas Morning News)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Erin Petrun, CBS News)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Publishers Weekly)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (Diane Garrett, Variety)
-REVIEW: of Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. (David Elliot, Bend Weekly)
-ESSAY: Sammy Davis, Jr.’s Conversion Mishegoss: Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion to Judaism in 1960 was met with skepticism, derision and yes, jokes by the members of the groups he claimed and embraced. (Matthew Wills, March 9, 2022, J-Stor Daily)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : Sammy : An Autobiography By Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar (FSB Associates)
-Sammy Davis Jr Association (UK Fan Club)
-Sammy Davis jr. - Entertainer
-Robert S. Ensler Presents A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
-The G-Files : Sammy Davis, Jr. (APB Online)
-Kennedy Center Honors : Sammy Davis, Jr. (1987)
-Find A Grave : Sammy Davis
-Sammy Davis, Jr. Collection (University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library Special Collections)
-REVIEW : of Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Copacabana (Robert W. Dana, 12/18/59)
-OBIT : Sammy Davis Jr. Dies at 64; Top Showman Broke Barriers (PETER B. FLINT, May 17, 1990, NY Times)
-TRIBUTE : SAMMY DAVIS JR.: The Legacy Of The World's Greatest Entertainer. (Lerone Jr. Bennett, Ebony, Feb, 2000)
-INFO & SAMPLES : Yes I Can! The Sammy Davis Jr. Story [boxed set] (Rhino Records)
-BOOK SITES : Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader By Gerald Early, editor (FSB Associates)
-ARCHIVES : "sammy davis, jr" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Sammy : An Autobiography (Adrian Marks, January Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Sammy : An Autobiography (Chris M. Slawecki, AllAboutJazz)
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