It has been said that Sammy Davis Jr. was born to entertain. That's practically true. He started performing when he was just 4 years old and didn't stop until the day he died nearly 60 years later. But despite his limitless talents, life certainly was not easy for the legendary entertainer. Biographer Wil Haygood looks back at his life in the new book "Black and White."
Haygood says, "Sammy mastered vaudeville, Broadway, nightclubs, stand-up, early radio, early TV, film. So that was a wonderful tunnel for a writer to go into. And it took me to the bottom of all the ocean; the research gave me enough buoyancy to pop back up."
"In Black And White" represents the culmination of a full five years of research and more than 250 interviews with Davis' friends, family and acquaintances. One of the people he interviewed was Davis' mother, who had abandoned her son to pursue her own career early on.
Haygood says, "She was very tough, Elvira Davis, who has since died. I went looking for her obit and I didn't find the obit and somebody in New York said, 'The reason you can't find it is because she's still alive.' And so three days after that, back in 1999, I found myself sitting in an apartment with Sammy Davis' mother, asking her about the haunting rift between mother and son, why she left him to pursue her own dreams and the heartache that that actually gave Sammy Davis Jr. all of his life."
Highlighting the emotional void Davis had, Haygood tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm an anecdote: "He was performing in front of the Queen of England and made a phone call back to the States to a friend of his and said, 'Listen to the applause. The Queen of England is crying after my performance. You know what, Pierre? My own mother doesn't even love me.' That's heartbreaking stuff. I think for a kid to grow up on the road of vaudeville, where there is no mother to tuck you in at night, I think it hurts. And, yet, that gave Sammy the fire and the fuel to keep going, the drive for acceptance."
Haygood interviewed Davis' daughter as well, and even the doctor who worked on Davis after the 1954 car crash in which Davis lost an eye. He found out that Davis led a very public, but very tragic life. He never felt comfortable in his own skin and never had a close relationship with his children.
Most people associate Davis with the "Rat Pack," but that was only a small sliver of his life.
He says, "Even when you think of Sammy Davis Jr. with the Rat Pack, without Sammy, there really wouldn't have been the kind of Rat Pack that we know. He gave the Rat Pack youth, he gave it energy and he gave it edge, not to mention he gave it black and white."
Davis, notes Haygood, wanted to be white. He lined himself a lot of white women and even married one of them (Swedish actress May Britt).
The author says, "You got to understand, he came up during that era of Jim Crow segregation law, so Sammy really wanted to make it. He wanted to hurdle over everything else and be like Frank Sinatra and he used everything in his heart to make it. It's an amazing story about how you give up yourself to make it. He was unlike Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier."
In the political world, an image a lot of people haven't forgotten is the hug with Richard Nixon who was despised by the majority of black people in the country at the time. Commenting on it, Haygood says Davis was ridiculed for it.
"He didn't understand the depth of the anti-Nixon feelings out there," Haygood says, "It was funny. Someone later in life said, 'Sammy, what were you thinking of? I mean, why did you do it?' He hunched his shoulders and said, 'Hey, babe, seemed like a good idea at the time.' So he had that sort of road that he would walk down any road to keep making it and, at the time, Nixon was riding high."
He notes it was validation from the president what Davis was looking for. He, after all. was a vaudeville kid who had never been in the White House until 1955 when Nixon invited him. "And Nixon did a lot of things for Sammy. He sent him to Vietnam, UNICEF board, he put Sammy on that, so it's interesting," Haygood says.
Read an excerpt from Chapter One:
Although Sammy Davis Jr., was descended from the dangers of the Negro plantation-this one located in rural North Carolina-it was the Cuban blood that would confuse him for a lifetime. Family members on the Cuban side would refer to it as "this Cuban thing." They meant the currency implied in a particular shade of skin color. And, linked to that, they meant the way love and resentment and distance and abandonment can infect any family, the way it could zoom in and out of mothers and sons and daughters, like a storm whooshing sideways on a horizontal force of its own, missing no one. So it was with his own family.
"My mother was born in San Juan," Sammy Davis, Jr., proclaimed. But it was a lie, and he knew it. She was born in New York City, of Cuban heritage. The Cuban ancestry, in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev battle to a standoff over nuclear arsenals, made Sammy nervous. Anti-Cuban sentiment had swept the land. The Cuban-haters might begin to dislike him, and Sammy was not in the business of losing admirers and fans. So he flipped the Cuban history-telling relatives to keep quiet about it-with made-up Puerto Rican history. And what the hell, he used the invented history for a joke that made many laugh, all the while lancing piercingly into his own insecurities: "My mother was born in San Juan. So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman." A pause for the punch line: "When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time."
All his life, he hewed to a talent that enabled more than a few brilliantly tragic minstrel performers to endure: he had the mysterious gift to laugh away a deep, nearly unfathomable pain that finds one scratching for an identity while lost in the beguilingly lit world of make-believe.
. . .
Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, maternal grandmother was born Luisa Valentina Aguiar on February 14, 1884, at 111 Thompson Street in lower Manhattan. Her father, Enrique Aguiar, had given her the middle name Valentina because she was born on Valentine's Day. Enrique, born in Cuba, often talked of family wealth and respect back home in his native land. He had handsome eyes, looked like a man who supremely believed in himself, and carried himself with a regal bearing. Connecticut-born Ida Henderson had a soft round face and long, lovely hair. Enrique first spotted her strolling past a Manhattan laundry and gave pursuit. The romance led to marriage. Both Enrique and Ida were extremely light-skinned and could have mixed with the white citizenry of Manhattan easily. They made a striking couple walking in afternoon sunshine. Her pregnancy greatly delighted both. Then came sudden tragedy: Ida died giving birth to Luisa.
Enrique Aguiar had been very much in love with his wife, and her death devastated him. He was now forced to ponder, alone, how he would care for his only child.
Enrique Aguiar vowed to hold on to Luisa, and was proud of himself for doing so. The dynamic imbued her with a fierce and independent spirit of her own. Over the years, Luisa's light complexion and flowing hair would come to strongly resemble her mother's. The two of them-Luisa would often talk of it in the decades to come-weathered the violent blizzard of 1888 in New York City. The city suffered $20 million in damages during that storm. Many, trudging home in feet-high snow, had been forced to find shelter in the city's jails.
Like many Cubans living in New York City in 1898, Enrique Aguiar couldn't have helped but notice the screaming newspaper headlines about the bombing of the U.S. ship Maine while it was anchored in Havana Harbor, on the night of February 15. In the blast, 254 soldiers died instantly; eight more died later. The Maine was in Havana on a fact-finding mission following constant reports of Cubans being abused by the Spanish. A little less than a month before the explosion, the Spanish military in Cuba destroyed the offices of four news-papers criticizing its presence. The attacks sparked rioting, which alerted American diplomatic officials on the island.
Spain had upward of 500,000 troops serving in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in a desperate attempt to keep its imperialist grip on the region. The infamous Alfonso Guards of Spain-who fancied wide-brimmed white sombreros-easily outdid the Cuban insurgents, and over the years, every rebellion was put down. There were times when the Alfonso Guards would line captured rebels up alongside a fort wall on bended knee-faces toward the wall, hands tied behind them-and raise their heavy rifles. The snap-crack of shots would fill the air, blood would color the dirt, and revolution would be stayed for a while longer.
Excerpted from In Black and White by Wil Haygood Copyright© 2003 by Wil Haygood. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the author:
Haygood is a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post. He has received numerous awards, including the Sunday Magazine Editors Award, which he received twice; the New England Associated Press Award; the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Foreign Reporting (which he also won twice); the James Thurber Literary Fellowship; an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship; and a Yaddo Fellowship. He is also the author of "Two on the River;" "King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.;" and "The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir," which was awarded the Great Lakes Book Award. He lives in Washington, D.C.