Sammy: An Autobiography
by Sammy Davis Jr. & Jane and Burt Boyar
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
256 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Yes, He Did
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
The son of two of Vaudeville dancers, Sammy Davis Jr. hit the boards while he was a toddler, entrancing audiences with his dancing, singing and impressions. Davis toured for much of his early career with his father, Sammy Davis and the man he often referred to as his uncle, Will Mastin. Occasionally other -- white -- performers would protest at sharing dressing rooms or billing with the Will Mastin Trio. Davis' father and uncle would tell young Sammy not to pay attention: "he's just jealous because 'cause we got a better act," or "They don't like us 'cause we're in show business."
Because he didn't attend school and because he spent most of his youth on the road, Davis' childhood was sheltered from the racial segregation that was the reality in the United States at the early part of the 20th century. A stint in the Army opened Davis' eyes to the reality in a way that would make an indelible mark on his life.
Overnight the world looked different. It wasn't one color anymore. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open.
In his shock, Davis responded with his fists. "I must have had a knock-down-drag-out fight every two days and I was getting pretty good with my fists. I had scabs on my knuckles for the first three months in the Army." Before very long the then 115-pound Davis found that even when he emerged victorious from his brawls, it did little to earn the respect he craved and the equality he felt was deserved. Because he was a professional performer, Davis was asked to be part of a special performance for his fellow GIs. The success of his participation made him realize, as others have, that "the spotlight erased all color" and gave him the key he would use to unlock scores of doors throughout his career. "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking."
Sammy Davis Jr., who died of throat cancer in 1990, would go on to enjoy an immense career. He was truly a star; an entertainer who basked in the limelight as well as the freedoms it created. The freedoms, however, were sometimes bittersweet. It is unimaginable to us now to think about a headlining Las Vegas act not permitted a room in the hotel where they played or even a peek into the casino. Or, when playing Miami Beach after the first wave of his success and encountering a sign in the lobby of the hotel he'd chosen advising would-be customers "No Niggers -- No Dogs," as though one might be somehow equated with the other.
"I've got to get bigger," he told his father. "I've got to get so big, so powerful, so famous, that the day will come when they'll look at me and see a man -- and then somewhere along the line they'll notice he's a Negro."
The comeuppance would come later when Davis, in his quiet way, would help lead the way to desegregation. For many years he looked forward to the day when he would be a big enough star to not only insist that he stay in the Las Vegas hotel he was headlining, but that he play to a desegrated audience and, when he did, he reveled in the sweetness of the feeling.
Sammy: An Autobiography is, in some ways, the rehashing of work that has been previously published. Portions of the book are from Yes I Can, published in 1965 and from Why Me? from 1980. Both memoirs were co-written with his friends and biographers Jane and Burt Boyar. Burt Boyar has written a prologue and epilogue and added in some previously unpublished interview material. To be honest, if this were a weaker biography of a less interesting performer it would seem a wasted effort. However, Sammy seems an even more important work now than it did when the previously seen components were first published. We get to see how far we've come and, in the freshness of the tone and the familiarity of some of the situations, we get to see how far we have yet to go.
"Why do I have to play a part that depends on color?" Davis asks his agent in the late 1950s when he's looking towards a television role. "Why can't I play something where the fact that I'm a Negro has no bearing either way? Why must a special part be written for a Negro? .... I die every time I read in the papers about some cat on Broadway who says, 'What we need is integrated theater. Authors should write in more parts for Negroes.' That's not integrated theater. Really integrated theater will be when an actor -- colored or white -- is hired to play a part."
Sammy is a spirited look at a dynamic and talented performer. His personal life was interesting -- best friends with Frank Sinatra, a key member of the Rat Pack as well as the requisite marriages, purchases and addictions -- but Sammy really shines through Davis' candid retelling of the color battles he fought as well as the control he took of his talent and, as a result, of his career. A moving book worthy of this freshened-up edition. | February 2001
Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.