Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Wham of Sam!

The one and only Sammy Davis Jr.
I want to take a moment and reflect on one of the most versatile entertainers ever, Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy led quite the life. Did you know, dear reader, that he had a torrid affair with Kim Novak? This was in the late 50's, before Sammy married the Swedish actress May Britt. Columbia, Novak's studio, was very upset about this, and they feared the backlash should Kim and Sammy's relationship become known. So Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, suggested to Sammy that he break things off with Kim if he wanted to keep his good eye. And so they split up. But can you imagine a couple more unlikely than Kim Novak, at the peak of her hotness, and Sammy Davis? (I would give my right arm to have shagged Kim Novak in 1957!) Anyway, Sam must have had something, because the ladies sure liked him.

Sammy's affair with Novak may have led to his first marriage, in 1958, to Loray White, an African-American woman, just before he married May Britt. His marriage to White lasted only a year. Sammy's marriage to May Britt led to his playing a diminished role in JFK's inagural, as the Kennedys feared a backlash against being associated in any way with an interracial marriage. Of course, the Kennedys were happy to let Frank Sinatra carry off the entire event and escort Eleanor Roosevelt. I guess Mafia ties weren't such a big deal, at least not to old Joe Kennedy. Of course, under pressure from Bobby, this would eventually lead to JFK staying at Bing Crosby's house in Palm Springs in 1962, instead of Sinatra's. And Bing Crosby was a Republican, for God's sake! Peter Lawford had to be the bearer of bad news to Sinatra, for which he was instantly excommunicated. Sinatra was building a heliport for the Presidential helicoptor, and upon hearing the news, took a sledgehammer to the heliport!

Sammy Davis may have been the only person to give Richard Nixon a hug on national TV, which he did at the 1972 Republican national convention. He may also have been the only person to ever give Richard Nixon a hug. I guess Sammy felt Nixon needed a hug, and he probably did, what with Watergate and all. Why Sammy became a Republican is anyone's guess. (I guess May Britt's Swedish socialism didn't rub off on him.) In addition to being African-American, Sammy was also a convert to Judaism, two groups that do not traditionally vote Republican...but whatever. I'm sure Sammy was thrilled by hugging Nixon, lord only knows what Nixon thought! (Nixon was not a big fan of human touching.)

Side note on Nixon, Sammy would have been lucky if Nixon didn't confuse him with some other celebrity. Nixon was notorious for misidentifying people. Kirk Douglas was once in a receiving line next to Danny Kaye's wife, and Nixon was introduced to her first. After meeting her, Nixon said to Douglas, "Hello, Mr. Kaye." He told Gregory Peck he loved him in Friendly Persuasion, which Nixon probably saw because it dealt with Quakers, (he was a Quaker), and Peck had to tell Nixon that he was thinking of Gary Cooper, who had been dead for 10 years. (And who really doesn't look like Greg Peck.) Question: what the hell were Democrats Peck and Douglas doing meeting Nixon??? (Peck was actually on Nixon's enemies list. With a photo of Gary Cooper next to his name.)

Steve Martin talks about being on the Tonight Show when Sammy was also a guest. When Steve was in the middle of his act, Sammy fell off the couch, doubled over in laughter. Steve thought he had done really well, and then he discovered that Sammy fell off the couch laughing every time a comedian was on the show! In his book Born Standing Up, (go read it, it's great) Steve says of his pivotal appearance on the Tonight Show, "At the end of the act, Sammy came over and hugged me. I felt like I hadn't been hugged since I was born." Which is probably how Richard Nixon felt too.

Oddly enough, Marlon Brando and Truman Capote both expressed a strong hatred of Sammy Davis in interviews. Brando called him an "applause junkie," which I suppose he was. I would suspect that Sammy and Jerry Lewis got along very well, because they were both performers who were clearly seeking the audience's approval, and who would do anything they could to get it. To them, applause was like oxygen. For Brando, it was just the opposite, at a certain point I think he got fed up with the applause, and did everything in his power to make the audience dislike him. And Brando and Capote hated each other, because of Truman's brilliant 1957 piece on Brando, "The Duke in His Domain," published in The New Yorker. Brando felt that Capote had betrayed him by listening to his stories of his alcoholic mother, all the while not taking a single note, and then putting it all in the piece anyway. Well, however Truman got it, he wrote a terrific piece. (He was honing his "complete memorization" skill that he put to use later with In Cold Blood. "Do you know I have 95 percent word recall?" he would crow.)

Anyway, Sammy Davis was a great entertainer, versatile and truly talented, and he led a fascinating life. You could write a book about him, and several people have. As a final note, both Davis and Bobby Darin, who were both insanely versatile, recorded entire albums devoted to the songs from Doctor Doolittle. (The Rex Harrison version, not the Eddie Murphy version.) How odd is that?


Uncle E said...

Very nice blog, Mark. I'm officially a fan!
Sammy was my second favorite of the Rat Pack bunch, next to "The Captain", of course. Ever see Don Cheadle play him in the HBO special (The Rat Pack)? Really caught the essence of Sammy, I think.

Again, nice post. Keep it up!

Mark said...

Hi Uncle E,

Thanks for the nice words! Yes, I did see the HBO movie with Don Cheadle, who did an amazing job playing Sammy. From what I remember, the whole movie was pretty good, and seemed to be pretty accurate portrayals of all those guys.

I agree with you that the album art for David Bowie's Scary Monsters is underappreciated! A great album, and a great cover, too. (With Bowie, those usually go hand in hand, like Low, Heroes, Diamond Dogs, etc.) And I saw you gave kudos to the Kinks' Misfits album cover, another one of their great albums! Great songs on that one, Misfits, Rock and Roll Fantasy, Live Life.