Afterlives of the Rich and Famous

Sammy Davis Jr.

Often called the “world’s greatest entertainer,” singer, actor, dancer, and impressionist Samuel George Davis Jr. was born in Harlem, New York, on December 8, 1925, to vaudeville dancers Elvera Sanchez and Sammy Davis Sr. His parents separated when he was three years old, and his father, not wanting to lose custody of him, made the tiny tap dancer a part of his act with vaudevillian Will Mastin and swept him away on tour. The child was such a hit with audiences that “Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget,” as he was originally billed at the age of three, became a key part of the headline act—“Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy.” In 1941 the Mastin Gang was the opening act for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra at the Michigan Theater in Detroit, where sixteen-year-old dancer Sammy Davis Jr. first met Dorsey’s twenty-six-year-old vocalist Frank Sinatra, and a lifelong friendship took root.

In 1943, Sammy accustomed to a life of applause and acceptance, joined the U.S. Army and encountered racial prejudice for the first time. Between his color and his small size, he endured regular harassment and fights with the white soldiers in his unit, until he became an entertainer with the integrated Special Services and discovered that the spotlight provided some protection from bigotry. Another bonus from his army years was the African American sergeant who finally taught him to read.

After he’d fulfilled his tour of duty, he rejoined his father and “Uncle” Will on the road; the group was renamed the Will Mastin Trio. By then Sammy had discovered his talent for impersonations, and with the act now including singing, dancing, and comedy, they enjoyed a whole new surge of popularity, headlining at such important venues as the Capitol Club in New York and Hollywood’s legendary Ciro’s. Sammy’s old pal Frank Sinatra was there to help, inviting the trio to perform at the Copacabana, which had just become integrated. In 1954 Sammy signed a recording contract with Decca Records and released his first hit album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr.

That same year, on November 19, 1954, Sammy was returning from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when he was involved in a near-fatal car accident that cost him his left eye, which was replaced with a glass eye that he wore for the rest of his life. While he was hospitalized after the accident, one visitor was entertainer Eddie Cantor, who began talking to him at length about the similarities between Jewish and black cultures. Sammy began studying Judaism and converted a few years later. He emerged more popular than ever from his highly publicized brush with death and provided Decca with a string of hit singles that included such classics as “Something’s Got to Give” and “That Old Black Magic.”

His conversion to Judaism was only part of the controversy in Sammy’s life. During the 1950s and 1960s Sammy had become a very popular ladies’ man in Hollywood, and many of his relationships were interracial—a major taboo at that time. Among his girlfriends was the very blonde, very successful actress Kim Novak, who was under contract to Columbia Studios. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, wasn’t about to risk the reputation of his rising starlet or his studio by allowing the affair to continue, and, legend has it, he recruited his mobster friend Johnny Roselli to kidnap Sammy for a few hours to demonstrate that when Harry Cohn said, “Break up with Kim Novak or else,” he meant it.

Sammy hit Broadway in 1956, starring in more than four hundred performances of the hit show Mr. Wonderful, and he returned to the big screen for a critically acclaimed role in Porgy and Bess. After a quick one-year marriage to singer Loray White in
1958, Sammy found himself entering an alliance that, in various configurations, would last him the rest of his life. In
1959 he became a member of what came to be known as the “Rat Pack,” the small, elite group of fellow performers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, who shared the stage as headliners in the most popular nightclubs around the country and went on to make three hit films together in the 1960s—Ocean’s Eleven, Sergeants Three, and Robin and the Seven Hoods.

Sammy also continued his career as a solo act, becoming a superstar in Las Vegas in the late 1950s at a time when hotels were still segregated. Black performers were welcome onstage, but they had no dressing rooms, they were banned from the casinos and restaurants, and they were certainly not allowed to stay at the venues where they were headlining, usually being shipped off to boarding houses away from the Strip. Once Sammy had achieved true star status, he began refusing to perform at segregated establishments and was instrumental in integrating hotels, casinos, and nightclubs across the country.

He caused even more controversy when, in 1960, he married the Swedish actress May Britt, at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in thirty-one states; even while he was busy winning a Tony nomination for his brilliant performance in Broadway’s
Golden Boy in 1964, he was receiving hate mail for marrying a white woman. The couple had a daughter together and adopted two sons. In the meantime, Sammy’s career was in full force. Between recording sessions, live performances from Miami to Las Vegas, shooting his own television specials, and appearing with the Rat Pack, by his own admission he was an absentee husband and father, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1968. Two years later he married dancer Altovise Gore, whom he met during the run of Golden Boy, and their marriage lasted for the rest of his life.

His film career continued to thrive in the 1960s, with A Man Called Adam and Sweet Charity rounding out his roles with the Rat Pack, and he enjoyed television success with The Sammy Davis Jr. Show and The Swinging World of Sammy Davis Jr.
Sadly, both his physical and financial health were pushed to their limits by the seemingly nonstop drinking, partying, and heavy spending that defined the general Rat Pack lifestyle. By the early 1970s, despite earning more than $1 million a year, he was nearly bankrupt and began developing liver and kidney problems. He never slowed down, seemingly couldn’t stand still, and continued his Las Vegas appearances, recording his surprise hit “Candy Man,” guest-starring on a variety of TV series and specials, and returning to Broadway in 1978 to star in the musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. He took time out for reconstructive hip surgery in 1985 and managed to recover in time to costar with fellow dancer Gregory Hines in the film Tap.

Shortly after Tap was completed, Sammy announced that he had finally beaten long-rumored addictions to cocaine and alcohol, and he seemed reenergized when, in 1988, he launched a concert tour with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. When Dean fell ill and was unable to complete the tour, Liza Minnelli took Dean’s place, and Sinatra, Davis, and Minnelli performed for sold-out crowds throughout the United States and Europe through the beginning of 1989.

In August 1989 doctors found a tumor in Sammy’s throat. He immediately underwent a series of grueling treatments, and for a short time his prognosis was optimistic. By the end of the year, though, his cancer had returned, and on May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. died at the age of sixty-four, leaving behind a legendary career and a world that was less divided by race than it was when he entered it.

From Francine

Sammy’s father, his “Uncle” Will, and a very thin older black woman named Ella were among the throngs that gathered to welcome Sammy when he returned to the Other Side, and he immediately swept Ella into his arms and danced with her, so elated to find himself free of the painful, debilitated body he describes as having “used up” during his latest incarnation.
(Sammy’s mother had already incarnated again by the time he came Home.) Ella and Sammy’s Spirit Guide, Aaron, accompanied him to the doors of the Hall of Wisdom and then left him alone for his time at the Scanning Machine, from which he walked away disheartened—as proud as he was of his massive talent, his work ethic, the loyalty he showed to his closest friends, and above all the giant strides he made toward making the world as color-blind as he was, he was deeply disturbed by the self-indulgence with which he chose to live his life offstage. By his own description, “When you stay as busy as I did and party hard enough, you get to avoid thinking about consequences.”

But as he watched his lifetime unfold, he saw exactly how inevitable the consequences were, whether he thought about them at the time or not, from his occasional deep depressions to his financial struggles to the abuse of his body and the toll it took.
For many reasons, he’s decided to incarnate again, in or around 2016 by your years. He wants to experience a lifetime in which he invests his energy in discipline, anonymity, and restraint. He intends to choose the same life themes he chose for this last incarnation—Caretaker and Catalyst—but he’ll direct them toward the medical community next time, with a focus on pediatrics.

An interesting incident occurred when actor Richard Harris arrived on the Other Side. Sammy made a point of being among the first to greet him, and Richard seemed quite moved and relieved. From what I understand, it had something to do with a medallion of some kind that Sammy gave to Richard, but that Richard returned with a harsh note when the infamous photograph of Sammy embracing Richard Nixon was published. Sammy, with no explanation, never spoke to Richard again.
And Richard, who was drinking heavily at the time he returned the medallion, had no memory of having returned it and never understood why Sammy had stopped speaking to him. They’re close friends here, and Sammy observed that the lesson is, “Communicate! If I’d simply told him he’d offended me, we could have talked it through and enjoyed all those years together, instead of wasting them in my silent resentment of what turned out to be just a foolish drunken impulse.”

Sammy’s life here is blissfully active. He continues to be as popular a performer as he was on earth, often appearing onstage with Michael Jackson, to whom he’s very close, and with Dean Martin, who was his brother in two past incarnations and whom he joyfully greeted when Dean came Home. In anticipation of his next incarnation he’s also a devoted researcher on the subjects of cystic fibrosis and childhood autism.

He visits his biological and adopted children, “making up for lost time,” as he says, and he calls himself “a regular” in the clubs on Bourbon Street, particularly the Jazz Preservation Hall. And he can often be found in his favorite synagogue, offering silent prayers of thanks and celebration for all he’s been given and all he has left to give.

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