The secret torment of Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis Jr

IN the infamously harddrinking, fast-living Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin he made entertainment history.

He was known as Mr Showbusiness: a singer, dancer and actor whose dazzling career spanned 37 movies, 40 albums, seven Broadway shows and countless hours of TV over six decades.

Yet despite his success, wealth and fame Sammy Davis Jr suffered severe racial bigotry for his entire life – even from President John F Kennedy, who banned him from performing at his inauguration.

That was a bitter blow for the entertainer, who had endured appalling racial attacks during his years in the US army, where soldiers beat him repeatedly and painted a cruel slur on his chest.

His years of suffering are revealed in a memoir by his daughter Tracey, Sammy Davis Jr: A Personal Journey With My Father.

The superstar had hoped the bigotry would end when he became one of the world’s most famous names.

Yet he found that his controversial marriage to Tracey’s mother, Swedish actress May Britt, in an era when inter-racial marriage provoked hatred, would prompt his biggest humiliation.

President Kennedy was a leader in civil rights but even he dared not ignite American ire by inviting Davis to perform at the White House in 1961.

Davis’s announcement that he would wed the sensuous blonde beauty sparked death threats and forced the singer to hire 24-hour armed bodyguards.

Hate groups staged demonstrations wherever he performed.

Inter-racial marriage was then banned in 31 of America’s states, yet Davis was sure that he would perform at Kennedy’s inauguration after working hard for JFK’s election campaign – and because his best friend Frank Sinatra was organising the entertainment.

Sinatra begged Davis to postpone his wedding but a week after the 1960 election he tied the knot with May.

The backlash was fast and merciless. Studio 20th Century Fox declined to renew May’s contract and even Sinatra could not stop Kennedy from crossing Davis off the list of performers.

“He was crushed when he was shunned by the president,” recalls a friend.

Yet it was only one of many similar incidents that left emotional and often physical scars.

Davis started out in showbusiness as a three-yearold performing with his father in vaudeville act The Will Mastin Trio, painted in blackface make-up and marketed to audiences as 44-year-old “dancing midget Silent Sam”.

But when conscripted into the army in 1943 Davis hit fresh depths of humiliation.

He was tormented and abused by fellow recruits and finally cornered in a latrine.

“They took a can of white paint and wrote the word ‘N*****’ on my chest,” Davis told his daughter.

 Davis with wife May Britt in 1965 [GETTY]

I never turned around and hated right back

Sammy Davis Jr

“They beat me until I was bleeding from every part of my body.

“I thought my life was done.

“I was going to be beaten to death.”

One attacker taunted: “Now be a good little **** and give us a dance.”

Davis recalled: “I danced for my life… I wanted to crawl into the walls of the latrine and die.”

He endured attacks for months. “I was 17 when I joined the army, all of 5ft 6in and 120lb.

“All the soldiers were twice my size.”

Davis’s father had given him an expensive gold watch and he recalled: “I treasured it.

“The white soldiers got ahold of my watch on the first day in the barracks.

“They tossed it back and forth… Eventually Jennings, the biggest bigot of them all, ground my watch into the floor with the heel of his boot.

“He crushed the glass, twisted the gold and broke the hands off.

“Jennings shouted behind me, ‘You can always steal another, N***** boy!'”

One night Jennings offered to make amends by buying Davis a beer.

“But sure enough, as I picked up the bottle of beer I realised it was warm, not cold.

“I smelled it. Jennings had replaced my bottle of beer with urine.

“I had a knock-down, drag-out fight every two days.

“I can’t even count how many times I was in the infirmary for a broken nose.

“When we finished basic training my physical [meant they] turned me down, and I was put through basic again.

“I didn’t qualify for the army’s specialist schools because I had no education at all.”

He only survived thanks to a Sergeant Williams, who refused to let the bigots win.

“Sgt Williams was my saviour,” Davis told his daughter.

“He taught me to read and write.

“God bless that man.

“Sgt Williams gave me hope that I could overcome this battle.

“I owe him my life.

“He tempered all the humiliation I felt from my unit.

 Davis’ daughter’s book reveals the tough parts of the legend’s life [GETTY]

“He distracted me from all my rage, all my anger.

“I wouldn’t have survived the army without him.”

But Davis’s performances at army talent shows ultimately rescued him and he was transferred to a special entertainment unit.

“I was able to perform to larger crowds, even got cheers from those who previously mistreated me,” he said.

“Prejudiced white men admired and respected my performances.

“For me it was a revelation.

“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.

“From then on, deep in my heart, soul and spirit, I knew I had to be a star.”

After the Second World War Davis returned to performing with his family act and ended up on Broadway.

In 1959 he joined Sinatra and Martin as part of the Rat Pack, making a series of hit movies including Ocean’s Eleven, Sergeants Three and Robin And The Seven Hoods.

“Those cats saved the day for me,” he said.

When he had first played Las Vegas before the war he was not allowed to stay at “white” hotels but was forced to lodge in a wooden shack “coloured” boarding house across town.

When he returned with the Rat Pack Sinatra refused to let Davis suffer such indignities.

“Nobody but Frank Sinatra could have put Sammy Davis where he was,” he later recalled.

“Sinatra, first of all was never a racist kind of guy.

“He cared about everybody being equal.”

They had become friends while on tour in 1941 and Davis idolised the older singer.

“I wanted to be like him.

“I wanted to dress like him, I wanted to look like him,” said Davis, who went on to have hit records with I’ve Gotta Be Me, Mr Bojangles and his signature song The Candy Man.

Second wife May Britt was the “love of his life”, according to their daughter Tracey but Davis’s pursuit of his career and success killed the marriage after seven years.

“I gotta be the biggest, I gotta be a megastar,” he recalled thinking.

“Work, work, work.

“Not to mention that I was spending more than I was making.

“Really, I was a fool in my book. But that was me.

“I realised it too late.”

After being snubbed by JFK he performed at the White House for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Davis died of throat cancer in 1990 aged 64 with Tracey and his best friends Sinatra and Liza Minnelli by his side.

Amazingly he never became embittered by the decades of prejudice.

“With all the racial tension I endured,” he said, “I never turned around and hated right back.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button