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Deconstructing Sammy: A Book Review

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A member of Hollywood’s famed Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr. appeared to have it all:  he was a five-tool entertainer.   An extremely talented artist, Sammy sang, danced, acted in film as well as the Broadway stage, and played musical instruments.   Perhaps his greatest feat was to steal the hearts of the American public, who deeply mourned his passing via throat cancer in 1990.  How then, could such a superstar, who earned in excess of $50 million over the life of his career, quit this Earth with the largest tax debt ever owed to the IRS ($7.2 million)?


Matt Birkbeck’s Deconstructing Sammy, examines and sheds light upon the personal and public circumstances surrounding this mystery.   The book’s cast of characters includes spouses and family members Altovise Davis (Sammy’s third wife), May Britt (Sammy’s second wife), Tracey Davis (his daughter with May Britt), and Mark and Jeff Davis (his adopted sons).  No biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., however, would be complete without references to the noted friends, fellow performers, and social and political leaders who figured in his life.  These include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Donald Rumsfeld.   Rumsfeld, perhaps best known for his role in the George W. Bush administration, entered Sammy’s life in his later years.


Earlier on, however, it was another politician to whom Sammy gave his fealty.  During John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in 1960, Sammy performed at various functions and fundraisers in support of Jack; in 1961, the entertainer was invited to Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural ceremony.   While Jack was still campaigning in 1960, Sammy Davis married May Britt: a blonde white woman and a Swedish actress.   The interracial marriage unleashed a slew of hate mail and death threats upon the performer that the nation had so loved before he had dared to cross the “color” Line.   As a result of the death threats or perhaps because of the racially-charge controversy, JFK rescinded his invitation to the Inauguration.   Although Sammy was hurt and devastated by what he had viewed as a betrayal, he went on to align himself with another Presidential hopeful twelve years later.


Sammy believed that unlike Kennedy, Richard Nixon, who took the Presidential oath in 1972, genuinely wanted his support in order to garner a larger share of Black America’s vote for the Republican Party.  Donald Rumsfeld, who had been a member of Nixon’s staff, befriended Sammy and Altovise.   He was a regular visitor to Sammy’s home in the 1980s and remained friends with the family after the actor/singer’s death.


In telling the tale of Sammy Davis Jr.’s financial downfall, Matt Birkbeck intertwines the story with the efforts of former federal prosecutor Albert (Sonny) Murray to reduce the actor’s tax debt and restore Sammy’s estate and legacy. 


Perhaps the story really began with a love unrequited.  Sammy and Altovise had an “open marriage”, which took its toll on her; she used alcohol to cope with the situation.  All she seemed to want was Sammy’s love and affection, but aside from public appearances, he had cut her out of his life.  In the years before his cancer diagnosis, Sammy had a live-in mistress as well as a self-serving staff whose cowardly acts only surfaced as Sammy was dying of throat cancer.  During his illness, his employees stole his memorabilia, jewelry, and artwork.  Altovise, who remained in Sammy’s life as he battled cancer, also helped herself to her ex-husband’s cash, jewelry, and other valuables, which she packaged up and shipped to friends and family members.  After Sammy’s death, she behaved no better than the rag pickers in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carole” as they ransacked the death bed of Ebenezer Scrooge:  Altovise not only took the remaining jewelry from Sammy’s body, before he was buried, she took his glass eye!


Sammy Davis’ live-for-the-moment attitude, overindulgent spending, gambling debts, and association with some unsavory characters who handled his finances, compounded by his non-involvement in key financial decisions, all led to his near bankruptcy before his death in 1990.


The major highlight of this book is Sonny Murray’s courageous, seven-year-long fight on behalf of Altovise Davis and the Sammy Davis Jr. estate to restore the dignity of this American Icon.  Part of Sonny’s contributions was to facilitate Altovise’s entry into rehab for her drinking problem.  Unfortunately, Altovise showed her appreciation for all of Sonny’s work by firing him, but not before he had secured a settlement from the IRS for pennies on the dollar and brokered a major CD deal with Rhino Records.   Over the life of his endeavor, Sonny Murray racked up billable hours in excess of $500,000, for which he was paid pennies on every dollar.


I highly recommend this book and give it an “A.”    Its author, Matt Birkbeck, is an award winning investigative journalist who has written for numerous publications.  To find out more about the author, please visit his Website.

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