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Books: What Made Sammy Dance?

3 minute read
Lev Grossman

Sammy Davis Jr. used to tell a joke: “My mother was born in San Juan. So I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time.” It’s typical of Davis to ruin a perfectly good joke with a lie: his mother was Cuban, a nationality that was, in white America circa 1966, even less popular than Puerto Rican. But there’s also a truth tucked inside the lie: Davis was running away from himself, as many ways as he possibly could.

Wil Haygood chases after him in a new biography, In Black and White (Knopf; 516 pages). Oddly, it’s one of two published this month–the other is Gary Fishgall’s Gonna Do Great Things (Scribner; 448 pages)–but it would take at least a dozen volumes to capture a life that encompassed tapping with Bojangles and making Cannonball Run with Jackie Chan. Haygood’s book is the more interesting of the two, mostly because it’s less sympathetic. Davis was a man who would do anything to be liked, and that’s a mistake Haygood wisely avoids.

Davis was born in 1925 in Harlem, the child of a chorus girl and a hardened vaudeville hoofer; that would be Sammy Davis Sr. Sr. took Jr. along on tour, and one afternoon little Sammy wandered onstage during a gig. Disaster loomed–but the audience laughed. A star was born. Davis was 3.

A certifiable child prodigy, young Davis could sing, dance, tell jokes, improvise, do impressions–“He did it all” would be his epitaph. The older he got the more incandescent his talent became. He was a fireball of energy. He never seemed to sleep. By the 1950s he was cutting albums, making movies, strutting on Broadway and helling around Hollywood with the likes of Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra.

Ah, Frank. Maybe it was Davis’ broken home or his height (5 ft. 6 in. in his tap shoes) or his funny face, all big nose and jutting jaw, or the car crash that took his left eye, but Davis was a howling void of insecurity that drowned out all other emotion. He craved affection, especially from white people, preferably famous, preferably Frank. In Haygood’s telling, Davis’ marriages, his compulsive gift giving, his surprising conversion to Judaism, even his support for the civil rights movement, all play like bids for applause, just another snappy routine.

Davis’ uncanny impersonations and his fancy footwork are almost too perfect a metaphor for a man who was so desperate to fit in he affected an English accent whenever he was in London. Haygood’s Sammy is a hall of mirrors with nothing behind them. You can’t quite like him–there’s not enough of him there to like–but you can’t look away. The book ends with a heart-stopping photo of Sammy at age 5, blacked up, ready for his killer impression, his Al Jolson: a black kid impersonating a white guy in blackface. Can you blame him for being screwed up? Race, money, love, applause–for little Sammy they were all mixed up from the start. As hard as he worked, and nobody worked harder, he never got them straight. –By Lev Grossman

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