What Made Sammy Run? A Hunger for Applause

In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. , by Wil Haygood. Alfred A. Knopf, 516 pages, $26.95.

Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. , by Gary Fishgall. Scribner, 430 pages, $26.

To see Sammy Davis Jr. onstage in the latter half of the 20th century was to see what audiences of the first half of the century experienced with Al Jolson-a performer determined to make you love him by main force, who would not let you go until the exhausted crowd capitulated to the exhausted performer.

Other acts did an hour or 75 minutes; Davis didn’t even shift into third gear until the 90-minute mark. If his singing didn’t get you, the tap-dancing would. Or the impressions, or the solos on various instruments. Or-bizarrely-an exhibition of his expertise at fast-draw.

He wasn’t overtly needy-his stage persona was invariably formal and polite-but there was no mistaking the painful psychology behind the marathon performances. You could either be repelled by the underlying neediness or submit to the force of the talent on display. For nearly all of his 64 years, submission was the order of the day.

It’s been 13 years since Sammy Davis Jr. died of cancer, long enough for the totemic embarrassment of being the only black icon to embrace Nixon to have partially receded. So now we have two competing biographies landing at the same time. Gary Fishgall’s book is conventional and dutiful, with dates and events all in place, despite the occasional glitch (he thinks director Richard Donner is English, but he’s thinking of Clive Donner-no relation). Wil Haygood’s takes greater risks and earns greater rewards. It’s basically written from the inside of Davis’ head, as with Lee Server’s biography of Robert Mitchum or Nick Tosches’ Dino . Mr. Fishgall is objective and journalistic; Mr. Haygood is subjective and novelistic. As is usually the case when two competing books arrive at the same time, there’s a division of sources. Mr. Fishgall got May Britt, the second wife, while Mr. Haygood got nearly everyone else, including Davis’ Cuban mother. (Don’t get your hopes up; Kim Novak, Davis’ most startling conquest, still isn’t talking to anybody.)

Unfortunately for Mr. Fishgall, Britt really doesn’t have anything very interesting to say, beyond the self-evident fact that Davis was obsessive-compulsive; a day at home was a day without applause, and to be avoided at all costs. Davis didn’t see a lot of his children-his daughter Tracey remembers precisely one breakfast with her father in her entire life-and when he was around, there were often problems, because children want a father, not a performer.

But Davis didn’t live for his family; he lived for the audience, for the charge that only they could give him. Nothing got in the way of that-not the physical facts of his being short and homely, not losing an eye in a 1954 car accident.

The hunger that drove him onstage was replicated offstage; after exhausting the thrills to be had from all the conventional vices-women, booze, drugs-he moved on to the unconventional-Satanism, or a dive into the netherworld of porn.

But in his performance art, he was usually a classicist, a show-business traditionalist; his favorite movies were Gunga Din , The Roaring Twenties , Stagecoach , Cover Girl and Wuthering Heights . He was also, in his work, an honest man who implicitly understood and respected the nature of the transaction between performer and audience. Once, in Atlantic City, he told the audience he didn’t think he’d given a good show and picked up the tab for the 900 people who had come out to see him. That beau geste cost him $4,000. He did the same thing at Harrah’s, years later, and it cost him $17,000.

To Davis, that was just walking-around money. Nothing was too good for him and his friends. He bought gold lighters and other gewgaws by the dozens and passed them out as tips. He was the sort of man who can never make enough money, because he’ll always spend more than he has. One way or another, affection had to be purchased: Onstage, there was his talent; offstage, there was his money.

Davis’ smooth baritone and range made him a natural for what is now called the great American songbook, but he was always possessed by the desire to be current, so as the 60’s became the 70’s, he began singing songs he shouldn’thave-“Spinning Wheel”-and punctuating the songs with screeching yowls borrowed from James Brown, evidently meant to indicate an equivalently funky soul.

This was the time when Davis was at his worst, adopting the affectations of the anti-war and Black Power movements without a clue as to the politics behind them. Acceptance superseded alcohol as Davis’ drug of choice. He felt compelled to peddle whatever the audience seemed to be buying. If it was black power, Sammy was there, raising the clenched fist, and if it was Nixon, well, sure, man, come here and lemme give you a hug.

As Mr. Fishgall writes, “There was no real Sammy. Occasionally, he would feel something so strongly-his conversion to Judaism, his marriage to May-that he persevered regardless of what others thought. But more often than not, he … derived so much of his sense of self from what he saw reflected back at him from friends and fans that he became whatever people wanted him to be. Because that differed from group to group, the result was an ill-formed polyglot.” (This is confirmed by the fact that, when his daughter got married, Davis watched Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride three times to get a handle on the proper demeanor.)

Davis wasn’t quite a great singer. He did have a great voice, but he seldom penetrated a lyric to get beneath the surface to the emotion; he preferred to belt it out and get-and give-instant gratification. His drive to achieve facility with everything he attempted mitigated against excellence in any one discipline. A great record takes time, an inner ear that hears the music before it’s made, not to mention dozens of takes, and Davis simply lacked the patience. There was always another gig, another girl, another experience. He recorded some great songs, but he never made a great album, and a short black man with one eye who was only beautiful when surrounded by the nimbus of his full-tilt talent was never going to get the kind of movie opportunities necessary to permanently preserve a stage legend.

Mr. Haygood has a much better feel for the big picture-there’s lots here about the civil-rights struggle, and Davis’ peculiar push/pull relationship with black radicals, not to mention High Church Republicans-and he’s very good with the lonesome-train-whistle Americana of the vaudeville days. But he seems to have something of a tin ear about other aspects of the entertainment world, which leads to introductory characterizations that seem to come straight from the pages of My Weekly Show Business Reader : “George Raft, an actor in gangster movies … “; “the old cowboy movie star Dan Duryea.” And he refers to the director of the grotesque movie version of Porgy and Bess as “the estimable Otto Preminger,” strongly implying he’s never seen anything besides Laura .

Mr. Haygood sees Davis as profoundly emblematic of the 20th-century black experience, a character worthy of Richard Wright, except with insecurity as the dominant characteristic rather than rage, engaged in a constant emotional writhing in an effort to please as many people as possible. An equally good case can be made that Davis was actually another one of William Carlos Williams’ pure products of America. The power of Mr. Haygood’s prose on, for instance, the subject of Davis’ performance on Broadway in Golden Boy is convincing: “What now ailed the country-fear, pain, paranoia, the madness of sex-all seemed to be inside Sammy. He was dispensing it like some great pharmacist of feeling-all our racial paranoias. Pull back the curtain and, for the simple price of a Broadway ticket, there it was, all on display. What had killed Bert Williams and haunted Jack Johnson only enlivened Sammy. Race and sex were the American sword.”

When Davis died in 1990, he left an estate of $4 million and an I.R.S. debt that topped $7 million-frenetic hurly-burly to the end and beyond. But consider this: In the 13 years since his death, no one has come along who can do what the show-business machine known as Sammy Davis Jr. could do: lift an audience out of their seats in any one of three or four demanding disciplines, and do it night after night for 60 years. And no one’s going to do it, either. That school is permanently out of session.

So he hugged Nixon. Someone had to.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published next year by Simon and Schuster .

What Made Sammy Run? A Hunger for Applause