Dancing to the Bigot's Tune; Day Two:why Sammy Davis Jr Endured Humiliation at the Hands of Frank Sinatra and JFK

Daily Mail (London), September 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Dancing to the Bigot's Tune; Day Two:why Sammy Davis Jr Endured Humiliation at the Hands of Frank Sinatra and JFK


Byline: SHAWN LEVY

NO STAR paid a higher price for Rat Pack status than Sammy Davis Jr.

Among the earliest recruits to the ultimate in-group of the Fifties and Sixties, Davis yearned for acceptance in an era when black entertainers were treated as second-class citizens. Membership of Sinatra's gang seemed an accolade, and Sammy stayed loyal to the grave - but as a fascinating new book reveals, the Rat Pack brought the worst humiliations of his life, destroyed his marriage and set him on collision course with disaster.

HERE'S the Rat Pack in action at the outset of the Sixties, their show the hottest ticket in Las Vegas. The world's supreme entertainers of their kind are having a ball and kindly allowing the public to gatecrash.

The running gag is that Dean Martin -'direct from the bar' - and the rest heckle each other mercilessly. Only Sina-tra gets to sing his numbers right through, in hushed admiration. The others run a slapstick-and-wisecracks obstacle course, and the audience eats it up.

Sammy Davis Jr, the best dancer and impressionist by far, a terrific singer and passable comic, has the hardest time.

Hardly has he started What Kind Of Fool Am I? than Sinatra calls, 'Keep smiling so Dancing

they can see you, Smokey!' Sometimes it's something witty like: 'Hurry up, Sam, your watermelon's getting warm.' Or boozy Dino will hoist diminutive Sammy up in his arms, grinning: 'I'd like to thank the National Association For The Advancement Of Coloured People for this award.' Today the alleged banter seems closer to a verbal lynching. But gifted as he was, Sammy's Rat Pack membership depended on his ability to take orders, know his place in the pecking order and be grateful for it. In this respect, Frank could always count on him. Sammy's inevitable role was to be Frank and Dean's favourite fall-guy. Watching archive clips of his ritual humiliations is painful and sometimes unbearable.

THEY goad him about being both black and Jewish as a motherless kid growing up on the road, Jewish variety performers had been kind to him so he converted to their faith.

And Sammy took it, inviting more. Like a courtier to Ivan the Terrible, he bent over laughing, making sure his liege lord, Sinatra, saw it. His face stretched in desperate mirth, slapping his knees in a frenzy of appreciation.

Not a sound is coming from Davis's mouth .. .

His long ordeal wasn't restricted to the Rat Pack's stage appearances, or their films in which he drew insultingly menial roles.

Riding in Sinatra's slipstream exposed Sammy Davis to even nastier bruising instances of bigotry - not from rednecks knowing no better, but through his uneasy adoption by Frank's exploitative buddy, presidential hopeful Jack Kennedy.

SON of tap-dancer Sammy Davis and Puerto Rican chorus girl Elvera Sanchez, people began applauding Sammy Davis Jr before his third birthday; multitalented and hyperactively energetic, he hardly paused for the next 60 years.

Sammy's driving demon was dissatisfaction with himself.

He was a bizarre-looking shrimp and no matter the degree of success achieved, he had to do better still. That involved being treated on equal terms by white people.

Becoming a fixture in the Rat Pack, even as a clown, appeared to grant that respect.

He would also have known that behind the bigotted banter lay a deep paradox. For Sinatra had genuine liking for underdogs and hatred of prejudice. As king of the crooners in the Forties, he crusaded against racism despite warnings that it would lose him fans.

Maybe pillorying Sammy Davis in grossly offensive terms was a facet of the Rat

Pack's blithe certainty that rules were for others; a sort of double bluff.

Frank and his cronies were genuinely colour-blind, so they could tease a buddy in the style forbidden to lesser mortals . . .

Sammy's self-lacerating worship of Sinatra dated back to the early Forties, when the funny-looking black kid, an emergent star at 16, met him for the first time. …

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