The New York Times
Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness, and the Mobby Matt Birkbeck, Peter Jay Fernandez
Sammy Davis Jr. lived a storied life. Adored by millions over a six-decade-long career, he was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy. His estate was declared insolvent, and there was no possibility of itever using Sammy's name or likeness again. It was as
Sammy Davis Jr. lived a storied life. Adored by millions over a six-decade-long career, he was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy. His estate was declared insolvent, and there was no possibility of itever using Sammy's name or likeness again. It was as if Sammy had never existed.
Years later his wife, Altovise, a once-vivacious woman and heir to one of the greatest entertainment legacies of the twentieth century, was living in poverty, and with nowhere else to go, she turned to a former federal prosecutor, Albert "Sonny" Murray, to make one last attempt to resolve Sammy's debts, restore his estate, and revive his legacy. For seven years Sonny probed Sammy's life to understand how someone of great notoriety and wealth could have lost everything, and in the process he came to understand Sammy as a man whose complexity makes for a riveting work of celebrity biography as cultural history.
Matt Birkbeck's serious work of investigative journalism unveils the extraordinary story of an international celebrity at the center of a confluence of entertainment, politics, and organized crime, and shows how even Sammy's outsized talent couldn't save him from himself.
The New York Times
Investigative journalist Birkbeck's look at entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.'s flawed life primarily focuses on the tangled financial mess Davis left behind for his widow when he died in 1990. The pouring over of complicated legal matters is tough going regardless of the format, but while a reader might skip about looking for show business anecdotes, such skimming is less easy with audio. That said, the always excellent Peter Jay Fernandez, who reads James Patterson's Alex Cross thrillers, delivers a sympathetic performance. Tax attorneys may find this title fascinating but not general audiences. [Audio clip available through
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Read an Excerpt
Hundreds of people, many dressed in colorful clothing, slowly filled the vast auditorium at East Stroudsburg University to pay their last respects to Albert R. Murray Sr.
Affectionately known as "the Judge," he died the week before, following a short illness, and after a private burial, his friends, family, and admirers came to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, not only to say good-bye, but to celebrate an extraordinary life.
The Judge and his wife, Odetta, were the founders and owners of the Hillside Inn in nearby Marshall's Creek. For fifty years, the Hillside catered to a predominantly African-American clientele, carving out an existence on a plot of land in northeastern Pennsylvania as a safe and quiet refuge for African-Americans routinely denied accommodations, especially during the tense racial times of the 1950s and 1960s. The Judge and Odetta personally felt that sting, and when Odetta vowed during a business trip to the Poconos in 1954 never to sleep in a car by the side of a road again, the Hillside was born. Odetta, whom everyone called Mama, died in 2002, and now, with the Judge gone, their only child, Albert Jr., was heir to their legacy.
Known by all as Sonny, he stood in front of the auditorium, dwarfed by a giant image of the Judge projected onto a big screen that hung over the stage. Sonny smiled as he shook hands and gave warm hugs to friends and family members, some of whom traveled from as far as Georgia. Welcoming his guests, he proudly pointed to a framed letter from Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell. It was a congratulatory letter written the year before, addressed to"Judge Murray," recognizing him not only for his great service to the Commonwealth, but for providing a "model hospitality facility in the Pocono Mountains" and his "courageous vision in a time of considerable discrimination."
"I have no doubt," wrote Rendell, "that the importance of the Hillside Inn Resort Hotel...and its founders...will continue to be felt for lifetimes to come."
Distant aunts and cousins cried after reading the letter, and all offered stern admonishments to Sonny to keep the legacy alive. At fifty-six, with specks of gray hair the only signs of age on a solid, stout body, he nodded his head, placating the well-wishers. Sonny knew the Hillside was a legacy he didn't want. An attorney by trade, Sonny had taken over the daily operation of the Hillside a year before Mama died, which prompted heated arguments with the Judge over its future. The Judge firmly believed the Hillside, a thirty-three-room resort, should remain as it always was through the decades...a last bastion of black pride, a place to rest and to heal the soul. But Sonny thought that time had come and passed. This wasn't the 1950s, he reasoned, and blacks now were accepted everywhere, from large destinations like Disney World to small bed-and-breakfast hotels in Vermont. The Hillside, he argued, was an anachronism that would not, and could not, survive.
He had seen too many times the reaction from a white couple or family who unknowingly booked a stay at the black resort only to leave quickly after arriving. Sonny also knew the strong feelings of the black guests, who didn't want to share their "home" with whites. But Sonny believed that for the Hillside to survive he needed to broaden its clientele, and after taking over the day-to-day operation in 2001 he gave the resort a facelift. He purchased new beds, hired painters, and conceived a marketing plan that touted the Hillside as a multicultural home for jazz and a place of respite for all races and ethnicities.
The Judge was irate.
The grandson of slaves, the Judge was a man of purpose and steadfast resolve. As a child growing up near Augusta, Georgia, he picked cotton and rode his bike ten miles a day, each way, to attend a better high school. He later joined the army, married Mama, and served in England during World War II. After the war, they followed the postwar migration north and settled in Brooklyn, where Mama worked as a nurse while studying for a master's degree in elementary education. The Judge earned his law degree at Brooklyn College and became partners with Abe Kaufman, a Jewish accountant. Together, the unlikely pair began buying up homes and properties in Brooklyn and selling to black buyers who, like the Murrays, left the South to find better homes and jobs. The racial makeup of Brooklyn slowly changed as the steadily rising black population served as the impetus for the white flight to the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey.
Sonny was born in 1949. When he was one, his parents, working to complete their educations, sent him to live with relatives in Georgia, where he later learned to roll tobacco, pick cotton, and slaughter cows. He also experienced racial prejudice, particularly when he unknowingly attempted to drink from a "whites only" water fountain in Augusta.
"Hey, nigger. You don't drink from there, ever. That's for white people only. You use that one over there. And don't forget that."
Even at a tender age, Sonny never forgot those hurtful words, or the confusion he felt trying to understand why he couldn't share a fountain with anyone else. It was, after all, just water. But Sonny learned the ways of the South before eventually returning to New York. Mama had a nickname ready for him...Sammy...after her beloved father, Sam Sanders, and she'd whisper "How's my little Sammy" into her son's ear while cradling him in her arms.
Mama and the Judge bought the worn-down Hillside Inn in 1954, following a visit to the Poconos. What was a business trip for the young, hardworking couple turned into an unsuccessful quest to find a room, any room. But no hotel or resort would accept them, and they slept in their car. Upon their return to Brooklyn, Mama vowed to open a hotel accepting of minorities, and the Hillside was born. It had only two floors, two bathrooms, and eight rooms, and needed a fresh coat of paint, but together with Kaufman, the Murrays bought what had been a boardinghouse and commuted the seventy-five miles from their home in Brooklyn to oversee what they hoped would be a vacation retreat for blacks. When Kaufman died in 1955, the Murrays gained full ownership. But they were treated poorly and forced to endure numerous indignities from a rural Pennsylvania community that expressed its unhappiness with their new black neighbors in a variety of ways, from suppliers refusing to deliver goods and supplies to local banks declining to even consider business loans.Deconstructing Sammy. Copyright © by Matt Birkbeck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Award-winning investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck is a former correspondent for People magazine and has written for the New York Times, Reader's Digest, Boston Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of A Beautiful Child and A Deadly Secret, which was the subject of an MSNBC documentary, and coauthor of Till Death Do Us Part. He lives in Pennsylvania.
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What a sad book this is. I almost didn't want to finish it, but couldn't put it down. The book is about Sammy, but it is also about the people in his life and what a life it was. I was shocked by what I was reading and saddened that this was the life of one of the most talented men in the entertainment business. There are so many details my head was spinning and my jaw was dropped. It was like a traffic accident. You don't want to look but you can't help yourself. I'm still a fan of Sammy Davis Jr. but will never think of him in the same way as I did before I read the book.