Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, and Madness

( 4 )


Adored by millions, Sammy Davis Jr. was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy.

Years later his once-vivacious wife, Altovise, heir to one of the greatest entertainment legacies of the twentieth century, was living in poverty. With nowhere else to turn, she asked a former federal prosecutor, Albert “Sonny” Murray, to try to resolve Sammy's debts and restore his estate. ...

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Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob

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Adored by millions, Sammy Davis Jr. was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy.

Years later his once-vivacious wife, Altovise, heir to one of the greatest entertainment legacies of the twentieth century, was living in poverty. With nowhere else to turn, she asked a former federal prosecutor, Albert “Sonny” Murray, to try to resolve Sammy's debts and restore his estate. For seven years Sonny probed Sammy's life and came to understand the tormented artist as a man of tragic complexity.

Deconstructing Sammy is the extraordinary story of an international celebrity whose outsize talent couldn't save him from himself.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
“Birkbeck has killer leads, gripping kickers and sensational descriptions. This cinematic book reads more like a detective story than a traditional ‘life of.”
NPR's Talk of the Nation
“A piece of investigative journalism that unravels what happened to Davis’ estate, and reveals more about the man...Birkbeck spoke to people that have never spoken before — and the portrait of Sammy that emerges is difficult, demanding, and ultimately tragic.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Tremendous. . . Birkbeck tells the epic of Sammy Davis Jr... from his Harlem boyhood to his wrenching deathbed (he died of cancer in 1990) in his Beverly Hills mansion, where various hangers-on, seeing the circling vultures, stripped his corpse even before it was a corpse.”
Talk of the Nation - NPR
"A piece of investigative journalism that unravels what happened to Davis’ estate, and reveals more about the man...Birkbeck spoke to people that have never spoken before — and the portrait of Sammy that emerges is difficult, demanding, and ultimately tragic."
Terri Schlichenmeyer
"With a journalist’s eye toward a great story, author Matt Birkbeck leads readers through a decades-long financial mess including cover-ups… mob connections, political friendships and snubbing.…Un-put-down-able…Stunning."
Michael Rubinkam
"Davis’s remarkable life is certainly well-trod territory. Nevertheless, through interviews with close friends and confidants who had never spoken publicly before, Birkbeck digs up many startling details."
“With a journalist’s eye toward a great story, author Matt Birkbeck leads readers through a decades-long financial mess including cover-ups… mob connections, political friendships and snubbing.…Un-put-down-able…Stunning.”
“Davis’s remarkable life is certainly well-trod territory. Nevertheless, through interviews with close friends and confidants who had never spoken publicly before, Birkbeck digs up many startling details.”
Ada Calhoun
Deconstructing Sammy was written by an investigative journalist, and it shows: Birkbeck has killer leads, gripping kickers and sensational descriptions. This cinematic book reads more like a detective story than a traditional "life of."
—The New York Times
Library Journal

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]
—Michael Adams

The Barnes & Noble Review
Nearly 50 years after the early-1960s heyday of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack" in Las Vegas, interest in Frank and his cronies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. has turned into a cottage industry, with a constant stream of video releases, repackaged CDs, and impersonator concerts ensuring that the boys are ever present on the American cultural scene. Indeed, Sinatra, who died in May 1998, notched the country's second-bestselling CD in May 2008, his canonization further secured with the issuing of 120 million first-class Sinatra postage stamps. Dean Martin remains current with a steady re-release of his CDs and has long since passed into collective memory as Dino, the arbiter of cool. It's a state of affairs that leaves Sammy Davis Jr. the odd man out. It shouldn't be thus -- Davis was astonishingly talented as singer, dancer, and mimic, but his image is encountered infrequently, if at all, these days. Why the disconnect? That's exactly the question journalist Matt Birkbeck has set out to explore in his tell-all Deconstructing Sammy.

Birkbeck is sure of his mission; on the acknowledgments page, his first words are the rather startlingly self-reverential: "This important book...," while the subtitle reveals his focus: "Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob." While superb musicianship made Sammy's popularity possible, money quickly became his priority, and after he hit the big time, his life became a nonstop orgy of excess. One of the highest-paid entertainers on the Las Vegas strip, Sammy spent the money faster than he could earn it, buying jewelry, furs, and drugs in ever-increasing quantities. He grossed over $50 million in his career, but at the time of his death in 1990, his assets totaled $5 million, while his debts were more than three times that amount. With Davis's estate owing millions to the government, potential purveyors of the Sammy Davis Jr. image were few and far between. As a result, in Birkbeck's words, "Since Sammy's was as if Sammy never existed." How, the author wonders, could such a state of affairs have occurred?

Birkbeck sketches in details of Sammy's professional life, and the difficult path he walked as early-1960s America's most visible black entertainer. Triumphs onstage were offset by his personal difficulties: marriage to the Swedish blonde May Britt drew hate mail and death threats. A negligent parent who spent virtually no time with his children, Davis was so self-absorbed that his son Mark relates flying to Vegas to visit his father, only to be "forced to wait three hours outside Sammy's hotel room while Sammy entertained other guests." Although he was initially hailed as a trailblazer, Davis's gaudy lifestyle and obeisance to Sinatra caused uneasiness within the black community -- an uneasiness that exploded into charges of Uncle Tom–ism when he was photographed hugging President Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention.

Birkbeck sorts through Sammy's dabbling in "devil worship," tales of wife swapping, and even the claims of Davis biographer and confidant Burt Boyar that "Sammy knew who killed John F. Kennedy." There's juicy dish aplenty, but time after time the author's workmanlike but uninspired style intrudes: "Sammy was a natural talent, one of those rare people touched by the hand of God." The story may zip, but the prose often plods. Repetition mars the description of the tale's leading characters; more damaging, Birkbeck reconstructs dialogue verbatim from a distance of three decades. There are no footnotes to back up the participants' recall, and no acknowledgment of how wildly memories can vary regarding contentious matters.

According to the note on sources, Sammy's adjutant David Steinberg always refused to discuss Sammy. Nevertheless, when speaking with Birkbeck, Steinberg evidently possessed word-perfect recall of incidents that occurred many years earlier. To wit, Birkbeck recreates the screaming fit that ensued when Davis's arrival to entertain at the 1974 Monaco Red Cross gala had not been accorded what Sammy felt was sufficient respect. " 'Who do they fucking think I am!' he screamed between swigs from a champagne bottle." Princess Grace's cool retort to Steinberg's plea on Sammy's behalf? "Maybe Mr. Davis is just a little too old to be doing this and I suggest he should just get onto his little yacht and toddle off into the sea." One can't help but wonder about Steinberg's instant recall of Princess Grace's exact words so long after the event, or, for that matter, how, without third wife Altovise's participation in the book, Birkbeck can unequivocally claim that "whenever Sammy hosted a late-night orgy and instructed his wife to make love to another woman, she did."

Birkbeck is on firmer ground as he lays out exactly how the high-earning Davis came to leave behind "the largest single open case of an individual taxpayer debt in the nation." Indeed, the real star of the book is not Sammy but dogged attorney Sonny Murray, who was originally retained by Altovise to sort through IRS problems, missing assets, and Davis family dysfunction (which ironically and most notably concerned the alcoholic and irrational Altovise). Dealing with the vodka tippling (out of mayonnaise jars, no less) widow, Murray is portrayed as nothing short of saintly. Unlike Altovise, Murray cooperated with the book, which may partially account for the skewed perspective. Obsessed with regaining her status in Beverly Hills, Altovise emerges as a Cruella de Vil figure, yet sadness at her fate is not hard to summon; when Murray prepared her for an expected onslaught of interviews with a written list of hypothetical press questions, her response to the test query "We heard you were in a mental institution" was a despairing "Every day of my life."

Birkbeck's background as an investigative journalist (he has written three true-crime books) allows him to cleanly lay out Davis's failed investments in dubious real estate ventures and fraudulent tax shelters. What's sorely missing, however, is a true analysis of how Davis succeeded professionally, and why the needy, generous, infuriating star is worthy of a reading audience's rooting interest. Scant attention is paid to the wildly conflicting responses Davis engendered within the African-American community; such historical context regarding his pioneering efforts would have lent resonance to the often mind-boggling accounts of his financial malfeasance. As it is, Birkbeck never fully succeeds in deconstructing the wild contradictions in Davis's personal and professional lives.

In the words of Sammy's daughter Tracey, "Here we are, seventeen years after my dad died, and his estate is still being mismanaged into oblivion. It's horrible." It is indeed a saga of incompetence and neglect, and while readers fascinated by the Rat Pack's seemingly inexhaustible hold on the collective imagination may find the book worth a look, those seeking a true deconstruction of Sammy Davis Jr. and his prominent place in 20th-century American culture will have to wait for a more incisive biography. --Tom Santopietro

Tom Santopietro is a contributor to the Barnes & Noble Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061450679
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 780,495
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

Deconstructing Sammy

Chapter One

October 2005

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.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2012

    A Wasted Life

    Deconstructing Sammy by Matt Birkbeck was a well written and informative book but at the end I felt rather sad at all the foolish choices Sammy made. I felt he was one of the to entertainers in the fifties and sixties and he had it all but it seemed Sammy always wanted more, more gold lighters, more diamond cuffs, more big parties to through for his friends and hanger-ons. This story takes place after Sammy's death and his wife Altovese is left in dior financial straight with the Goverment wanting over 7 million dollars in back taxes and how a lawyer from PA came to help her out. There isn't much to admire in her as she kept on wanting to be Mrs Sammy Davis and keep the same life style but the lawyer spent years on trying to work with the IRS to come to a compromise and then when he did all of that restore Sammy's fame and glory which would have generated income for his wife. He finally managed to (after years of work) arrange a settlement, something that Altoves could handle and was set to work on getting all of Sammy's music and books together when Altovese dumped him for some group that thought they could do better. I felt horrid for him and disgust for her.

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  • Posted December 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Destruction of Sammy

    Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, and Madness is not an actual biography in the traditional sense. Author Matt Birkbeck shares the stories and memories of those that were closest to the iconic entertainer as well as the findings of Sonny Murray, whose investigation into Sammy's debts encompasses the bulk of the book. This is not a glamorous portrait of a man who was, and still is, a loved entertainer. This is a look at a man who wanted fame and fortune at almost all costs. He spent without reserve, dabbled heavily in drugs and alcohol, married for convenience, neglected his wife and children, had numerous affairs, made deals with the mob, and surrounded himself with an entourage of mostly self-serving individuals. Those around him could see his decline but few, very few, attempted to put a stop to the disaster that was inevitable - they were being paid to say yes.

    This was a truly fascinating book. There are so many stories and recollections of other household names. Frank Sinatra "discovering" Sammy and supposedly introducing him to the ways of the mob. Dean Martin was actually a quiet homebody who did not partake in the over-the-top partying of the Rat Pack crew. Sammy ran with a powerful crowd, in the entertainment industry as well as politically. There is even a hint that Sammy knew the true story who shot JFK. What really struck me was how massive the fall from fame and fortune. From buying Chinese carry-out for an entire commercial airliner that was stranded on the runway all the way to his "friends" sneaking into his home and stealing his belongings (furniture, clothes, heirlooms from his friends in the entertainment industry, jewelry) while Sammy Davis laid in bed stricken with cancer. There is also the story of Sonny Murray's attempts to deal with the largest individual IRS debt on record in 1994 and revitalize Sammy's name and reputation. The obstacles in dealing with the wife (Altovise), Sammy's children, the IRS, and Sammy's former accountants and financial advisors makes for an interesting read.

    Reading this book was like peeling back layers with a new revelation in each chapter. Entertaining read!

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    Posted December 10, 2011

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    Posted February 21, 2014

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