Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, and Madnessby Matt Birkbeck
Equal parts cultural history, celebrity biography, and brilliant investigative journalism, Deconstructing Sammy by Matt Birkbeck is a behind-the-scenes look at the disastrous fall of one of the brightest stars of Hollywood and Las Vegas: Sammy Davis, Jr. A member of the infamous Rat Pack, a compatriot of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and one of the/b>
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Equal parts cultural history, celebrity biography, and brilliant investigative journalism, Deconstructing Sammy by Matt Birkbeck is a behind-the-scenes look at the disastrous fall of one of the brightest stars of Hollywood and Las Vegas: Sammy Davis, Jr. A member of the infamous Rat Pack, a compatriot of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and one of the most popular performers of his day, Sammy Davis, Jr. was an entertainment icon and a national treasure who earned more than $50 million over the course of his career yet ended up nearly destitute. Deconstructing Sammy tells the whole sad, sordid, fascinating true story.
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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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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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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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.
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!