In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.by Wil Haygood
He was, for decades, one of the most recognizable figures in the cultural landscape, his image epitomizing a golden age of American show business. His career spanned a lifetime, but for years he has remained hidden behind the persona he so vigorously generated, and so fiercely protected. Now, in this surprising, illuminating, and compulsively readable biography, we… See more details below
He was, for decades, one of the most recognizable figures in the cultural landscape, his image epitomizing a golden age of American show business. His career spanned a lifetime, but for years he has remained hidden behind the persona he so vigorously generated, and so fiercely protected. Now, in this surprising, illuminating, and compulsively readable biography, we are taken beyond the icon, into the extraordinary, singular life of Sammy Davis, Jr.
In scrupulous detail and with stunning powers of evocation, Wil Haygood takes us back to the era of vaudeville, where it all began for four-year-old Sammy who ran out onstage one night and stole the show. From then on it was a motherless childhood on the road, singing and dancing his way across a segregated America with his father and the formidable showman Will Mastin, struggling together to survive the Depression and the demise of vaudeville itself.
With an ambition honed by poverty and an obsessive need for applause, Sammy drove his way into the nightclub circuit of the 1940s and 1950s, when, his father and Mastin aging and out of style, he slowly began to make a name for himself, hustling his way to top billing and eventually to recording contracts. From there, he was to stake his claim on Broadway, in Hollywood, and, of course, in Las Vegas.
Haygood brings Sammy’s showbiz life into full relief against the backdrop of an America in the throes of racial change. Sammy grew up trapped between the worlds of blacks and whites, with so much invested in both. He made his living entertaining white people but was often denied service in the very venues he played. Drafted into a newly integrated U.S. Army in the 1940s, he saw up close the fierce tensions that seethed below the surface. Dragged into the civil rights movement, he witnessed a hatred that often erupted into violence. In his broad and varied friendships and alliances (with Frank Sinatra; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Richard Nixon; Sidney Poitier; Marilyn Monroe, to name just a few), not to mention his romances (his relationship with Kim Novak and his marriage to the blond beauty May Britt drew death threats), he forged uncharted paths across racial lines. Admired and reviled by both blacks and whites, he was tormented all his life by raging insecurities, and never quite came to terms with his own skin. Ultimately, his only true sense of his identity was as a performer.
Based on painstaking research and more than 250 interviews, Wil Haygood brings us a sweeping and vivid cultural history of the twentieth century, chronicling black entertainment from its beginnings and the birth of popular culture as we know it. In Black and White transcends simple biography to become an important record, both celebratory and elegiacal, of a vanished America and its greatest entertainer.
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Read an Excerpt
Although Sammy Davis, Jr., was descended from the dangers of the Negro plantation-this one located in rural North Carolina-it was the Cuban blood that would confuse him for a lifetime. Family members on the Cuban side would refer to it as "this Cuban thing." They meant the currency implied in a particular shade of skin color. And, linked to that, they meant the way love and resentment and distance and abandonment can infect any family, the way it could zoom in and out of mothers and sons and daughters, like a storm whooshing sideways on a horizontal force of its own, missing no one. So it was with his own family.
"My mother was born in San Juan," Sammy Davis, Jr., proclaimed. But it was a lie, and he knew it. She was born in New York City, of Cuban heritage. The Cuban ancestry, in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev battle to a standoff over nuclear arsenals, made Sammy nervous. Anti-Cuban sentiment had swept the land. The Cuban-haters might begin to dislike him, and Sammy was not in the business of losing admirers and fans. So he flipped the Cuban history-telling relatives to keep quiet about it-with made-up Puerto Rican history. And what the hell, he used the invented history for a joke that made many laugh, all the while lancing piercingly into his own insecurities: "My mother was born in San Juan. So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman." A pause for the punch line: "When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time."
All his life, he hewed to a talent that enabled more than a few brilliantly tragic minstrel performers to endure: he had the mysterious gift to laugh away a deep, nearly unfathomable pain that finds one scratching for an identity while lost in the beguilingly lit world of make-believe.
. . .
Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, maternal grandmother was born Luisa Valentina Aguiar on February 14, 1884, at 111 Thompson Street in lower Manhattan. Her father, Enrique Aguiar, had given her the middle name Valentina because she was born on Valentine's Day. Enrique, born in Cuba, often talked of family wealth and respect back home in his native land. He had handsome eyes, looked like a man who supremely believed in himself, and carried himself with a regal bearing. Connecticut-born Ida Henderson had a soft round face and long, lovely hair. Enrique first spotted her strolling past a Manhattan laundry and gave pursuit. The romance led to marriage. Both Enrique and Ida were extremely light-skinned and could have mixed with the white citizenry of Manhattan easily. They made a striking couple walking in afternoon sunshine. Her pregnancy greatly delighted both. Then came sudden tragedy: Ida died giving birth to Luisa.
Enrique Aguiar had been very much in love with his wife, and her death devastated him. He was now forced to ponder, alone, how he would care for his only child.
Enrique Aguiar vowed to hold on to Luisa, and was proud of himself for doing so. The dynamic imbued her with a fierce and independent spirit of her own. Over the years, Luisa's light complexion and flowing hair would come to strongly resemble her mother's. The two of them-Luisa would often talk of it in the decades to come-weathered the violent blizzard of 1888 in New York City. The city suffered $20 million in damages during that storm. Many, trudging home in feet-high snow, had been forced to find shelter in the city's jails.
Like many Cubans living in New York City in 1898, Enrique Aguiar couldn't have helped but notice the screaming newspaper headlines about the bombing of the U.S. ship Maine while it was anchored in Havana Harbor, on the night of February 15. In the blast, 254 soldiers died instantly; eight more died later. The Maine was in Havana on a fact-finding mission following constant reports of Cubans being abused by the Spanish. A little less than a month before the explosion, the Spanish military in Cuba destroyed the offices of four news-papers criticizing its presence. The attacks sparked rioting, which alerted American diplomatic officials on the island.
Spain had upward of 500,000 troops serving in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in a desperate attempt to keep its imperialist grip on the region. The infamous Alfonso Guards of Spain-who fancied wide-brimmed white sombreros-easily outdid the Cuban insurgents, and over the years, every rebellion was put down. There were times when the Alfonso Guards would line captured rebels up alongside a fort wall on bended knee-faces toward the wall, hands tied behind them-and raise their heavy rifles. The snap-crack of shots would fill the air, blood would color the dirt, and revolution would be stayed for a while longer.
When Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean in 1492, its lush vistas must have dazzled his senses. It was Diego Velázquez, however, who would, in 1511, conquer the island for Spain and launch the Spanish Conquest. In 1526, African slaves were brought into Cuba to work the coffee and sugar plantations. Throughout the decades there would be slave and Indian uprisings. The islands of Cuba intrigued antiabolitionists during the American Civil War. They had a peculiar dream of annexing it and turning it into a slave-holding state. Disease eventually vanquished the Indians of Cuba. (Sammy's maternal grandmother, Luisa Sanchez-née Aguiar-was still, as a centenarian, reminding family members: "I am Cuban-and Indian.") With the Indian gone-though still coursing through their blood-blacks and Hispanics made up the Cuban populace. The Spanish delighted in pitting darker-skinned Cubans against lighter-skinned Cubans, and in the Spanish press, there often appeared reports of dark-skinned Cubans plotting uprisings. It became known as miedo al negro ("fear of the black"). Light-skinned Cubans considered themselves members of the ruling class, and it was from that class that Enrique Aguiar, father of Luisa, hailed.
Spanish officials denied involvement in the bombing of the Maine. In the blast's aftermath, President William McKinley urged caution, but Theodore Roosevelt, his assistant secretary of the navy, did not. The hyperactive Roosevelt browbeat administration officials into readying for war. He sent cables, made speeches, and harangued those close to McKinley. The Hearst news-papers urged war. William Randolph Hearst had been lucky: Richard Harding Davis, a star American reporter, was in Havana when the Maine was hit. Davis wrote feverishly, and Hearst ran emotional headlines that all but urged America to action.
Hearst's headlines were one thing, the words of Vermont senator Redfield Proctor quite another. Politicians of both stripes respected Proctor. He was not a man to idly commit American forces to foreign soil. On March 17, Proctor-who was a close McKinley ally-addressed the Senate to report on his thoughts following a trip to Cuba in the explosion's aftermath. He talked of the presence of concentration camps in Cuba that were filled with thousands. He said the loss of the Maine was tragic enough, but went on to say that if any appeal were made for war, it must be made because of "the spectacle of a million and a half of people, the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge." It was simple yet stunning oratory coming from a man of Proctor's revered caution. And it set loose whoops of war talk.
"Cuba Libre," went one cry.
"Remember the Maine / To hell with Spain!" went another.
As screaming headlines merged with patriotic fervor, it was becoming clear that Americans now wanted the Spanish out of Cuba. Battleships were prepared, though the month of March fell from the calendar with guns still silent. Crisscrossing the nation's capital like a man possessed, Theodore Roosevelt predicted that the country would "have this war for the freedom of Cuba." Roosevelt rose before a podium at a Gridiron Dinner and saw that Senator Mark Hanna, who was steadfastly opposed to war, was in attendance. Roosevelt ran down a litany of reasons why it was necessary for America to enter into battle. He assailed business interests, who he felt were screaming against a declaration of war, and implied that Hanna himself was unduly sympathetic to those interests. Realizing the sentiments of those in attendance at the dinner were in his favor, Roosevelt turned to Hanna with a sneer and asked, sharply: "Now, Senator, may we please have war?"
Death pushes hearts in all directions. A man, any man, scarred by the un-expected calamity of family death might well seek a strange kind of adventure where the heat of life itself can be felt, minute by minute, hour upon hour.
On April 21 the United States declared war on Cuba. McKinley asked
for volunteers. Enrique Aguiar, a widowed father, had to choose between country-Cuba-and daughter, Luisa. There were 125,000 who volunteered, and Enrique Aguiar was among them. He placed his fourteen-year-old daughter with a New York City foster family and promised her he would return. Then he left to go fight the Spaniards and free his countrymen.
We do not know if Enrique Aguiar fought at the Battle of El Caney, or at the campaign waged at Las Guasimas during the three-month Spanish-American War. We do not know if he was, at any time, in the vicinity of San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. We do not know if Enrique Aguiar, like other soldiers in the conflict, was felled by yellow fever or malaria while in a makeshift hospital on the island. But we do know this of Enrique Aguiar: he never returned home from the Spanish-American War to his daughter, Luisa.
For months after the campaign's end, Luisa Aguiar would gaze out windows and worry of her father's whereabouts. She would swear he was returning to her, as he said he would. She had no other family in New York City. Maybe he was arranging passage for her to Cuba. Or maybe the next knock at the door would be his knuckles rapping. Or maybe a messenger was on his way just now with tickets for her from New York to Tampa, where he was simply collecting himself in one of the city's hotels, as so many men did coming and going from Cuba. She hoped and wished and dreamed, and brushed away reports of his likely death. But there was no messenger, no telegram, even as young Luisa continued to tell acquaintances that she knew her father was returning to her. She was Catholic; she held to her faith.
But time passed, and it was as if Enrique Aguiar had vanished from the face of the earth without a trace. If Luisa Aguiar's world hadn't already cracked enough-boarding with a foster family she did not like-the presumed death of her father must have been an unimaginable blow. She couldn't quite let go, however, of the vision of her father striding into her eyesight. "My daddy," she would begin conversations in the years to come, before trailing off. The habit, according to her granddaughters, would remain with her into the tenth decade of her life. (Luisa Sanchez lived to be 112 years old.)
There was a powerful reason Luisa Sanchez did not like her foster family: they beat her. Welts and deep bruises appeared on her head. For her granddaughters, listening to the horror stories became a huge part of their upbringing. First they would hear all about Enrique and his disappearance. "She never saw him again," says Gloria Williams, the granddaughter, "and that's the thing that made her cry." Then Gloria would be treated to tales of Luisa's sufferings. "She would point to her head, parting her hair, to show bruises. She would say, 'Look. Look!' " recalls Williams.
Fearful of running alone into the streets of New York City, young Luisa Aguiar-a beauty, her skin a soft milky white-couldn't help but hope she'd meet someone to take her away from her foster family. That person was Marco Sanchez, himself of Cuban ancestry. Marco Sanchez sold Cuban cigars. Sometimes he bartered them for liquor, which he sold-and drank in heavy quantities, as well. Their marriage was tempestuous. Still, Luisa gave birth to four children, but only two-Julia, born in 1899, and Elvera, born in 1905-
survived beyond infancy. The heavy-drinking Marco Sanchez didn't survive long either-he died of cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind a young widow and two daughters.
First her father, now her husband. Once again, feelings of being abandoned and left adrift washed over Luisa Sanchez. But she was determined that such feelings would neither overwhelm nor defeat her.
By 1915, Luisa had found an apartment in Harlem, at 47 West 129th Street. Waves of Negroes had recently started migrating to upper Manhattan. It wasn't that Luisa followed the plight-or the momentum-of the Negro in New York. In fact, Luisa Sanchez did not keep company with Negroes. Her move to Harlem was purely for economical reasons. The rents were cheaper than in lower Manhattan. Sanchez found work as a personal maid and dresser for Laurette Taylor, a much-admired Broadway actress. Born, like Sanchez, in New York City in 1884, Taylor had made her New York stage debut at the age of nineteen in a production of From Rags to Riches. For years she toured the country in stock companies, honing her craft. On December 21, 1912, she opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre-it was that theater's grand
opening-in Peg o' My Heart, an Irish family drama written by Hartley Manners. Taylor played Peg, and the role made her a star. Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, came to see it and predicted that "within five years" Taylor would become "the foremost actress" in America. The play ran for 1,250 performances. Taylor had other memorable roles, in The Devil, The Great John Ganton, and The Ringmaster. Her reputation soared. Directors wooed her; she was an incandescent presence on a stage.
Being a personal maid for Taylor came with perks: Sanchez traveled with the actress, dined with her in fine restaurants. There was just enough color in Luisa's complexion that there were times she'd be mistaken for a nonwhite-perhaps Mediterranean. She took being called Negro or Puerto Rican as the worst kind of insult. "We don't serve Negroes," a restaurateur once said to Sanchez. "I don't speak English," she replied, unrolling her stock answer. "I'm Cuban."
Meeting other actors and actresses-John Barrymore had seemed taken with her beauty-delighted Luisa. Still, she was not one to swoon easily over men or their advances. Her physical beauty was one thing, but inside she seemed possessed of something hard and impenetrable. She did not have a timid tongue, and she was noticeably temperamental. Suitors found out quickly enough she was fiercely independent. Two men, on separate occasions, had each provided Luisa Sanchez with the services of an automobile. Grateful though she may have been, she married neither man, though both had hoped their generosity might move her heart. Relatives believed she had been so shaken by her first marriage that she forever lost faith in the institution.
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