1/9/12 - sammy davis, jr. and the harsh road to fame

In today's excerpt - Sammy Davis, Jr. was "short, maimed, ugly, black, Jewish, gaudy, [and] uneducated," yet through unmatched determination was perhaps the greatest American entertainer of them all—a superstar of song, stage and screen:

"Sammy Davis Jr. was the kind of guy about whom God seemed not to have been able to make up his mind. On the face of things, by his own reckoning, he had more strikes against him than you could count—he was short, maimed, ugly, black, Jewish, gaudy, uneducated. But he could do anything: song, dance, pantomime, impressions, jokes, and even, in a manner of speaking, drama. He overcame so much that his merely being there among them was an epochal triumph: He was the Jackie Robinson of showbiz.

"And yet when he saw himself in a mirror he was disgusted: 'I gotta get bigger,' he'd implore himself. 'I gotta get better.'

"He was so used to being excluded that he was willing to kill himself with work to be let in. He'd suffer all manner of indignities: Frank's clumsy racial jokes; years of Jim Crow treatment in theaters, hotels, and restaurants; the nigger-baiting of high-rolling southerners in Vegas casi­nos; a patently bogus marriage to a black dancer intended to quiet jour­nalists about his taste for white girls; the explicit disdain of mobsters and other bosses. But he kept at it, convinced that sheer will and talent would stop the world saying no.

"Who was he trying to impress? His mother, a showgirl, was a cipher in his life, a ghost whose approval he never seems to have missed; his father, a small-time song-and-dance man, he eclipsed when still a boy. All the know-it-alls, naysayers, and bigots who'd ever discouraged him he'd silenced with sheer talent, guts, and drive. The gods themselves nodded with pleasure upon him: 'This kid's the greatest entertainer,' declared Groucho Marx at Hollywood's Jewish mecca of leisure, the Hillcrest Country Club, one afternoon, 'and this goes for you, too, Jolson' (to which Jolie merely responded with a smile). He was not only the first black man through the door but one of the all-time greats, regardless of origin.

"Yet he felt hollow: All the money and fame and sex and sycophants in the world still couldn't squelch the nagging inner sense that he was a nothing—and that if he could only rouse a little more out of himself, he could finally be a something. He sang that he was '133 pounds of confi­dence,' that he was 'Gonna Build a Mountain,' that he had 'a lot of livin' to do,' and he sounded like he meant it. But each garish boast gave off a vibe of whistling past a graveyard; in his heart of hearts, he could never vanquish the sense that all the work he'd done to get so far could be snuffed out by a mere wave of Fate's lordly white hand."


Shawn Levy


Rat Pack Confidential


Random House


Copyright 1998 by Shawn Levy


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