How about Louise Beavers? Leo Gorcey? What about Ann Blythe, Michael Callan, or Pete Duel?
Those people were once big Hollywood names, but unless you’re of a Certain Age or are a student of stardom, you probably don’t recognize them.
In the 1950s and 60s, singer/dancer/actor Sammy Davis Jr. was one of America’s best-loved performers but you rarely hear much about him these days. In the new book “Deconstructing Sammy” (c.2008, Harper Collins Amistad, $25.95 / $27.95 Canada, 280 pages) by Matt Birkbeck, you’ll see why.
Three years after Sammy Davis Jr. was born, his parents divorced and his father took Sammy on the road. Though he would forever lack a formal education, it was quickly apparent that the child was talented; he was able to mimic almost every performer he saw.
Because he and his father had performed as the opening act for many big names, Sammy’s star rose quickly. He became friends with Frank Sinatra, and later, with other major stars of the era.
For two decades, Sammy Davis Jr. was one of America’s top entertainers. In the 1970s, though, his audience-drawing ability began to wane. He got involved in some iffy business deals and made several bad financial decisions. When he died in 1990, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s estate was a mess and his entertainment legacy all but gone.
Four years after Davis’ death, Sonny Murray, a Pennsylvania lawyer, told a friend of his father’s that he would take the case of Altovise Davis, wife of the late star. Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr. had a noticeable problem with alcohol and she was in ill health. Worse, she was in deep debt and in trouble with the IRS.
For years, Sonny worked on behalf of Altovise Davis, trying to clear up her debts. He became obsessed with re-establishing Sammy Davis Jr.’s amazing legacy, and he worked with little or no pay to do it, often, according to Birkbeck, with little or no help from Altovise.
In the end, the life and death of a singer consumed the life of the attorney.
While “Deconstructing Sammy” surely kept me up a few nights past my bedtime, it could have easily been called “Deconstructing Altovise” or “Deconstructing Sonny” because the latter two people were easily two-thirds of the book.
With a journalist’s eye toward a great story, author Matt Birkbeck leads readers through a decades-long financial mess including cover-ups, deals that obviously took advantage of Sammy, mob connections, political friendships and snubbings, and contractual issues that affected the singer’s life and estate, including some with several players who appeared to have been playing the famous performer.
While Davis’ life-story is un-put-down-able, though, Birkbeck’s portrayal of Sonny Murray is absolutely stunning. It’s a tale of obsession, legal wrangling, and wanting to do the right thing despite the roadblocks erected by the very people who would have benefited most from Murray’s work.
If you love a good scandal, a good story, or a great bio, you’re going to want to read “Deconstructing Sammy” soon. Remember this one on your next trip to the library or bookstore.