American writer James Baldwin believed that Sammy Davis Jr had a simple choice in life: He had to decide between greatness and madness. Baldwin believed he chose greatness—but by the end of his life, if you'd been at one of his salacious, drug-fueled bacchanales, you'd have to admit: More than a little madness leaked in too.
Sammy Davis Jr Facts
1. He Was Born For This
Sammy Davis Jr was born to perform. Born to Elvera Sanchez, a chorus line dancer at the Apollo in Harlem, and Sammy Davis Sr, a lifetime dancer and vaudevillian, little Sammy hit the spotlight before he could walk.
His parents thrust him onto the Vaudeville stage when he was just a toddler. He could barely speak, but audiences loved it when he made faces. They were the ultimate show-business family—but they wouldn't remain a family for long.
2. His Parents Split Up
Davis's parents divorced when he was just three years old. Sammy Sr went back to his old life on the road, traveling the Vaudeville circuit. Not wanting to lose his son, Sammy Sr took full custody of Sammy Jr and brought the boy with him.
Before he had turned four, Davis had already performed in 50 cities. Davis adored every minute of it—but only because his father shielded him from the painful truth.
3. His Father Hid The Truth
Davis Jr and Sr traveled and performed with Will Mastin, and together they formed the Will Mastin Trio. They got steady work, but they couldn't escape reality: As three Black men (well, one just a boy), they received prejudice on nearly a daily basis. The adults, however, did everything in their power to keep Davis Jr from realizing it had anything to do with the color of their skin.
They mostly managed to play off any incidents as "jealousy"—but it wasn't long before the world taught Sammy Davis Jr the hard truth.
4. He Got A Rude Awakening
Sammy Davis Jr's number came up in the draft in 1944. Suddenly, the 18-year-old boy who'd never known anything but the stage found himself in the US Army's first-ever integrated infantry unit at the height of WWII. Davis must have been terrified. He had no idea just how bad it was going to be. White soldiers from the South tormented him constantly.
Barely 120 pounds, Davis Jr got into a fistfight nearly every single day. White soldiers broke his nose several times, giving him his trademark pancaked nose. But that was just the start of the abuse he endured.
5. His Tormenters Were Disgusting
When white soldiers weren't trying to beat Sammy Davis Jr up, they found more twisted ways to make his life miserable. In one incident, they forcibly painted his skin bone white. Another time, they tricked him into drinking a beer that one of them had peed in.
In the Army, Davis finally realized that his father and Will Mastin had been lying to him all these years. It wasn't jealousy after all.
6. He Wasn't Going To Take It
In 1945, Sammy Davis Jr returned to show business a new man. He now knew what his father had hidden: The world was against him. Maybe this was the point where he chose between genius and madness, because he decided he was going to show the world he was a star, no matter what. He was born for this life, after all. No one was going to take it from him.
7. He Made A Splash
In 1951, the Will Mastin Trio took the stage at Ciro's in Hollywood. As the night's openers, their set was only supposed to last 20 minutes—but the crowd contained some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Sammy Davis Jr could turn it on when he wanted to, and that night, he turned it up to 11.
Sammy launched into his impressions, and the celebrities in the crowd ate it up so enthusiastically that the Trio stayed on stage for nearly an hour. Davis Jr introduced himself to Hollywood in style—and his life would never be the same.
8. His Career Took Off
After his explosive LA debut at Ciro's, Davis's career skyrocketed. By 1953, ABC offered the recently-smalltime vaudevillian his own TV show. Unfortunately, the world hadn't yet caught up to Sammy Davis Jr
Though he filmed a pilot, no major advertisers would sponsor a show starring an unknown Black man. The series never ended up happening. It was a major blow for Davis's burgeoning career, but pretty soon, that would be the last thing on his mind. Far worse catastrophes were on the horizon.
9. He Finally Made It
While Davis's show didn't make it off the ground, things had never been better for the Will Mastin Trio. After decades of eking out a living on the road, it felt like they'd finally made it. They had a headlining gig at Vegas's New Frontier Casino that paid $7,500 a week.
Even better, the barriers that held them back for so long were finally starting to come down. For years, whenever they played at a white casino, they still had to stay in the Black part of town—but the New Frontier had offered them suites.
Things had never been better—of course, that's exactly when disaster struck.
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10. His Dad Gave Him A Caddy
Sammy Davis Sr and Will Mastin knew they had Sammy to thank for their success, and they wanted to show their appreciation. Not long after landing the New Frontiers gig, they surprised him with a brand-new Cadillac. They even painted his initials on the passenger side door. If the two older men had known what was coming, they'd probably have gone with a safer gift.
11. He Hit The Road
For Davis, business and pleasure were one and the same. So it's no surprise that he spent the day before a recording session in LA drinking, gambling, and performing in Las Vegas. The next morning, he hopped in his brand-new Caddy and sped off down Route 66.
His life had never been better. Then, a woman backed her car into Davis's lane to pull a U-turn. There was no time to react.
12. He Tried To Help His Assistant
Davis's first thoughts after the terrible crash were of his assistant, Charley, who had been in the car with him. He pulled himself from the vehicle and stumbled over to Charley, who made for a disturbing sight. Charley's jaw had been brutally dislocated, so it hung slack as blood poured down his face.
When Davis's assistant saw him, however, his reaction was terrifying.
13. He Made A Disturbing Realization
Charley was in bad shape himself, but when he saw Sammy, he just pointed at his face, closed his eyes, and let out a horrible moan. Davis reached up to his face...and felt his own eyeball, hanging by a thread. His face had slammed directly into the steering wheel upon the crash—and unfortunately, the Cadillac his mentors had bought him was the worst possible car to be driving that day.
14. His Car Made It Worse
One of the features on Davis's sparkling new Cadillac was a sleek, bullet-shaped protruding horn on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, when Davis crashed his car, his face went right through that horn. In fact, Cadillac actually changed the design of the wheel specifically because of Davis's accident. Unfortunately, it was too late to save Davis's eye...
15. He Lost His Eye
When Davis felt his own eyeball hanging on his cheek, he did what anyone would do: He tried to shove it back in. Unfortunately, while that would maybe work for Bugs Bunny, Davis was still only flesh and blood. He ended up losing his left eye. The pain was excruciating—but something far worse terrified Davis.
16. He Was Terrified
Sammy Davis Jr had spent his entire life singing, dancing, and performing on stage—would he be able to do that with only one eye? Was his career over just as it started taking off? As he recovered from the accident, Davis painstakingly worked on his routine, completely relearning his balance.
Within just a few weeks of the accident, Davis was ready to tentatively take to the stage once more—but he never expected the response he got.
17. Hollywood Was There For Him
When Sammy Davis Jr took his first step back onto the stage at Ciro's, half of Hollywood came out for the event. Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, June Allyson, Frank Sinatra, and more all cheered him on from the crowd.
Davis later said, “Never had I felt so much a part of show business. All that it had given me materially was nothing compared to the kinship I felt for all these people".
18. His Mentors Couldn't Keep Up
Eventually, Sammy's talent began to eclipse that of his two mentors. Mastin and Davis Sr were amazing performers, but they came from a different time. This was Sammy Davis Jr's world now. His father saw the writing on the wall and stepped aside—but Will Mastin just couldn't face the music.
19. He Had A Sad Traveling Companion
Davis Jr included the name "The Will Mastin Trio" in his billing for his entire career, even after he started performing solo. But for a time after that happened, Will Mastin still traveled with him. He would arrive at venues, insist on a dressing room—his name was on the marquee after all—and put on his full makeup and costumes before the shows. He just never went on stage.
20. He'd Never Been Bigger
By the late 50s, Sammy was reaching the peak of his powers as a performer. He was now making $25,000 a week at the Sands Casino, he had hit singles on the radio, and he was about to get a second chance at television. But, as he grew more successful, the prejudice he faced only got worse and worse. Now a bonafide star, Davis was fed up—and he wanted a way to hit back.
21. He Wanted To Stick A Thumb In Their Eye
Sammy Davis Jr knew exactly how he wanted to show them: “You know, I reached a point with the indignities, the injustices, the nastiness...I got to the point where I wanted to get the whitest, the most famous chick in the world and just show ’em. To show everybody, yeah, guess what I’m doing with her! How do you like that?”
So that's just what he did.
22. He Met His Doomed Love
Sammy Davis Jr loved women, and he spent his rise to the top having an unending string of one-night stands. Sometimes, he went home with Ava Gardner, sometimes it was simply a pretty girl who caught his eye, but in either case, "love" hadn't really been on the menu. That all changed one night in 1957 at Chicago's Chez Paree. Sammy took the stage and entranced the audience—but he only had eyes for one woman out in the crowd.
Her name was Kim Novak. Their affair would nearly ruin them both.
23. They Kept On The Down Low
Everyone saw Sammy Davis Jr singing to Kim Novak that night—but that was the last time they'd be so reckless. This was the 1950s, and Black/white relationships were still an extremely polarizing topic. In fact, both of them got off on the forbidden nature of their romance. Davis called their relationship "equal parts civil disobedience and love affair".
Despite their defiance, they still did everything they could to keep the tryst a secret—but it was only a matter of time before the news got out.
24. They Slipped Up
If you wanted to keep a relationship a secret, Hollywood was a bad place to be. One night, Davis and Novak made the mistake of getting close during a party at Tony Curtis's house. One opportunistic guest knew a scandal when they saw it and called up Dorothy Kilgallen, the gossip columnist for the sensationalist Hearst newspapers.
So much for the down low...
25. They Hit The Gossip Pages
Dorothy Kilgallen may have played coy, but she knew exactly what she was doing. In her next gossip column, she wrote, "Which top female movie star (KN) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (SD)?" You didn't have to be a genius to connect the dots. The public was scandalized, but that was the least of Davis and Novak's problems.
Now the studio heads knew about them. That's when things took a frightening turn.
26. They Wouldn't Give Up
Davis knew the jig was up. When he saw the column, he immediately called Novak—but she wasn't ready to wave the white flag just yet. She insisted that the studio didn't own her and promptly invited him over to her Beverly Hills home for spaghetti. They were going to make a go of it, no matter what people thought.
But Novak underestimated just how far Harry Cohn, the infamous head of Columbia Studios, would go to make sure Davis wouldn't "sully" his star blonde.
27. They Saw Themselves As Rebels
Davis started to get nervous. He could tell exactly what Novak was doing: "Through me, she was rebelling against the people who made rules for her," he wrote. But while Novak wanted to make a statement, she wasn't the one with her head in a noose. Davis knew he was in trouble—but he was angry too. He'd spent his entire life enduring abuse from white audiences, and this was his chance to really stick it to them.
Despite public pressure, they went ahead with their relationship—but it was far from easy.
28. He Had To Sacrifice His Dignity
Harry Cohn had spies keeping tabs on Kim Novak, and all of Los Angeles was crawling with reporters who wanted nothing more than a juicy story. Novak and Davis had to go to desperate lengths to avoid them. Whenever Davis went over to her house, he had a friend drive him while he huddled in the back seat, hiding under a rug.
It was absolutely humiliating. Sammy Davis Jr was one of the biggest performers in the country, and yet he couldn't even show his face. Soon, he'd face far worse than humiliation.
29. Harry Cohn Sent Him A Message
Sammy wanted to rebel, but getting on Harry Cohn's bad side was a frightening endeavor. Cohn had deep connections to the underworld, and he wasn't above skirting the law to get what he wanted. When he realized that Davis and Novak weren't giving up their relationship, he decided to send a message.
30. The Affair Had Become Dangerous
Cohn reportedly had Davis kidnapped for several hours to put the fear of God into him. He also sent Davis's father a chilling message: Men were coming to break Davis's legs and put out his good eye unless he married a Black woman, STAT. This was the final straw. Davis and Novak wanted to rebel, they wanted to be together, but it simply wasn't meant to be.
31. He Needed A Black Wife
Davis's assistant Arthur Silber found him in their suite at the Sands Hotel, frantically flipping through his address book. Silber asked him what he was doing. He responded, "I got the call this morning. I have to marry a black chick, and I’m looking for someone to marry". Eventually, he found someone: a local dancer named Loray White.
He immediately called her and made a truly scandalous proposition.
32. Their Engagement Was A Transaction
Davis invited White to come to his suite, and when she arrived, he dropped his bombshell: He would pay her to marry him, then dissolve the marriage after a year. He hoped that a year might be long enough to get the mob off his back. White agreed, and they were off to the races. Davis was miserable, but there was nothing else he could do.
And, to make matters worse, people couldn't have been happier for him.
33. People Were Excited For Him
The first person to call Davis to congratulate him on his upcoming nuptials was Evelyn Cunningham, one of the leading voices in the Black press. It hadn't just been white people who were against his relationship with Kim Novak. Cunningham had frequently written about his "obligation" to the Black community, and she was overjoyed that Davis had finally found a Black woman to share his life with.
If she'd known the dark truth, she probably would have sung a different tune.
34. The Wedding Was Brief
Sammy Davis Jr's first wedding wasn't exactly romantic. The location was pretty nice, in the Sands' Emerald Room, but the bride was 40 minutes late to a ceremony that lasted all of two minutes. Then it was done: Davis and White were man and wife. Neither was particularly happy, but White at least made sure she got hers.
35. His Wife Enjoyed The Perks
As soon as she became Mrs Sammy Davis Jr, Loray White went nuts on a shopping spree. Jet magazine ran a photo of her with 20 new pairs of shoes. Davis showered her with even more gifts to show his gratitude for getting him out of a sticky situation. White even got to stay in the Sands' Presidential Suite—but when she returned to the room, she returned alone.
Meanwhile, Davis only got more and more miserable.
36. He Paid Her Off
After six months of a sham marriage, Davis paid White $25,000 to get a divorce—though it took three long years before the split was actually official. And what happened to Kim Novak during all of this? Well, when Davis threw in the towel, so did she.
37. They Gave Up On Their Love
Kim Novak enjoyed feeling rebellious during her love affair with Davis, but she couldn't handle the pressure. Though she didn't face the same physical threats as Davis, that's not to say she didn't face consequences. She had friends who would no longer return her calls, and her agent reminded her that staying with Davis would mean lights out for her career.
So, even after his marriage to White ended, Davis and Novak simply drifted away from each other. That chapter in Davis's life had ended—though an exciting new one was about to begin.
38. He Became A Rat
Frank Sinatra had been fond of Sammy Davis Jr for years, and in 1959, Davis officially became a member of Sinatra's Rat Pack. You can actually thank Davis for the iconic name; Sinatra wanted to call the group "the Clan," but Davis, as the sole Black member, noted that name had some...less than ideal connotations.
One day, actress Lauren Bacall saw the disheveled group after a long night of drinking, smoking, and poker, and said, "You all look like a pack of rats," and the Rat Pack was born.
39. He Fell In Love Again
Davis's relationship with Kim Novak may have ended in disaster, but that wasn't enough to put him off forever. In 1960, Davis fell in love with yet another bombshell blonde: Swedish actress May Britt. After a whirlwind romance, the pair got engaged. Britt didn't have Cohn over her shoulder, and Davis hoped that he might finally be free to marry a woman he loved.
Unfortunately, joining the Rat Pack had catapulted him to all new levels of fame—and once again, it spelled doom for his love life.
40. His Relationship Caused More Problems
While a crooked studio head ended Davis's relationship with Novak, politics threatened to do the same to his relationship with Britt. John F Kennedy was in the middle of a campaign for president, and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were heavily involved. That year, Davis joined his pals on stage at the Democratic National Convention, only to hear a loud "Boooooooo" from the audience.
Everyone knew about his relationship with Britt, and polling suggested only 4% of Americans supported interracial marriage. The backlash soon followed.
41. Kennedy Got Scared
The Kennedy campaign started to get hate mail directed purely at Davis. Campaign officials pressured Sinatra—who was supposed to be the best man at Davis and Britt's wedding—not to attend. Kennedy and his campaign managers feared that their connection to Davis and his scandalous relationship could threaten their chance at the presidency.
As usual, Davis had to sacrifice his dignity.
42. He Made The Sacrifice
Davis blinked first. He knew Sinatra was caught between a rock and a hard place. He decided to postpone the wedding until after the election. The touching gesture allegedly brought Old Blue Eyes to tears. John F Kennedy ended up winning the election, and five days later, Sinatra stood next to Davis at the altar. But this wasn't happily ever after for Davis.
Sadly, that was never an option.
43. He Started A Family
May Britt soon gave birth to a daughter, Tracey, and the couple adopted two sons, Mark and Jeff, under mysterious circumstances. However, being married to Sammy Davis Jr wasn't easy. A tireless performer, Davis spent almost no time at home with his family, opting instead for the bright lights of the stage. After everything they'd been through, their marriage was doomed from the start.
44. He Started Down A Dark Path
Sammy Davis Jr had chosen greatness over madness—but he lived hard years, and they started taking their toll. His marriage ended after eight years, and Davis started to spiral. He had always been a man of many vices: Drinking, smoking, women, you name it. Well, he kicked these vices into overdrive.
He was still the greatest performer in show business, but once the 1970s rolled around, Davis was almost unrecognizable.
45. He Liked Dirty Movies
Davis's assistant couldn't help but notice the change in his boss. While Davis had once spent his evenings with the Rat Pack, now his entourage was a seedy group of deviants. He started traveling with a trunk full of adult reels of films, which he'd frequently screen at his increasingly debaucherous parties. Anyone who knew Davis could tell he something was haunting him, but they couldn't stop his frightening downward spiral.
46. He Married One Last Time
Despite everything he'd been through, Davis had still managed to win over white audiences. Unfortunately, he knew that Black audiences still didn't accept him. Those close to him believe that's why he got involved with his third and final wife, Altovise Gore. Perhaps marrying a Black woman for real would finally earn him acceptance.
Gore, now Altovise Davis, couldn't believe her luck, landing a husband like Sammy Davis Jr. She didn't realize it was a curse.
47. He Mistreated His Mrs
Davis was in yet another marriage that wasn’t his full choice. It’s safe to say that the marriage certainly didn’t please his wife either. In addition to the substances and booze, Davis had become addicted to those dirty movies, and that led to Davis forcing his wife into some bedroom behavior she didn't want to perform. Gore was officially stuck in a marriage of convenience with a man going more and more out of his mind.
We’ll soon see how her life, even after Davis, eventually grew even worse.
48. He Shocked An Audience
While living with Gore, Davis would often host film screenings for his friends. Paul Anka relates a story of a screening that Davis hosted for around 40 of Hollywood's best and brightest. The crowd was just settling into their popcorn when Deep Throat appeared on the screen. The dirty movie stunned and embarrassed the audience—but Davis was just getting started.
49. He Brought A Star Home
Davis ended up befriending Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. He convinced his wife to join in on some escapades that were so wild even Sinatra found them disgusting—and Sinatra was certainly no goody-two-shoes. Life at the Davis mansion was truly out of control. Not even Davis's family could reel him in. In fact, he dragged them down with him.
50. He Was A Sore Loser
Davis had hired his adopted son Mark as an assistant stage manager. Mark was happy for some father-son time, but it soon went sour. They ended up fighting over a Vegas dancer that Mark was dating. Turns out that Davis, 72 at the time, wanted her for himself. When he couldn’t take her away from his son, he stopped talking to Mark for eight months!
He did eventually connect with Mark again—but only because he had a doozy of a revelation.
51. He Had A Big Reveal
Remember how Davis adopted two boys under mysterious circumstances? Well, according to Mark Davis, this wasn't totally correct. Mark tells the story of Davis calling him to his deathbed in 1990. When Mark arrived, Davis simply said to him: “You are my son”. Not just his adopted son: his biological son. It turns out, Davis hadn't exactly been faithful during his marriage to May Britt...
52. He Needed Proof
Mark was still reeling from his father’s confession, but he wanted proof. He tracked down his birth certificate and saw it in black and white. Listed as his father was Sammy Davis Jr—one mystery solved. Under the heading “mother” Mark saw May Britt, Davis’s wife at the time. Only half of this information turned out to be correct.
53. There Was A Mystery Mother
Once Mark Davis learned that Davis was his real father, he wanted to know about his mother. Of course, Mark turned around and asked Britt flat out: Are you my mother? The answer from Britt was a firm, “No". Many speculate that Mark was the product of a relationship that Davis had with another white woman. They’d kept the birth secret because of prejudice. Who the real mother is, though, is still a mystery.
54. His Vices Caught Up To Him
Davis didn't just confess to his son out of the blue: He was dying. He started having trouble with his throat in 1988. Davis smoked like a chimney, and particularly loved exhaling the fumes while belting out long notes on stage. As a young man, Nat King Cole told him that he'd damage his vocal cords by doing that, but Davis loved the flourish. He paid for it in the end.
55. His Voice Wouldn't Quit
Nodes in Davis's throat soon developed into throat cancer. He kept on performing and, miraculously, his voice seemingly got even better. Eventually, the cancer progressed to the point where he needed surgery. However, doctors gave Sammy an unbearable ultimatum: You need the surgery, but you'll never sing again.
What do you think the world's greatest performer said to that?
56. He Wouldn't Give It Up
A Sammy Davis Jr who couldn't sing was no Sammy Davis Jr. The crooner quipped that he'd lived a good life, and there was no way he'd give up his voice for anything. He opted not to have the surgery, well aware that his end was right around the corner. To rub salt in the wound, Davis’s employees saw his vulnerability as an opportunity to make a quick buck.
They reportedly looted his home—taking artwork, jewelry, and priceless memorabilia. This was especially sad because Davis and his inheritors were about to need every last dime.
57. The IRS Appeared
On May 16, 1990, Davis succumbed to his illness. The very next day, the cold-hearted IRS arrived at his mansion to seize his assets. It turns out that Davis wasn’t quite up to date on his taxes: He owed over $7 million dollars. The family added up what remained after the looting, and came to a grim conclusion.
58. He Left A Debt
So, what did Davis Altovise Gore get after years of humiliation in a loveless marriage? Millions of dollars of debt. She and Davis had filed joint tax returns, so that meant that she inherited what he owed in taxes. Gore made a deal with the IRS and paid most of it off by selling Davis’s properties and other assets. In the end, she got nothing.
59. She Ended Up Penniless
Davis’s wife Gore no longer lived a life of excess—unless you count excess sadness. According to the book Deconstructing Sammy, Gore lived for a time in an apartment with no refrigerator and a serious cockroach infestation. Any income she had came from bottles she found in the neighborhood dumpsters. In 2009, a stroke ended her life.
60. He Attacked His Wife
Sammy Davis Jr's marriage to Altovise Gore was an absolute horror story—but it was still better than his sham union with Loray White. While it’s not unusual for a groom to have a few too many at the reception, on the day of his wedding with White, Davis definitely went way over the edge. He got completely loaded, likely because he was marrying a woman he didn’t love. That doesn't forgive what he did, though. After the nuptials, Davis was walking his lovely bride to the honeymoon suite when he suddenly snapped and tried to choke her.
Luckily White managed to get free and flee, but Davis's horrible night wasn't over yet. It was about to get even worse.
61. He Just Wanted To Live His Life
Later that same night, Davis’s personal assistant went to check up on him. What he found in Davis’s hotel room stopped him cold: Davis had a revolver pointed at his head. Davis looked at his assistant and cried: “Why won’t they let me live my life?” Luckily the assistant was able to defuse the situation and Davis carried on with his plan to divorce White six months later.
62. No One Cared
And what about Kim Novak? She and Davis only saw each other twice after their relationship went up in flames. Over 20 years after their affair, they went to the Academy Awards together. They talked together for nearly an hour, then shared a dance at the Academy Ball. When Davis left the dance floor, he couldn't believe it: "Nobody even took one picture!"
Being with Novak had almost cost him his life two decades earlier. Now, people couldn't care less.
63. He Saw Her One Last Time
Kim Novak visited Sammy Davis Jr one more time just before the end. She heard that Sammy was dying and paid him a visit at Cedars Sinai. When Davis heard she was coming, he had someone fetch his finest silk robe and pajamas from his home: He wanted to look his best for the love of his life. The pair sat in his room together for some time. Their love couldn't be, but at least they got to be together at the end.
An earlier version of this article stated that the term "Rat Pack" was coined by Angie Dickinson. It has been updated to reflect that Lauren Bacall came up with the name.