Like many prominent black entertainers of the 1950s and '60s, Sammy Davis Jr. lived in two worlds — one white; one black.
He famously palled around with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Kennedys, and was linked to white starlets such as Kim Novak, June Allyson and the actress who became his second wife, May Britt.
Unlike his peers, Davis often stayed in all-black hotels when he traveled. On the rare occasions when he was permitted to stay in the same hotels as white performers, Davis was criticized by black press.
These trips back and forth across the racial divide pushed buttons for many Americans. It turns out that through it all, Davis also was pushing a button — on his camera.
While conducting research for a documentary, biographer Burt Boyar found a treasure trove of photographs taken by Davis at a warehouse in Carson, Calif. The thousands of photos include rare portraits of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Nat King Cole and others. Boyar compiled them into a new book called Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr.
According to Boyar, Sammy "saw things as a photographer sees. It was an extension of his artistic self." The photographs offer a view of Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, Broadway and Hollywood. They depict a life lived on the color line, with Davis capturing a world of black celebrity and struggle.
Boyar spoke to Tony Cox about the recently discovered images and what they tell us about Davis' world.
- Sammy Davis, Jr., Bio from the Kennedy Center
- A Song-and-Dance Man, Reconsidered
- Sunset Strip Landmark Revisited in 'Dancing at Ciro's'
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Me and My Shadow")
Mr. SAMMY DAVIS JR. (Singer): (Singing) Like you'll never get rid of your shadow, Frank, you'll never get rid of me.
TONY COX, host:
Sammy Davis jr. began his career in black vaudeville, but he ended it an international star, a member of the famed Rat Pack, a favorite of gossip magazines, and a guest in the White House. Sammy's rise pushed buttons when race was the hot-button issue. But it was the button on his camera that he pushed the most.
Burt Boyar combed through thousands of Sammy's photographs and has compiled them in a new book called "Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr."
Mr. BURT BOYAR (Author, "Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr."): He saw things as a photographer sees. It was an extension of his artistic self. He would just take pictures and catch things on the street that he just found fascinating.
COX: How much cooperation did he get from the people whose pictures he took? Or was there ever a time when some of his famous buddies were like, Sammy, stop taking my picture?
Mr. BOYAR: No, no. I don't think there's ever a moment when anybody ever said Sammy, don't take my picture. He was always present with a camera. They all loved him. Everybody who knew Sammy loved him and nobody will ever say to him don't do this or don't do that. For example, a picture of Frank Sinatra in his pajamas. Now, there aren't people who can take pictures of Frank in his pajamas. And Sinatra didn't think twice about it. The attitude was, it's Sammy, he's not going to do anything wrong with it. And he never did - and he never actually intended to publish these pictures.
COX: Well, you know, Burt, it seemed to me in reading the book, which is 339 pages, black and white photos of, as I said, all of these people. But he takes pictures of the area where he grew up. And there's poverty. And these are pictures that you would associate with poor and black in the '40s and '30s.
Mr. BOYAR: Well, that was what he saw and that's what he caught in the cameras that he had then. He started off shooting pictures about wherever he could, which was what he saw around him.
COX: Tell me what he had to do, when he became famous and still wanted to take pictures, how he was able to go out in the streets and do this.
Mr. BOYAR: Well, he used to actually go out in disguise, in the sense that he would wear a big coat and a big ski jacket and a hat and try - this was when he was in "Mr. Wonderful" on Broadway and he was starring in the show, so he's very, very well known by then. And he could walk along the streets and capture irony. Later, he couldn't do that though because he became too famous to walk the streets and take pictures. And he would get mobbed by people whenever he was out, whether he was taking pictures or not.
And so he use to - he would soon became resigned to take pictures only from the windows of his - the suites he was staying in throughout the world.
COX: He seemed to be caught from the photographs in this book with a foot in two separate worlds. He was a world famous entertainer with all of these famous friends, black and white, and yet at the same time because this was America in the '50s, when segregation was the order of the day, when he played in places, certain cities. The photographs show him around black people lounging at the hotel pool with Nat King Cole, for example, and yet at other times on the Upper East Side in New York with the white celebrities. Talk about those pictures.
Mr. BOYAR: When he plays Miami, he was indeed at the hotel where he - that he was allowed to stay in. He wasn't allowed to live on Miami Beach. In those days, if you were black, you couldn't even travel to Miami Beach in a regular taxicab. You had to have a special cab that had a license to carry you. He had to carry a card, identification from the police department saying that he had the right to be on the beach. And he stayed at the hotel in Miami. I'm trying to think the name of it...
COX: The Calvert.
Mr. BOYAR: Exactly, Lord Calvert. And Jackie Robinson stayed there. Nat Cole stayed there. They had no choice.
COX: How conflicted was he with the issues of civil rights? There are photographs from the day that Martin Luther King gave his very famous speech and Sammy was right there, right close.
Mr. BOYAR: He sure was. Sammy - look, Sammy was not conflicted by civil rights at all. He was in there as deep as anybody. He and Harry and - Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, they were all there. And believe me, it wasn't easy for them. It wasn't easy for Sammy. He was scared to go to Selma because he was a target. Bobby Kennedy told him, don't go. I can't protect you there. We got our guys there, the Secret Service, but I can't be sure that we can protect you. So don't go. He warned them, do not go. And Sammy said, I have to go. I've committed to go, and he went. And he walked with Dr. King.
COX: Let me ask you about another person that Sammy had a very interesting encounter with that is mentioned in the book and there's a photograph of this person, the head of the studio, when Sammy said I can't work because I'm Jewish and it's Yom Kippur, and the guy says, are you kidding me? Tell me the rest of that story.
Mr. BOYAR: That was Samuel Goldwyn. Sammy was in "Porgy and Bess" playing Sportin' Life and he was fantastic in it, probably the best thing he ever did in film. And he suddenly got his work schedule and there was Yom Kippur and he was told he's got to work. And he goes up immediately to Mr. Goldwyn's office and says, sir, I can't work tomorrow, it's Yom Kippur. and Goldwyn says, what? And he said, why? He said because I'm a Jew. He said you're a what? And he says I'm a Jew. He said, you're kidding. No, no, I'm not kidding.
Well, finally, he said what - Goldwyn said, what did I ever do to you? And he said this is going to cost thousands upon thousands of dollars if we shut down shooting for a day. And Sammy says, sir, I don't know what to say. You didn't do anything except wonderful things for me and I appreciate it. I just can't work on Yom Kippur. It would be wrong. So he said, well, all. He said go with your yarmulke and your talis, and don't work. And as he walked out, Sammy left the office, he heard Goldwyn saying, fires on the set I can handle. Crazy writers, crazy directors, I can handle. But a colored Jewish guy, this I can't handle.
COX: That's a great line in the book. Here's my final question. I noticed of all the pictures of Sammy - and he took some of himself taking pictures, like in the mirror...
Mr. BOYAR: Yeah.
COX: And he took pictures of photograph - of photographers who were taking pictures of him, but all of these were prior to the accident where he lost an eye. I don't see any photographs of Sammy after the accident. Is that on purpose?
Mr. BOYAR: I don't think so. Sammy was not at all sensitive about having one eye. He was very, very comfortable with it. In fact, when my wife Jane would annoy him when we were together at night, he and I and Chita Rivera, we were always together after the show up in his suite in New York, and if somebody annoyed him, he'd take his eye out and start chasing him around the room with it. So...
COX: Oh, my God.
Mr. BOYAR: So I don't think that he was not taking pictures of himself without - with his bad eye.
COX: That's great. Burt, we could talk forever about all that's in here but I think we covered some pretty, some pretty good ground. You?
Mr. BOYAR: Thank you. Thank you very much.
COX: Burt Boyar edited the book "Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr." To see more photos and to hear Sammy talk about his cameras and photographs, go to npr.org/newsandnotes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.