Frank Sinatra and his famous group of friends were dubbed as the Rat Pack. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, this club of entertainers included Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin. These guys basically ran Hollywood. The crew performed together, caused trouble, and made movies together, including the original Ocean’s 11. The famous group was known for their notorious partying and were involved in some bad boy behaviors that would make their grandmothers cry.
The Rat Pack only associated themselves with some of the most prominent, powerful, and elite people in the country, including politicians, mobsters, and Hollywood starlets. Sammy Davis Jr. was a talented Rat Pack member, and Frank Sinatra’s best friend. He was a child star during a time of segregation in America. The talented entertainer had a talented life.
From experiencing racism to a life-changing car accident, here is the life and career of Sammy Davis Jr.
Frank Sinatra and his group of famous friends were dubbed the Rat Pack in the 50s and 60s. Out of all the places in the country, the Rat Pack particularly gravitated towards Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a good place for them to cause the trouble they were notorious for. Sinatra spent his time in Vegas playing golf, partying, and gambling. However, they also created some incredible work.
The Rat Pack actually filmed two movies that were located in Vegas: Ocean’s 11 and Sergeants 3. The group also regularly performed at the Sand Copa Room for excited crowds. At the time, a ticket to their show cost less than $6, but their personalities and chemistry made the show incredibly captivating.
Paul Anka, an occasional Rat Pack member, revealed that after a night of partying and gambling until 4 or 5 in the morning, the gang needed to be rejuvenated. These were the times that the Rat Pack had their most intimate moments. Basically, Frank Sinatra got the group matching robes with their nicknames written on them.
Paul Anka was “Kid,” Sammy Davis Jr. was “Smokey, the Bear,” and Dean Martin was “Dago.” The Rat Pack would take off their clothes, sit in the steam room, and just talk and relax. Sinatra also ordered women to give them a special massage… if you know what I mean. That’s one way to relax.
Surprisingly, not all the Rat Pack members enjoyed special massages in Vegas from these ‘ladies of the night.’ Paul Anka claimed that he never partook in prostitution. Even though he would watch Sinatra leave the steam room chats for private massages, Anka just wasn’t interested.
Anka never personally participated, but he did admit that many prominent members of society (who were associated with the Rat Pack) did. One example is John F. Kennedy. At the time, he was just a senator, and would allegedly go to Vegas and hire prostitutes. Comedian Bob Hope was another one; apparently, he got special massages every day and had women “all over the place.”
Even John F. Kennedy was affiliated with the Rat Pack. When he took trips to Las Vegas, he went as a senator. He and Sammy Davis didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye. Supposedly, Kenny told Davis he didn’t want him at his 1961 Presidential inauguration, and the reasons were pretty racist.
Davis was married to actress May Britt, who also happened to be white. JFK thought that if a black actor stood next to his white wife at the inauguration, the Southerners would get mad. Basically, JFK sold out his friend for personal gain, and it wasn’t cool. Davis held on to a grudge for a while. But it was temporarily erased in 1987 when he was honored by the Kennedy Center.
It’s no surprise that a group of good looking men constantly had women swooning over them. Major actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson, and Juliet Prowse have been linked to the Rat Pack. Monroe was the most involved, and undoubtedly, the most famous. Marilyn and Sinatra have been romantically linked in the past, and they were really close friends.
The Rat Pack actually played a huge role in one of Monroe’s most iconic moments ever. Remember when she sang Happy Birthday to President JFK? Peter Lawford signed her up. And she got the lead in Something’s Got to Give with the help of Dean Martin. Unfortunately, she never got to finish the movie because she passed away. Lawford was reportedly the last one to speak to her before she died.
From the moment he was conceived, Sammy Davis Jr. was destined to be a star. He had showbiz in his blood. His dad, Sammy Davis Sr. was a vaudeville performer, and his mom, Elvera, was a dancer. Throughout his childhood, he went on tour with his father (and adopted uncle) and watched them perform with their dance troupe.
At the age of three, Sammy Davis Jr. made his debut as “Baby Sammy,” and performed with his dad and uncle. He was a crowd favorite, and they were dubbed the Will Mastin Trio. In 1933, Davis landed his first movie role in Rufus Jones for President. He was just eight years old at the time. Davis became a versatile entertainer. He was a multi-instrumentalist, accomplished dancer, singer, and comedian – all before he was 18.
Nowadays, child actors are required to have some form of schooling, or they aren’t legally allowed to work. However, this wasn’t the case back in the 30s. Davis put all his time and energy into learning his craft and didn’t get any formal education at all. He still learned the skills he needed to become a star, like how to play multiple instruments and create his own comedy routines.
Perfecting that kind of talent takes years of education for most people. Davis’s dad hired tutors occasionally, but thanks to his hectic work schedule, he couldn’t really keep up. He barely attended pre-school, didn’t go to college, but he did have a brief army career.
In 1943, Sammy Davis Jr. turned 18, and World War II was coming to an end. The star was drafted into the army, and that’s where he found his real passions. Sadly, Davis had to deal with a lot of racism- something he was sheltered from as a child. Unfortunately, Davis was an easy target for people to pick on.
He was of small build and a mixed-race child, being that his father was African American and his mother was Puerto Rican. Due to his race, he was given the most dangerous assignments and was often bullied and beaten up by white soldiers. One time, he was forced to drink urine from a beer bottle. He ultimately found refuge in an entertainment unit.
Throughout the history of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. had the ultimate Bromance going on. They were best friends, but their life-long friendship started in an unlikely way. They first met when Sammy Davis Jr. was the opening act for Sinatra.
After he was released from the army, Davis went right back into show business, performing with the Will Mastin Trio once again. Davis also dabbled in a solo career and began recording songs and performing at nightclubs. In 1947, at the Capitol Theater in New York City, the Will Mastin Trio got to open for Frank Sinatra. This was a major turning point for Davis.
As soon as the Will Mastin Trio took the stage at the Capitol Theater, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra were inseparable. Sinatra was a huge supporter of Davis. He was his ally and collaborator during a time of vicious racism. Being a mixed-race entertainer wasn’t easy on Davis, so Sinatra’s support was extremely appreciated.
Sometimes, he wasn’t allowed to stay in hotels he performed in because black guests weren’t welcome. Sinatra stood up for him at any cost. He went as far as to tear up his own contract after a theater banned Davis because of the color of his skin. Plus, when Davis got into a car accident, Sinatra covered his medical bills.
As we mentioned, Sammy Davis Jr. didn’t have any formal schooling, but he learned other skills. The only way you would know he wasn’t educated was because he didn’t know how to write. He just never learned how to, and he didn’t want people to find this out about him. He managed to hide it because he had really good reading skills.
Davis’s business partner and former agent, Sy Marsh, revealed that Davis never personalized autographs because he was ashamed of his writing skills (or lack thereof). He explained, “Till the day he died, he could sign his name, but he couldn’t write. He never personalized autographs to anyone because he couldn’t spell people’s names, and he was embarrassed.”
Following his performance at the Capitol Theater with Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. got to go on tour with Mickey Rooney. This was a huge opportunity because he caught the eye of Decca Records, and they signed him in 1954. Davis went to Los Angeles later that year, recorded a record, and his life changed forever.
You probably think his life was changed for the better, but that wasn’t really the case. Unfortunately, he got in a serious car accident on the way to the recording studio, and he lost his eye. Davis needed to wear a glass eye for the rest of his life. However, the tragic accident helped him find his spiritual side.
Despite being born Christian, Davis never practiced any kind of religion. That’s because before the car crash, he never really identified with religion. After the traumatic accident, Davis was lucky to be alive and saw it as a miracle. While he was recovering at San Bernardino hospital, he had a lot of time to reflect on his life and existence.
That’s when he met a Jewish Rabbi who started talking to him about the accident and how he survived. He quickly discovered that there were a lot of similarities between African Americans and the Jews – mainly, the history of oppression. He started learning more about religion, and eventually, he converted to Judaism.
Sammy Davis Jr.’s accident was tragic and sudden. However, the star wasn’t going to let it hold him back for long. In 1995, he released his first two albums: Starring Sammy Davis Jr and Sammy Davis Jr. Sings Just for Lovers. Both of the albums earned immense commercial success, which pushed him into the spotlight. He really made a name for himself.
Davis was no longer just an opening act for his dear friend Sinatra; he was now performing on TV and headlining shows in Las Vegas and New York. The entertainer made guest appearances on Anna Lucasta, Porgy and Bess, and The Frank Sinatra Show in 1958 and 1959.
Sammy Davis got his Broadway big break in 1956. Considering his performing background and commercial success, Davis himself admitted it came a little late. However, when he got the role, it was like he was born for the part. And that might be because he was. The play was specifically written so that he can showcase his talents.
He portrayed an entertainer named Charlie Welch, struggling to make it in show business. It was basically an expanded version of Davis’s Vegas nightclub act. The play also featured his father and uncle, the other two members of the Will Mastin Trio. The show was a huge success and had 383 performances.
After his experiences in the army, Davis got used to racism, and it affected every aspect of his life, including his relationships. Davis was at the height of his career in 1957 and was making an incredible $25,000 a week for performing at the Sands in Las Vegas. That’s when he fell in love with the gorgeous blonde, blue-eyed Kim Novak. At the time, this was a scandalous move for a black man.
Rumors of their romance leaked to Confidential, a gossip magazine. After the news broke, Davis called his girlfriend and apologized. He told her he had nothing to do with the story getting out. Instead of leaving the relationship due to the controversy, she invited him over for spaghetti dinner. Needless to say, she went against her studio’s wishes.
Sammy Davis Jr. wasn’t the heartthrob you would expect from a Hollywood performer. He is also the reason you should never judge a book by its cover. Because of his height and facial features, Sammy Davis Jr. was often viewed as ugly. He had the charisma and talent that attracted people to him. However, it really hurt him when people brought up his looks.
A cruel New York Daily News columnist named Bob Sylvester wrote: “God… hit [Davis] in the face with a shovel.” Reportedly, the singer was devastated, because he has no control over what he looks like. At a certain point, he started to look at his unique features more positively. He saw them as a sign of power and would say, “It’s getting me where I’m going.”
As you can probably tell by now, Sammy was one to fight for equality and break down racial barriers. Sometimes, this meant causing quite a commotion. This is exactly what happened when Sammy Davis Jr. landed the most controversial and famous TV kiss in history.
In 1972, Davis made a guest appearance on the show, All in the Family, and played himself. He was at the Bunker’s house, getting a briefcase that he forgot in Archie’s taxi cab. Throughout the episode, Archie was making racist comments that Sammy tried to ignore. But it all came to a head when Sammy gave Archie a smooch on the cheek before he left. That episode ended up being nominated for two Emmy’s.
Sammy Davis Jr. dated beautiful women and got married three times. But unfortunately, he didn’t have the best luck when it came to women. He had one daughter, but his relationships with the ladies in his life always seemed to be strained. He was so absorbed with his career, and his family came second.
His daughter, Tracy Davis, opened up about her dad. She revealed that Sammy was so focused on work, that he was an absent-minded father. After missing her fifth birthday, he tried to give her $100 to make up for it. He also didn’t show up to her college graduation and would often lose her phone number. She explained, “I am not saying that he didn’t love us. But work was his driving force.”
Sammy’s daughter was his only biological child, but he also has three sons that he adopted. One of his adopted sons, Mark, found out that Sammy wasn’t actually his biological father. After reading about his adoption in a Life magazine article in 1960, Mark knew. However, he found his birth certificate in 2013.
The birth certificate listed Sammy Davis Jr. as the father. After taking a DNA test to verify it, he found out that Sammy was, in fact, his adoptive father. But that doesn’t make him any less of a dad. Mark recalled that his dad’s last heartbreaking words to him were, “You are my son.”
Despite the DNA results, Mark Davis was still confused about the whole situation. He told the Daily Mail, “I am a huge living question mark, and this is because I have never understood anything 100 percent about where I came from… If I am Dad’s natural son, and I believe very much could be the case, then there could have been many reasons why I was put down as adopted.
Maybe it was the whole showbiz thing and the scandal it might cause or the color thing or even that my natural mother’s identity had to remain a secret too. Dad was very loving when I was a kid, but being adopted never made sense to me as Dad and Mom had a daughter Tracy who is a year younger than me.”
Whether he’s adoptive or biological, Mark Davis is the son of one of the most famous singers on the planet, but he lives a rather ordinary life. He doesn’t have much money and works at the Costco photo counter right outside of Hollywood. When his father died, the IRS took his estate.
Nowadays, Mark has two of his own sons. He spoke openly about his childhood and what it was like growing up being estranged from his dad. He admitted that he thinks not having a strong father figure in his life led him to start drinking heavily. Thankfully, he is doing better now. He revealed, “Luckily, I grew out of it after rehab three times.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was fully aware of the blatant racism going on in America during the 60s. After experiencing the extent of racism in the army and in Hollywood, he became an avid financial supporter of the Civil Rights Movements. During the height of his popularity, Sammy refused to perform anywhere that was racially segregated.
Thanks to his decision, venues from Las Vegas to Miami started to loosen their rules and practice integration. Sammy’s passion for racial equality got him inducted in the Hall of Fame of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Plus, he earned honorary degrees from predominantly black colleges. Now that’s impressive, especially during that era.
Even though he was a Democrat, Sammy Davis Jr. was a Richard Nixon supporter. At the 1972 Republican National Convention, Davis publically endorsed him. Nixon respected Sammy because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and the two became pretty close friends. Unfortunately, not all of Sammy’s fans were on board with this new friendship.
At Nixon’s request, Sammy made a USO tour to South Vietnam. In 1973, Richard Nixon invited Sammy Davis and his wife at the time, Altovise, to stay at the White House. The couple stayed in the Queen’s bedroom, and it was the first time African Americans were welcome to sleep at the White House.
Obviously, Nixon’s presidential run didn’t work out too well for him. Later, Sammy Davis Jr. admitted that supporting Nixon was one of his biggest regrets. The entertainer explained that the reason he wishes he didn’t support Nixon was that he didn’t follow through with some of his civil rights promises.
Many people in the African American community were livid that Sammy was supporting Nixon. It got to the point where both of them were getting death threats. Not only was he threatened for endorsing Nixon, but Davis was getting immense criticism living a “white” lifestyle – which is how many African American folks saw it. His fans were furious, and things went from bad to worse.
After Sammy supported Nixon, the backlash was severe, and he started getting terrifying threats. Sammy’s manager, Sy Marsh, tried to help calm down the situation. The Washington Post reported in a 2003 article that Marsh reached out to Jesse Jackson – the Civil Rights leader – for a solution to alleviate the tension between Sammy and Nixon’s relationship. Jackson was the founder of an anti-poverty organization in Chicago called, PUSH, and it was funded by celebrity endorsements.
Marsh remembered, “Jesse said, ‘if you can come up with $25,000 for my charity, then [have Davis] come to Chicago.’” He borrowed money for casinos in Las Vegas, and Sammy headed to Chicago to perform for resentful Civil Rights activists.
Even though Sammy Davis Jr. went to Chicago to support Jesse Jackson’s organization, he didn’t get a warm welcome. Instead, he was met with hatred. According to Vanity Fair, Sammy was booed when he got on stage, and only performed one song before leaving. He then told Marsh, “Never again. Never again am I going to extend myself.” And honestly, who could blame him? He was only trying to do the right thing.
One of Sammy Davis’s associates explained, “If you were there that night, you’d think, ‘no wonder he hugged Nixon.’” Because of his Hollywood status and successful career, Sammy rubbed shoulders with predominantly white people. Unfortunately, it disappointed many members of the black community.
According to Vanity Fair, “Davis had spent the first half of his career making himself loved by the white world, and the second half trying to make himself loved by the black world.” Marsh claimed that was why he tied the knot with Altovise: “That’s the reason he married Altovise Gore. She was a black woman. It would open up more doors to his being accepted.”
Sammy Davis Jr. and Altovise Gore played siblings in Golden Boy, and they got married in 1970. When describing their relationship, Gore said their love was real, and Sammy loved her “unconditionally. We loved each other very much. I was like a kid in a candy store, and he wanted me to have the best.”
At the 89th Academy Awards, Actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made history when they accidentally announced the wrong winner for Best Picture – the most important award at the Oscars. As it turns out, they weren’t the first. Sammy Davis Jr. had some Oscar mishaps of his own; he did the same exact thing in 1964. That year, he was selected to announce the winner for Best Music Score.
The winner was supposed to be Andre Previn for Irma La Douce. However, Davis was given the wrong envelope, and it read, John Addison for Tom Jones. Sammy played it off pretty well, saying, “Wait till the NAACP hears about this,” and he got a laughing response from the crowd.
As a celebrity of color, Sammy Davis Jr. didn’t have the best rap, specifically among black audiences. Still, he was genuinely liked by other actors and musicians. The performer had a preference for dating gorgeous blondes, so it’s not surprising that he hit it off with Kim Novak, a rising star. In 1957, the pair were introduced by actor, Tony Curtis.
Curtis told Vanity Fair, “[Sammy] didn’t want to create problems, so I said, ‘I’m going to have a party at my house. Come on by, and I’ll invite Kim.’ They both came over, and they spent the evening together – deep in thought, deep in talk. I could see right from the beginning that they were getting along in an intense wat, and that was the beginning of the relationship.”
Sammy Davis’s Jr.’s romance with Kim Novak was forbidden during this time. Both Davis and the actress were getting threats about staying involved with one another. In 2015, National Enquirer reported that in 1957, the controversial interracial relationship was broken up by Harry Cohn, Columbia’s boss, who had a domineering reputation. Allegedly, Cohn hired a hitman to scare off Sammy, telling him that he would lose his other eye if he continued seeing Kim.
Novak verified, “That DID happen. [Cohn was] surrounded by all these men, including people in the Mob. He told me that my career was in jeopardy if I continued to see Sammy… it was very disturbing, but we knew there was no use fighting it.”
Rumors about their affair made headlines and were blown way out of proportion. Harry Cohn was reportedly so upset about the speculations that he approached Sammy’s dad, Sammy Davis Sr., in 1958 at a racetrack. Allegedly, Cohn said to him, “Listen. I got some terrible news for you. I just got a call from Chicago to hurt Sammy.” But he gave him another option.
He went on to say, “I tell you what, there’s one chance. I’ll give him 24 hours. Sammy has to get married – to a colored girl,” according to Vanity Fair. This really shook up Sammy Davis Jr. he tried to follow up on the request to protect both Kim and himself.
Sammy Davis Jr. went through his phonebook, looking for a suitable and appropriate wife. He chose a former Broadway dancer, Loray White; you may recognize her from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 hit, The Ten Commandments. Apparently, he sat her down and asked if she would marry him later that year for an undisclosed amount of money. She agreed, and the couple walked down the aisle.
Sammy was getting congratulated, and Loray was happy with the arrangement. She was looking forward to the benefits that come with being Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr. Unfortunately, she quickly realized this fantasy was just a façade. Sammy paid Loray $25,000 to divorce him, six months after the wedding.
Apparently, while Sammy was stuck in this fake marriage, he was still running around with Kim secretly. She later explained to Vanity Fair, “It was a very dangerous relationship then—a white woman and a black man, no matter his status – it simply didn’t mix publicly. I was suddenly in the eye of a hurricane… My agent told me my career would be over if I continued to see Sammy. Some of my friends wouldn’t even return my phone calls.”
Unfortunately, the forbidden lovers didn’t end up together. They did, however, reunite during the 1979 Academy Awards. The pair were able to dance with each other and catch up. Something they weren’t able to do a couple of decades prior. Thankfully, times have changed.
Sammy Davis Jr. was obviously a musical prodigy who was born with talent running through his body. Well, later in life, he discovered performance isn’t his only talent. Davis was quoted saying, “Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro’s period, the early ‘50s, and he hooked me… Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask… ‘What’s that [expletive] doin’ here?’”
Some people are just multi-talented, and Sammy is clearly one of them. Burt Boyar published a book of Sammy’s work in 2007 titled “Photo by Sammy Davis Jr.” The book includes rare pictures of the Will Mastin Trio, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy’s, his Rat Pack buddies, and more.
Back in the day, Sammy David Jr. was notorious for his love of drugs and alcohol. Sammy told The New York Times, that when he and his Rat Pack crew worked on Ocean’s 11, “[They were] drinking Salty Dogs—gin and grapefruit juice—at 8 in the morning, just to get the blood flowing… I drank so much my left eye would start to close, and they’d have to stop filming.”
The actor was drinking two bottles of bourbon a day. Until nervous exhaustion and a misaligned liver led him to collapse. He admitted to The New York Times, “I looked at my liver on the electric scanner in the hospital. It was the shape of the state of Texas.”
In 1972, Sammy spoke to the New York Times about his blatant drug use. He said, “Today when I meet guys on my own corporate structure, and they tell me about some girl they had at a party, I tell them about the way I used to have three… I went on acid trips, smoked pot. But when I came down from some trip, I was still black.”
He went on to say, “It was a period I had to go through to appreciate what I have now. There’s nothing left to do—I’ve done it all and even invented a few things. Now I have what every cat really wants—the homey thing of sitting around having coffee with you old lady.”
Sam had already given up his extreme drinking and drug use, but there was one destructive habit he kept up – smoking. According to Vanity Fair, “Davis liked to inhale cigarette smoke in the middle of a song and exhale with the note and the smoke pouring out.” This was something singer Nat King Cole warned him about.
He said: “Don’t do that. You’re burning your vocal cords with all that heat—you’re making it worse.” Sammy’s manager, Sy Marsh, took him to a specialist in the late 1980s. He discovered that singing and smoking did, in fact, lead to inflamed nodes on his vocal cords. He should have listened to Nat King Cole!
Sadly, Sammy Davis Jr. was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989, after doctors discovered a tumor growing in his throat. His best bet at survival was a laryngectomy, but the singer said he prefers to keep his voice, over having his throat removed. Therefore, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation instead.
It has been reported that even though he was sick, his singing voice was still incredible. Burt Boyer told Vanity Fair, “It was stunning. Here’s a man dying of throat cancer, and his voice was glorious, like a nightingale. It was almost unreal.” Not only was he born with talent and the voice of an angel, but he also died with it too.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, Sammy went through one surgery to remove his entire larynx. Tragically, a few weeks later, the cancer killed him. On May 16th, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr, passed away in Beverly Hills at age 64. When the news of his death spread, the Las Vegas Strip darkened the neon lights for ten minutes, to pay its respects to the actor.
He was subsequently awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. His memory lives on through his work and his children. Unfortunately, Altovise Davis, the star’s latest wife, was left to deal with the $7.5 million that her husband accumulated in tax debt.