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In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. Hardcover – October 7, 2003

3.7 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this moving, exhaustive life of one of America's greatest entertainers, Haygood (King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.) casts Sammy Davis Jr. as a man shifting between identities, between the worlds of black people and white people. Born into vaudeville and raised by his grandmother and vaudevillian father, Davis (1925-1990) never knew the world off the stage, never experienced a loving mother and never experienced racism-until his stint in the army during WWII. Sammy spent most of his life before the army above the Mason-Dixon line in the protective bosom of the Will Mastin Trio (of which he and his father were two-thirds) and experienced his first love with a white woman in Montreal. From here, Haygood makes clear, Sammy wanted to be white-he had mostly white friends and courted ivory-skinned, blond women. As his career-and his determination to be accepted by white America-grew, so did problems with the media, including death threats from angry Southerners and Hollywood moguls not wanting the reputation of their white starlets (e.g., Kim Novak) to be tainted by Davis. Haygood shows how Davis desperately needed love and attention, so much so that he switched allegiances, first backing Kennedy and marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, then, years later, being seen on national TV giving a hug to Archie Bunker (while doing a cameo) and Richard Nixon (while campaigning for him). Haygood's reporting and powerful prose reveal Davis's career against the backdrop of the swinging '60s and the Rat Pack (with Sinatra as a mighty presence in Davis's life) and Davis as a tragically complex man.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Sammy Davis Jr. never went to school. His show business career began at age 5, with the Will Mastin Trio, and lasted until his death at 64. Davis' life story is all about the American Dream (he called his autobiography Yes, I Can!), but as Haygood tells it in this remarkably rich biography, it is dream mixed with nightmare, illusion with reality, the story of a black man "with his face pressed against the white world." Did Davis want to be white? Haygood tackles this politically charged question straight on, delivering answers as complex as the history of race relations. Davis, Haygood argues, knew no world beyond the footlights; he created himself in the image of Hollywood stardom, and yes, that image was unquestionably white: Bogart, Cagney, Cooper (all of whom Davis would later impersonate on stage), and of course, Sinatra, Sammy's idol. (The women were white, too, and usually blonde, a fact not lost on the young Davis, who wooed Kim Novak and married Scandinavian Maei Britt.) While Haygood's psychosexual analysis of Davis' life is unfailingly perceptive, it doesn't overwhelm the book. He vividly re-creates the world of vaudeville, where Davis got his start, and he tracks the performer's career as tap dancer, impressionist, singer, and actor, emphasizing the remarkable talent of this child prodigy turned Vegas headliner. As he follows Davis from one unbridled enthusiasm to another (from black power to Richard Nixon, from Judaism to devil worship), Haygood never loses sight of Sammy the entertainer, indefatigable on stage and insatiable in his craving for adoration. A fascinating American life story, brilliantly told. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540354X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375403545
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #548,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Sammy Davis, Jr. is probably best known these days as one of Frank Sinatra's sidekicks. But during his lifetime, Davis was a multi-talented performer who could both delight and infuriate his audience.My generation's main memories of Davis tend to be of a man who laughed too hard at jokes that weren't funny, went overboard in trying to be hip until he became a parody and someone who whose discomfort in his own skin was only too apparent.
Davis was a super talent but a complex human being. It would probably be impossible to encompass the whole of his personality in a single book but the author manages to get a good grasp of his subject. Haygood's prose tends to be overdramatic at times but he makes the reader understand Davis' confusion over his racial identity. He also explains the reasons behind many African Americans' ambivalence toward Davis. We also get a fuller and previously untold story about Davis' parents Sam, Sr. and Elvera whose tense relationship with her son was a contributing factor to many of his demons.
Thankfully, Haygood avoids the sleaziness and shallowness of Gary Fishgall's book Gonna Do Great Things. He also presents a fuller picture of Davis than Davis' daughter Tracy did in her book (a horrible work.) He writes of his subject's more questionable habits (sex and drugs) but doesn't lose sight of who Davis was.
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Format: Hardcover
I was put off a bit at first - the book's momentum was slowed by the author's habit of inserting a mini-biography whenever a character was introduced - but I grew to enjoy this fascinating book much more as it progressed. Some may feel that the author goes too far in assuming the reader has never heard of Marcus Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, etc., and may find the constant summaries of historical events unnecessary. I did. Still, the details of Sammy's growing up on the road, the hardships endured by negro vaudeville performers, the complete lack of formal education, the hand to mouth existence, the constant travel, form a powerful cumulative portrait of a man and his time.
This book drew me in, fascinated me with its psychologically complex picture of Davis, and left me with a desire to reinvestigate the music and films he left behind.
A top-notch biography.
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Format: Hardcover
The cover of Wil Haygood's book stands in almost absolute contrast to the contents therein. The photo shows Sammy alone, surrounded by nothing. He is literally the only thing in the picture; even his shadow barely registers. In contrast, the book itself goes to painstaking lengths to describe the world and people who surrounded Sammy - the entirety of his universe - and at the center of it all...a void.
That's my fancy way of saying that, for a book about Sammy Davis, Jr., "In Black And White" contains remarkably little Sammy Davis, Jr.
I can appreciate Mr. Haygood's efforts to put things in context. This, he does exceedingly well. But the book is almost entirely context; the reader can, and often does, go pages without encountering any reference to Sammy whatsoever. Example: more time is spent discussing Cuban history than is spent on Sammy's entire stint in the US Army. That seems disproportionate to me.
A random ten-page sample of the book might be broken down thusly:
> 3 pages of biographical background on producer Jule Steyn
> 2 pages of background on Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier
> 2 pages accounting various social issues blacks were facing in the US at the time
> a page covering the history of blacks on Broadway
> a page of assorted people talking about their experiences being around Sammy
> half a page of Broadway folk accounting their reactions to the idea of Sammy coming to Broadway
> and then a few paragraphs that actually relate to what Sammy was doing at the time, some speculation on why, and how the people around him perceived his actions.
One would have a hard time getting through this entire book without wondering at some point or another when the author is finally going to get around to writing about Sammy. As I read the book, I appreciated Mr. Haywood's skill, and I do feel I learned a lot...I just didn't learn a lot about Sammy Davis, Jr.
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Format: Hardcover
Wil Haygood, if you're reading this, please know: if I ever amount to anything, I hope you write my biography. I was always a casual Sammy fan, but now I'm fascinated. A story well told, beautifully written. For the generation who (sadly) only knows Sammy from the Billy Crystal imitations, this is a must-read. Sammy was a true giant in American entertainment for more than 50 years, and now he finally has the biography he deserves, warts and all. Sammy had his flaws, but also had more talent than all of today's pop stars put together.
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Format: Hardcover
This impressive biography of SDJ does a stellar job of presenting a portrait not only of this showbiz legend, but of his times. Some Amazon reviewers have criticized a) the structure of the book, b) what they feel is a lack of Sammy focus, or c) a potential bias against Sinatra. To those detractors I say a) read the WHOLE book, because the structure is perfectly accessible and not "fragmented," b) Sammy is CLEARLY the centerpiece of this book; we get plenty of Sammy, and c) get a life. Sinatra is presented in all his complexity. There's the generous Frank; the singer-without-peer Frank; and the slightly unsavory, sometimes megalomaniacal Frank.

Wil Haygood is masterful in presenting a deep and complex portrait of a Sammy who is troubled, gregarious, enormously talented, and, ultimately, scarred by his childhood vaudeville days as well as his gargantuan inferiority complex. Haygood's admirable attempt at objectivity enables us to both disdain some of Sammy's behavior and feel great sympathy for the early life he was forced to live.

What greater compliment can I give than to say that Haygood takes us into Sammy's world with depth and clarity and raw beauty. Knowing Sammy's life, warts and all, only adds to my great respect for his amazing, mid-century achievements.
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