I had just sent up a prayer to the book gods for another good book to read. Recently I finished three books by Victoria Christopher Murray and loved each one. My prayers for a new page turner were answered quickly.
Last week I found “Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money and Madness” by Matt Birkbeck in my mailbox. I knew when I saw the picture of Sammy Davis Jr. on the cover this was going to be a good read. The New York Times says the book is “gripping and sensational.” “Tremendous,” says the LA Times. They were both right. From the time I opened the book I couldn’t put it down, the Tennessee Tribune called it “unputdownable.”
Many years ago I read “Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.” and found it fascinating. “Deconstructing Sammy” goes deep inside the Davis inner circle and the story is told from the perspective of Albert Sonny Murray. The younger Murray is the son of Albert Murray Sr., the first Black criminal court judge in Brooklyn. Sonny was the first Black prosecutor appointed to serve in the U.S. Attorney’s office stationed in Scranton and was at the center of the investigation that brought down E.F. Hutton.
Yes, the one that everyone listened to.
The Murrays are the owners of the Hillside Inn in Marshalls Creek, Pa. near the Poconos, one of the few Black-owned resorts in the country. Murray’s success with the E.F. Hutton case is what pulled him into a near decade-long roller coaster ride with Davis’ widow, Altovise.
I heard rumors about the crazy life of this couple but this book takes it to another level. The widow was in a heap of trouble with the IRS and needed help sifting through Sammy’s debts.
The life of Davis will remind you of the late Michael Jackson. Birkbeck takes us from the East Coast to the West Coast and across the pond while telling the tale of Davis and his relationships with his children, wives and lovers.
Through the story of Davis we also share the trials and tribulations of the Hillside Inn and the owners, their quest to be true to their “own” people and still trying to keep the doors of their inn open.
We learn about Altovise Davis whose claim to fame was being Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr. Altovise, who passed in March of this year suffered from alcoholism and the stress of being married to a an entertainer who had achieved everything and then lost it. When Sammy died in 1990, his name and likeness were valued at only $500 by the IRS despite the fact that he earned over $50 million during his lifetime. After his death his home and possessions were sold at auction.
And how about this for a revelation. Reportedly Sammy did not have to die. Upon hearing his cancer diagnosis in August 1989, doctors recommended surgery on Sammy’s throat, which offered him an 80 percent chance of survival. Davis opted instead for radiation, which had a slim 30 percent survival rate. Sam made his decision on his dismal finances. If he couldn’t sing, he reasoned, he couldn’t make money.
While Sammy was on his deathbed his employees and his wife looted his home.
(The book will be available in paperback in September 2009 (Harper Paperbacks, $15.99.)
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com.)