Sammy Davis Jr.'s 1972 reelection endorsement of President Richard Nixon had come to this: death threats in the mail. His young secretary, Ann Slider, had been brought to tears. The mail was so vicious she hid it from Davis and turned it over to federal authorities. Blacks, most of whom despised Nixon and had long been put off by Davis's "white" lifestyle, were openly angry. Sy Marsh, Davis's agent, knew something had to be done, so he contacted Jesse Jackson.
Ever since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Jackson had been rising as a black leader. He was young and coltish in 1968 when the bullets took King. Jackson was also brash, and with a galaxy of civil rights leaders showing signs of age, he galloped into the spotlight. He had marched, he had been at the Memphis motel when King died, and he could preach -- an important source of pride to Southerners. As founder of Operation PUSH, an anti-poverty organization in Chicago, he often depended on celebrities to fund his ventures. Davis had been generous.
By early 1973, a desperate Sy Marsh told Jackson that Davis really needed help getting out of the Nixon imbroglio.
"Jesse said, 'If you can come up with $25,000 for my charity, then [have Davis] come to Chicago,'" Marsh recalls.
There was one problem: Davis didn't have $25,000 in his account. "I had to borrow the money from Vegas," says Marsh, referring to casino owners who had often helped Davis in times of financial need.
With the money for Jackson in hand, Davis, a few of his musicians, his black wife, Altovise (whom he had married after the breakup of his marriage to May Britt, a white Swedish-born actress), and Marsh headed east. Sammy would perform. He'd kill Jackson's people -- the brothers and the sisters -- with kindness. And once he was performing, they'd like him; they'd understand about politics and entertainment.
There were 7,000 on hand at the PUSH affair. They were eager and energized, vowing to march against any cuts Nixon might propose that would affect the poor and disenfranchised. Marsh had slipped Jackson the check for 25 grand backstage. Jackson raised the microphone to his mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a surprise. Brother Sammy Davis is here." Jackson motioned for Davis with a raise of the arm. Davis strode out into the sea of black faces, hoping for redemption.
The PUSH affair was a climactic event for Davis. It exposed the painful cost of the relationship between him and Nixon, two figures who, on the surface, were unlikely bedfellows.
For one thing, Richard Nixon was no Jack Kennedy, his longtime nemesis. Against Kennedy's savoir-faire, Nixon appeared but a foil for satirists: He was the man seen on the beach in wingtips. His body language was stiff, his smile frozen. He seemed a man constantly emerging from a wall of alabaster.
But to those who felt Nixon suffered from cultural myopia, there was always trickling evidence to suggest otherwise. He had invited Elvis Presley to the White House. Presley showed in sequins and sunglasses and pridefully left with a badge, Nixon having made him an honorary law enforcement official. Nixon had also invited soul singer James Brown to the White House, and hadn't been shy about releasing publicity photos of his visits with both men.
Nixon's motives for courting Brown and Davis went beyond rubbing elbows with celebrities. Blacks, almost universally, loathed the 37th president of the United States. Nixon had nominated two Southern judges -- Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell -- to the Supreme Court and watched as an uproar flared about their past links to segregationists. The two nominees were rejected by the Senate. Still, that they were nominated in the first place only aggravated the wound felt by blacks when Nixon had declined to name a black to his Cabinet -- unlike Lyndon Johnson, who had been the first president to do so (Robert Weaver, as HUD secretary). In 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted Nixon's State of the Union address to protest his policies, which the caucus felt were undermining the War on Poverty, an earmark of Johnson's administrations. "Flush Model Cities and [the] Great Society along with it," Nixon had once directed an aide.
Nixon dispatched Bob Brown, one of the few blacks working in the White House, to Beverly Hills to ask Davis if he would accept a seat on the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. Every president had put together such councils: little bite, but great public relations. "We've got Jim Brown [the football star and actor] with us, and we've got James Brown, we've got good people, but the president wants you," Bob Brown told Davis.
Davis did not worry about Carswell and Haynsworth. And he did not worry about the Congressional Black Caucus and its animus toward Nixon. The president needed him! The vaudevillian who had never attended school, who had felt, as a child, rejected by his mother, who needed so badly to be wanted and loved, couldn't resist.
Davis arrived at the White House on July 1, 1971, to officially accept his position on the council. He yuk-yukked with Nixon as the camera flashes went off. In subsequent visits as a member of the council, Davis loved sweeping into the White House, pulling open his Gucci briefcase, chatting up Bob Brown and the other black businessmen on the council. Davis walked like his Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra: both summoned by presidents. When the meetings adjourned, Davis would hobnob with James Brown. Hearty slaps and soul-brother handshakes -- the thumb slapping against the palm of the other hand, then the viselike grip. Ha-ha-ha. Nixon's soul brothers.
Call it the wooing of Sammy. It was just beginning.
Although Nixon, a fiend for secrecy, performed behind the curtains, in the shadows, and Davis, a fiend for the lights, operated out in the open, one's genius sucked at the other's. They were both performers. Nixon understood power; power made Davis vulnerable. Race confused Nixon, and caught Davis in its web. Nixon needed Davis's aura, and Davis welcomed Nixon's power to salve his insecurities. In a way they were both homeless men, spirits set loose in the world. They had long proved themselves eternal searchers. "He never learned where his home was," Henry Kissinger once remarked of Nixon.
When gospel singer Mahalia Jackson died of a heart attack in Chicago on January 27, 1972, the White House, reaching Davis in Las Vegas, where he was performing, asked him if he'd represent President Nixon at the funeral. Davis immediately agreed -- it was the president calling! -- but told the White House he'd have to be back in Las Vegas after the funeral to continue his engagement. The White House told Davis it would take care of all transportation. And there went Davis zooming through the skies in a U.S. government jet.
Weeks later, the president asked Davis if he would go to Vietnam to entertain the soldiers. From Mahalia Jackson to 'Nam; Davis nearly swooned from the request, and quickly accepted. "Wasn't a black cat important who ever went to Vietnam," he bragged to Sy Marsh. (Actually, James Brown had already visited the troops.) Putting together a traveling variety show was one of Davis's gifts. His Vietnam-bound retinue included his assistant Shirley Rhodes, her husband, George, Altovise (she had choreographed the shows), Marsh, singer Lynn Kellogg, soul singer Blinky Williams, a gaggle of female dancers and Timmie Rogers -- Davis's traveling partner from vaudeville.
Davis looked jittery upon landing in Vietnam -- but game also. "We both were scared," remembers Altovise.
Davis performed several shows before large groups of soldiers. He sang and told jokes. He drenched himself in exhaustion. "He did extra-extra," says Altovise. He'd tear off his shirt, strut across the stage in his GI getup. He started doing the black-power salute. He was with the brothers, in the jungle, in 'Nam; he was as black as they were now.
In the distance "you could hear bullets flying," Shirley Rhodes remembers.
They performed at hospitals and rehab centers. Sometimes the audience exceeded 10,000.
"The relationship between black and white is better," Davis told a UPI reporter in Long Binh. "I saw some things yesterday I wish people could see at home. Like two cats standing around, one black and one white. These cats are talking and one lights the other's cigarette -- because when they go out in the bush together, they face the same thing."
Davis's mission was twofold: entertain the troops, but also check up on reports of drug abuse. Civil rights leaders back in America were complaining that a disproportionate number of black GIs were being singled out for punishment when caught using drugs. Davis aimed to check up on the black soldiers. He went to a detoxification center.
Many of the white GIs -- just as their parents had done back home -- howled appreciatively at Davis, slapping their knees, gazing. Many black GIs distrusted him. They read the Negro press; they knew Davis's image. Several in the detox unit -- never mind his marriage to Altovise -- made loud noises about his marriage to May Britt. Davis pleaded for understanding. But many rolled their eyes, complained to him about "the white man," about Nixon, about being hooked on dope. Standing next to Davis, listening to him offer counsel against drug use, Sy Marsh, who knew of Davis's own drug use at the time, could barely stifle a chuckle.
Davis was invited back to the White House to give a report about the trip. A group of black Republicans had coached him earlier, so at his meeting with Nixon, Davis invited the president to a Washington dinner the group had organized. Nixon shied away from all-black events -- even those staged by Republicans. He told Davis he had to think about it. And when he did come, black
Republicans, their heads swiveling in amazement, had to concede that Davis had done something no black had ever been able to do: He had, in some unfathomable way, touched Richard Nixon. When Nixon asked Davis if he'd be willing to campaign for his reelection, again Davis rushed out an answer.
It was such an honor; how could he say no; of course he would! He'd give a performance in a city, then go to some stalwart Republican's home -- $500 a plate -- and be waltzed around the house with his vaudeville grin. "There was no selling in campaigning for Nixon," Davis, who died in 1990 at age 64, recalled in an autobiography. "I would simply attend Republican affairs. I'd be in a town, and the man there would call and say, 'Sam, we're having a fundraising cocktail party, will you come by?' 'Of course I will.' And I would go by . . . and socialize. Sometimes, it was, 'Sam, will you sing a song?' 'Yes, of course.'"
The Republicans prepared for their Miami Beach convention as if it were a mere formality before four more years in the White House. Nixon's lead in the polls over Democratic Sen. George McGovern was in double digits. The war in Vietnam, as Nixon had promised, was winding down.
Sammy's "The Candy Man" was still humming on the airwaves. It yielded him, in 1972, a gold record. After all those years, all those recording sessions. Davis and Marsh were overjoyed.
Mike Curb, musician and producer of "The Candy Man," was the son of an FBI agent. He had a political affiliation that was hardly surprising: He was a devoted Republican. The White House knew the name Mike Curb. "Nixon, the president, called me and said his favorite record was 'The Candy Man,'" recalls Curb. "He asked me if Sammy and the Curb Congregation would perform in Miami at the Republican convention. I said, 'My group will perform. I don't manage Sammy. Sy Marsh does.'" But before he hung up, Curb told Nixon that his record company was thinking of a suitable venue to present Davis with his gold record. Curb mentioned that Miami Beach, during the convention, might be a possibility, then he asked the president if he would phone Davis and invite him down. "[Nixon] said, 'I'd love to do that. I love Sammy Davis Jr.'" The Republicans booked Davis into a suite at the Playboy Hotel in Miami. He flew in on an oil company's private jet. The business moguls arrived like geese. And on the second day of the convention, Davis was seated not just anywhere, but in the private Nixon family box, with Edward Cox and his wife, Tricia, the president's daughter; Tricia's sister, Julie, and her husband, David Eisenhower; and first lady Pat Nixon. Davis -- in a plaid tailor-made suit, white shirt and dotted tie, his lapels festooned with buttons ("I'm from Montana," "Try a Virgin"), a cigarette in his hand, two jeweled rings on each hand -- sat with the whitest family in America. This was better than hamming it up with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Hell, this was power and entertainment -- the elixir that made color vanish!
Two nights later the Republican delegates nominated Nixon for reelection. Afterward, the president made his way over to the Republican Youth Rally, where Davis was performing. He was in a shirt, opened to a naked chest and tied at the waist, and thin pants with X's as belt loops: It looked like an outfit a Spanish bullfighter might wear. When Nixon came into view, with his phalanx of Secret Service men, amid shouts of FOUR MORE YEARS!, Davis knew exactly what to do. He'd been in show business all his life. He quieted the crowd. Then: "Ladies and gentlemen, young voters, the president of the United States." And the audience went wild. Nixon was grinning. It was his night. And Davis, at the other end of the stage, crouched a bit, then leaped over to Nixon and embraced him. It was all so beautifully vaudeville, Davis suddenly upon the president, a touchy-touchy hug. Why, the public had rarely seen Nixon in such an embrace, even with his own wife! And Nixon, letting loose with a slow, widening grin, towering over Davis, wrapping his arms across his own chest so awkwardly and yet tenderly like some flushed teenage kid; and all those white delegates and all those Nixon placards and Davis leaning on the president's shoulder as if Nixon were kin. Nixon and Sammy, in full embrace.
Freeze the frame.
Imagine a vaudeville kid -- the young Davis, who used to be required to carry a pass to stroll segregated Miami Beach when he and his father and Will Mastin were performing; who had broken his way into Hollywood's famed Ciro's nightclub, into television, onto Broadway, into Las Vegas; who had been booed by the Southern Democrats at the Kennedy convention in Los Angeles in 1960; who wished to be loved; who had the beguiling ability to wipe the emotions of black America out of his psyche; who had touched this most impersonal of presidents, made him smile and laugh as he was now doing. Now imagine that kid on a stage with the most powerful man in the whole wide world.
Imagine: the wide, hard grins of two survivors -- Nixon and Davis -- both with their Kennedy-inflicted pain lodged inside them like a switchblade.
When Nixon finally got around to talking -- "Sammy, I want to apologize for interrupting your performance . . ." -- he had a little remembrance he wished to share with the audience:
"I have a cute story to tell the people, if I may. Years ago, when I was a senator in California, I came to New York. Sammy was appearing at the Copa. It was winter, and snow was around the block. The limo dropped me off. I said, 'I'm Senator Nixon and I was wondering if there's a chance to see Sammy.' They said, 'There's not a seat in the house.' I said, 'Is there any way for me to get a message to Sammy Davis?' Just then, one of the guys got ahold of Sammy, said Senator Nixon's out there, he can't get in. Sammy got ahold of the owner of the Copa and said, 'Senator Nixon and his wife are out there. I know there are no seats. Put them at my table.' And, Sammy, you performed. It was an evening I'll never forget. I want you to know you're still the greatest."
The audience whooped and hollered. And Nixon was hardly finished. The shouts seemed to have unleashed something in him. He talked of Davis's critics, the ones who, Nixon said, felt Davis had "sold out" for supporting his presidency. "Well, let me give you the answer: You aren't going to buy Sammy Davis Jr. by inviting him to the White House." Davis seemed to melt.
More camera flashes blinked, Mike Curb smiled on the bandstand, and how many in the crowd believed that this must be black America's approval of Nixon?
Davis knew the staying power of a photograph. Within a day, the photo -- of Davis and Nixon, of the embrace -- was popping up everywhere: in the Negro press, in the white press. The photograph, taking on its own life, became some kind of cultural ornament.
In the aftermath of the GOP convention, Ann Slider kept opening the mail. It quickly unnerved her. "A ton of it" came in, Slider says. "Calling him 'nigger,' 'Uncle Tom.'" She told Marsh. "Sy said, 'We can't tell him.' I said, 'He could get killed.'" As the days passed -- more mail, more hateful phone calls, all because of that moment, that photo. Slider became defensive, even protective of Davis. She blamed Curb and his associates: "They used him, and I blame Sy for letting them use him."
Davis would tell interviewers that the president's programs were good for blacks. Most blacks were aghast. Entertainer Eartha Kitt found herself on a plane with Davis. She wanted to have words with him, but not on the plane, not to cause a commotion. Kitt was on Nixon's infamous enemies list, along with Gregory Peck, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and many others. They were Democrats, and they were liberal, and they opposed both Nixon and the Vietnam War. Some on the list were subjected to audits by the IRS. As soon as the plane landed, Kitt marched right over to Davis.
"I said, 'Why? Why?'" she remembers asking. "I said, 'So, did you have to kiss him?'" Davis was befuddled, searching for words as airport strollers gawked at the two celebrities. Kitt pressed on; she was livid; her voice kept rising. And it only rose more when Davis tried to tell her that Nixon cared about blacks. Then she stormed off.
Marsh had a public relations fiasco on his hands, and he knew it. "Black people would be in the elevator with us, and they'd turn their heads." Julian Bond, a member of the Georgia state House of Representatives and an ardent opponent of the war, referred to Davis's endorsement of Nixon as "unbelievable, an irrational act." Ann Slider cried.
Shirley Rhodes became defensive, wondering just what Davis owed to blacks. "Blacks didn't support Sammy. White America made him." Davis grew fearful. At one time having lived in mortal fear of white Southern bigots, he now worried about black militants. Having once told writer Alex Haley he felt "trapped in black," Davis now faced a different emotion: trapped in Nixon.
And there he stood, preparing to join Jackson on that Chicago stage and navigate the swinging bridge of black-white relations that defined the '60s. "Sammy walks out," recalls Marsh, "and they booed him. Sammy is in a state of shock." Davis swung his head from side to side of the building, looking for the anger, the source of the boos. "It struck me as with physical force, knocking the wind out of me," Davis would recall. "It grew louder." Jackson seemed momentarily startled. He quickly flung his muscular arm around Davis. Jackson's ferocious embrace was so full of on-the-spot love it seemed to weaken Davis. He seemed to be shrinking inside his denim jacket. The boos and catcalls rained on. "Brothers," Jackson said, waving his arm for quiet, "if it wasn't for people like Sammy Davis, you wouldn't be here, we wouldn't have PUSH today. Now, I expected some foolish people were going to react like this because the man hugged the president of the United States. So what? Look at what this gigantic little man has committed himself to over all these years." As the boos erupted anew, Jackson realized he had underestimated the anger. Davis's body began twisting. He wanted to bolt. Jackson could feel his angst, and only held Davis tighter. Then he asked Davis to sing something, and suggested "I've Gotta Be Me." Given the circumstances, it was a request both funny and meaningful -- and perhaps Freudian. Davis had no time to ponder the meaning; he simply began singing. Words caught in his throat; there was snickering. Marsh felt terrible. "Sammy sang a song, came off, said, '. . . They don't want me. I don't want them.' He got blind drunk that night, and cried."
The wounds took their toll. Davis needed a friend. He needed to look no farther than the White House, where Nixon again reached out for him. On March 3, 1973, Davis gave a one-man performance at the White House. Nixon beamed and tapped his wing-tipped feet; a tuxedoed Davis sang and gyrated onstage. Members of the Cabinet and Senate were in attendance, as well as the Apollo 17 astronauts and their families. Among Davis's musical offerings were, of course, "The Candy Man," "Mr. Bojangles" -- a tender ode about a vaudevillian who loses everything toward the end of his life -- and "I've Gotta Be Me," which now was a kind of personal anthem.
Later that night Nixon gave Davis and Altovise a tour of the White House. Then the Davises prepared for their overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom. They cackled together. In the middle of the night, Davis was hungry and tiptoed to the kitchen. He saw some black men, made eye contact with one. "Brother," he said, "can I have me a little sandwich upstairs?" There was a nod yes, but no conversation. Just a black butler moving about, carving up some Virginia ham. Now why would a black man not wish to make idle chatter with the great Sammy Davis Jr.? Let them all snicker. He was nibbling on good country ham in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Not long after Davis's performance at the White House, the Senate began its televised Watergate hearings. In July came testimony that Nixon secretly taped White House conversations. In October, Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, and William Ruckelshaus, his deputy, abruptly quit over the firing. The dragon of Watergate was fully loose now, and Nixon's presidency was unraveling.
Richard Nixon exhibited very little curiosity about blacks or ethnic minorities in America. Segments of the populace -- particularly young, long-haired, or black -- rattled him. Jews frightened him, sending his paranoia into dark, shameful quarters. (His White House recordings are full of anti-Semitic rantings.) Nixon wanted to believe that Davis was black America: If Davis could make it, then why all the black poverty? Why the drumbeat of complaints from the ghetto? Davis became Nixon's envoy to a world Nixon did not understand. Inasmuch as Davis himself had been fairly new to the rhythms of black America, Sammy teaching the president about black America was a choice both curious and comedic. (In the White House one afternoon, Davis took it upon himself to explain to Nixon how the word "colored" had evolved to "Negro," which had now changed to "black.")
The closer Nixon got to Davis, the more apparent it became he did not understand the entertainer at all. "You aren't going to buy Sammy Davis Jr. by inviting him to the White House," Nixon had said in Miami Beach. But Nixon was wrong: You could buy Davis. Not in a vicious or completely immoral manner -- not in, say, the manner Nixon would seek to buy off Watergate conspirators. But if you could get to the soft spot in Davis's heart -- insecurity -- and linger there, then his heartstrings would race to his head, leading him to dangerous and sentimental conclusions that had little to do with reason. And those conclusions -- he was being loved! -- set him up to be bought. Nixon and Davis played against each other's torments. With Watergate draping all around him, Nixon needed friends. He sulked along the corridors of the White House, many nights alone. But then, there, within reach -- within a camera's flash -- was his old Copa pal Davis. Caught between black and white, Davis had more than once reached in surprising directions -- toward Judaism in the mid-'50s, black power in the mid-'60s, Nixon now -- to stabilize his insecurities. His style was the quick thinking of a stage veteran, the light of survival.
But there was no avoiding the demons let loose with Watergate. After Nixon resigned, Davis decided it best to dust his hands of Republicans. Four more years of Republicans, he had gleefully told White House officials! Ha-ha-ha! Not anymore. Back to the Democratic fold! He began bragging up Ted Kennedy for the next presidential sweepstakes.
Wil Haygood is a reporter for The Post's Style section. This article is adapted from his biography In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Copyright 2003 by Wil Haygood. To be published next month by Alfred A. Knopf.