How Sammy Davis Jr. Became the Great Jewish Entertainer

Daughter's Memoir Accentuates the Positive

The Accidental Jew: Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism after a near-fatal car accident.
Getty Images
The Accidental Jew: Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism after a near-fatal car accident.

By Dan Epstein

Published May 08, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

● Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father
By Tracey Davis and Nina Bunche Pierce
Running Press, 208 pages, $30

‘Even when my own people would complain to me about racism,” Sammy Davis Jr. told his daughter shortly before the end of his life, “I would always say, ‘You got it easy. I’m a short, ugly, one-eyed black Jew. What do you think it’s like for me?’”

It was a riff that Davis regularly recycled for laughs — but as was so often the case for the multi-talented entertainer, there was considerable truth and pain behind the punch line. Indeed, truth, pain and laughter are all prominent themes in “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father,” a sumptuously illustrated book by Davis’s daughter Tracey (with collaborator Nina Bunche Pierce) that looks back on his career through the prism of their final months together.

As Ms. Davis recounted in her previous book, 1996’s “Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father,” it wasn’t easy growing up as the daughter of one of the world’s most in-demand song-and-dance men, a workaholic father who tried to make up for his lengthy absences with lavish expenditures and extravagant gestures. Here, however, she makes a conscious effort to leave the bitterness and baggage behind, savoring instead the memories of the conversations she shared with her father in 1990 while he was losing his battle with throat cancer. It was during this period, she writes, that “my father became particularly nostalgic about the past,” and seemed to particularly relish the chance to revisit and reflect upon his struggles and accomplishments with his once-estranged daughter (then pregnant with his first grandson) as his audience.

Though Ms. Davis did not record their conversations, she does her best to reconstruct them from memory here, and they touch chiefly (and often all-too-briefly) upon the major bullet points of her father’s biography: learning the showbiz ropes as a child with his father in the Will Mastin Trio; being verbally and physically abused by white soldiers while serving in the United States Army during World War II; his postwar rise to fame; his decades-long friendship with Frank Sinatra; his near-fatal car accident that caused him to lose an eye; his post-accident conversion to Judaism; the heady days in Las Vegas with “The Rat Pack”; the controversy over his interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (Tracey’s mother) in 1960; their 1968 divorce; and his 1970 marriage to dancer Altovise Gore, whom he met during his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in “Golden Boy.”

Absent (perhaps understandably so) are the more tawdry and salacious aspects of Davis’s life, like his affair with actress Lola Falana, his penchant for “swinging” in the non-musical sense, or his involvement with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Davis’s drug use and alcoholism are, likewise, only lightly touched upon here. Aside from some pointed digs at her stepmother — whom Ms. Davis claims was such a raging alcoholic that her father locked her out of his wing at their Beverly Hills mansion during his final months — family drama is largely kept at bay, as well.

As such, little in “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father” will come as any sort of revelation to longtime fans of the entertainer. And while the 100-plus photographs included here amply attest to Davis’s striking charisma — as well as to his innate ability to lend pizazz to even the stiffest of occasions, such as his 1971 appointment by former President Nixon to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity (to which Sammy un-ironically sported a peace medallion) — their placement in the book often seems haphazard, and their captions frustratingly sparse. Ms. Davis is solid enough at fleshing out her father’s reminiscences with historical and cultural context, but she’s on shakier ground when ruminating on the bigger picture, offering up shallow epiphanies like, “I looked around at the plush garden oasis my pop worked so hard for, and thought, ‘Wow, my father really is a megastar.’”

Still, for all its flaws, “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father” is sweetly intimate and often quite engaging. The affection that Ms. Davis and her father had for each other rings loud and true, as does her father’s passion for living; his deep sadness at losing his ability to perform — which he quite clearly held tantamount to losing his life — is heartbreakingly palpable. The writing of this book obviously provided Ms. Davis with another chance to commune with her father’s spirit, and it’s hard to fault her for wanting to do that. Even through decades-old conversations, the wit and charm of Sammy Davis Jr. remain as winning as ever, and readers will come away feeling as if they’ve spent some quality time with the man. Even if they don’t learn much new from the experience, they’ll be entertained — and that’s exactly the way Sammy would want it.

Dan Epstein is the author of “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.