Restoring the legacy of Sammy Davis Jr.

September 15, 2008 10:07:33 AM PDT
For all the grief that Sammy Davis Jr. took in life - remember the uproar over his embrace of Richard Nixon? - he's getting it even worse in death.

Eighteen years after the legendary entertainer succumbed to throat cancer at age 64, his estate is in tatters, burdened by debt and infighting among family members and business associates. Despite recording hundreds of songs, starring in dozens of movies and TV shows, and giving countless live performances, his posthumous earning power is dwarfed by the likes of Elvis Presley and fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra.

"This is one of the most dysfunctional situations, and they still can't get it together," says Albert "Sonny" Murray Jr., who should know.

Murray, a lawyer based in the Poconos, was hired by Davis's widow to resolve his staggering $7 million IRS tax debt and restore the legacy of one of the 20th century's greatest showmen.

His Herculean efforts, stretched out over seven years, are chronicled in "Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob," a book by journalist and author Matt Birkbeck expected out Sept. 16 that reveals Murray as a man of stubborn tenacity - and Davis as one of extraordinary complexity.

Here's Davis the showbiz legend: a consummate performer who got his start in vaudeville, a triple threat of singing, acting and dancing, a charter member of the high-flying, hard-partying Rat Pack.

Here's Davis the civil rights campaigner: a man who endured horrid acts of racism while serving with the Army's first integrated unit during World War II, and who later marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and used his fame to try to heal racial divisions.

And here's Davis the flawed family man: an absentee father, abusive husband, drug-addled hedonist, and bad businessman who surrounded himself with people who didn't always have his best interests at heart.

"I think everyone, for the most part, thought he was nothing more than a caricature, a guy who was always laughing, happy and up," says Birkbeck, 49. "I was really shocked at how his life behind the scenes was falling apart over the last 15 or 20 years."

Davis's remarkable life is certainly well-trod territory. Nevertheless, through interviews with close friends and confidants who had never spoken publicly before, Birkbeck digs up many startling details. (Example: Davis confided in his bodyguard, a former British intelligence agent, that he believed the Secret Service had a role in the Kennedy assassination.)

But the real heart and soul of "Deconstructing Sammy" belongs to Sonny Murray, and his quest to save not one endangered black legacy - but two.

In 1954, Murray's parents founded a visionary Poconos resort, the Hillside Inn, that catered to blacks at a time when blacks were routinely denied accommodations.

The Murrays saw the Hillside as a welcoming refuge, and for a long time, that's exactly what it was, eventually becoming the oldest black-owned resort in the United States. By the 1990s, however, business began to slip. And it fell to their son to keep the Hillside afloat.

"Deconstructing Sammy" follows Murray as he struggles to save the Hillside - and the Sammy Davis Jr. brand.

Murray, now 59, never thought much of Davis. Like many other blacks who came of age during the tumultuous 1960s, he saw Davis as little more than a minstrel, an Uncle Tom, a plaything of the white establishment.

But he felt sorry for Davis's widow, Altovise Davis, who was virtually penniless, in the grips of a life-threatening alcohol addiction, and, as it happened, living in a private home on the grounds of the Hillside. And the more Murray dug into Davis's life, the more he came to appreciate his contributions to American culture and civil rights.

"He was much more than the Stepin Fetchit that he appeared to be," Murray said in a recent interview at the Hillside. "He went through struggles as a black man, he went through struggles with his own identity, he went through all of the things that we go through as minorities. At the same time, he gave of himself as an entertainer. And yet at the end of his life, there was nothing to show for it."

Murray worked hard to rectify that. He struck a deal with the IRS in 1997, and with the tax debt finally settled, offers began pouring in. A four-CD retrospective was released in 1999 and Murray helped secure for Davis a lifetime achievement award at the 2001 Grammys.

Yet the story continues to unfold, and both legacies face an uncertain future.

Murray and Altovise parted ways in 2001, and the Davis estate has once again fallen into disrepair, "mired in failure and controversy," as Birkbeck writes. Altovise Davis has sued two former business partners in federal court, claiming they tricked her into signing away the rights to her husband's estate. The suit is pending.

Murray, meanwhile, has put the Hillside up for sale.

His parents are deceased and the 33-room resort, he says, is a dinosaur. Blacks have long been able to stay at any public accommodation they want, and increasingly, they're choosing to stay somewhere else. And whites may be reluctant to go to a resort whose clientele is primarily black.

Murray hopes it is bought by a nonprofit, perhaps a shelter. Which would be a fitting way to honor the Hillside's history.

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