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Every so often, as Wil Haygood was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the early ’60s, his mother or his grandmother would interrupt whatever back-yard diversion he was pursuing to hustle him back inside. The urgent matter? Sammy Davis Jr. was on TV.
“I don’t know if it was because of their admiration for him, or the simple fact that it was such a novelty to see a black face on TV at the time,” says Haygood, who himself is African-American. “But it’s true that there were very few blacks on television on a day-to-day basis. Very few.”
For more than four decades, Davis was one of America’s brightest starsfirst in vaudeville, then as singer, dancer, comedian, and movie and television star. But by the time Haygood, now 49 and a Washington Post writer, began researching In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. a few years ago, the performer’s reputation was somewhat in eclipse. In the years before his deathat the age of 64 in 1990Davis earned the enmity of many blacks for endorsing Richard Nixon for president in 1972, and engendered yawns from young, hip whites, who considered him a has-been odditya one-eyed black Jew who was grist for a Billy Crystal routine on Saturday Night Live.
Haygood’s book is poised to overturn the assessments. “He was one of our first genuine crossover artists,” Haygood says. “He did this in the 1950s, on the nightclub circuit, and became a legitimate part of the Rat Pack, which was one of the earliest examples of integration on television.” Black singers including Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole, along with actors such as Sidney Poitier, also demonstrated crossover appeal around that time. But no other performer offered the sheer versatility of Davis. “He did it all,” Haygood says.
At the same time, Haygood discovered, Davis was deeply ambivalent about his race. He was obsessed with blondes “in an unhealthy waya Hitchcock-strange way,” Haygood says. That predilection, combined with his prominence as a black celebrity, led him to fear for his lifewhich in turn convinced him to keep a low public profile on civil-rights issues during the ’60s. “In a strange way, Sammy wanted to be colorless,” he says. “But you couldn’t live in the real world and exist like that.” Yet Haygood found that this quiet stance masked a crucial behind-the-scenes role: bankrolling the movement. “One of the exciting things I uncovered is that whenever Martin Luther King got in trouble and needed money to bail out himself or his followers, he would say two words to Belafonte: ‘Get Sammy.’”
Like Davis, who first appeared on stage at the age of 4, Haygood experienced a bit of the vagabond life while researching the book. In addition to relocating twice to Los Angeles and once to Las Vegas to get to know his subject’s old haunts, Haygood traveled all over the country to conduct 250 interviews within a five-year span. “It became really arduous, because he was rootless,” Haygood says. “He came out of vaudeville, where you were on the road for 50 weeks a year. So he made friends who were scattered all over the country.”
Haygood began his journalistic career at age 26, rising through the newspaper ranks from Charleston, W.Va., to Pittsburgh to Boston to Washington. The Davis book is his fourth, following a travelogue down the Mississippi River, a bio of Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, and a memoir of his own family in Columbus. Fittingly, Haygood’s hometownthough he didn’t realize it initiallyplayed a key role in Davis’ career. When Haygood went looking for the first place Davis ever appeared on stage, he learned that it was the Lincoln Theater in Columbus. “There’s no historical marker there, but the city of Columbus will host a reading for me…as part of a fundraiser to renovate the theater,” he says. “It’s really a sweet symmetry.” Louis Jacobson