Nearly 50 years after the early-1960s heyday of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” in Las Vegas, interest in Frank and his cronies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. has turned into a cottage industry, with a constant stream of video releases, repackaged CDs, and impersonator concerts ensuring that the boys are ever present on the American cultural scene. Indeed, Sinatra, who died in May 1998, notched the country’s second-bestselling CD in May 2008, his canonization further secured with the issuing of 120 million first-class Sinatra postage stamps. Dean Martin remains current with a steady re-release of his CDs and has long since passed into collective memory as Dino, the arbiter of cool. It’s a state of affairs that leaves Sammy Davis Jr. the odd man out. It shouldn’t be thus — Davis was astonishingly talented as singer, dancer, and mimic, but his image is encountered infrequently, if at all, these days. Why the disconnect? That’s exactly the question journalist Matt Birkbeck has set out to explore in his tell-all Deconstructing Sammy.
Sammy Davis Jr. lived a storied life. Adored by millions over a six-decade-long career, he was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But depite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy, His estate was declared insovent, and there was no possibility of ever using Sammy’s name or likeness again. It was as if Sammy had never existed.
Years later his wife Altovise was living in poverty when she turned to a former federal prosecutor, Albert “Sonny” Murray, to make one last attempt to resolve Sammy’s debts, restore his estate, and revive his legacy. For seven years Sonny probed Sammy’s life to understand how someone of great notoriety and wealth could have lost everything, and in the process he came to understand Davis, a man whose complexity makes for a riveting work of celebrity biography as cultural history.