'Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr' by Burt Boyar
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Everybody, it seemed, loved Sammy Davis Jr., and he loved them back -- with his camera.Photos courtesy of Altovise Gore Davis
"There would have been no civil rights movement if it hadn't been for Bobby Kennedy."
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Beginning as a child star with the dance trio of his father and Will Mastin, Davis used a Kodak Brownie to snap his travels around the nightclubs of America in the 1940s when he was a teenager.
By the time he reached stardom in the late 1950s, Davis was working with the latest equipment. His subjects moved up a few notches, too: Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Bing Crosby and Jerry Lewis, who gave him a Rolleiflex in the early 1950s.
Davis kept clicking away -- actors, politicians, winos, anonymous women who posed in his hotel rooms, his wives and children -- throughout his tumultuous life.
Text by Burt Boyar
Regan Books ($49.95)
He was only 64 when he died in 1990, with cigarettes taking their toll on his throat.
His thousands of photos stayed under wraps until his widow, Altovise Davis, agreed to release them for this book assembled by Burt Boyar, Davis' collaborator on his two memoirs, "Yes, I Can" (1965) and "Why Me" (1989).
Boyar's text is largely unmemorable and curiously short on dates, names and places. In one passage, he places Monroe, two years dead, at one of Davis' parties in 1965.
The photos do the talking, and since they cover a range of subjects -- the Hollywood scene of the 1950s, the Rat Pack antics of the 1960s, the inspiring presidential race of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the civil rights protests with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even fleeting glimpses of Richard Nixon, an admirer and friend -- there's something here for most readers to enjoy.
The famous or infamous moment when Davis embraced a clearly uncomfortable Nixon at a presidential rally cost the entertainer friends. Nixon repaid the gesture by appointing Davis to a advisory council.
The Rat Pack's Peter Lawford, married to John and Robert Kennedy's sister, Patricia, offered Davis entry into the inner circle and, while there are no candid shots of JFK, his photos of Jacqueline Kennedy are poignant.
Davis' conflicted personal life included marriage to May Britt, a Swedish actress. Their marriage, short-lived and unfortunately controversial, is captured here in intimate and affectionate terms.
Sammy Davis Jr., small, bandy-legged and one-eyed (he claimed it made him a better photographer) was a major character in American culture, now largely forgotten.
This handsome collection of his photographic vision gives him an added measure of significance.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 21, 2007) Will Mastin was the founder of a dance act featuring Sammy Davis Jr. Mr. Mastin's name was misspelled in this story as originally published in Feb. 18, 2007 editions.
Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis, who advised Davis that his talk needed to be "a little less grand."
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First Published February 18, 2007 12:00 am