THE COLOR OF LOVE
Watching the great diversity at the Golden Globe Awards reminds me of the bigotry and prejudice that existed within my generation. Karen Kramer, the talented wife of Stanley Kramer told me of the threats that she and her husband received when he produced and directed Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in 1967. It dealt with a renowned black doctor who wants to marry the daughter of a wealthy liberal newspaper publisher (and his wife). When this film was released in 1967, it was banned in several theaters throughout the south and was condemned by many.
This article we repost today from Vanity Fair by Sam Kashner reflects an era, in the late 1950s, of that ignorance and hatred. It tells of the love affair between Columbia’s version of Monroe- Kim Novak and the multi-talented Sammy Davis Jr. (of the Rat Pack as well) and how Harry Cohn sought to end that. Just a few years later, Sammy married Sweedish actress May Britt. When Davis’ closest friend, Frank Sinatra – who planning the 1960 Kennedy Innagaural- was told that Sammy could not perform at the event due to his marriage. They asked Sinatra to ask Davis to postpone the wedding until after the Innagaural, but they did not want to wait. Thus, after their wedding, the couple received more hate letters and death threats, and Sammy’s name was removed from the list of entertainers at Kennedy’s inaugural party Sinatra was hosting in Washington.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2607068/He-endured-called-boy-c-n-N-word-Sammy-Davis-Jr-s-greatest-humiliation-came-JFK-refused-let-perform-inauguration-married-white-woman.html#ixzz4VH78A1j0
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Here is the well written article by Sam Kashner in Vanity Fair.
The Color of Love
By Sam Kashner. 9/3/2013
It was said that Harry Cohn put more people in the cemetery than all the other moguls combined. He ran Columbia Pictures as if it were a family business, and in a way it was, because he had wrangled control from his brother Jack, who was back on the East Coast in New York. By the mid-1930s, Cohn had nurtured Columbia from a low-rent, B-movie studio on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” a block off Sunset, into a major Hollywood film studio.
Cohn wanted to be known as the toughest, meanest mogul in Hollywood. He brandished a riding crop and slashed it across his desk to terrify employees. He kept a framed photograph of his hero, Benito Mussolini, on his massive desk and had his office decorated to look like Il Duce’s. The reporter James Bacon, fresh out of Chicago, was assigned to cover Hollywood for the Associated Press back in 1948. “I went from covering Al Capone to covering Harry Cohn,” Bacon recalls. “Cohn was by far the meanest. He’d keep tabs on all the writers. He used to fire people all the time—usually on Christmas Eve.”
Henri Soulé, the owner of Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque in New York, detested Cohn and considered him a déclassé Hollywood hood. At the time, Le Pavillon was one of the most famous restaurants in the world: Through its doors, at 5 East 55th Street, came the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Cabots, and the Windsors. When Cohn came in, however, the imperious Soulé seated him at the back, near the kitchen. Unfortunately for Soulé, Columbia owned the building, and Cohn retaliated by raising Le Pavilion’s rent.
The director George Sidney, who made The Eddy Duchin Story, Jeanne Eagels, andPal Joey, all with Novak at Columbia Pictures, became one of Cohn’s most trusted intimates. “People used to say, ‘I’m going to beat Harry,’” Sidney recalls. “But no one could beat Harry—he was too smart, he was too sharp. You really have to understand that Mr. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner—these men with their blood and their money and their reputations, they smelled out who had star material.”
Cohn took all the credit for creating Rita Hayworth—he was also obsessed with her. She was Columbia’s resident sex goddess in the 1940s, but she had a bad habit of getting married. Her first husband was a 40-year-old car salesman named Edward C. Judson; she then married director Orson Welles, Aly Khan, heir apparent to the Ismaili Muslim throne, and singer Dick Haymes. Every time she got married, her box-office standing eroded. Her marriage to Khan, a notorious playboy and womanizer, kept her out of pictures for more than two years, infuriating Cohn and further alienating her fans.
After Hayworth returned to Hollywood in 1951. Cohn wanted her in one of his pet projects, a biblical epic called Joseph and His Brethren, until her then husband, Haymes, came into Cohn’s office with a marcelled beard and demanded to be cast as Joseph.
“I’ll have that son of a bitch back in Argentina,” Cohn exploded. (Haymes, an Argentinean native, was always facing deportation.)
Instead, Cohn decided to get back at Hayworth. He was still smarting from having let Marilyn Monroe slip away: unimpressed by her beauty, he had neglected in 1948 to renew her initial six-month contract. Cohn decided he was going to take the next girl who walked into his office and manufacture a new star for Columbia Pictures, one who would do exactly what he wanted, who wouldn’t walk away until he and the public were finished with her.
“We always had a blonde,” George Sidney remembers. “We started with Mae West, Jean Harlow, Marilyn, then Kim. After that, we switched over to Grace Kelly. It’s a terrible comparison, but it’s like betting on the Kentucky Derby. That fourth horse, I think can do it.”
The next girl to walk through Cohn’s door was Marilyn Novak, a shy, plump, large-boned 20-year-old from Chicago with no acting experience but a breathtaking face. Cohn had found his blonde. Since there was already a Marilyn, the first thing that had to go was her name. She balked at being renamed “Kit Marlowe,” and, incredibly, she won that battle. They compromised on “Kim” Novak—the name of the son of her Chicago friend and business manager, Norma Herbert, then Norma Kasell. Kasell was running Chicago’s Fair Teens Club for a local department store when she discovered Novak, and helped groom her for a modeling career and a $400 scholarship to the Patricia Stevens Professional Academy. This led to her going to California to demonstrate refrigerators as “Miss Deepfreeze.”
The studio contoured her figure by encouraging her to purge 15 pounds. Then they changed her hair, dyeing it three shades of blond at once. Columbia Pictures’ house designer Jean Louis was brought in to remake her wardrobe. He had created the notorious second skin glittering with sequins that Marlene Dietrich wore for her nightclub premiere in Las Vegas in 1953; he would also sew Marilyn Monroe into the sequined formfitting gown she wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Novak was installed at the Studio Club, a curfewed dormitory for young starlets where Cohn could have his expensive new possession watched around the clock—even tailed by studio detectives to make sure she didn’t follow the wayward path of Rita Hayworth. No men allowed.
At some point in the transformation of Marilyn Novak, her studio-assigned publicist, Muriel Roberts, dreamed up an all-lavender scheme and insisted that they rinse her hair with a pale lavender tint. The studio had wanted a gimmick to distinguish its blonde from the many other new platinum blondes on the block: Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Joi Lansing—all outsize girls signed to compete with Marilyn Monroe and built like the decade’s big Chevys and Buicks. The lavender gimmick followed Novak to other studios when she was loaned out. For example, when she made Vertigo for Paramount, a publicist wrote to Hedda Hopper:
Miss Novak, James Stewart, Albert [sic] Hitchcock and all of the visiting press will stay at the Clift where Miss Novak’s fetish for lavender will be fulfilled in her posh suite when she arrives May ninth. Her suite will be lavender-scented; bed sheets and pillow slips in lavender; and while she’s tubbing in lavender-scented water she may take her calls on a lavender-colored bathroom telephone.
It didn’t matter to Cohn that lavender was a color that Novak loathed.
Novak, however, found ways to dig in her heels and refuse to be completely made over by Cohn. She went public with her salary disputes with the studio. She was being horribly exploited, paid $750 per week on loan to Otto Preminger for The Man with the Golden Arm, while Preminger was paying Cohn $100,000 for her services; for Jeanne Eagels she was paid only $13,000, while her co-star, Jeff Chandler, got $200,000. Cohn was enraged when her salary disputes made it into a July 1957 *Time-*magazine cover story on her, and his remarks made history: “They all believe their publicity after a while. I have never met a grateful performer in the picture business.” Novak even managed to evade Cohn’s casting couch—considered the most notorious in Hollywood.
“Harry Cohn used Kim Novak like a chess piece,” remembers Vernon Scott, a reporter who covered Hollywood in the 1950s and who probably knew Novak better than any other journalist on the beat. “Her only problem was, in the beginning, she wasn’t a very good actress, and I think she knew that.”
Novak herself has admitted, “In the early films I had no experience, I was just doing it.” But what she did have was a special relationship with the camera: it registered an honesty of emotion that she possessed—an unteachable quality that distinguishes a goddess from a mere actress. That quality hits you right between the eyes in William Inge’s Picnic (1955), in which Novak plays Madge, the small-town beauty who wants to be loved for herself.
Novak still wasn’t ready. But somehow her lack of readiness made her a more poignant Madge. Even Logan came around, admitting that Novak brought a quality to the film he hadn’t foreseen: he thought that she wore her shocking beauty “like a crown of thorns,” as if it were a physical deformity.
Ironically, Vertigo, the film with which Novak is most identified, wasn’t even made for Columbia Pictures, but at Paramount. Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted to cast Vera Miles in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy. He had become obsessed with Miles, an icy, imperious beauty along the lines of Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, but when Miles became pregnant and turned down the role, Hitchcock settled for Novak. Though the director never publicly acknowledged her valuable contribution, Novak gave the richest performance of her career in Vertigo—she is almost unbearably affecting as the lonely Judy, who, like Madge in Picnic, wants to be cherished not for how she looks but for herself. In her desperation to win the love of Scottie, the expolice detective played by James Stewart, she consents to being made over by him to look more like his idée fixe. “If I let you change me, will that do it?” she asks Scottie. “Will you love me? Then I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.”
Vertigo has been called Hitchcock’s most personal film, but in a fundamental way it is Novak’s as well. Judy’s reluctant transformation into the ghost of Madeleine is an eerie echo of her metamorphosis into a movie goddess. The mysterious Madeleine—a creation dreamed up to mask a murder and therefore never “real” to begin with—is uncommunicative, withdrawn, passive. She is essentially a cipher. Like Proust’s madeleine, she exists only to arouse emotions in others. Novak had been well trained for that role—after all, Cohn had time and again driven home the point that she was nothing but a face.
The most sublime moment in the film is when Madeleine, in an immaculate white coat, stares at the cross section of a giant sequoia tree on the California coast. With a black-gloved hand, Madeleine touches a ring on the ancient tree and whispers, “Somewhere in here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.” In that moment, hidden in Madeleine, there is Judy’s masked yearning to live, to be noticed, to become real.
With the Boyars, Davis ventured into New York establishments that had previously been closed to him. “Sammy said to me very tentatively, ‘When are you going to take me to El Morocco?’ I used to go there every night as part of my rounds, and I said, ‘Let’s go now.’” But when the Boyars strode into El Morocco with Davis they were surprised to find themselves led past the dance floor and the banquettes and seated on the wrong side of the room. “John Perona, the owner, was in the kitchen, staring out through the window of the swinging door, just staring at Sammy and the idea of this black man in his place. Every hooker was there, as was Bob Harrison, who published Confidential and was really just a pornographer. But Sammy Davis Jr. threw him completely. The great thing, though, was that the minute Sammy walked in, the orchestra began flirting with him, playing ‘Hey There,’ which was his first hit, and every song from Mr. Wonderful.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was born in Harlem in 1925. At the age of three, he went on the road with his father, Sam Davis Sr. The two appeared with a man they called the boy’s uncle, Will Mastin, in a “flash dance” act (an entr’acte performed between movie showings) that became the Will Mastin Trio. Growing up in the segregated world of the black vaudeville circuit without any formal education, and having to overcome the racism of white audiences, Davis realized early on that he had no choice but to succeed. The writer James Baldwin, who would become a friend during the 60s at the height of the civil-rights movement, once observed that Davis had to decide between greatness and madness. He chose greatness.
“Sammy was very smart, maybe the smartest man I’ve ever known,” says Boyar. “Certainly a genius—an entertainment genius. He just understood everything about show business. He just never stopped studying it.”
But being on tour from the age of three had taken its toll: for one thing, Davis never really learned how to write, although he was a voracious reader. He read constantly during his conversion to Judaism, after the November 1954 car accident that cost him his left eye. Sy Marsh, a top William Morris agent who left the agency to become Davis’s business partner, says that “till the day he died he could sign his name, but he couldn’t write. He never personalized autographs to anyone, because he couldn’t spell people’s names and he was embarrassed.”
Davis encountered serious racism in the army. “I had been drafted into the army to fight, and I did . . . with Southerners and Southwesterners who got their kicks out of needling me. . . . I must have had a knockdown, drag-out fight every two days,” he told the Boyars during the writing of Yes I Can. His nose was broken countless times and permanently flattened; he was given beer to drink by his “buddies” that was laced with urine. Only when he was assigned to Special Services, for which he performed in camp shows around the country, did the acts of violence diminish. Even then he would search the audience every night for troublemakers. “I had to make [the audience] acknowledge me,” he told the Boyars. “I was ready to stay onstage for hours . . . dancing down the barriers between us.”
By the time Davis was appearing in Mr. Wonderful, Mastin and Sam Davis Sr. were still part of the act, but everybody knew that they had stayed on too long. Davis Sr. gracefully stepped aside, but Mastin just couldn’t give it up. “It was tragic,” Boyar remembers. “Even when he was out of the act, it was still called ‘the Will Mastin Trio Starring Sammy Davis Jr.’” Mastin would travel with Davis and would insist on having his own dressing room, bringing out his costumes and makeup but never going onstage.
Arthur Silber’s father booked Davis into Ciro’s. The squat, flat-roofed building on the Sunset Strip, which now houses the Comedy Store, was the hottest and most glamorous nightclub in Los Angeles. James Bacon caught the opening night: “Everybody was at Ciro’s. I was sitting at a table with Clark Gable and William Holden and the Humphrey Bogarts, and the Will Mastin Trio came out with Sammy Davis. Sammy went into his imitation of white stars, like Jimmy Stewart and Jerry Lewis, and these people were in the audience. They were only supposed to do 20 minutes, but every time they’d go off, the audience would start to yell. They did close to an hour. It was such a big night for Sammy that Janis Paige [the main act] told George Schlatter [then a show producer at Ciro’s], ‘You’d better put them on as headliners.’ Sammy Davis was made after that.”
Part of the problem was that, as Arthur Silber observes, “you could not perform in these United States without being with gangsters, because the gangsters owned the nightclubs. All of them. You can mention them now: Sam Giancana. Donjo Medlavine.” Medlavine was stocky, built like a pit bull, and “he had a heart as big as the world,” Silber says. “But he was a guy you wouldn’t want to meet in the street if he was after you. They controlled the silverware. They controlled the linens. They controlled all the liquor. And the way you handled that relationship was very important: either you hung out with the Mob and became very buddy-buddy, or you tried to keep a respectful distance. What you never wanted to do was to owe them.”
Boyar also feels that Davis knew how attractive he was to women. “Sammy liked his looks—he knew his face was ugly, but he worked on his body. He kept himself in fantastic shape and he was so immaculate. He had a wonderful V-shaped body, and he loved his little behind. He would make a point of it, he would say, ‘Isn’t that adorable?’” Boyar feels that “he would have preferred to look like Cary Grant, but he was pretty satisfied with what he had. He recognized it worked for him.”
It didn’t take long for the gossip industry to go into high gear about the attraction between Davis and Novak. Someone at Tony Curtis’s party must have put in a call to Dorothy Kilgallen, the columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain, who slyly asked in her gossip column, “Which top female movie star (K.N.) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (S.D.)?” And if those initials weren’t enough of a tip-off, she followed the item up two days later with “Studio bosses now know about K.N.’s affair with S.D. and have turned lavender over their platinum blonde.”
Davis’s sexual charisma had already been noticed by Confidential, “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world,” in Tom Wolfe’s phrase.Confidential held a mirror up to America’s mid-50s paranoia and obsessions, its collective fears and fantasies: race, Communism, sex, miscegenation, homosexuality. As early as March 1955, it ran an article whose headline read: “What Makes AVA GARDNER Run for SAMMY DAVIS JR.? Some girls go for gold, but it’s bronze that ‘sends’ sultry Ava Gardner . . . ” And in the following year, “S-H-H! Have You Heard the Latest About SAMMY DAVIS JR.? What is it Sammy’s got that the girls go for?”
At stake was not only Novak’s career as a screen star—by this time she was the No. 1 box-office draw in the country—but also Davis’s potential career as a dramatic actor, one of his cherished but still unfulfilled ambitions. Even without Novak complicating things, it wasn’t going to be easy. His appearance in 1958 on General Electric Theater was almost canceled because the sponsors threatened to pull out for fear of alienating audiences south of the Mason-Dixon line.
America was still deeply segregated. Just two years earlier, all but three southern U.S. senators had signed a document known as the “Southern Manifesto,” which equated school integration with “subversion of the Constitution.” (The maverick senators were Lyndon B. Johnson and the two senators from Tennessee, Albert Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver.) The F.B.I, was still keeping track of lynchings.
Sinatra, in fact, wouldn’t let Davis miss his scheduled performances at the Sands to go see Novak, who was back home in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, visiting her family for Christmas. Sinatra loved Davis and worshiped his talent; he had helped put his career back on track after the car crash. But there was always an undercurrent of indebtedness in their relationship. Sinatra would give him a part in the 1960 movieOcean’s Eleven and pay him $100,000 for a few days’ work, but to earn his salary Davis had to play a singing garbageman. Could it be that Sinatra was sore over Davis’s dalliances with his former wife Ava Gardner? The Rat Pack camaraderie was overrated anyhow. “It was all kisses and hugs and it didn’t mean rat shit,” remembers Tony Curtis. “It was just the nature of the profession.”
Davis couldn’t get even a private message (actually a “secret message,” according to Arthur Silber, who refuses to elaborate) to Novak, because her family had only one phone, and it was a party line. “Sam asked me, begged me, to go for him,” Silber recalls, “but I didn’t want to go. He literally got down on his knees—tears were coming out of his eyes.” Finally Silber acquiesced. At that time there was a TWA flight that stopped in Las Vegas at three in the morning. Silber caught it and flew into Los Angeles, then picked up an American Airlines flight to Chicago. Donjo Medlavine was waiting for him on the tarmac when the plane arrived. He had a few choice words: “What the fuck has he gotten himself into now!” Silber and Medlavine were sitting at the airport when Silber was suddenly paged over the loudspeaker. It was Sammy’s stepmother, Peewee Davis, saying, “He’s coming on the next flight.”
“How the hell did they let him go?” Silber wondered. He knew that Sinatra wouldn’t have let him out of his engagement at the Sands, even for one night. “I don’t know how he did it, but Sammy came, and it was the most ludicrous thing. I mean, all this for five minutes. It was just how deep this affair went. I was sent to Chicago to go to Kim and say, ‘Sammy loves you.’”
James Bacon, one of the first West Coast reporters to get wind of Novak’s affair, called Novak’s family in Chicago and was told by her father, Joe, that the star was returning to Los Angeles on the Union Pacific train. “He was a railroad man,” Bacon says. “He even remembered what car she was in.” The next morning, the reporter was at Union Station to meet her. Cohn also found out about Novak’s arrival and sent a delegation from Columbia headed by Muriel Roberts, who often traveled with Kim, and Norma Kasell. When they saw Bacon talking to Novak, they practically chased him out of the station.
The affair was an open enough secret that Davis had to endure tasteless remarks about it, even from his friends. When Milton Berle found himself standing alongside Davis in the men’s room at Chasen’s, “Mr. Television” supposedly turned to him and said, “Sammy, if Kim Novak ever sees this, you’ll be back sleeping with Hattie McDaniel.”
Another big-time gossip columnist who got into the act was Irv Kupcinet, who wrote “Kup’s Column” for the Chicago Sun-Times. There were rumors that the couple was taking out a marriage license, and supposedly a clerk in Aurora found that an application had been filled out but never filed.
“It caused a hell of a ruckus at the studio when Harry Cohn picked up my column and learned that his star was about to be destroyed,” recalls Kupcinet. “In that era, Cohn thought, Who’s going to go see a movie star who’s married to a black man? Cohn blew his top. He got so mad at me and at the story and at her. He called me and used a few vituperative terms. I said, ‘Harry, we’ve been friends for a long time. But I have to print what I think is news.’
“‘Fuck you,’ he said, and hung up.”
Davis was stunned.
“We had to help ourselves, we had to do some straightening out,” Silber says. The first thing they did was to call Donjo Medlavine, but they couldn’t reach him, so they called Mob boss Sam Giancana at the Armory Lounge in Forest Park, Illinois. That’s where Giancana was known to order killings along with his linguine—he was allegedly responsible for the deaths of more than 200 men. Davis asked for “the doctor,” a reference to “Dr. Goldberg,” Giancana’s code name whenever he was in Las Vegas “dating” the singer Phyllis McGuire. “Giancana says, ‘We can protect you here in Chicago, or when you’re in Vegas, but we can’t do anything about Hollywood,’” Silber remembers. “‘Don’t go back home unless you straighten things out with Harry Cohn.’”
It was really touch and go, Silber recalls. “It was damned scary. Sammy and I were into the fast draw with guns, but it was playacting. For the first time in my life I started putting real bullets in. Sammy, too, because we didn’t know who was in the next suite.”
Silber sat on his bed polishing his shoes in the suite they shared at the Sands Hotel. He watched as Davis, looking seignorial in his white terry-cloth robe, riffled through his address book. “Sammy, what are you doing?” Silber asked.
“I’m looking for someone to marry. I got the call this morning. I have to marry a black chick, and I’m looking for someone to marry.”
The name he picked was Loray White, who happened to be performing at the Silver Slipper. She was a singer, an attractive young woman originally from Houston, a member of the black bourgeoisie. In 1956 she had had a small part in Cecil B. DeMille’s overwrought epic The Ten Commandments, and she had danced on Broadway. Sy Marsh remembers her as “a beautiful woman, bright, articulate, very well spoken.” At 23, she had already been married twice and had a six-year-old daughter. Davis gave her a call, and she went over to his suite.
Silber recalls, “He sat her down—he was sitting in a chair and I was sitting on the bed—and he made her a proposition, to marry him for a certain sum of money. She would have all the rights that Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr. would have, but at the end of the year they would dissolve the marriage. She agreed to that, and that’s what took the heat off.”
Shirley Rhodes, the wife of George Rhodes, Davis’s trusted and beloved music director, was one of Davis’s closest friends. She visited him the day after Davis announced the engagement from the stage at the Sands. “You know,” he told her, “I’m making 25 grand a week, and I’m sitting here with a bowl of soup I don’t want. I don’t want to be here.”
Jet reported that White went on a shopping spree, and ran a photograph of her with 20 new pairs of shoes. Rhodes remembers, “She went crazy with the money.” Davis was so grateful to her that he gave her a blond mink stole and a stunning ring of rose-cut diamonds and emerald baguettes. Entratter put her up in the Presidential Suite of the Sands Hotel—alone.
Back at Davis’s suite, they got a call from “Dr. Goldberg” (Sam Giancana) in L.A.: “You can tell him that Mickey says the pressure is off. You can relax.”
Burt Boyar never felt that Davis’s life had really been in danger. “He was too valuable. In truth, Harry Cohn had much less value to the Mob. Every place Sammy played, the Copacabana, the Chez Paree, the Latin Quarter, the Latin Casino in Philadelphia, all these places were owned by the guys, and they couldn’t afford to let Sammy get hurt.” But Sy Marsh insists to this day that “Sammy was inches away from getting killed.”
Loray Davis ended up in a big, rented house in the Hollywood Hills. The good news was that she had become Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr. The bad news was that he wasn’t there. She was left alone with 20 pairs of shoes, a mink stole, and a dazzling ring. Arthur Silber remembers that White used to call him up in tears, complaining that Davis was “supposed to be married to her but was still running around with Kim.” Whatever career advantage she thought she might have gained from marrying Davis never materialized. Six months later he paid her $25,000 to divorce him, but it would take him three years to extricate himself from the marriage.
Novak’s career went into decline after Cohn’s death. She had always acknowledged his instinct for finding the right properties and felt that once he was gone “nobody knew what to do” with her at the studio. Her later films veered from forgettable to lousy, with a few exceptions: Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and Strangers When We Meet (1960) were made with Richard Quine, the volatile film director with whom she became involved in 1959. In 1965, Novak would marry the English actor Richard Johnson, who appeared with her in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, but they separated within a year.
Novak virtually left Hollywood in 1962 and, in some sense, returned to being Marilyn Novak. She moved to Big Sur, in Northern California, and spent her time horseback riding, taking walks, lassoing driftwood, painting, and making flutes out of kelp, eventually raising llamas with her second husband, a veterinarian. She contracted with a New York publisher to write her memoirs and managed to get through her childhood—“which were not easy years”—but she found that she had virtually blacked out entire events of her life in Hollywood. Or she would be so overcome by emotion that she just couldn’t write. In 1996, Novak reluctantly came out of retirement to help promote the re-release of a beautifully restored Vertigo.Her re-emergence, however, was not entirely pleasant. She seemed to go into a trance when asked about her Hollywood years—not one of Madeleine’s “beautiful phony trances” but a real inability, or unwillingness, to remember the past. Novak eventually retreated to an even more remote spot in the Pacific Northwest. Her longtime friend Norma Herbert says, “She is very happy in her forest.” Cliff Robertson always believed that Novak “played her cards carefully, kept her winnings, and finally left Hollywood—I think she beat it!”
Britt knew that Davis had risked his career to marry her. But there was a more intractable problem in the making: she had to compete with his need to perform, and that need ultimately won out. The marriage ended in 1968.
In the 1970s, Arthur Silber went back to work for Davis and noticed profound changes in his personality and behavior. On a tour of Australia, Davis collapsed from sheer exhaustion. “He had a liver that just defied the doctors—nobody knows how he stayed alive,” Silber says. “He would reach for the Jack Daniel’s when he was in deep trouble with himself.” Silber didn’t like Davis’s new entourage. Davis would travel with a steamer trunk full of porno films, and one particularly tough member of his security team would “steal some of the tapes out of Davis’s room and charge the bellboys to watch them.”
“If you were there that night,” one member of Davis’s entourage explains, “you’d think, No wonder he hugged Nixon.” Sy Marsh believes that Davis had spent the first half of his career making himself loved by the white world, and the second half trying to make himself loved by the black world. “That’s the reason he married Altovise Gore,” in Marsh’s opinion. “She was a black woman. It would open up more doors to his being accepted.”
Altovise Davis, naturally, feels different about the relationship. A former dancer, she became involved with Davis during the London run of Golden Boy in 1968, when she played his sister in the musical. When he first invited Altovise up to his suite, she was wary of his reputation. “They call you ‘the Carpenter,’” she told him, “’cause you nail every girl you meet.” But she always believed that Davis loved her “unconditionally. We loved each other very much. I was like a kid in a candy store, and he wanted me to have the best.” Altovise’s tragedy is that Davis introduced her to a lavish world where a beautiful silver bowl, filled to the brim with cocaine, was kept on the bar.
Davis began having problems with his throat around 1988. Marsh took him to a specialist, who found that his constant smoking and singing had caused inflamed nodes on his vocal cords. Davis liked to inhale cigarette smoke in the middle of a song and exhale with the note and the smoke pouring out. Nat King Cole had warned him, “Don’t do that. You’re burning your vocal cords with all that heat—you’re making it worse.” But nothing could stop him—he did it for the theatrical effect.
Within two years Davis developed throat cancer. Amazingly, his voice actually improved in the last years of his life. “It was stunning,” Boyar remembers. “Here’s a man dying of throat cancer, and his voice was glorious, like a nightingale. It was almost unreal.”
When his doctor told him he needed surgery to live, he knew it would mean he’d never sing again. He told Shirley Rhodes, “You know, the world owes me nothing. I’ve had a good life. I don’t think that’s the way I want to go out.” Davis made the decision not to have the operation.
After Davis’s death, Rhodes would visit his grave at Forest Lawn with Murphy Bennett, Davis’s valet and probably his closest friend for more than 40 years. “Murphy would always stop on the way and buy a white rose and leave it for Sammy from her,” Rhodes recalls, “because that’s what Sammy always gave Kim. And Murphy—he knew everything.”
Davis left Altovise a $2.1 million life-insurance settlement and the beautiful house on Summit Drive, which he had worked his whole life to own. He also left substantial insurance settlements for Britt and their children. But ongoing tax problems brought in the I.R.S. at the end. Sy Marsh says, “The government had an auction, and they took it all. They sold all the stuff he had—Gary Cooper’s hat, Gene Kelly’s shoes. And Sammy was a watch freak—he had maybe a couple of hundred watches. Rolexes, Cartiers, what have you.” As one of Davis’s oldest friends observed, “The I.R.S. just doesn’t understand show business.” Altovise Davis was left with Davis’s $7.5 million tax debt.
Davis was buried between his father and Will Mastin. Whenever the Will Mastin Trio appeared onstage, Davis was always in the middle, between Sam senior and Mastin. “They’re buried that way, out in Forest Lawn,” notes Boyar. “Sammy had arranged that Will Mastin would be buried here, on the left, his father was buried on the right, and the plot in the center was left open. And that’s where Sammy is buried today. It’s amazing. He was a showman, a complete, absolute, utter showman. It was show business to the end.”