AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK SEPTEMBER 2009
Music, Money, and Madness
By Matt Birkbeck
“Birkbeck has killer leads, gripping kickers and sensational descriptions. This cinematic book reads more like a detective story than a traditional ‘life of.”
— New York Times Book Review
“Tremendous. . . Birkbeck tells the epic of Sammy Davis Jr... from his Harlem boyhood to his wrenching deathbed (he died of cancer in 1990) in his Beverly Hills mansion, where various hangers-on, seeing the circling vultures, stripped his corpse even before it was a corpse.”
— Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A piece of investigative journalism that unravels what happened to Davis’ estate, and reveals more about the man...Birkbeck spoke to people that have never spoken before—and the portrait of Sammy that emerges is difficult, demanding, and ultimately tragic.”
— NPR's Talk of the Nation
If we learn nothing else from Michael Jackson’s death we know that an entertainment legend’s estate can increase dramatically posthumously, resolving debts that would haunt the living. Tragically, another legendary entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr., who like Jackson began his career as a child, would also die deeply in debt. But 20 years after his death, Sammy’s estate remains in ruins and the great entertainer is but a footnote to history. The story of how Sammy Davis Jr. made and lost tens of millions of dollars and died insolvent forms the basis of this “gripping” and “sensational” (New York Times Book Review) work of reportage.
In the explosive biography, DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY: Music, Money, and Madness (Harper Paperbacks; On sale: September 1, 2009; $15.99), author (A Beautiful Child) and award-winning investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck delivers a stunning work of reportage that is equal parts cultural history, celebrity biography, and ultimately, a shocking behind-the-scenes look at the world of Sammy Davis, Jr.
When Sammy died nearly 20 years ago at age 64 of throat cancer, he was $15 million in debt—with more than half of that owed to the IRS for investments in bogus tax shelters—which forced Altovise Davis, his widow, to sell their possessions and later live in poverty in Pennsylvania. With few options at her disposal, Altovise turned to Albert “Sonny Murray” in a last-ditch effort to resolve Sammy’s debts and clear his name. For seven years Murray - a former federal prosecutor who gained fame in the 1980’s for his prosecution of E.F. Hutton - probed Sammy’s life on every level and uncovered a brilliant entertainer and complex and tragic man who had achieved everything – and then lost it.
A page-turning expose chock-full of shocking details and quotes from family, close friends, and access to the records of the Sammy Davis Jr. estate, DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY is a riveting portrait of a brilliant yet tragic figure in American history. Some of the revelations in the book include:
*Frank Sinatra’s ties to organized crime, and his denials, have been well-documented but Birkbeck describes how Sinatra and his pal Sammy were considered two of the mobs biggest earners and most important assets. Their drawing power in Las Vegas contributed greatly to the mob’s skimming operations and brought in millions in revenues.
*The FBI knew about Sammy’s close relationship with the mob and that for years Sammy served as a “front” for various mob-controlled investment schemes and fraudulent enterprises whose sole purpose was to defraud its investors. It was those relationships that left Sammy near bankruptcy when he died.
*When Sammy died in 1990, his name and likeness were valued at only $500 by the IRS despite the fact he had earned over $50 million during his lifetime. His home and possessions were sold at auction.
*Following his divorce from May Britt in 1968, Sammy was pressured to marry a black woman. He married Altovise Gore in 1970, but involved her for years in orgies. Sammy also encouraged her to “service” many of his friends and acquaintances. Included among the many men Altovise befriended was Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, whom Sammy met in the 1970s when Rumsfeld worked for the Nixon Administration. Rumsfeld remained friendly with Altovise, even after Sammy’s death, meeting her at a Los Angeles hotel.
*When Sammy’s good friend and long-time conductor George Rhodes died in 1985, Sammy asked another good friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to perform the eulogy. Jackson agreed, but for a price: He demanded $5,000 in cash, four first-class plane tickets and two suites at the Four Seasons. Sammy, who was broke, turned to bodyguard Brian Dellow, who took an advance off his credit card to pay Jackson’s fee.
*Sammy didn’t have to die. Upon hearing the cancer diagnosis in August 1989, doctors recommended surgery on Sammy’s throat, which offered an 80 percent chance of survival. Sammy opted instead for radiation, which had a slim 30 percent survival rate. Sammy made his decision based on his dismal finances. If he couldn’t sing, he reasoned, he couldn’t make money. Terminally ill, Sammy’s home was looted by his employees and his wife Altovise. He died nine months later, in May 1990. Before he was buried, Altovise took his glass eye.
*Sammy’s estate remains a shambles nearly 20 years after his death. Despite a 1997 agreement with the IRS to resolve the $7 million tax debt, his widow Altovise reneged on the deal. Because of the tax debt, Sammy continues to remain a footnote to history, his great legacy and contributions to civil rights all but forgotten. Altovise died in March 2009, and the remnants of Sammy’s estate are currently being fought over in federal court in Texas.
Author Matt Birkbeck, Sammy’s daughter Tracey Davis and Albert “Sonny” Murray will be available for interviews regarding DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY.
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Music, Money, and Madness
By Matt Birkbeck
On Sale: September 1, 2009
$15.99 / 304 pagesISBN: 978-0-06145-067-9
Contact: Kateri Benjamin, HarperCollins Publicity
212-207-7708 / kateri.benjamin@harpercollins.