Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Sammy Davis, Jr. Marries

"Big question: Since the nation’s capital isn’t very integrated will Sammy Davis, Jr., be allowed to share a suite with his bride, May Britt?" Dorothy Kilgallen

Sammy Davis, Jr. and Swedish actress May Britt (his second wife) married on 13 November 1960 ... at a time so-called interracial marriages were prohibited in 31 U.S. states (only in 1967 were they - by then down to 17 states - ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court). The announcement of their wedding led to death threats and Davis hired a 24-hour armed guard. Hate group demonstrations took place. After the wedding, more hate letters and death threats followed (via).

Photograph: Sammy Davis Jr., May Britt and their children

"When the American Nazi Party demonstrated against black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.'s marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, the German consul in Los Angeles felt compelled to make a public statement distancing the Federal Republic from American storm troopers."
Marable & Kai Hinton (2011)

"But Davis’s marriage to Britt was another public-relations debacle, posing further threats to his career - and life. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., in September 1960 to play the Lotus Club, he was picketed by neo-Nazis bearing signs with scurrilous slogans such as GO BACK TO THE CONGO, YOU KOSHER COON. There were bomb threats in Reno, Chicago, and San Francisco -wherever Davis played. When he was introduced at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles as an ardent campaigner for John F. Kennedy, the Mississippi delegation stood up and booed." (via)

"How I Got to Officiate at the Wedding of Sammy Davis, Jr. and May Britt"
by Rabbi William M. Kramer

(...) Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a day in Sammy Davis’ life and he was a day in mine.

In 1961 Sammy Davis and May Britt decided to marry. Their courtship was intense and controversial. Sammy was very black and May was very white. She was Swedish and he American. She was known as a Christian and he was known as a Jew.

They went to the famous scholar and Zionist leader Dr. Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood in order to arrange for their wedding. May presented herself for conversion and Sammy was already Jewishly identified. (...)

When the news came out that Rabbi Nussbaum was going to do the Davis-Britt ceremony on November 13, 1961, according to David Max Eichhorn in his book, Joys of Jewish Folklore, at the Hollywood synagogue, "All hell broke loose."

"The temple office was bombarded with obscene and threatening phone calls. The Temple trustees became frightened. They were afraid that, if the wedding took place in the synagogue, it would cause a race riot. They asked Rabbi Nussbaum not to have the wedding in the Temple and not to officiate. The Rabbi was on the horns of a dilemma. He did not want to offend Sammy or May and he did not want to go against the wishes of his trustees."

I was aware of the controversy, and controversy was no stranger to Temple Israel, where Dr. Nussbausm spoke out courageously and independently on many issues.

All I know was that my senior colleague was suddenly called out of town and that I would be asked to cover for him at the ceremony, which was transferred out of the Temple into Sammy Davis’ home in the Hollywood hills.

If marrying the two of them was dangerous, I was evidently regarded as expendable. For my part, I was delighted. I was a member of Sammy Davis fandom, as was my late wife, Joan. (...)

I recieved (sic) hundreds of life-threatening phone calls and letters. Thank God, nothing happened. After the wedding I spoke on the phone two or three times with Davis and saw May a couple of times. (...)

I have not liked the Rev. Mr. Jess Jackson, and I have found his Rainbow Coalition colorless. But I too prayed in front of my televion set that somehow the death of the great Sammy Davis would make for reconciliation wherever there was difference between Black and Jew.

I did not copy down Jackson’s words, but as I recall them he said that, "in Davis, Black and White and Christian and Jew uniquely met." Sammy was like that. He was a transcender.

I would have felt better if Sammy Davis, the Jew, had had only a Jewish sevice. Still, he was an ecumenical man, a man of cultural blending. Maybe, his was the exception. He was certainly exceptional. (...)

Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr.'s best man and supporter of John F. Kennedy, asked him to postpone the wedding in order to make sure that tensions would not impact votes. After their wedding, Davis's name was removed from the list of entertainers at JFK's inaugural party Sinatra hosted in Washington (via).
"Earlier that year the Democratic Convention took place in Los Angeles where John F. Kennedy would be elected as the Democrats’ presidential nominee. When the introductions of Hollywood celebrities were being announced, Davis was booed by many of the white Southern delegates because he was engaged to a white woman. A headline over a New York Times story the next day read, “Delegates Boo Negro.” JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was worried that Davis’ marriage to a white woman on the eve of the November election might cost his son votes, so Davis reluctantly postponed the wedding until after the election." (via)

May Britt's contract, by the way, was not renewed when 20th Century Fox studios learned that she was going to marry Davis (via).

"During the 1960s, coverage of African-American entertainers increased from virtually non-existent to occasional features, but never without mention of race. Notably, fan magazine stories began to cover African Americans as individuals struggling to combat racism, although they never criticized the Hollywood establishment itself for discriminating against nonwhite performers. 
For example, a 1963 Photoplay ran a story on Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dick Gregory called "How Two Negro Showmen Fight for Integration." (...)
African Americans could also count on coverage if they were romantically linked with whites (...). "Why is Mommy White?" asks an article that same year (1964 - Ed. Note), allegedly a question that Sammy Davis, Jr.'s children had about their Swedish mother, May Britt."
Sternheimer (2015)

"In 1961, Swedish actress May Britt wrote an article for Ebony called, “Why I Married Sammy Davis Jr.” In this personal narrative, she told the story of their relationship and their love for each other. This story would start a trend of magazine articles showcasing interracial couples, especially famous couples."
Magnuson-Cannady (2005)

"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." Sammy Davis, Jr.
In the 1950s, Davis had a relationship with "white" Kim Novak which led to his first wedding ... with Loray White on 10 January 1958. After alleged threats to his life, Sammy Davis Jr. was told to marry a "black" girl ... who happened to be Loray White. They married "midst rumors that his life had been threatened by those whose interests lay with Miss Novak remaining a multi-million dollar movie property" (via). They agreed that Loray White would marry him for a certain sum of money and at the end of the year they would dissolve the marriage (via).
"It was a very dangerous relationship then - a white woman and a black man, no matter his status -it simply didn’t mix publicly. I was suddenly in the eye of a hurricane. . . . My agent told me my career would be over if I continued to see Sammy. Some of my friends wouldn’t even return my telephone calls." Kim Novak

Photograph: Sammy Davis Jr. and his third wife Altovise Davis (1943-2009) whom he married in 1970

Interview with Altovise Davis (CNN, Larry King, aired 27 May 2002), excerpts:

KING: What a life Sammy had: married to a white woman at a time that didn't occur.
A. DAVIS: That's true.
KING: People in the audience may not know what a stir that was. You were a kid, I guess, when he was...
A. DAVIS: When he got married to her?
KING: Yes.
A. DAVIS: Oh, yes, I was a kid when he got married to her.
KING: That was a story that went through...
A. DAVIS: The roof, right?
KING: Ruined her career, right? They stopped giving her movies. But Sammy was gutsy.
A. DAVIS: Yes, he was, always had been.


S. DAVIS: You know, being a celebrity doesn't protect you from racism. I'm even more aware of my brothers and sisters who have to face it who don't have the cloak of celebrity to protect them.
So, you got to fight it every day we can, all of us. And when I say my brothers and sisters, I mean good people, period. I'm not just talking about black or white. I'm talking about everyone who is disenfranchised. But the bitterness is overridden by the fact that I'm in a position. I have survived. And I think and I pray to God that I can do some good and eradicate it more and more. But, personally, I would be dishonest if I said I didn't have a little bit of it.
KING: You will agree, Sammy, that you probably saw less of it than the average American black.
S. DAVIS: Absolutely. Wait a minute. I said that.
The cat on the street, the man on the street, he hasn't got celebrity. That's what I mean. At least you're protected by that. I can buy my way into this now. Those days I couldn't, because they wouldn't let you into the hotels.


- Magnuson-Cannady, M. (2005). "My Daughter Married a Negro": Interracial Relationships in the United States as Portrayed in Popular Media, 1950-1975. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research VIII, 1-13
- Marable, M. & Kai Hinton, E. (eds.) (2011) The New Black History. Revisiting The Second Reconstruction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
- Sternheimer, K. (2015). Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. New York & London: Routledge
- photographs via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via