I bought Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can at a charity sale for $1, and it has far exceeded my expectations. I had no idea of the hell he went through on his way to becoming a headliner.
In this excerpt he has just begun to have some success as an entertainer, but is acutely aware of the racism that surrounds him. He has been turned away from clubs and motels in the past because of his race, and was once severely beaten for a friendship with a white woman:
I finished my main course and asked for a check. Pete the headwaiter came over. “Compliments of Mr. Danny (Stradella).” On the way out I thanked him but he brushed it off. “Cut it out, willya? Thank you for coming in.” He put his arm around my shoulders and walked us to the door. “Now, don’t be a stranger. Please, I want you to think of this as your home away from home– y’know what I mean?”
Danny and Marty Mills caught the late show that night and drove me back to New York. Marty said, “How about a sandwich?”
The last thing I wanted was to be the cause of an incident somewhere. Especially in front of Danny. He thought of me as a winner…
He was saying, “Let’s go over to Longchamps, at 59th and Madison. They’re open all night. Most of the kids from the shows drop in. We’ll have some laughs.”
As we reached the East Side I asked them to let me out at 61st Street. “I’ll meet you in a little while. There’s something I’ve gotta do.”
“We’ll wait for you in the car.”
“No, please. You guys go ahead. Everything’s fine, no problem.”
They had to think I was crazy but they dropped me off at Fifth Avenue and 61st. I started walking toward a dark building as if I really had something to do there. When they were out of sight I looked for a phone so I could call Longchamps and leave word I couldn’t make it. But I was repulsed by the indignity of backing away. It was the defeat of everything I wanted. I killed twenty minutes walking around the block, and headed for the restaurant. At least if it’s a turn-away maybe nobody’ll see it.
I looked through the plate-glass window. Marty was sitting at the table talking to someone, but his eyes were glued to the entrance. By the time I went through the revolving door he was at my side, leading me to our table. Four showgirls from the Riviera were sitting there with Danny. I pointed to a table for two right next to it. “Let’s you and me take this one.” I didn’t wait for him to answer. He shrugged, not understanding, but he sat with me.
Danny gaped at us. “What the hell are y’doing?”
I gave it a Jack Benny reading. “I hope you won’t take it personally but I can’t sit with those girls. They’re only in the chorus and I’m a star! I mean, you understand–” The girls laughed and I played it like I had something private to tell Marty and somehow I got lucky and Danny wasn’t insulted. Or, maybe he understood.