Friday, April 20, 2018

HOLLYWOOD LOVE: SAMMY DAVIS JR AND KIM NOVAK

In 1957, Sammy Davis Jr. was a rising star. He’d just completed an acclaimed performance in Mr. Wonderful on Broadway and had a popular nightclub act with his father and uncle called the Will Mastin Trio. It was a strong comeback from a car accident three years earlier, when a pipe went through Davis’s eye, permanently blinding him. For the rest of his life, he would wear a glass eye.

The accident, however did nothing to curtail Davis’s charisma and sex appeal. Hollywood starlet Kim Novak certainly noticed him. She was about to film Hitchcock’s Vertigo when she saw Davis perform in a Chicago nightclub. Though they didn’t speak much at the time, Davis wanted to get to know the actress. His friends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh obliged by inviting both of them to a party at their house. Soon afterward, there was a blind item in a gossip column: “Which top female movie star (K.N.) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (S.D.)?”


This bit of idle gossip was far from harmless. An affair between Novak and Davis had the potential to destroy both of their careers. In 1957, interracial marriage was illegal in half the states. Most Americans were against it. A Gallup poll from 1958 showed that only 4 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. On top of that, the United States Supreme Court had only recently ordered the desegregation of public schools, and the showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas, over the integration of the city’s Central High School would occur the following year. The national atmosphere was fraught with racial tension.

As a black man, Davis had been stopped from dating white women before, but this time was different. Novak was a movie star. That year, newspapers were calling her “the hottest female draw at the box office” thanks to films like The Man with the Golden Arm and Pal Joey. Columbia Pictures was grooming her to replace Rita Hayworth, who studio head Harry Cohn disliked. As the latest Hollywood sex goddess, Novak was potentially worth millions.

When he saw the gossip item, Davis called Novak to apologize for putting her in an awkward position with the studio. According to his autobiography Sammy, Novak replied, “The studio doesn’t own me!” and invited him over for spaghetti and meatballs. Soon after, they were dating.


Their affair continued for most of 1957. Davis and Novak were aware of the risks they were taking, but that, it seems, made the relationship more exciting. “She hadn’t thought about me anymore than I had thought about her—until it was forbidden,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Then we became conspirators, drawn together by the single thing we had in common: defiance.”

Arthur Silber, a close friend and companion of Davis, often chauffeured the couple to a rented beach house in Malibu. They went to great length to hide their relationship—Davis would sometimes lie on the floor of the car under a blanket to avoid being seen with Novak.

“It was like we were in the FBI or something,” Silber says in an interview. “I would drop him off in front of her house in Beverly Hills and we would set up a time or a day for me to pick him up.” Davis also had a private phone line installed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas where he worked so he could talk to Novak without the hotel switchboard listening in.

In December, Novak went home to Chicago for the holidays while Davis stayed in Las Vegas. He missed Novak so much that he found a replacement for his act and flew overnight to see her and meet her parents.


Irv Kupcinet of the Chicago Sun-Times heard about the visit and mentioned it in his column. Gossip heated up. There was a rumor Davis and Novak had taken out a marriage license. “Kim Novak is about to become engaged to Sammy Davis Jr. and Hollywood is aghast,” reported The London Daily Mirror. When Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn found out, he became enraged that his star—who he regarded as property he’d invested in—was dating a black man.The next morning, while flying to Los Angeles, he had the first of several heart attacks that would soon kill him.

By all accounts, Cohn was a ruthless studio chief who admired Benito Mussolini and had ties to the Chicago mob. He even wore matching ruby “friendship rings” with gangster Johnny Roselli. There are various accounts of what happened next, but what’s clear is that Cohn took out a mob hit on Davis. Gangster Mickey Cohen found Davis’s father and passed on the threat. Silber was there when Davis received the phone call, and he begged Davis to break up with Kim Novak. Sadly, Sammy called Kim Novak, and they both agreed to end the relationship. It was a sad end to a beautiful romance and another example of how racism destroyed lives and relationships...

1 comment:

  1. According to interviews and comments, Novak never stopped loving Davis, and always remembered him fondly. Too bad they lived in a prejudiced era, where few people could live openly and honestly.

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