- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

EAST STROUDSBURG, PA. — For all the grief Sammy Davis Jr. took in life - remember the uproar over his embrace of Richard Nixon? - he’s getting even more in death.

Eighteen years after the legendary entertainer died from throat cancer at age 64, his estate is in tatters, burdened by debt and infighting among family members and business associates. Though he recorded hundreds of songs, starred in dozens of movies and TV shows and gave countless live performances, his posthumous earning power is dwarfed by the likes of Elvis Presley and fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra.

“This is one of the most dysfunctional situations, and they still can’t get it together,” says Albert “Sonny” Murray Jr.

He should know.

Mr. Murray, a lawyer based in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, was hired by Mr. Davis’ widow to resolve his staggering $7 million federal tax debt and restore the legacy of one of the 20th century’s greatest showmen.

His herculean efforts, stretched out over seven years, are chronicled in “Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob” (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, 280 pages, $25.95). The book, by journalist and author Matt Birkbeck, arrives in stores today and reveals Mr. Murray as a man of stubborn tenacity - and Mr. Davis as one of extraordinary complexity.

Here’s Mr. Davis the showbiz legend: a consummate performer who got his startin vaudeville; a triple threat of singing, acting and dancing; a charter member of the high-flying, hard-partying Rat Pack.

Here’s Mr. Davis the civil rights campaigner: a man who endured horrid acts of racism while serving with the Army’s first integrated unit during World War II and later marched with Martin Luther King and used his fame to try to heal racial divisions.

Then here’s Mr. Davis the flawed family man: an absentee father, abusive husband, drug-addled hedonist and bad businessman who surrounded himself with people who didn’t always have his best interests at heart.

“I think everyone, for the most part, thought he was nothing more than a caricature, a guy who was always laughing, happy and up,” says Mr. Birkbeck, 49. “I was really shocked at how his life behind the scenes was falling apart over the last 15 or 20 years.”

Mr. Davis‘ remarkable life is certainly well-trod territory. Nevertheless, through interviews with close friends and confidants who had never spoken publicly before, Mr. Birkbeck dug up many startling details. (Example: Mr. Davis confided in his bodyguard, a former British intelligence agent, that he believed the Secret Service had a role in the assassination of President Kennedy.)

However, the real heart and soul of “Deconstructing Sammy” belongs to Sonny Murray and his quest to save not one endangered black legacy - but two.

In 1954, Mr. Murray’s parents founded a visionary Poconos resort, the Hillside Inn, that catered to blacks at a time when they were routinely denied accommodations. The Murrays saw the Hillside as a welcoming refuge, and for a long time, that’s exactly what it was, eventually becoming the oldest black-owned resort in the United States. By the 1990s, however, business began to slip - and it fell to their son to keep the Hillside afloat.

“Deconstructing Sammy” follows Mr. Murray as he struggles to save the Hillside - and the Sammy Davis Jr. brand.

Mr. Murray, 59, says he never thought much of Mr. Davis. Like many other blacks who came of age during the tumultuous 1960s, he saw the performer as little more than a minstrel, an Uncle Tom, a plaything of the white establishment.

Yet he felt sorry for Mr. Davis’ widow, Altovise Davis, who was virtually penniless, in the grips of a life-threatening alcohol addiction and, as it happened, living in a private home on the grounds of the Hillside. The more Mr. Murray dug into Mr. Davis’ life, the more he came to appreciate the entertainer’s contributions to American culture and civil rights.

“He was much more than the Stepin Fetchit that he appeared to be,” Mr. Murray says. “He went through struggles as a black man; he went through struggles with his own identity; he went through all of the things that we go through as minorities. At the same time, he gave of himself as an entertainer. And yet at the end of his life, there was nothing to show for it.”

Mr. Murray worked hard to rectify that. He struck a deal with the Internal Revenue Service in 1997, and with the tax debt finally settled, offers began pouring in. A four-CD retrospective was released in 1999, and Mr. Murray helped secure for Mr. Davis a lifetime achievement award at the 2001 Grammy Awards ceremony.

Still, the story continues to unfold, and both legacies face an uncertain future.

Mr. Murray and Altovise Davis parted ways in 2001, and the Davis estate once again has fallen into disrepair, “mired in failure and controversy,” Mr. Birkbeck writes. Mrs. Davis has sued two former business partners in federal court, claiming they tricked her into signing away the rights to her husband’s estate. The suit is pending.

Mr. Murray, meanwhile, has put the Hillside up for sale.

His parents are deceased, and the 33-room resort, he says, is a dinosaur. Blacks have long been able to stay at any public accommodation they want, and they’re choosing increasingly to stay somewhere else. Whites may be reluctant to go to a resort whose clientele is primarily black.

Mr. Murray hopes the Hillside is bought by a nonprofit, perhaps a shelter - which would be a fitting way to honor the Hillside’s history.

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