By Sue Rochman
The Cancer That Silenced Mr. Wonderful's Song
Groundbreaking entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. overcame many foes—but not the one that took his voice
By Sue Rochman
Shortly after Mr. Wonderful opened, Davis met Burt Boyar, a syndicated Broadway columnist, who quickly became one of his closest friends. Boyar saw firsthand the fabulous acclaim Davis experienced, but he was also witness to the raw pain of racism his friend endured. Even in a cosmopolitan city like New York in the 1950s, there remained places like the trendy, celebrity-filled nightclub El Morocco that did not welcome blacks. “One night,” Boyar recalls, “Sammy said, ‘Let’s go to El Morocco. Call them and tell them you are bringing me.’ ” The call didn’t go well. “The club’s press agent, Leonard MacBain, said, ‘He’s awfully dark, isn’t he?’ ” recalls Boyar. “He then added, ‘I can only tell you that if you bring him here, he won’t be well-treated.’ ” Boyar blanched, and hung up the phone. They didn’t go.
But on Feb. 23, 1957, they did. “Sammy had thrown a wonderful closing party for Mr. Wonderful at the Harwyn, which was also very chic,” says Boyar, “but it wasn’t El Morocco.” Suddenly, says Boyar, “Sammy said, ‘Let’s go to El Morocco. We won’t call.’ ” The maître d’ greeted them stone-faced, and then walked them into the club and past the dance floor. “Everyone who saw Sammy said hello and waved,” says Boyar. “The orchestra started playing all of his songs from Mr. Wonderful. Everybody was elated to see him there.” But it didn’t matter. The maître d’ seated them “in Siberia,” far away from everyone else, “on the wrong side of the room.” The insult stung.
“On the way home,” Boyar says, “Sammy said to me, ‘People don’t understand what is going on. We have to let them know.’ ” And they did. In his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, co-authored with Boyar, Davis recounted how his father had shielded him from the prejudice they encountered as black vaudevillians, and his rude awakening to racism when he found himself despised and tormented by white soldiers in his Army unit. He exposed the Las Vegas of the 1950s, where black performers were not allowed to stay at the hotels where they headlined. And he described how he and fellow members of the Rat Pack—the nickname given to a group of performers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford—refused to work at any segregated clubs in Las Vegas or Miami, thereby forcing those who wanted them, and the money they brought in, to welcome blacks alongside whites.
I Don’t Want Any Tears
In 1964, Davis’ return to Broadway in the musical Golden Boy earned him a Tony Award nomination. It also led to a love affair with dancer Altovise Gore, whom he married in 1970. Davis had been married twice before, and was already a father of three, but it was this relationship that would prove long lasting (and include the adoption of another child).
Over the next 15 years, Davis’ career began to wane, but his iconic stature never diminished, and he continued to appear on TV specials and in Vegas shows. Then, in 1989, he developed the first symptoms of what would ultimately be diagnosed as throat cancer. “He kept saying, ‘There’s this tickle,’” recalls Altovise Davis. “Then he stopped singing with a cigarette. Then one day he said, ‘I don’t taste the food.’ That’s when we knew something was really wrong.”
When the test results came back, says Boyar, “Sammy gathered everyone around and said, ‘I had this diagnosis, and I don’t want any tears. I have accomplished more and had more of a good life than I might ever imagined I would have. Life owes me nothing. And if we can’t cure it, that’s it.’ ”
The Complexity of the Throat
As an organ involved in both breathing and eating, the throat is more complex than many people might realize. The throat facilitates the passage of air between the nose and mouth and the lungs. When this air passes through the vocal cords in the larynx, or voice box, it causes the vibrations that create speech. At the very top of the larynx is a flap called the epiglottis, a part of the digestive system that keeps food out of the vocal cords, routing it instead to the esophagus, which connects to the stomach.
Throat cancer is sometimes referred to as an oral cancer, other times as a form of head and neck cancer. It can originate anywhere in the pharynx (the hollow tube inside the neck that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe and esophagus) or the larynx. In the late 1980s, when Davis was diagnosed, oncologists believed the best way to treat throat cancer that had developed in the larynx was to remove all or part of the voice box. This procedure, called a laryngectomy, also requires the construction of a permanent hole, called a tracheal stoma, at the base of the patient’s neck. After the surgery, says Robert Foote, a radiation oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the patient “has to learn how to breathe through the hole and communicate in other ways.”
Davis was told a laryngectomy would offer the best chance for survival—but he refused. “He said, ‘If I can’t walk on stage and say, Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I have no way to live,’ ” recalls Boyar. Altovise tried to change his mind. “I told him that the surgery would give him more years of his life that we would have together. … But he couldn’t deal with it, because he was the man that he was and he sang the way he did.” Instead, says Altovise, Davis had chemotherapy followed by radiation. At the time, chemotherapy for throat cancer was still considered experimental, while the standard of care was surgery or radiation or both. But the treatment couldn’t control the cancer, and Davis died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., in May 1990.