Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Star-Studded Couple Blogathon: Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt

So I found another blogathon to be a part of. This one is hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and it's all about Hollywood couples from the classic era. Other than being from that era, the only other criteria is they had to have been married and both been actors. The couple I chose most certainly fit the bill. Our leading man has over sixty acting credits to his name. Despite that he is far less known for that than he is for being one of the greatest song and dance men of all-time. Our leading lady was an actress on her way when her flame was suddenly extinguished, mostly because of the man she chose to marry. They are...

Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt

Just now, in 2016, are we within sight of the day when interracial relationships are not a big deal to anyone. Yet, there are still those who think it is. They complain of them diluting and diminishing whatever race they belong to. They call it unnatural, with some even quoting the Bible for evidence. Just a few short years ago, cereal giant General Mills caught all sorts of flack when a commercial for Cheerios that aired during the SuperBowl, featured a black man, his white wife, and their bi-racial daughter. On the bright side, no one was killed over the matter. Not so many years before my own birth this was still a real possibility. It’s a truth that was all the more real to super-performer and Rat-Packer Sammy Davis Jr. and his second wife, actress May Britt. The story of their marriage, and divorce, actually begins well before they ever laid eyes on one another. In fact, it starts with the reason Davis got married the first time.

Without going through his entire life story, let’s just start with the fact that Sammy Davis Jr. broke onto the scene before there was a Civil Rights Movement. His star continued to shine as that movement grew, took root, changed the nation for the better and made first a star, then a legend out of Martin Luther King Jr. As if in symbiotic unison, the 1950s and 60s were the decades where Davis became a star and legend in his own right. However, much like Dr. King, he would still endure racism in much more tangible way than most of us will ever know. There were places he either wasn’t allowed to enter, or was only allowed because he was with someone white, rich, and famous. Often Frank Sinatra filled that role as the two were great friends. Another of his friends was Tony Curtis. Davis told Curtis that he wanted to meet actress Kim Novak. Her striking looks and bold curves marked her as one of the blonde bombshells Hollywood seemed roll off an assembly line nestled in its hills. She was also one of its biggest box-office draws with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo still in her future. It turns out Novak wanted to meet Davis, also. The two met at a party thrown by Tony Curtis at his home and hit it off immediately. They carried on with one another and news broke fast. This was 1957. By some this was openly seen as wrong due to their racial differences. It wasn’t only whites who felt this way. The Black press openly published stories admonishing Davis for shirking his responsibility to his race by being with Novak. Just as many, if not more, saw it as Novak damaging her brand and Davis risking his life. That was true.

Kim Novak
Novak’s boss at Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, was one of those who was none too pleased about their relationship. Once he found out about it, what sounds like the plot of a screwball comedy, or a gangster flick, followed. Cohn reached out to his pals in the mob and a plan was hatched to kidnap Davis, threaten to break his legs, or worse, put his other eye out (Davis lost his left eye in a car accident in 1954 and wore a glass eye until his death in 1990). However, they actually gave Davis advance warning and a chance to get out of it. They gave Davis twenty-four hours (or forty-eight, depending on who you ask) to “marry a black chick.” Since Davis knew exactly who these people were he took this as legitimate threat. After some contemplation on who the lucky girl would be, he settled on a young singer he barely knew, ironically named, Loray White. He offered her $10,000 for the gig of being his wife with the promise that they would annul the marriage within a year. She agreed and the two were married the next day. Sammy got to keep his legs, and his eye. He set her up in a house and then hit the road performing, never even attempting to consummate the marriage. Really, he almost never saw her again.

By this time, Novak was cooling on the idea of being with Davis. Studios threatened her career if she continued seeing him and she even admits to having family members that stopped associating with her. When comparing Davis to her family and career, Davis lost out and the two went their separate ways. Davis also split with Loray White. He paid her another $25,000 and went through with the annulment eight months after their complete sham of a marriage.

Whether stricken by the love bug once again, or a glutton for punishment, Davis soon found himself in a relationship with May Britt, another white actress. She had also been married once before, to a man named Edwin Gregson. That marriage was created and dissolved in rather mundane fashion compared to Davis’s ordeal. A native Swede, Britt’s discovery is an interesting anecdote. She actually worked as a photographer’s assistant. Her job was looking at pictures of blonde models that a studio in Italy were considering for a part in an upcoming film. I presume she was helping to pick the lucky girl, or at least help decide which ones were worthy enough to be passed on to those in charge. The powers that be came to the studio where she was working, didn’t like any of the pictures they saw. They did like her, and offered her the part. By the time she met Sammy Davis Jr. she had appeared in fifteen films including War and Peace, The Young Lions, and Murder, Inc., a film I personally love. She was just starting to make her way in Hollywood as most of those early credits were Italian productions.

Britt and Davis met in a nightclub on the famed Sunset Boulevard and the two entered into a romance and planned to be married early in 1960. Coincidentally, Davis was a high profile and vocal supporter of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. It has been reported that Kennedy not only knew of the couple’s plans but asked Davis to postpone them until after the election so it wouldn’t damage his chances to win the election. Kennedy was elected on November 8 of that year. Davis and Britt were married November 13. Shortly thereafter, Davis had his invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration revoked over fear that him being there would anger and alienate congressmen from the south. It makes sense as a political move because interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty-one states. As a supposed friend, it’s one of the biggest dick moves of all-time.

Britt then experienced racism for herself. Her husband was greeted at many of his performances by the jeers of bigots. Often these people brandished signs calling him a “Kosher Coon” (Davis had famously converted to Judaism after the accident that cost him his eye). Many in the know remember shows where Davis would receive standing ovations at the end of the show, only to have someone shout racial epithets at him when the applause died down. On an even more personal level for Britt, 1960 also happened to be the year her contract was up with Twentieth Century Fox. In the wake of her still fresh nuptials, the studio decline to renew it. Without the box-office cache that Kim Novak had, Britt had no leverage. No other studio would touch her. Her career as an actress was over. To her credit, Britt was fine with this, since stating that she doesn’t regret her decision to marry Davis one bit. He was the man she loved and that was worth more to her than a movie career. She became a stay-at-home mom as the couple had a daughter in 1961 and would also adopt two more children.

As any mom will tell you, staying home to take care of the kids is no easy task. I imagine it’s much more difficult when your husband is often away for weeks, even months at a time. That was the reality Britt dealt with. While her own career was instantaneously eviscerated, Sammy’s was still going strong. He stayed on the road performing all over the country, even the world. She expressed her displeasure with his unrelenting work schedule. However, the allure of fame and fortune was too great for him to resist. Eventually, there was something thrown into the mix that must have made some people rejoice given the racial climate at the time: a black woman. In 1968, reports surfaced that Davis was having an affair with the famed singer Lola Falana. Shortly after these reports, Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt were divorced. Perhaps not so coincidentally, she began acting again, making a number of TV appearances over the next decade.

Whether or not, he ever got it on with Lola Falana, Davis got back in the saddle as quickly as ever. He began dating Altovise Gore, a dancer in one of his movies and in his nightclub act. They got married in 1970 and stayed together until Davis died in 1990. Britt also married again, but not until 1993. Her husband is a man named Lennart Ringquist. The two are still together to this day.


  1. What Cohn did is ridiculous. I will say that at least Novak still had a career. Britt's was immediately snuffed out and she only got some semblance of one after she divorced him. Shame.

  2. It is very much to May Britt’s credit that she withstood the onslaught that the studio was capable of unleashing on the couple at that time in history. They were so all encompassing and powerful as evidenced by being able to get the feisty and hugely successful Kim Novak to buckle under.

    That sort of stuff was par for the course for most of the moguls but Harry Cohn, who had the reputation as the most hated man in Hollywood, was infamous for trying to control the lives of his contract players and destroying careers of performers who displeased him. Evelyn Keyes, best known as Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister Suellen in Gone with the Wind and who had a couple of famous husbands herself-John Huston & Artie Shaw, was a successful and rising star when she signed with Columbia in the mid-40’s and Cohn, again an infamous proponent of the casting couch, pursued her ardently but she consistently refused him and he systemically ruined the momentum of her career, refusing to loan her out and relegating her to B’s. By the time her contract expired she was more or less washed up.

    There are a couple of stories about Cohn’s funeral. The first is that when Red Skelton saw the enormous number of people showing up for Cohn's funeral he said to the people around him "Give the people what they want, and they'll turn out for it!" The other is that when a member of Temple asked the Rabbi to say "one good thing" about Cohn, he paused and said "He's dead"!

    1. Joel - Britt deserves a huge amount of credit for simply sticking by her man. I hadn't heard that Evelyn Keyes story, but that's horrible. I had heard of Skelton's comments about the funeral and I laugh every time. The Rabbi's comments are new to me, but they're just as funny.

      Stephen - An asshole, he most certainly was.

  3. Whoa! I had no idea about any of this, but it is a story that needs to be told! Cohn's definitely paying for his sins now!

    It's a horrible shame Sammy's friends didn't stand up for him. I'm sure he would have stood up for them if the need had risen!

    Thanks for bringing this relationship to my attention!

    1. You would think Sammy's famous friends would stick for him, but I don't know if they felt they could. After all, they were all trying to play ball with the studios, too. So, while I wish they would have, I get why they didn't.

      Thanks for hosting a great blogathon.

  4. I loved reading this because I learned so much! I had no idea about him and Kim Novak. I knew about his marriage to May Britt and always assumed it was interesting with the racist climate of that time period but I didn't know any of the details before reading this. This was a great post and a fascinating read!

    1. Thanks! To say it was interesting is a serious understatement. So glad you stopped by. Even happier you got something out of it.