Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Deconstructing Sammy by Matt Birkbeck

Book Description from

Adored by millions, Sammy Davis Jr. was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy.

Years later his once-vivacious wife, Altovise, heir to one of the greatest entertainment legacies of the twentieth century, was living in poverty. With nowhere else to turn, she asked a former federal prosecutor, Albert “Sonny” Murray, to try to resolve Sammy's debts and restore his estate. For seven years Sonny probed Sammy's life and came to understand the tormented artist as a man of tragic complexity.

Deconstructing Sammy is the extraordinary story of an international celebrity whose outsize talent couldn't save him from himself.

I was eager to read this book. I find that one of the most fascinating facts of our celebrity culture has always been their ability to continue earning long after they have left us.
They cease to be individuals and in fact, become corporations and icons, their names and likenesses a logo, with every part of their existence licensed and trademarked.

According to Forbes, Elvis Presley was the top earner in 2008 for the 2nd year in a row, pulling in an impressive $52 million dollars...(which is incidentally, 8 million more than Justin Timberlake earned, and 12 million more than Madonna, who are both still alive and kickin'.)

And depending on which source you read, there are reports that Michael Jackson has already topped $100 million just since his death in June.
To quote Forbes reporter Peter Hoy "While things might be topsy-turvy in the financial markets above ground, it's still a bull market in the boneyard."

So my question is not why did a cultural icon of the sixties and seventies like Sammy Davis Junior die over 15 million dollars in debt and owing half of that to the IRS,
but how come 20 years later his estate is still in shambles?

By all accounts Sammy should still be bringing home the bacon with his heirs enjoying a handsome income from their father's legacy. He was Mister Bojangles, he was the Candyman, (ironically that hit was a song that Sammy hated and didn't want to record) There would've been books, a movie deal or two, merchandising, and royalties that should have long ago satisfied the IRS and other outstanding debts.

He was part of The Rat Pack, that infamous group that included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who ruled Vegas for almost a decade.
These men, or rather their estates still earn tidy sums of money posthumously-why doesn't Sammy?

Matt Birkbeck has written an in depth probe into the entertainer's life and death and all that followed afterward.
It's a tragic report of greed, excess, and mismanagement.
This book was so well researched and written, that it held me enthralled from start to finish. I knew I was watching a train wreck but I couldn't look away.

I guess I am always amazed to see that someone who had it all could end up with so little, and this book is a hard lesson on what happens to someone who chooses to live their life "In the moment".

My thanks to Kateri Benjamin of Harper Collins for my review copy.

About the author: from

Matt Birkbeck is an author and award-winning investigative journalist. A reporter for the Morning Call, he has written for the New York Times, Reader's Digest, People Magazine, Boston Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of Deconstructing Sammy, the critically acclaimed book on Sammy Davis, Jr.; A Beautiful Child - the remarkable true story of a brilliant young woman raised by the felon who kidnapped her as a toddler - and A Deadly Secret, which was the subject of an MSNBC documentary. He also coauthored Till Death Do Us Part with Dr. Robi Ludwig.

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