When Sammy Davis Jr. saw actress Kim Novak in the audience at one of his shows, he knew he had to meet her, and the feeling was mutual. But Hollywood was shocked by the interracial pairing. And so was one big-time movie producer – so much so that he threatened Davis Jr.’s life in order to end the secret affair.
In fact, Novak and Davis Jr. conducted the majority of their relationship in private. Novak, for one, was on her way to Hollywood superstardom thanks to her boss: Columbia Pictures Corporation chief Harry Cohn. But the man had a bad reputation in the industry, and apparently it was down to the way in which he treated his actresses – including Novak.
Columbia believed that up-and-coming actress Novak had the potential to be the next Rita Hayworth. Cohn hoped, too, that she might even give Century Fox’s rival star Marilyn Monroe a run for her money at the box office. But the studio head’s vision for Novak didn’t involve a relationship with a black entertainer – and he made that very clear when he found out about her secret romance with Davis Jr.
Novak’s arrival in Hollywood came about in quite an interesting way. While in junior college, she worked on a trade show modeling tour marketing refrigerators, and at a Los Angeles sales event she even won the title of “Miss Deepfreeze.” But Novak had her sights set on acting. And in the 1950s, she therefore looked for work as an extra in a couple of RKO movies.
During these early acting gigs, an agent noticed Novak, and this in turn led her to bag a contract with Columbia Pictures. But the future star didn’t want to be like other girls who had come to Hollywood in search of fame; she wanted to stay true to herself. And so when the then-head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, asked her to replace her given name, Marilyn Pauline Novak, with something more screen-ready like Kit Marlowe, she wasn’t happy.
According to The Washington Post, Cohn wanted Novak to ditch her Polish-sounding last name because he believed that audiences wouldn’t like it. But the young actress held her ground, retorting, “I’m Czech – but Polish, Czech, no matter; it’s my name!” So, they drew up a compromise and went with Kim Novak.
Perhaps Cohn and Columbia Pictures had been willing to compromise on Novak’s name because they’d seen serious star potential in her. They were grooming her to be the next big thing in Hollywood, after all, as their previous moneymaker Rita Hayworth was falling out of popularity. In fact, the executives fancied Novak to sell as many movie tickets as Marilyn Monroe was doing for 20th Century Fox.
So, in 1954 Columbia Pictures started working Novak into its movies. First came the film noir production Pushover, which was followed by Phffft – a romantic comedy released the same year. And by 1955 people beyond the studio were starting to see Novak’s potential. After starring in the movie Picnic, she took home the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer.
What’s more, Novak’s string of successful hits in 1957 made her one of the silver screen’s biggest names. That year, for instance, she starred opposite Frank Sinatra and her Columbia Pictures predecessor Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey. The flick was box-office gold and set up the actress for what would become her most well-known role of all: the female lead in Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo.
But before Novak started work on the 1958 thriller, she made what would prove to be a life-changing visit to a nightclub in Chicago. On stage that evening, you see, was Sammy Davis Jr. – formerly one-third of the Will Mastin Trio. And while the group famously sang and danced, Davis actually had a laundry list of artistic talents, which included playing instruments, acting, and performing comedy and impersonations.
Believe it or not, Davis Jr. had gotten his start in showbiz at just three years old. Then, he’d first started performing in vaudeville shows with the Will Mastin Trio, which also featured his father, Sammy Davis Sr. Davis Jr. officially joined the group in 1941 when its original member Howard M. Colbert Jr. left for World War II. Two years later, the future Rat Pack star followed suit, having also been drafted into the service.
Apparently, Davis Jr. faced an onslaught of discrimination from his fellow soldiers during the war – to the point where he got reassigned. Subsequently, then, he joined the Army’s Special Services as an entertainer. And while there, the performer began to put on shows for the servicemen, including those who had previously harassed him.
However, Davis Jr. saw singing in front of the soldiers who’d mistreated him as a way of getting through to these men. In Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father, the entertainer’s daughter, Tracey, quoted him as saying, “My talent was the weapon, the power [and] the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.”
In 1945 Davis Jr. returned home and was ready to continue sharing his talents. He rejoined the Will Mastin Trio, in fact, and one fateful performance put the group – and Davis Jr. especially – on the map. When the band opened for Janis Paige in 1951, you see, their 20-minute set so delighted the crowd that it turned into an hour of stage time – and the Will Mastin Trio became the headliner.
But it wasn’t just Davis Jr.’s voice that chimed with the audience; his impressions captivated onlookers, too. And critics lauded his many skills. On the back of this success, the performer started to release solo albums and also sang the title song for the 1954 movie Six Bridges to Cross. Then, in 1956, he nabbed the leading role in the Broadway production of Mr. Wonderful.
The following year came Davis Jr.’s 1957 performance at the Chicago nightclub, which actress Novak happened to witness. And while the entertainer certainly displayed bags of talent and charisma on stage, he also had an undeniable sensuality. Novak was attracted to this charm, too – and it would seem that Davis Jr. felt the same way about her.
In fact, it would be Davis Jr. who made the first move. While he hadn’t talked to Novak much on the night that they had met, he subsequently reached out to some Hollywood pals to schedule a meeting. Then both Davis Jr. and Novak happened to attend a party at the home of A-listers Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. And before long, the world got wind of the fact that the ingenue and the singer had started seeing each other.
You see, a gossip column allegedly spilled the secret in a not-especially-cryptic way. According to Smithsonian magazine, the headline read, “Which top female movie star (K.N.) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (S.D.)?” At the time of its release, though, this little piece of news carried significantly more weight than it would have done in today’s tabloids.
That’s because in 1957 the U.S. was still a racially divided country – despite the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education having found segregation to be unconstitutional. And one major point of contention in the nation was the acceptability of interracial relationships. Shockingly, a 1958 Gallup poll found that a mere 4 percent of Americans approved of such unions.
On top of that, Davis Jr. and Novak would face the wrath of Columbia Pictures head Cohn, who is said to have had a reputation for using his position to coerce women into sleeping with him. He had even allegedly become fixated on his former superstar Hayworth after she’d turned down his sexual advances. In fact, it’s claimed that Cohn stalked Hayworth, reportedly going as far as to hide a bugging device in her changing room to keep tabs on her.
Apparently, Novak suffered a similar experience at the hands of Cohn, as the young actress’ boss is believed to have become obsessed with her. First, as well as trying to change her name, he forced her to undergo a makeover. But when he reportedly attempted to make moves on Novak, she rejected him. And so, when he learned of her budding romance with Davis Jr., he allegedly opted to retaliate.
However, Cohn didn’t react right away following that first gossip piece; perhaps he was unaware of it. And in Davis Jr.’s autobiography Sammy – published a decade after his death – he recalled what had happened after the news had initially been leaked. The singer said that he’d apologized to Novak for potentially putting her in hot water with Columbia. According to him, though, she’d replied, “The studio doesn’t own me.”
Not only that, but Novak apparently asked Davis Jr. over for pasta and meatballs posthaste. Before long, they were more seriously involved, and their relationship lasted for most of 1957. Reflecting on the romance later in his autobiography, Davis Jr. claimed that breaking society’s rules had made their liaison all the more exhilarating.
Davis Jr. wrote, “[Novak] hadn’t thought about me any more than I had thought about her – until it was forbidden. Then we became conspirators, drawn together by the single thing we had in common: defiance.” And one of the singer’s friends, Arthur Silber, recalled how the pair would meet up for secret liaisons at a beach house in Malibu, California.
According to Smithsonian magazine, Silber would drive Novak and Davis Jr. to and from the property. And to go unseen, the singer would allegedly hide on the floor of the vehicle and camouflage himself beneath a blanket. Silber said, “It was like we were in the FBI or something.”
What’s more, Silber and Davis Jr. would coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs at Novak’s home so that the trips would go unnoticed. And while the entertainer was performing in Las Vegas, he made sure to cover his tracks. He got his own personal telephone line at the Sands Hotel so that none of the lodging’s employees could intercept his calls and learn of his relationship with the starlet.
However, in December 1957, Novak and Davis Jr. would finally slip up. During that month, the actress went home to Chicago for the holidays, and the Las Vegas-based performer started to miss his faraway girlfriend. So, he flew to see her, enlisting a replacement act to cover for him on stage.
The Chicago trip should have been a momentous occasion for the couple, with Davis Jr. meeting Novak’s parents for the first time. But the Chicago Sun-Times writer Irv Kupcinet caught wind of the entertainer’s secret getaway. And he leaked the rendezvous in his column, fueling a host of sensational rumors.
For instance, some sources claimed that Novak and Davis Jr. had plans to wed, as they had supposedly filed for a marriage license. Take British newspaper the Daily Mirror, for instance, which alleged, “Kim Novak is about to become engaged to Sammy Davis Jr., and Hollywood is aghast.” And yet apparently no one would have as strong a reaction as Novak’s studio boss.
Yes, Cohn is said to have flown off the handle upon hearing the news. As Smithsonian put it, he saw Novak “as property he’d invested in,” and he couldn’t believe that she would have a romantic relationship with someone of color. The day after he learned of the romance, Cohn suffered a heart attack on board a flight to Los Angeles, CA.
But Cohn’s heart attack didn’t kill him – nor did it soften his view of Novak and Davis Jr.’s affair. Instead, the studio chief allegedly enlisted the help of some below-board acquaintances in the mafia. That’s right: it’s believed that Cohn put out a hit on Davis Jr. And when mobster Mickey Cohen found out about the plot, he shared the news with Davis Sr., who immediately reached out to his son.
Davis Jr.’s friend Silber was allegedly present at the time of the unsettling call. And according to him, Cohen told Davis Sr. that the mob’s threat had referenced a 1954 car accident that had nearly taken Davis Jr.’s life – as well as leaving him with a glass eye. Silber explained, “[The mafia] said they would break both of [Davis Jr.’s] legs, put out his other eye and bury him in a hole if he didn’t marry a black woman right away.”
Unsurprisingly, Davis Jr. was shaken by the mob’s death threat. According to Smithsonian, Silber once admitted in an interview, “He was scared as hell – same as I was.” Meanwhile, Novak fielded her own warning to stop seeing Davis Jr. from Columbia Pictures. In a 2004 appearance on Larry King Live, she said of the incident, “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous; I don’t want to live like this.’ I couldn’t see what was wrong, do you know? What was so terrible?”
As you may expect, Davis Jr. took the threat to his life very seriously. First, he reached out to his own gangster connection, Sam Giancana. Apparently, though, the mobster could only provide the performer with protection in Chicago and Las Vegas. And this left Davis Jr. without coverage in Hollywood – arguably where he needed it the most.
Seemingly scared for his life, then, Davis Jr. felt like he had no choice but to wed a woman of color, as Cohn had allegedly instructed him. Apparently, Silber realized that his friend was actually going to go through with the plan while in Las Vegas in January 1958. They were in a hotel room when Silber looked over and saw Davis Jr. leafing through a book of addresses.
According to Smithsonian, Silber recalled asking Davis Jr., “What the eff are you doing?” And the entertainer allegedly responded, “I’m looking for someone to marry.” Eventually, he landed on Loray White, who just so happened to work as a singer at a casino near to Davis Jr.’s hotel. And the entertainer reportedly offered White a lump of cash – somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000 – in exchange for her hand in marriage.
White seemingly agreed to the deal, as she and Davis Jr. tied the knot shortly thereafter. From the outside, their Las Vegas nuptials seemed cheerful; they even sliced into an extra-large cake with the word “happiness” emblazoned on it just beneath its top tier. But according to Silbert, his friend had been devastated about the wedding.
After the ceremony, Silbert purportedly drove Davis Jr. and White back to their hotel suite. And Davis Jr., who it’s said had drunk a lot throughout the celebration, allegedly tried to choke White in the car. Silbert credited the alleged assault to his friend’s distress about the situation.
Silbert reportedly said, “[Davis Jr.] was so hurt. His quote to me, as he ripped my coat apart at the shoulder, was, ‘Why won’t they let me live my life?’” It got worse from there, too. According to Silbert, he returned to the hotel room to find Davis Jr. apparently about to shoot himself. And to subdue the star, Silbert “sat on him with [his] knees on his shoulders until he passed out.”
It perhaps comes as little surprise that the union between Davis Jr. and White didn’t last. But it seems as though he managed to shake off some of his fear about the death threat he once received. In 1960 the singer married a white woman, actress May Britt, in California, where interracial marriages had been legal since 1948. As for Novak, her Hollywood career waned after 1958’s Vertigo. In 1965 the star also wed English actor Richard Johnson, but they split the following year; by contrast, she’s been with her second spouse since 1976.