Sammy Davis Jr had 48 hours to find and marry a black woman or a mobster was going to break his legs. Months prior, he had become close to the most successful actress in Hollywood. The Vertigo star Kim Novak was smart, beautiful and rebellious. She was also white.
Many have called the pair’s entanglement a fling; others claim it was close to being a marriage. Some have even said it was nothing at all. But as Hollywood legend tells it, it was dangerous enough to potentially bring down two Hollywood powerhouses if it ever got out.
The story of Davis and Novak will next year be dramatised in a Netflix film, titled Scandalous!, barring any complaints from either Davis’s estate or Novak herself, who has always maintained the pair were no more than very good friends who were separated by benign forces (while admitting that Davis was in love with her). It’s a surprise it’s taken this long – their tale is incredibly cinematic, one coated in classic-Hollywood glitter and soundtracked by mob violence and tabloid sensation.
But if the film suggests Hollywood’s insecurity over interracial relationships (particularly between black men and white women) is a thing of the past, it will be a slight untruth. Even six decades later, such liaisons remain an on-screen taboo. Or if not a taboo, at least something that still produces skittishness in those calling the shots.
In the years leading up to their first meeting, Davis and Novak were both regarded as unconventional Hollywood outsiders. Davis was an entertainer of staggering range, who could capture a room with his blend of comedy, music, dance and pure showmanship, and who broke new ground for black talent.
He would develop friendships with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, which helped propel him to wider fame and allow him to sidestep the segregation laws and prejudices of the era. It was rarely a comfortable fit, however – white power players still regarded him with suspicion due to his race, while he would regularly clash with the black community, who were legally blocked from many of the venues in which he played.
Novak, meanwhile, had been discovered by Harry Cohn, the tyrannical proto-Weinstein who oversaw Columbia Pictures. A notorious bully, Cohn was known to be possessive and abusive of his stars, with rumours that he modelled himself after Mussolini.
Numerous actresses were said to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by Cohn, including Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford. Cohn believed that Novak had what it took to be a major star, despite Novak’s refusal to bend to his will. She wanted to keep her surname, despite Cohn claiming it sounded “too Polish”, and was vocal about the kinds of characters she didn’t want to play.
By 1958, Davis had broken colour barriers on television and in performance venues, while Novak had become Hollywood’s most valuable new star. She had assumed a series of hit roles, in films including Picnic and The Man with the Golden Arm, all while defying Cohn’s instincts about the kind of star she should be. It’s why her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, playing a woman made over to look like her stalker’s dead wife, felt so appropriate, she said in 2018.
“It was exactly what Harry Cohn and what Hollywood was trying to do to me, which was to make me over into something I was not,” she explained. “In the beginning, they hire you because of the way you look, obviously, and yet they try to change your lips, your mouth, your hair, every aspect of the way you look and the way you talk and the way you dress.
"So it was constantly fighting to keep some aspect of yourself, trying to keep some of you. You feel: There must have been something in you that they liked, and yet they wanted to change you.”
Novak and Davis finally collided in 1957, when she attended one of his concerts in Chicago. The pair didn’t speak to one another, but Davis was said to be smitten. At Davis’s insistence, Novak was invited to a party held by Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh soon after, the Hollywood couple having offered to set up the pair. Novak and Davis charmed one another, with other party guests noticing that they appeared deep in conversation.
One of the guests passed on the information to a gossip columnist friend, Dorothy Kilgallen, who promptly began reporting on their blossoming friendship via an easily cracked code in US newspapers. “Which top female movie star (KN) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (SD)?” wrote one “blind item” for her syndicated Hollywood column. “Studio bosses know about KN’s affair with SD and have turned lavender over their platinum blonde,” read another.
Following a private dinner to laugh off the stories, the pair reportedly became fast friends. According to Davis’s close friend and personal assistant Arthur Silber, they would regularly meet all over Hollywood. “It was like we were in the FBI or something,” Silber told Smithsonian Magazine in 2017. “I would drop him off in front of her house in Beverly Hills and we would set up a time or a day for me to pick him up.”
The pair are even said to have met each other’s families, with Davis upsetting Sinatra by pulling out of a show at one of the hotels he owned, just so he could visit Novak while she was at home for Christmas.
On New Year’s Day 1958, a gossip story officially naming the pair hit the newsstands. A columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times alleged that the couple had spent Christmas together, and claimed that they had sought a marriage licence ahead of their impending nuptials. The licence itself, if it even existed, has never been made public.
Novak denied that she was in a relationship with Davis, while they both earned backlash for supposedly dating outside their race. “Hollywood is aghast,” cried The Daily Mirror. A number of black newspapers across the USA denounced Davis, one declaring he had become “a never-ending source of embarrassment”.
Reporters also began trailing their every move. One alleged incident involves the pair travelling on the same train back from Novak’s family home, with a gossip columnist receiving intel that they would alight together in Vegas.
Lying in wait, the journalist only saw Novak – Davis had decamped at an earlier station to throw others off the scent. After the gossip hound confronted Novak about the rumours, she's said to have shot back: “Sammy who?” She added: “I think he’s a wonderful entertainer … But marriage to Sammy Davis? You gotta be kidding.”
When Cohn discovered the reports, he was furious, terrified that the career of his most profitable young star was in jeopardy. Novak had only just finished filming Vertigo, which was due for release later that year, and Cohn was convinced it would only make her bigger. He ordered Novak into a meeting, she recalled in 1996, where he was “surrounded by all these men, including people in the Mob. He told me that my career was in jeopardy if I continued to see Sammy”.
A famous contrarian, especially when told to not do something, Novak rebuffed Cohn’s demands. “Something inside of me rebelled when I was told not to see him,” she said in another 1996 interview. “I didn’t think it was anybody’s business. If he had been a bad man, a dangerous man, then the studio might have had reason – but simply because he was black?”
It was only when Cohn reportedly orchestrated a hit on Davis that his warnings appeared more dire than the mere rantings of a tyrannical father figure. Within days of the stories leaking to the press, Cohn hired goons to threaten to blind Davis or at least cause him significant physical damage if he didn’t stop seeing Novak. The specifics of the confrontation differ, from vague threats to something out of a pulp novel.
Hollywood Is a Four-Letter Town, James Bacon’s 1976 book on Tinseltown scandal, describes Davis Jr being driven 30 miles into the desert outside Las Vegas by two mobsters. “Stay away from Kim Novak and marry a coloured girl as soon as possible,” one of them ordered. “I don’t care who, just so she’s black – understand?”
A less cinematic story claims that Mickey Cohen, a prolific gangster later played on screen by both Harvey Keitel and Sean Penn, was offered money by Cohn to hurt Davis, but chose to inform Davis of the hit rather than enact it. Other tellings of the story have left out specific names or contracts, with Davis himself only acknowledging that a “friend” had alerted him of Cohn’s anger. Davis, who had palled around with the Mob as part of The Rat Pack, recognised danger when he saw it, and realised he had to go along with Cohn’s demands.
Within hours of realising the extent of the threats, Davis flicked through his address book, and eventually paused over one name: Loray White, a nightclub singer and single mother who Davis had been romantically involved with for eight months three years prior.
For years, White claimed that Davis had courted her over several dates before eventually proposing. Davis, over the course of two autobiographies published 24 years apart, said he was drunk during the proposal, and had sought White’s hand in marriage to protect his public image.
The pair were married in a Las Vegas hotel room in January 1958, with Harry Belafonte serving as Davis’s best man. Despite flowery PR statements to the contrary, it was reportedly a dramatic affair – White arrived 40 minutes late to the ceremony, and was so nervous that she signed her name as “Leroy” on the pair’s marriage licence. Davis would splurge gifts upon White in front of the gathered guests, including a $3,000 mink stole.
Silber has claimed that Davis was devastated by the marriage, getting increasingly drunk on the day of the wedding and attempting to strangle White. He’s also claimed that Davis attempted to take his own life on his wedding night.
“I walked back into the bedroom just as he was putting a gun to his head,” Silber said. “I jumped on him and I got the gun away from him. Then I sat on him with my knees on his shoulders until he passed out.” “Why won’t they let me live my life?” Silber said Davis asked him. Davis and White filed for divorce nine months later.
Cohn was killed by a heart attack mere weeks into the marriage, with Novak released from his contractual grasp at Columbia Pictures as a result. She and Davis, meanwhile, stopped speaking.
They would reunite twice more in public: at an Oscar party in 1979, where they took to the dance floor together (no pictures were taken), and later when Novak visited Davis’s death bed in 1990. The specifics of their final conversation remain a mystery, as does the truth about their relationship as a whole.
While romantics tend to paint the pair as soulmates ripped apart by Hollywood bigwigs and racism, it’s debatable whether they were as much of an item as the mythology surrounding them wanted them to be. Davis would marry a white woman, the actress May Britt, in 1960, once again sparking controversy at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in 31 US states. He would marry once more, to a black dancer named Altovise Gore, in 1970, and remain with her until his death.
Novak would also swiftly move on. She would date actor David Hemmings and the Dempsey and Makepeace star Michael Brandon, before marrying an equine veterinarian in 1976, retiring from acting in 1991 and becoming a painter.
In 1978, Davis told People Magazine his relationship with Novak was “just bringing too much anguish”. He continued: “If it had only been a sordid affair, if we’d hidden and jumped into some grubby hotel bed, it would have been okay. But for a black man and a white woman to be open about love was unacceptable.”
In 2004, Novak once again contradicted Davis’s words and denied that they were even a couple. “I liked him, he was such a delightful person,” she told Larry King. “It was not an attraction thing … It was not romantic. [The tabloids] broke it in the news as if it was a love affair.”
“Was he in love with you?” King asked. “I think he was,” Novak replied, adding that being told she couldn’t see him anymore only made her want to keep up the friendship. “Times were different then. We’ve come a long way.”
It’s a nice sentiment, and absolutely true in many ways. But in terms of Hollywood, outrage over interracial dating has tended to be replaced not by acceptance, and more with apprehension. On-screen at least, interracial couples, notably the pairing of black men and white women, remain elusive in mainstream film. Our biggest black movie actors have only in recent years been seen in romantic plots with white actresses, after all.
Denzel Washington had a white love interest in 2012’s Flight, after years of reports that he would alter scripts to remove the romantic plots from films that cast him alongside white women – most notably his co-starring role in the Julia Roberts thriller The Pelican Brief, which was originally scripted as a romantic pairing. “I hate to say it, but white men bring white women to movies, and they don’t want to watch a black man with their woman,” actress Kelly Lynch quoted Washington as telling her on the set of 1995’s Virtuosity.
Will Smith would romance Margot Robbie in 2015’s Focus, but a decade earlier revealed that studio bosses were nervous about casting him alongside a white woman for his 2005 romcom Hitch. “There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it,” Smith said at the time. “The idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up [and] that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the US.” The Cuban-American actor Eva Mendes, who was eventually cast, was viewed as a safe alternative.
When Hollywood’s two most successful black movie stars, both of whom have been headlining movies for at least 25 years, have only just begun to date interracially on screen, finger-wagging over the industry’s treatment of Davis and Novak seems shortsighted.
Perhaps, then, that’s why it’s taken so long for their story to be dramatised. You can hardly condemn the sins of the past when they’re also the sins of the present.