In 1957, Sammy Davis Jr. was a rising star. He’d just completed an acclaimed performance in Mr. Wonderful on Broadway and had a popular nightclub act with his father and uncle called the Will Mastin Trio. It was a strong comeback from a car accident three years earlier, when a pipe went through Davis’s eye, permanently blinding him. For the rest of his life, he would wear a glass eye.

The accident, however did nothing to curtail Davis’s charisma and sex appeal. Hollywood starlet Kim Novak certainly noticed him.

She was about to film Hitchcock’s Vertigo when she saw Davis perform in a Chicago nightclub. Though they didn’t speak much at the time, Davis wanted to get to know the actress. His friends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh obliged by inviting both of them to a party at their house. Soon afterward, there was a blind item in a gossip column: “Which top female movie star (K.N.) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (S.D.)?”

This bit of idle gossip was far from harmless. An affair between Novak and Davis had the potential to destroy both of their careers. In 1957, interracial marriage was illegal in half the states. Most Americans were against it. A Gallup poll from 1958 showed that only 4 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. On top of that, the United States Supreme Court had only recently ordered the desegregation of public schools, and the showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas, over the integration of the city’s Central High School would occur the following year. The national atmosphere was fraught with racial tension.

As a black man, Davis had been stopped from dating white women before, but this time was different. Novak was a movie star. That year, newspapers were calling her “the hottest female draw at the box office” thanks to films like The Man with the Golden Arm and Pal Joey. Columbia Pictures was grooming her to replace Rita Hayworth, who studio head Harry Cohn disliked. As the latest Hollywood sex goddess, Novak was potentially worth millions.

When he saw the gossip item, Davis called Novak to apologize for putting her in an awkward position with the studio. According to his autobiography Sammy, Novak replied, “The studio doesn’t own me!” and invited him over for spaghetti and meatballs. Soon after, they were dating.

Their affair continued for most of 1957. Davis and Novak were aware of the risks they were taking, but that, it seems, made the relationship more exciting. “She hadn’t thought about me anymore than I had thought about her—until it was forbidden,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Then we became conspirators, drawn together by the single thing we had in common: defiance.”

Arthur Silber, a close friend and companion of Davis, often chauffeured the couple to a rented beach house in Malibu. They went to great length to hide their relationship—Davis would sometimes lie on the floor of the car under a blanket to avoid being seen with Novak.

“It was like we were in the FBI or something,” Silber says in an interview. “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.” Davis also had a private phone line installed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas where he worked so he could talk to Novak without the hotel switchboard listening in.

In December, Novak went home to Chicago for the holidays while Davis stayed in Las Vegas. He missed Novak so much that he found a replacement for his act and flew overnight to see her and meet her parents.

Irv Kupcinet of the Chicago Sun-Times heard about the visit and mentioned it in his column. Gossip heated up. There was a rumor Davis and Novak had taken out a marriage license. “Kim Novak is about to become engaged to Sammy Davis Jr. and Hollywood is aghast,” reported The London Daily Mirror.

When Cohn found out, he became enraged that his star—who he regarded as property he’d invested in—was dating a black man.The next morning, while flying to Los Angeles, he had the first of several heart attacks that would soon kill him.

By all accounts, Cohn was a ruthless studio chief who admired Benito Mussolini and had ties to the Chicago mob. He even wore matching ruby “friendship rings” with gangster Johnny Roselli. There are various accounts of what happened next, but what’s clear is that Cohn took out a mob hit on Davis. Gangster Mickey Cohen found Davis’s father and passed on the threat. Silber was there when Davis received the phone call.

“They said they would break both of his legs, put out his other eye, and bury him in a hole if he didn’t marry a black woman right away,” says Silber. “He was scared as hell, same as I was.” 

Novak, who has consistently asserted that her relationship with Davis was never anything other than friendship, has also said the studio ordered her to stop seeing him. They also placed guards around her house.

“And I thought, this is ridiculous, I don’t want to live like this,” she told Larry King in 2004. “I couldn’t see what was wrong, do you know? What was so terrible?”

For his part, Davis went to his friend, gangster Sam Giancana, for protection. Giancana told him that he could protect Davis in Las Vegas and Chicago, but he had no reach in Hollywood. The threat loomed over him. The wedding was the only solution.

Sammy Davis Jr., 32, center glasses, and his bride, Loray White, 23, cut and serve cake to close friends and celebrities immediately following their wedding in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 11, 1958. The guests are, left to right: Joe E. Lewis; best man, Harry Belafonte; Davis; White and Donald O’Connor. (AP Photo)

Soon after in January 1958, Silber was sitting on the bed in the Sands Hotel, polishing a cowboy boot, when he noticed Davis, sitting on the other bed, paging through an address book.

“I said, what the eff are you doing?” says Silber. “And he said, I’m looking for someone to marry.”

The woman he chose was Loray White, a black singer who worked across the street at the Silver Slipper. She and Davis had gone out a few times in the past. Now Davis offered her a lump sum (between $10,000 and $25,000) to marry him and act as his wife. She agreed. In pictures of their Las Vegas wedding, White and Davis drink out of an oversized martini glass beside a tiered cake with the word “Happiness” written on it. But Silber, who drove the couple to their wedding suite, recalls that Davis drank heavily all evening and became so distraught in the car that he tried to strangle White. Silber restrained Davis and carried him to his room.

“He was so hurt,” Silber says. “His quote to me, as he ripped my coat apart at the shoulder, was, ‘Why won’t they let me live my life?’”

Silber remembers that Davis was particularly distraught that night at the hotel. “I walked back into the bedroom just as he was putting a gun to his head,” says Silber. “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.”

By September, newspapers were reporting that White and Davis were getting divorced.

One day, a couple of years later, Sammy and Silber were having lunch at 20th Century Fox when a woman walked in. She was tall and lovely with shiny blonde hair and a husky voice. Davis promptly introduced himself.

Her name was May (pronounced “My”) Britt, a 26-year-old Swedish actress who was filming a remake of The Blue Angel. She and Davis started seeing each other. Soon he proposed marriage and she accepted. An outsider to American racial politics, Britt didn’t see why race should keep her away from the person she loved.

On June 6, 1960, while in England, Davis announced their engagement to the press.

“The public went mad,” Burt Boyar, a close friend who co-wrote Davis’s autobiography, says in an interview. “When they got engaged, all hell broke loose. The studio immediately canceled Britt’s contract. They assumed that she was no use in the box office married to a black man.”

Sammy Davis Jr. portrait With May Britt
Sammy Davis Jr. portrait With May Britt (Alamy)

The next day, British fascists picketed the theater where Davis was performing in London, booing, shouting, and carrying signs saying, “Go home n*****r” and other racial slurs. Davis told the press, while blinking back tears, that it was “the most savage racial attack I have come across.” Back in America, Davis and Britt were inundated with hate mail. Criticism came not only from white people but also from black people who had long accused Davis of race trading in articles with headlines like “Is Sammy Ashamed He’s A Negro?” There were bomb threats at the theaters where Davis performed in Reno, San Francisco, and Chicago. At the Lotus Club in Washington,  D.C., the American Nazi Party picketed outside, but the audience gave Davis a standing ovation when he walked on stage.

Davis received so many death threats that he hired 24-hour armed guards. He worried his wife would be attacked if they were seen together, so they rarely went out. When they did, Davis carried a gun or a cane with a knife concealed in the tip.

“May was almost like a prisoner in a mink-lined cell,” says Boyar. “I don’t know of a time when they could walk out on the street and have fun and be happy like anyone else.”

Meanwhile, Davis worked for the Civil Rights Movement. According to Emilie Raymond, author of Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement, Davis raised approximately $750,000 (about $5.6 million today) for organizations like the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He also campaigned for John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, performing in 20 cities, usually alongside the rest of the Rat Pack. But at the Democratic National Convention in Mississippi, he was booed while singing the national anthem—an incident that left him near tears.

After he won the election, Kennedy snubbed Davis on two occasions. Davis had been invited to Kennedy’s inauguraton gala and was so proud to be going that he had a special suit made. Britt bought a Balenciaga dress. But three days before the inauguration, Kennedy’s secretary called to say that the president was uninviting them. The move was political—the president-elect had won the election by a slim margin and he didn’t want to alienate Southern congressmen by presenting them with Davis’s controversial marriage. Davis was deeply hurt and embarrassed by the snub.

Then in 1963, Davis and Britt were invited to a White House reception for African-American leaders. Raymond said in an email that when Kennedy saw them there he hissed at his aides to “Get them out of here” and herd the couple away from photographers.

Davis wasn’t the first celebrity in an interracial marriage—singer Harry Belafonte married a white woman in 1957 and in 1912, boxer Joe Jackson was jailed for dating a white woman. But no other prominent interracial marriage received as much publicity as Davis and Britt.

“I was a little kid when it happened,” says Gerald Early, editor of The Sammy Davis Reader. “Everybody talked about it. I do think it had an impact. It was one of those things in the ’60s that was part of opening up American society a little bit. He and May Britt were pioneers in making America more accepting of interracial marriage.”

In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to ban interracial marriage. The culture shifted quickly alongside the legal changes that followed and successful movies featuring interracial romance like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (Davis himself had also taken on interracial relationships in the 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy, where he played a black boxer in love with a white woman.)

Davis and Britt divorced in 1968. The marriage lasted eight years and resulted in three children. According to Davis’s biographer Gary Fishgall, Davis and Novak met again at a ball after the 1979 Oscars. They danced together. Afterwards, Davis was amazed—no one had taken a picture of the two of them. No one even cared.

Once, when Britt and Davis were first married, Boyar and his wife were sharing a hotel suite with them in Miami. Martin Luther King Jr. came to visit Davis in the hotel and Boyar said, “Martin, where are we, racially?”

Davis interjected and said, “I’ll tell you where I am. I’m in the best suite in this hotel, but I can’t walk down the street with my wife.”

King replied with the words of a slave preacher, who he would later quote in a speech to the New York Civil War Centennial Commission in 1962. He said:

We ain’t what we oughta be.

We ain’t what we wanta be.

We ain’t what we gonna be.

But thank God, we ain’t what we was.