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JFK Banned Sammy Davis Jr. From Performing at His 1961 Presidential Inauguration AP Photo/Bob Dear
AP Photo/Bob Dear

Sammy Davis Jr .was a singular performer in his time, famously referring to himself as “the only Black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.”  A dark, but ultimately inspiring, piece of his legend is the story of the horrific car accident that cost him his left eye.

The Fateful Accident that Cost Sammy Davis Jr. His Eye

On Nov 19, 1954, Davis was driving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles for a recording session for the soundtrack of the movie Six Bridges to Cross. Around 8 a.m., near the intersection of Kendall Drive and Route 66 in San Bernadino, Davis’s Cadillac collided with the back of another vehicle. Davis’s face struck the bullet-shaped design of his steering wheel, leaving him with a broken nose and his left eye dangling from the socket.

He was rushed to the nearby San Bernadino Community Hospital, where a surgeon determined his damaged eye must be removed. A plastic eye was sized for its replacement, though Davis elected to wear a silk eye patch for several months following the accident. Later, he replaced it with a more permanent glass eye, which he wore until his death from throat cancer in 1990.

The gruesome mishap that might have killed other fledgling careers barely slowed Davis down. Two months after the accident, Davis was back on stage to perform. Years later he hosted a benefit concert for the hospital to a crowd that included Judy Garland, Tony Curtis, and Frank Sinatra.

Another defining characteristic of the legendary performer sprung from the accident, which made him convert to Judaism. His friend, a Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, spoke with Davis often about parallels between the struggles of Jews and African-Americans. Cantor gifted him a mezuzah, which Davis wore around his neck every day for good luck— except for the morning of his accident. Perhaps taking this as a sign, Davis began to study at Temple Israel of Hollywood, eventually converting to Judaism in a Las Vegas ceremony in 1961.

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JFK Banned Davis from Performing at His 1961 Inauguration

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The loss of Davis’s eye was far from the only obstacle he’d face in his career. He also encountered a great deal of racism as a black performer during the Civil Rights Era in the United States. At the height of his fame, Davis sparked outrage by marrying Swedish actress May Britt during a time when interracial marriage was taboo. Public backlash allegedly led John F. Kennedy to bar Davis from performing at his inauguration, though Davis had been a prominent and public supporter of JFK’s presidential campaign.

Davids’ daughter, Tracy Davis revealed in her new book Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal History with My Father, several conversations with her father in his final months before his passing, revealing the JFK story. Apparently, after his interracial marriage, which was forbidden by law in 31 states at that time, her father’s name was dropped from the list of entertainers at the inaugural party which was hosted by Frank Sinatra. Kennedy reportedly was worried that the sight of Davis alongside May britt would anger several Southerners. Amends were late made when Davis was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1987.

Sammy Davis Jr. on Frank Sinatra | “The Dick Cavett Show”

Despite these setbacks, Davis would go on to have one of the most accomplished careers in show business history. He’d win both a Grammy and Emmy, as well as a Tony nomination for his role in the Broadway musical Golden Boy. From his humble beginnings in the Will Mastin Trio to the final days of his battle with throat cancer, Sammy Davis Jr. would hold true to the words of radio host Walter Winchell in the days following his accident: ”Sammy, remember, no champ ever lost a fight by being knocked down. Only by staying down!”

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A lover, fighter, and freelance writer, María Cristina hunts down buzzworthy stories by day and trains to be a championship kickboxer by night. As a full-time digital nomad, she's lived everywhere from Chicago to Mexico City to Medellín to Bali -- but Austin, Texas will always be home.
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