By John Tayman
Updated October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

DURING 60 YEARS AS AN ENTERTAINER, he filled nightclubs, concert halls and movie houses. But last Sunday, Sammy Davis Jr., who died a year and a half ago of throat cancer, pulled what may be his final SRO crowd. Some 1,300 people—including celebrities, collectors and the merely curious—shouldered into a prestigious Hollywood auction house for the sale of Davis’s memorabilia.

Included in the eclectic collection of goods: inscribed photos of Davis pals Elvis Presley (offered at $3,750) and Marilyn Monroe ($5,500); an eight-foot-tall fiberglass statue of a character from The Planet of the Apes ($2,500); and approximately 350 of Davis’s musical arrangements ($10,000). When the gavel came down for the last time, $440,000 worth of trinkets and memories had been sold, every dollar’s worth carefully logged by an agent from the Internal Revenue Service who sat impassively in the front row.

The auction was only the latest in a series of maneuvers intended to untangle the snarl of Davis’s personal finances, which include a whopping $5.2 million owed to the IRS. The debt has cast a shadow on Sammy’s memory, touched off debate about how he handled his money and has thrown suspicion on recent actions by his widow, Altovise, 42. The affair has also prompted squabbling among members of Davis’s extended family while raising a bottom-line question: Why was Sammy broke?

Davis’s longtime publicist, Jay Bernstein, offered one opinion. “Sammy always said he spent twice as much as he earned,” Bernstein said at the auction. “[And] he always lived well. He fooled ’em, didn’t he?”

Not really. Beginning in 1972, the IRS started disallowing Sammy’s tax shelters, reassessments that as of October 1990 had mushroomed into the seven digits. Sammy hoped that an 11-country tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli in 1989 would pay off the debt—a hope left unrealized when cancer forced him to quit the tour and go home.

After Davis’s death, the debts were transferred to his estate. Altovise, a former show girl whom Davis met and married in 1970, also became liable for the IRS debt because she had cosigned Sammy’s tax returns. Altovise has apparently been overwhelmed by the complexities of settling Davis’s affairs, a task that requires her cooperation with Sammy’s executors (his lawyer John Climaco and manager Shirley Rhodes) and the IRS, as well as with dozens of individual claimants—from Nate and Al’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills (asking $561.68) to the Riviera Hotel jewelry shop (claiming $5,804).

Attorneys have advised Altovise to try the so-called innocent spouse defense—arguing, in essence, that she knew nothing of her husband’s financial dealings and should not be penalized for signing his tax returns. Those who know Altovise believe that this scenario was indeed correct. “She’s a chorus girl who married an international celebrity,” says one of her friends. “She never handled money. She was on a $300 a week allowance. She’s freaked out.”

Altovise is not, however, destitute. Davis left insurance policies totaling nearly $6 million. Altovise received $2 million; Davis’s three grown children (daughter Tracey, 30, sons Mark, 31, and Jeff, 27, all by second wife Mai Britt, who also benefited) received more than $500,000 each; one policy covered business and. household expenses. These bequests have gone largely unreported, and Tracey has accused Altovise of trading on the widely held impression that she is penniless. Tracey, a television commercial producer who lives outside Los Angeles with her husband, Guy and their son, Sammy, 18 months, insists, “My father made sure we were all taken care of financially, and I’m sick of all the complaining Altovise has been doing about the financial mess she says my father left her. There are problems [with the estate], but they can be solved.”

Given the parties involved, a solution will not come easily. “There is a lot of ill feeling between the executors and Mrs. Davis,” says Richard Ferko, an attorney who has counseled Altovise. “That’s made settling matters very difficult.” Altovise claims that Climaco and Rhodes bear great responsibility for the condition of Davis’s estate, since he was merely acting on their advice. “Mr. Davis was always aware of all his financial affairs,” Climaco replies, “and okayed all transactions.” Further, Climaco says he and Altovise’s attorneys have made repeated efforts to compromise with the IRS, but Altovise “refused to cooperate.”

Climaco adds that selling off the estate’s principal asset—the 22-room Beverly Hills mansion where Altovise still lives with her 13-year-old son, Manny (whom she and Davis adopted in 1989) will help defray the IRS debt. Altovise has resisted attempts to sell the house, however, seemingly at penalty to the estate: Appraised two years ago at $4.25 million, the house is now worth perhaps half that figure in the weak Los Angeles market.

Climaco and Rhodes also claim that Altovise is squirreling away items from the estate that have been marked for sale—including a valuable Andy Warhol Soup-can painting, scheduled for inclusion in last week’s auction. When auctioneers went to collect the Warhol, they reported, it was missing from the house. Altovise later produced the painting, claiming that it had merely been removed for cleaning. (It will be auctioned next week in San Francisco. Asking price: $25,000.) Still missing from the estate, according to court records filed by the executors, is the bulk of a jewelry collection appraised at $1.5 million.

Since Sammy’s death, his widow has turned for advice to her friend Albert Carter, who claims to have a law degree from the University of Santa Clara—though the school has been unable to locate any record of Carter’s enrollment. Carter was the impetus behind an August tribute to Davis at Las Vegas’s Sands Hotel, site of the Rat Pack’s glory days. Some performers at the event, which somehow grew into a full-scale benefit, were unclear about where the money was headed. Emcee Steve Allen and his wife, Jayne Meadows, showed up, Steve says, “because we thought it was a benefit for cancer research.” Carter insisted that profits would go to several recipients, including “the Sammy Davis Jr. foundation.” When pressed, however, he admitted that no such foundation yet exists, though he maintained that one would soon be created. To date, Sands executives are withholding proceeds because of another $10,000 worth of bills connected to the event that have been left unpaid by Altovise and Carter.

Such confusion has only added to the frustration of those who want to see Sammy’s estate settled equitably and without further damage to his reputation. As Davis’s sister, Ramona Davis James, said as she watched Sammy’s possessions pass into the hands of the highest bidders last week, “I have mixed emotions about all this. But there’s a time doors should be closed.”

At this point, Sammy would probably agree. As his friend Jay Bernstein wryly observed at the auction, “What’s he going to do with all this stuff in heaven, anyway?”


DORIS BACON in Los Angeles