Saving Sammy

An innkeeper and attorney in East Stroudsburg, Pa., has spent the last several years getting to know Sammy Davis, Jr. – an entertainer he previously regarded as an embarrassment to his race – and helped to get Davis’ estate in order.

Albert “Sonny” Murray Jr. owns the Poconos resort Hillside Inn, but he’s also featured in a new book, “Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness and the Mob,” written by journalist author Matt Birkbeck.

Murray was hired by Davis’ widow to resolve the entertainer’s staggering $7 million IRS debt and restore the legacy of one of the 20th century’s great showmen.

Unlike the rest of the Rat Pack, Davis – a bad businessman who surrounded himself with people who did not necessarily have his best interests at heart – left little wealth behind. His widow, Altovise, was virtually penniless and in the throes of alcoholism while living in a private home on the Hillside estate.

Murray – who is featured in the book and is also black – said he felt sorry for Altovise. But he was not a fan of her husband, whom he viewed as a black caricature designed for the amusement of ’60s white culture. Murray used terms like “Uncle Tom” and “minstrel” to describe the star, but that was before he started to help Altovise straighten out the estate.

“He was much more than the Stepin Fetchit that he appeared to be,” Murray said in an interview. “He went through struggles as a black man, he went through struggles with his own identity, he went through all of the things that we go through as minorities. At the same time, he gave of himself as an entertainer. And yet at the end of his life, there was nothing to show for it.”

Murray struck a deal with the IRS in 1997 and, with the tax debt finally settled, offers began pouring in. A four-CD retrospective was released in 1999 and Murray helped secure for Davis a lifetime achievement award at the 2001 Grammys.

However, Murray and Altovise parted ways in 2001 and the Davis estate has fallen again into disrepair, according to author Birkbeck. Altovise is suing two former business partners in federal court, claiming they tricked her into signing away the rights to her husband’s estate.

Meanwhile, Murray is selling the Hillside Inn. His parents founded the resort in 1954, catering to blacks who would be turned away at other hotels. It is the oldest black-owned resort in the U.S., but business began to slip in the ’90s.

Murray said he hopes the inn will be bought by a nonprofit.