Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. died of throat cancer in 1990 as a show-business legend, but he could have died much earlier on the morning of Nov. 19, 1954. On that day, he drove from Las Vegas through the night towards Hollywood for a recording session and rammed his new Cadillac Eldorado into another vehicle operated by two women Helen S. Boss, 72 and Bessie Roth, 69.
That accident damaged Davis’ left eye and broke the jaw of his valet and fried Charlie Head. It also led Cadillac to remove the cone in the middle of the steering wheel from its subsequent cars as Davis bounced his face off the cone during the impact.
It was a life-changing moment in the life of the 28-year-old nightclub entertainer whose stock was on the rise. The two women in the other car were injured but survived.
Davis and his valet were transported to County Hospital which was full. By 10:30 a.m., Davis had been transported to Community Hospital with the city’s best ear and eye surgeon, Fred Hull, called. The San Bernardino Community Hospital was full too but head duty nurse discharged some people to make way for Davis.
Upon inspection, Dr. Hull declared: “You’re not blind. You’re going to see. You’ll be able to dance and sing and do everything you ever did. But I removed your left eye.” Davis had been concerned if he could keep his two legs to dance and if he hadn’t gone blind.
The news of his road crash had meanwhile spread in the media and worried celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Eddie Cantor visited. Sinatra told Davis he would be staying at his Palm Springs house to recover when discharged.
Davis wore an eye patch to heal stopping only after he was fitted with an artificial eye.
“Lying flat on your back in the hospital for eight days, you are bound to think about serious things,” Davis later told the Associated Press. “And I couldn’t get over how lucky I was. God must have had his arms around me. Otherwise, I would be blind today.” He converted to Judaism while recuperating from his injuries.
Wearing a silver eye patch, Davis made his first public appearance a month after the crash at a ritzy Hollywood nightclub. “He returned to the stage in a one-man show in January 1955, performing for a crowded house that included Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Donna Reed, Liberace, Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban.”
“This is more than wonderful,” he told the applauding audience. “Only in show business could it happen.” His career waxed stronger appearing in movies, musicals and TV shows.
He performed more than 50 shows. He had sued the two women for reckless driving which caused the crash. They counter sued. Jurors cleared Davis of any wrongdoing in the crash.
“Mrs. Roth passed away in her sleep in December 1955, a little more than a year after the accident. She was 72. Mrs. Boss was 84 when she died at Middlebury Manor in 1966.”
Four years after the crash, Davis Jr. returned to the hospital, which helped save his life. A new Community Hospital had been built on 17th Street and Western Avenue but new equipment was needed.
On Nov. 15, 1958, 7,500 tickets were sold for a benefit concert to help buy equipment for the hospital. Three buses from Hollywood with an eclectic array of performers arrived including James Garner, Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Shirley MacLaine, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Danny Thomas. The event raised $20,000.