Joe Rutland remembers Bobby Darin and his life of secrets.
Bobby Darin was, in some people’s eyes, a one-hit wonder with “Mack the Knife.” That’s simply not true. Darin was a complex man, though, suffering a lifetime of heart problems after battling rheumatic fever as a young child.
Was he insecure? Perhaps. Of course, learning that you are expected to live just into your late teens might make any person feel insecure.
Darin knew that his life would be short, well aware that an inner clock was ticking toward an early death. It was one secret that he held close to himself, telling just those people in his inner circle about his health.
He struggled with depression, self-doubt, anxiety (especially about his looks – he started wearing toupees in his 20s as his hair was falling out), fear and anger. Many of his musical peers had a deep respect for Darin. Sammy Davis Jr., considered by many to be “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” in his lifetime, said there was only one person he would never go on stage afterward … Bobby Darin. Musicians who worked with Darin have called him a caring soul who did show compassion for others and wasn’t cocky and arrogant.
On Dec. 20, 1973—40 years ago this month—Darin died after undergoing a second major heart operation in Los Angeles, Calif. He was 37.
Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto on May 14, 1936, in New York City and raised by his mother and grandmother.
Now let’s stop here. This, in reality, was not the case. In 1968, Darin’s sister Nina – who lived with Bobby and his grandmother Polly when he was growing up – finally revealed to him … years after Darin had achieved fame, fortune and plenty of the “good life” … that she, in fact, was his birth mother and that Bobby was born out of wedlock. The woman that Darin had been led to believe was his mother for his entire life was – in actuality – his grandmother. Darin was never told about his father, either. See, it was another secret.
What do most people know about family secrets? They never work out, and this one was a severe blow for Darin to take.
In his family lineage, Darin also has a half-brother, Gary Walden, whose mother was Nina (Bobby’s “real” mother) and father was Charlie Maffia. He also has two half-sisters, Vivienne and Vana.
At one time, Darin was THE show to see in Las Vegas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After gaining great success and scoring hits with “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover,” comedian George Burns took Darin under his wing and polished his on-stage skills by making Darin his opening act for Burns’ Las Vegas shows in the late ’50s. “Mack the Knife,” released in 1959 as a single and the opening song on Darin’s first long-playing LP “That’s All,” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and earned him Grammy Awards for “Record of the Year” and “Best New Artist” in 1960.
As an actor, Darin was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy Awards for his performance in “Captain Newman, M.D.” in 1963 (which he did not win). He wrote the music for his and then-wife Sandra Dee’s movie “That Funny Feeling.” It was while filming an earlier movie, “Come September” in 1960, that Darin met Dee and fell in love.
They were married in 1960, had one son (Dodd) and divorced in 1967. Darin and Dee brought their own personal baggage into the marriage. Darin had a very active sex drive and allegedly wanted Dee to become more sexually involved with him. Dee, though, had been sexually molested repeatedly by her stepfather from adolescence into her teen years. She also battled anorexia and alcoholism.
Darin was one of the first entertainers that refused to let nightclub owners tell him African-American comedians could not open his shows. One scene in actor-director Kevin Spacey’s biopic “Beyond the Sea” shows Spacey, as Darin, sitting with the Copacabana club’s owner and Darin’s manager Steve Blauner (played by John Goodman). Darin looks at the club owner and says, “If he (African-American comedian George Kirby) is not allowed to open for me, then I’m not playing here.” Guess who won that battle?
Besides being a singer, songwriter, actor and entertainer, Darin was a strong civil rights and political activist. He did have a sense, within himself, of right and wrong.
Darin was involved in the civil rights marches of the 1960s, being one of the most high-profile whites to stand shoulder to shoulder with African-Americans and show solidarity for his brothers and sisters. He was a vocal, active supporter of Robert F. Kennedy, and was at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968 when Kennedy was mortally wounded after giving a campaign speech. Others who have followed the Darin timeline closely note that Darin reportedly followed RFK’s body to Washington, D.C., and lay next to his marked grave – outside at Arlington National Cemetery – before RFK was buried.
During this period, he changed his entire act and wardrobe – even his booking name from “Bobby Darin” to “Bob Darin” – and only sang folk and protest songs. His last big Billboard hit was “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1966, written by Tim Hardin. Darin even was booed out of Las Vegas, the town that once couldn’t wait to see him perform.
It was just after RFK’s death that Darin learned the “truth” about his mother. All of this eventually led him into seclusion, moving to Big Sur, Calif., and shedding a lot of his possessions
In later years, Dodd Darin bravely sought out the facts of his parents’ lives and wrote “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.” Other authors have written books about Darin, too, noting his assets and liabilities as a man.
Ultimately, Darin – through the words of contemporaries like Burns, Dick Clark and even Frank Sinatra, the man whom Darin once said he would be bigger than in show business – returned to the tuxes, the songs that people knew him for and still mixed in those folk, spiritual and blues songs in an updated act. Flip Wilson, a well-known African-American comedian, was given a shot by Darin to open for him and boosted his career to great heights. Wilson had his own comedy-variety show on NBC. When other shows refused to book Darin, Wilson remembered Darin’s kindness and booked him … ratings be damned.
Darin was making a comeback of sorts, and landed his own comedy-variety show on NBC. The first season was a mix of comedy and music. The second season, which ended in April 1973, was pretty much all music with guest stars on the show. His final show marked the last time Darin appeared on television, a medium through which all of his looks – youthful and vibrant, toupee-less and in denim, older and a bit slower near the end – can be seen in video clips.
This quote from Darin on his official fan website, www.bobbydarin.com, says “My goal is to be remembered as a human being and as a great performer.”
Did he live up to his own comment? I’d say he did … and still had a lot to give if he’d had a healthier heart. As a man, he lived up to his convictions and dealt with his inner struggles as best as possible. Was he perfect? No. Who is? But this man’s legacy, and music, will never die.
Image: Public Domain