Without Her Sweet Candy Man, Altovise Davis Bears a Widow's Burden—and a Ruinous Tax Bill

updated 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The mourners who once thronged outside the iron gate to pay their respects have long since gone, and the black, custom-made Cadillac station wagon sits on the circular driveway shrouded in a canvas tarp, as if to emphasize that he is no longer there to drive it.

There has been a pall, it seems, for the past four months over the house on Summit Drive, ever since performing great Sammy Davis Jr. died of throat cancer last May at age 64. "I know when he died he wanted me to celebrate his life," says his widow, Alto-vise, who was his wife for 20 years. "But I didn't see it that way. How could I?"

Now that the initial shock of his passing is gone, Altovise, 42, has even less cause for joy. After a tabloid report that a bodyguard found her unconscious last summer from an overdose of alcohol and pills, the onetime dancer now faces the prospect of raising the couple's recently adopted son, Manny, alone. She must also untangle a complicated financial skein: making good on the raft of charitable bequests in Davis's will and facing IRS charges that he owed $4.5 million in back taxes as a result of what Alto-vise's attorney, Vasilios Choulos, calls questionable shelter investments.

Altovise, who has admitted to her own past bout with alcoholism, adamantly denies the report that she tried to kill herself last July. "It wasn't true. I don't take drugs. I do drink," she says. "But I want to live for my husband, for my son, for the kids. I think the rumors started because, in the beginning, after his death. I didn't go out."

But she does not minimize her financial burden, which includes not only the IRS tab but also a $2.5 million mortgage on her Beverly Hills home. "If all obligations were met." says Choulos. "that would wipe out 80 percent of the estate." According to Altovise, Davis had hoped that the 11-country tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli that he launched a year and a half before his death would earn enough to settle his debts. "Sammy thought the tour would solve a lot of problems," says Altovise. "He was very honest about it. Even when he had the throat cancer, we thought he'd get better, get through it and finish the tour."

Ultimately he did not. While Choulos believes there is enough in Davis's estate to satisfy the tax liens, Altovise realizes she may have to sell the 22-room, memento-cluttered house that she and Davis shared throughout their marriage. "I don't know yet. We'll see," she says. "Now is the time to remember how much we enjoyed this house...."

Acting as mother and father to Manny is another challenge. The tabloid report of her suicide attempt, says Altovise, was particularly trying. "I had to sit Manny down, show him the story and tell him we have to ignore such things. I didn't want him to go to school and be confronted by that. He was great. All he said was, 'Okay, Mom. Who do you want me to kill?' "

Since Sammy's death, Altovise has found solace in her friendships—with Davis's first wife, Mai Britt, and those she made as chairman of SHARE, a local philanthropic group. "It's a different kind of chairmanship now," she says of her life without Sammy, "but I'll learn how to do it. With a little help...and Mr. D. right behind me."

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