Eddie Fisher: The Songs, the Sins, the Scandal

7 minute read
Richard Corliss

Eddie Fisher was the golden boychik of mainstream pop, the dimpled troubadour from Philadelphia. Pretty and poised, he had the packaging and the product: a clear, confident tenor that could turn powerful or intimate at will. In the 1950-54 prerock period — the most tepid five years in the history of 20th century music — he had 19 songs reach the Top 10, including four (“Wish You Were Here,” “I’m Walking Behind You,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa,” “I Need You Now”) that went to No. 1. When he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, President Harry Truman proclaimed him “my favorite PFC.” He transferred his vinyl popularity to a TV variety show and then to movies. Fisher’s covenant with Hollywood mythology was sealed with his 1955 marriage to Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood’s princess of pert. It marked the perfect merger of adorable and adorabler.

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Show-business legend-making is dreams plus lies. Sometimes the truth slithers out from under the parade float, sometimes not — more frequently now than in that sedate stretch between World War II and Vietnam. Fisher was an agent of one of those shocks to propriety in 1959, when he divorced Reynolds to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Liz could wed early and often (this was her fourth marriage, at 27); the public saw her as a creature of exotic allure and mercurial passions. But Eddie, promoted as the boy next door, was declared a war criminal of domesticity for deserting Debbie’s dollhouse. Fisher was the victim of another, larger jolt in 1962, when Taylor left him for her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton. Biter bit, America thought; serves him right. The one-two punch of infidelity and cuckoldry left an instant, perpetual brand on Fisher’s résumé. From platinum recording artist to Johnny Carson punch line, he dwelled in oldies purgatory for nearly 50 years, dying Sept. 22 in Berkeley, Calif., of complications from a hip fracture. He was 82.

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“By the time I was 33 years old,” he proclaimed in his 1999 autobiography Been There, Done That (penned with celebrity ghostwriter David Fisher), “I’d been married to America’s sweetheart and America’s femme fatale, and both marriages had ended in scandal; I’d been one of the most popular singers in America and had given up my career for love; I had fathered two children and adopted two children and rarely saw any of them; I was addicted to methamphetamines, and I couldn’t sleep at night without a huge dose of Librium. And from all this I had learned one very important lesson: There were no rules for me. I could get away with anything so long as that sound came out of my throat.” By the 1980s, the drugs were choking the sound; Fisher was often unable to perform. “It was either quit cocaine or quit performing,” he says in the book. New paragraph. “So much for my career.”

As a kid, Edwin Jack Fisher didn’t have much to sing about. He described his father Joseph, a Jewish immigrant from Russia (where the family name was either Tisch or Fisch) as “a nasty, abusive man, a tyrant.” Joseph’s side of the family thought that his wife, the long-suffering Kate, was beneath them. (“The only time I ever heard the Fishers say anything kind about my mother was in the limousine on the way to her funeral.”) The boy’s ticket out of this unhappy family was his voice; by his teens it had gotten him regular jobs on three Philadelphia radio shows. Eddie Cantor heard him sing at Grossinger’s in the Catskills and put Fisher on his national radio show, and the 21-year-old secured a recording contract with RCA Victor. His skein of hits began with “Any Time,” which became his signature song, and abated around the time RCA signed Elvis Presley, another young heartthrob with the voice of rebellion, sexuality and the future.

Fisher co-starred in two movies: with Reynolds in the 1956 Bundle of Joy , and with Taylor in Butterfield 8 in 1960. His presence, so genial on TV, looked skulking on the big screen, and that wrote finis to his film career. He admitted he was no great shakes as a dramatic performer — except for a few times on the concert stage. His father, now proud of his famous boy, would sit in the front row, gazing up as Eddie sang the Euro-plaint “Oh! My Pa-Pa” (“To me he was so wonderful …”), and Eddie would look down, seemingly misting up at the sight of the man who had made his family miserable. Now that, Fisher said, was acting.

In his memoir, Fisher was incapable of acting the gentleman to his first wife. “I’ve often been asked what I learned from that marriage,” he writes. “That’s simple: Don’t marry Debbie Reynolds.” They had two children, Carrie (the writer and actress) and Todd (who in the 1990s managed Debbie’s Las Vegas showplace). He would soon have little time for them. While consoling Taylor over the plane-crash death of her husband, producer Mike Todd, Fisher fell hard for the reigning movie queen. “Sexually she was every man’s dream,” he recalled. “She had the face of an angel and the morals of a truck driver.” Decades after Taylor left him, he says, he still carried the torch with the blue flame. His third marriage, to actress Connie Stevens — “the nicest ex-wife I’ve ever had” — spawned two daughters, Tricia Leigh and Joely, and ended in the usual rancor. “I wish you good luck, good health and wealth and happiness in your own time on your own terms,” Stevens wrote him in a farewell note. “I do not wish you love as you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Love replaced lust in the Fisher hierarchy; then cocaine and methamphetamines took over. He got hooked in 1953, backstage at the Paramount Theater in Times Square, by the notorious Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson, who, Fisher claimed, also treated President John F. Kennedy. (“Jack Kennedy and I shared drugs and women.”) Fisher’s memoir details affairs with Ann-Margret, Edie Adams, Carol Lynley, Stefanie Powers and many others, some of whom have denied the liaisons. He asserted that Taylor was also addicted to pills and booze and that he once borrowed a gun with the intention of shooting Burton.

As the stories get wilder, in a book that may be more acute in its writing than in its veracity, the reader may think Fisher is channeling the other Richard Burton, the 19th century translator of the fanciful Mideast tales in One Thousand and One Nights . But we don’t doubt that Fisher lived, as he insisted, “the thousand nights of pleasure and the thousand nights of drug-addicted hell.” In 1990 he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic; apparently he was clean for his last 20 years. Fisher did not divorce his final wife, Betty Lin; she died nine years before he did.

A gift of song, an early success, a gash of notoriety; a host of fractured hearts, only one of them his. Sometimes show-business truth can be more instructive than Tinseltown fable. Can we say that Eddie Fisher lived an exemplarily misspent life?

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