The man who loved women

There was Debbie (Reynolds), Liz (Taylor) and Connie (Stevens). Not to mention Marlene, Mia, Bette and Judy. Or Kim, Angie and Stefanie. It seems unlikely that there was a single beautiful woman in Hollywood that the Fifties 'singing sensation' Eddie Fisher didn't either marry or sleep with. So why on earth is he singing 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' in his sleep?
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I am waiting in the lobby of The Sloane Club in London when Eddie Fisher arrives with his fourth wife, Betty Lin. Eddie, the one-time singing phenomenon who, in 1954, had an unbelievable 65,000 fan clubs and was earning $1m a year ($1million a year! In 1954!) is 71 now. He is dashingly attired. He is wearing Cartier sunglasses, a spectacular diamond ring and the most exquisite, suede, multi-coloured slipper-like shoes - "I love shoes, don't I Betty?" "You sure do, Eddie." They have just, it turns out, come from a TV interview during which a 1959 film clip of Eddie was shown. "God, I was gorgeous," he says. "I was beautiful. What happened?" I tell him he looks OK to me. I tell him that at least he still has his hair. This upsets him enormously. "Oh, my hair, my hair, give me my hair back," he cries. "My hair was... oh, this hair is terrible." Come now, I say soothingly, it isn't that bad. He is not soothed, though. "It is for someone who once had the greatest hair. I had such great, thick, curly hair. Women

I am waiting in the lobby of The Sloane Club in London when Eddie Fisher arrives with his fourth wife, Betty Lin. Eddie, the one-time singing phenomenon who, in 1954, had an unbelievable 65,000 fan clubs and was earning $1m a year ($1million a year! In 1954!) is 71 now. He is dashingly attired. He is wearing Cartier sunglasses, a spectacular diamond ring and the most exquisite, suede, multi-coloured slipper-like shoes - "I love shoes, don't I Betty?" "You sure do, Eddie." They have just, it turns out, come from a TV interview during which a 1959 film clip of Eddie was shown. "God, I was gorgeous," he says. "I was beautiful. What happened?" I tell him he looks OK to me. I tell him that at least he still has his hair. This upsets him enormously. "Oh, my hair, my hair, give me my hair back," he cries. "My hair was... oh, this hair is terrible." Come now, I say soothingly, it isn't that bad. He is not soothed, though. "It is for someone who once had the greatest hair. I had such great, thick, curly hair. Women loved my hair."

Certainly, women did love Eddie and his fabulous hair. And Eddie loved women. OK, there were the drugs. The 37 years he spent addicted to speed and then cocaine. But, he absolutely insists, it was the women who did for him in the end. "I studied girls too much," he says. "I lost focus on what I was meant to be doing." Indeed, his autobiography, Been There, Done That, might just as well have been called Been There, Had Her. It's not just the awesome marriages - first Debbie Reynolds (mother of their daughter, the actress/writer Carrie Fisher, and son, Todd), then Elizabeth Taylor (who squeezed him in between Mike Todd and Richard Burton), then the singer Connie Stevens - it's also the affairs. The affairs! I mean, just a partial list includes Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Ann Margaret, Stefanie Powers, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Mia Farrow, Bette Davies, Diana Shore... Good grief, Eddie, it's every bloke's wish list!

"Ha!" he exclaims happily. "Although I'm sure I must have gone out with some non-beautiful women."

"Oh?"

"But I can't think of any right now."

The book is a hot read, a lot juicier than most memoirs, and has upset a lot of people. "My ex-wives are mad as hell," he says. It has upset Debbie, whom he describes as a cold, manipulative "phoney", never especially lively in bed. "She was like a robot." It has upset Liz, detailing as it does her histrionics, her addictions, her desire, even, to be beaten up before sex. "She wishes I was dead but, hey, can I help it?" It's upset Carrie. "First, Carrie said she was going to change her name from Fisher to Reynolds. Then she said, no, she was going to change her DNA." He says this lightly, although I'm sure it must hurt. He was never the best of fathers. Debbie, he writes in the book, used to sign his name to Carrie and Todd's Christmas presents so they would believe he had remembered. But he did, ultimately, manage to get close to Carrie. Until the book came along, that is. "She even said, while I was writing it, that if I was rude about her or her mom she'd stop speaking to me and wouldn't let me see my grand-daughter Billie."

"Yet you persisted?"

"I've had an extraordinary life, one worth telling. And I wanted to tell the whole story. And once I started I just couldn't stop."

I don't think he could stop, actually. It may even be that he spent so much time gazing at his reflection in the pond he eventually fell in. Splash! Of course, now I think about it, all his women had to be beautiful because, in their way, they reflected him, too. And now? What do you see now, Eddie? "My terrible hair!" he moans. Actually, he doesn't look that OK. He even looks a little spookily weird, like a bank robber with a pair of tights pulled down hard over his head. "Eddie," I ask, "have you ever had plastic surgery?" "Sure", he replies. "I've had a face lift, an eye job, liposuction under the chin..." He may be quite childlike in his need for adoration and attention. He may even be quite childlike, full stop.

Betty, a still fabulous-looking Chinese American in her sixties (I would guess) who has made her own fortune in printing, looks after Eddie as if, yes, he was a child. It is: "Do you need a sandwich, Eddie?" And: "I'll take this scone with me because you might want it later, Eddie." It was Betty who ordered him into the Betty Ford clinic, to get clean. "Betty lives for me," Eddie boasts. "She is my imperial woman." "I take care of all his chores so he can enjoy life," says Betty. How does he enjoy life, I ask? "He likes watching sport," she replies. "Boxing. Golf. Baseball. Tennis." "Wimbledon was good this year," adds Eddie.

They have arrived in London via Concorde. They'll be going back on the QE2. "Betty and I sure love a cruise," says Eddie. I'm not sure how all this is funded. Betty? Perhaps. Certainly, Eddie was declared bankrupt in 1970. Eddie was mad with money when he had it. "I loved giving money away. I'm such an over-giver it's sinful. My lawyer admired my Bentley, so I gave it to him. Even during a tour of the Far East in 1969, long after I could afford it, I bought 145 silk suits, 185 silk shirts and 50 pairs of silk pyjamas." Once, he suddenly recalls, when he and Liz were staying in London, at the Dorchester, he surprised her with a $350,000 emerald ensemble. "Necklace, bracelet, ring. I took it out of the box and threw it at her on the bed. She went crazy." Later, when I ask him what he would like to say to Liz if, by some miracle, she were to suddenly walk in now, he says: "Give me my jewels back! They must be worth $10m today!"

"Are you still extravagant?" I ask.

"Pretty much," he replies.

"Do you have to restrain him, Betty?"

"Tell her about Vegas," instructs Betty.

"Well, in Vegas recently, I got stuck for $14,000 on the first night," he says, proudly.

"Are you a big gambler?" I ask.

"Tell her about The Desert Inn," instructs Betty.

"Once, when I'd done a four-week stint at the Desert Inn (presumably during his heyday) I stopped at a crap table and put $25 on something. Nineteen hours later I was $165,000 better off."

"Wow," I exclaim.

"But a month later I came back, bet $25,000 in five different casinos, and lost it all. People think I've lost millions gambling, which isn't true, actually."

"You've lost a few million," says Betty.

"Well, maybe," he concedes.

"You've lost at least $10m," announces Betty, gaily.

He doesn't sing anymore. He says he will only sing if performing for an audience - "I don't sing in the shower" - and he no longer wishes to perform for audiences. "It would mean a new act, which is hard work." It's a shame. Later, Betty gives me a CD recording of a 1962 concert of his, which I put on when I get home. His voice - belting out "Makin' Whoopee", or "You Made Me Love You" - absolutely fills the room. His voice, in its Sinatra-esque way, is totally stop-what-you-are-doing fantastic. I am flabbergasted. I ask, now, if he misses the singing. "Nope," he says. But then Betty says: "He sings in his sleep."

"Oh, yeah, I sing in my sleep," he confirms.

"He sings beautifully in his sleep," adds Betty. "He's always in tune."

"What does he sing?" I ask.

"What Kind of Fool Am I?" she replies.

I think, possibly, he was spoilt from the word go. He was born in Philadelphia, the fifth of seven children, to Catherine and Joe, Russian-Jewish immigrants originally surnamed Fisch. They were poor. Joe was never really a success at anything. He worked in a leather factory for a bit. He peddled fruit for a bit. "He drove down to the wholesale market on the docks and bought whatever was in season. He'd empty the boxes of strawberries and refill them, with rotten ones on the bottom so they wouldn't be seen, then squeeze the corners of the boxes so it would take fewer berries to fill them." His father was not affectionate, no. "He didn't know how to be loving. He had a violent temper. He was always screaming, yelling."

In contrast, Catherine was "a great Yiddesher momma. She was total love." And I think Eddie might have been her favourite. Certainly, when he was small, she managed to come up with $40 to buy him an old piano, "because she just knew her silly boy had this magic". When did you first recognise the magic, Eddie? "When I was three or four years old, I opened my mouth and this beautiful sound just came out." Eddie's first songs were sung in the synagogue, and his first big hits were the Jewish classics "My Yiddesher Mama" and "Oh, My Pappa". The last concert he ever gave was at The Trump Plaza, when Catherine was 90. She was senile by then, living in a home, but he arranged for her to be in the audience. "And when I started singing 'My Yiddesher Mama', she got up, and opened her arms to me." She can't have been happy about you chasing all those shiksas though, surely? "My first girlfriend was Irish and she said: 'over my dead body', but she got used to it."

Success, for Eddie, was dramatic and quick. By the time he was 14 he was a huge star in Philadelphia. The first time he appeared on national television it was to host his own twice-weekly show.

With his stardom has come therapy over the years and, if there is one thing he's learnt, he says, "it's that I was too successful too early". How does that affect people? "Very poorly," he says. Because the success is almost impossible to sustain? "Sure." Which is where the drugs come in? "Sure." How did you survive so many drugs over so many years? "It's a miracle." Emotionally, too, early stardom does its damage, never allowing any space for growing up or, later, taking responsibility - for marriages, children, wealth and, yes, careers. Although, having said that, Eddie's career might not have dwindled quite so spectacularly if he'd been able to make the transfer to film like, say, Bing Crosby or Sinatra but, he says, he was the most appalling actor.

In the book, he says he had no great secret with the ladies. "I just showed up, in a clean shirt, with a sweet song and, occasionally, a small jewel." But when I repeat this back to him, he queries it. "Clean shirt? Did I really say clean shirt? What I meant was fancy, new, expensive shirt!" I ask, if he could go back to his prime, and spend the night with just one of the woman he's slept with, who would it be? "Oh, Elizabeth. She was unforgettable. She was so beautiful she took my breath away."

"Do you think she was a good actress?" I ask.

"No. But she was a great movie star."

He says that, in a strange kind of way, he has never been happier than he is now. "At least I know where I am in life," he says. Which is where, Eddie? "Oh, at the end of the run, I guess." With crap hair? "Ha. Yes!" And that, probably, bothers him as much as anything. Splash!

'Been There, Done That' is out now (Hutchinson, £16.99)

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