When Eddie Fisher died, two years ago today, Thomas Conner remembered his tabloid-fodder life. Originally published October 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
We can talk about Eddie Fisher
’s singing career, if we must. In fact, don’t we have to, at least a little? Fisher’s obituaries move quickly through the two dozen hit songs to get to the scandalous affairs, the drug addiction, the good stuff. Headlines last week included “1950s Singing Star Was Brought Low by Scandalous Love Life,” “The Tabloid Legacy of Eddie Fisher” and “Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put a Gun to Liz Taylor’s Head.” Indeed, Fisher was a pioneer of tabloid notoriety; he became best known for entertaining us not with his stiff old traditional songs but with his randy new romantic exploits — a mid-century turning point for the entertainment industry. Today, fame can be achieved in Napoleonic fashion, simply by declaring oneself famous, and contemporary celebrities suffer their falls from grace from lower and lower heights. But Fisher was beloved before he was belittled, earning a level of fame equal to his eventual infamy. He wouldn’t have had so much of the latter without surrendering so much of the former. So if we’re really going to talk about Eddie the Celebrity – which, of course, is what whets our contemporary media appetites – we have to discuss Eddie the Singer.
The popularity of Fisher’s recording career confounds modern ears. His consistent run of hits from 1952 to 1956 included million-sellers “Any Time” and “Tell Me Why,” plus “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Wish You Were Here,” “I Need You Now,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” It’s starchy, sentimental stuff. Most Fisher records today sound positively antediluvian, more so than his contemporaries (Sinatra
, Crosby, Como
, Bennett). The strings are syrupy, the rhythms plod and they’re presided over by Fisher’s self-described “lyric baritone,” which had more in common with Scarlatti than sock hops. The melodrama of “Oh! My Pa-Pa” is smothering — it’s the kind of record we’d expect to hear in The Godfather
, played on a Victrola by a momentarily wistful mobster just before he whacks or is whacked.
But the timing was right for the crooners to heave one last gasp. Frank Sinatra lost his record deal in 1952, and Elvis Presley wouldn’t walk through the door at Sun Records until August 1953, so Fisher led the charge with a parade of post-war pandering. “Tony Bennett, Perry [Como], Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, even Bing Crosby, they all cared about creating a legacy, a catalog of songs that meant something. … I didn’t,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Been There, Done That. “I recorded pretty much whatever they put in front of me.” One of those songs was “I’m Walking Behind You,” which Fisher recorded April 7, 1953. By June, it was a No. 1 hit. A Frank Sinatra version hit No. 1 in October. The song’s lyric delivers a leering love letter from a groomsman who’s stalking the bride: “If things should go wrong dear / and fate is unkind / look over your shoulder / I’m walking behind.” Fisher — a fresh-faced teen idol even though 20something, and admittedly not caring what the words meant anyway — delivers his reading dispassionately, by rote, like someone singing a foreign language phonetically. Sinatra’s reading is considerably coyer. He’d learned two years earlier how to hop out of one marriage and into another, ditching his first wife for twice-married Ava Gardner. Fisher’s similar lessons, in love as well as fame, were still to come.
By 1955, Fisher was on TV, starring on his own show with a soft drink sponsor, Coke Time with Eddie Fisher. (That he was later addicted to cocaine for many years must have made that title quite the joke around the Fisher household.) He had seven Top 20 hits that year, starting with “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” an uncredited duet with Debbie Reynolds, she of the sweet and sunny face who’d become a movie star in 1952 with her turn in Singin’ in the Rain. Their marriage that same year boosted their visibility in the press and marked the point at which their artistic careers became a sideshow to their more entertaining personal lives. Two winsome smiles, two wholesome careers — Fisher and Reynolds became an idealized celebrity couple, the Brangelina of their day.
In this Sept. 26, 1955 file photo, actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher smile in a pose following their brief marriage ceremony by a county judge at Grossinger, N.Y. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
They starred in a film together (Bundle of Joy, 1956), started a family, became known in the movie magazines as “America’s Favorite Couple.” By 1958, Fisher was named Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee (Congress had just made it a holiday in 1956) and was photographed smiling with toddlers Carrie and Todd on his lap. That month, Fisher was singing a six-week engagement at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Reynolds invited their good friend Elizabeth Taylor to stay with them there; Taylor was still grieving the loss of her husband and Fisher’s friend, Mike Todd. On Father’s Day weekend, no doubt to the eventual dismay of the National Father’s Day Committee, Fisher fell in love.
What happened next hijacked Fisher’s public image for the rest of his life. News of the affair hit that fall. On May 12, 1959, Fisher finalized his divorce with Reynolds and, 3 ½ hours later, married Taylor. His celebrity stock plummeted — but his headline count remained steady. For five years, magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Confidential splashed the various love triangles across their covers — a smiling Reynolds with the kids in a stroller, headline: “Debbie answers her daughter’s question: Won’t Daddy be with us all the time?”; Fisher and Taylor in formal attire next to a limo, headline: “How Eddie is saving Liz from her honeymoon jinx”; eventually, a photo of Taylor and her new lover, Richard Burton, and my favorite headline: “A Rabbi & Three Ministers Discuss: Love … Lust … and Liz!”
In this 1959 file photo, actress Elizabeth Taylor is seen with singer Eddie Fisher before their marriage. (AP Photo/File)
As Fisher’s ignominy increased, his singing career fizzled. “My career had leveled off to simple stardom” is how Fisher described it. The hits stopped coming in 1957, rock and roll had arrived, and Fisher wisely did not try to adapt. His recordings became infrequent and, he said, “Eventually the music simply became a means to the drugs and the women.” But the freak-show factor remained, and his nightclub and occasional Vegas bookings remained somewhat consistent. His new career was that of tabloid sensation — at which he proved to be as successful an entertainer as he was at the microphone. Celebrity rags launched in the ’20s were now going mainstream, and Fisher reliably helped fuel their new genre of inadvertent entertainment. Once Taylor eventually (and inevitably) dumped Fisher, he began a lengthy string of headline-baiting affairs — Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse, Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Mia Farrow, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Stefanie Powers — and married three more times to Connie Stevens, Miss Louisiana Terry Richard and businesswoman Betty Lin. He wasn’t the first high-profile celeb to indulge in a reckless personal life, but he was one of the first whose tabloid infamy eclipsed any actual artistic achievements he might have started with. “It isn’t the music that people remember most about me, it’s the women,” Fisher admitted. Granted, the music wasn’t that memorable, but without it Fisher’s life story wouldn’t possess the narrative that makes all falls from grace, from the bookstore literature shelves to the supermarket checkout stand, so satisfying.
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