My name is Eddie Fisher, and I'm a singer.
When I was a small childI couldn't have been more than three or four years oldI opened my mouth and this beautiful sound came out and, for me, the world was changed forever. Everything that has happened in my life, the fame I've enjoyed, the fortunes I've earned, the marriages, the affairs, the scandals, even my drug addictions, everything I owe to the fact that when I opened my mouth this sound, this music, came out. I didn't have to work at it; I didn't even have to practice. It was there, it was always there, and once I thought it would be there forever.
That gift in my throat made me feel like a kingand caused people to treat me like one. It made me a star, one of the most successful singers in American history. Sometimes it all seems so hard to believe, I had more consecutive hit records than the Beatles or Elvis Presley, I had 65,000 fan clubs and the most widely broadcast program on television and radio. That sound took me from the streets of Philadelphia to the White House; Harry Truman loved me, Ike loved me, Jack Kennedy and I shared drugs and women, and it transformed me from a shy little boy into a man who attracted the most famous and desirable women in the world.
And it was that sound, a clean, smooth, lyric baritone, that put me at the center of one of the most widely publicized love affairs ... affair? The word affair doesn't even begin to describe what it was. It was a storm, a maelstrom of passion and betrayal. For almost five years, my life was detailed in the headlines. It was the greatest media frenzy of the time, the first great Hollywood love story of post-war America. It was the harbinger of what was to come years later, the beginning of attack journalism, the birth of the paparazzi. I remember one night in Rome, when my wife, Elizabeth Taylor, was about to begin filming Cleopatra, then the most expensive movie ever made. We turned on the outdoor lights at our villa and found photographers climbing over the walls. We were besieged. They even came to our door disguised as priests.
At the height of my career, I found myself in the middle of two of the most publicized love triangles of the twentieth century. Me, "Sonny Boy," the skinny Jewish kid from the streets of Philadelphia, and all because I had this gift, an incredible, powerful sound.
I was born in Philadelphia in 1928, the fourth of seven children. Supposedly there were already eleven girls in the hospital nursery when I was born. Because I was the only boy, the nurses made a big fuss over me. Some of them had recently seen the great Al Jolson's latest movie, The Singing Fool, so they sang me to sleep with a line from a song in that film, "Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy." So to my family I was always Sonny Boy, or Sonny. That never changed. Even when I was married to the most beautiful movie star in the world, when I was earning $40,000 a week singing in Las Vegas, spending time with Frank Sinatra and Rocky Marciano, when I had songs at the top of the charts, none of that mattered; to my family I was still Sonny Boy. But as things turned out, it probably would have been more appropriate just to call me the Singing Fool.
One of my most famous songs was "Oh! My Papa." It was a huge hit. When my father came to see me perform I'd look at him lovingly and sing it: "Oh, my Papa, to me you are so wonderful." Yeah, wonderful. I wasn't much of an actor. One year the Harvard Lampoon voted me the worst actor of the year, an honor I had truly earned. But when I looked at my father lovingly and sang that song, that was the best acting of my career. My father was mad at his life. He worked hard and had nothing to show for it, so he took it out on his family, especially my mother and my oldest brother, Sid. My father was a nasty, abusive man, a tyrant. I never saw him hit my mother, though my brothers and sisters insisted he did. But I know I saw him hit my brother. I'm not sure that really mattered, because the verbal abuse was just as bad. I'll never forget the sound that came out of his mouth: loud and shrill and nasty. There was nothing nice about it. It was a sound that seemed strong enough to drill right through the walls. When he started yelling, I'd be so embarrassed I'd run and close the windows and hope that no one would hear him. When I finally left home, my little sister, Eileen, became the window closer. The only thing my mother ever wanted from my father was a divorce, and as soon as her children were old enough, she left him.
My parents were part of the massive wave of Russian Jews who came to America around the turn of the century to escape the poverty and the pogroms of Eastern Europe. My father, Joe, was thirteen years old when he immigrated. My father's family name was Tisch or Fisch, but it became Fisher when he landed in America and got his papers. My father's family never accepted my mother and never had too much to do with us until I became famous. Then they would come to the nightclubs and proudly sit right in the front. I was told they felt that my mother's family was too poor. Too poor? Maybe the big difference was that the Fishers' house had a porch. The only time I ever heard the Fishers say anything kind about my mother was in the limousine on the way to her funeral.
When they married, my mother was fifteen years old, my father almost eighteen. They were just kids. My father was an intelligent man, and he had been educated in Russia. He loved to read, he loved history; it was real life that gave him problems. Both of them had been forced to drop out of school to help support their families, so they got married and had their own family they couldn't support. My father never really had a chance. I suppose that's why I always felt so sorry for him.
The 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression barely affected my family. We had nothing to start with, so we had nothing to lose. My father worked in leather factories long before the unions created decent working conditions. These places were hot and dirty and the pay was terrible, but nobody dared complain. People like my father, immigrants with little formal education and limited technical skills, were happy to have any job. I remember going with him to work one day. Although he never said anything to me, I think he wanted me to see for myself what his life was all about. At that time he was making leather suitcases. The "factory" was a sweatshop; it was dark and filthy and dangerous. People didn't matter, production did; how many pieces a day. I couldn't believe how hard he worked, how much muscle it took to make a cheap suitcase. I didn't vow that day that I would never work in a place like that, nothing dramatic like that, because that possibility never occurred to me. I had been born with magic in my throat, I was going to be a singer. There was never a day that I doubted that.
In 1934 my father was in a terrible automobile accident. The driver collided with an ice-delivery truck and was killed, and my father was badly hurt. For several weeks it looked like he was going to die. But he lived and collected almost $5,000 in insurance. That was a fortune, and for just a little while, we were rich. Imagine that, a car wreck was the best opportunity my father ever had. He used the money to open Fisher's Delicatessen. Most of the family worked there. My father wore a clean white apron and ran the place, the children stocked the shelves and cleaned up, my mother cooked the meats and made the potato salad. It was the only time in my childhood that I remember my father being happy. But it didn't last very long. We didn't know how to run a grocery store, and even my mother's wonderful potato salad wasn't enough to keep us in business. It only took us about a year to lose the entire insurance settlement.
After that, my father peddled fruits and vegetables from the back of an old LaSalle or Packard. He took out the back seat and drove down to the wholesale market on the docks and bought leftover peaches and tomatoes and whatever else was in season. Every penny had to count. He'd empty the boxes of strawberries and then refill them, putting the 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. He'd use every trick to make a few pennies. I was so embarrassed; I hated him for making me feel dishonest.
My brother Sol and I would fill baskets from the back seat then walk through the alleys between the buildings, singing as loudly as we could to attract attention. We sang the songs of produce peddlers: "Sound, ripe tomatoes here, ten cents a quarter peck ..." Housewives would lower their baskets from their windows; we'd fill them with whatever we had, and they'd give us a few pennies. I was a skinny little kid and, supposedly, these women would see me and feel so sorry for me that they would put food in their baskets for me when they lowered them. Years later, after I'd become a big star, after I was able to afford to go to Hong Kong and buy 140 silk suits, 185 monogrammed silk shirts, and 50 pair of silk pajamas, after I was able to give a forty-carat diamond bracelet to Elizabeth, this was the story my mother most enjoyed telling reporters.
We lived surrounded by poverty. Our neighbors were just like us, Jewish immigrants struggling to survive. But even in that world I still felt like everybody else was rich and we were poor. To my mother's great shame, we had to go on "the dole"we had to accept welfare several times: seventeen dollars and fifty cents a week. For food and used clothing we had to go to the distribution center set up in an abandoned railroad station. My mother was so embarrassed that the neighbors would know that we were "on relief" that she would put a pillow in the baby carriage, cover it with a net, and make me wheel it to the welfare center. Then she'd fill the carriage with flour and potatoes and whatever they gave us, cover it again, and I would wheel it home. I always pushed the carriage through the rear alleys so no one would see us.
There were many times we couldn't pay the rent, so at night we would pack the few pieces of furniture we had and our ragged clothes, and move someplace where the landlord didn't know we were broke. The place I remember most of all was a tiny house with two bedrooms and one bathroom. I slept in a bed with my two brothers. There was only enough hot water for one bath, so we'd fill the tub and all nine of us would use the same water. The toilet flushed only once, then it couldn't be used for a long time. It was tough, very tough. When I was fourteen years old I began staying with the family of a man named Skipper Dawes, who had discovered me and put me on radio. His house was warm in the winter and dry when it rained, and it had a real shower, but the thing that most amazed me was that his toilets refilled with water after being flushed. I used to go into the bathroom just to flush the toilet several times.
I never had a piece of new clothing. Everything was either a hand-me-down or something we got from the welfare. When I wore holes in the soles of my shoes, I'd cut out cardboard soles and use them as inserts. I usually had two cardboard patches in my shoes and two spares in my pocket. The cardboard did not work very well in the winter, when the snow would soak right through to my feet, so when I walked in the snow or rain I would pull down my socks and fold it over to cover the holes.
My mother did her best to make sure her children were clean, but I always felt dirty. No matter how much we washed, no matter how hard she tried, we lived with dirt and bugs. There were bugs on everythingon our clothes, in the bedsthey were inescapable. We would squeeze them with our fingers, so our sheets were always spotted with dried bug blood. On occasion we would take our mattresses outside and put burning newspapers under them, because everybody in the neighborhood knew that was an effective means of getting rid of bedbugs.
Somehow, though, somehow I knew that I was going to get out of that world, and I knew that my voice was going to take me out of it. My mother believed that. She and my grandmother, my bubba, did everything to make it possible for me. Their dream was that I would be a successful singer and take the whole family out of the poverty.
My bubba was the first person to encourage me. When I was two or three years old, she would sing old Jewish folk songs to me and the next day I'd sing them back to her, word for word. Who knows where something like that comes from? "Watch," she told my parents, "this one is going to be something special."
I was a very shy little boy and I didn't like to draw attention to myself. So when company came to the house, I'd run upstairs and hide under the bed because I knew my mother was going to make me stand on a chair and sing "The Good Ship Lollipop."
But eventually I discovered that my voice set me apart from everybody else. It was the one thing I could do better than anyone else. When I sang, people stopped what they were doing to listen, they made me feel so very special. When I was still a small child I was singing in the synagogue. I was seven or eight years old and I was singing duets in Hebrew with the cantor. You're not supposed to applaud in the temple, but when I sang, the congregation applauded. Oh, I loved that sound, that feeling of being appreciated. Once I figured out that I had this gift, I wouldn't stop singing. They couldn't get me to stop.
I never had a singing lesson, so I never learned anything about technique. My technique was that I opened my mouth and let it out. I was born in tune. I didn't know flats or sharps, and I couldn't read music. I just opened my mouth and sang. I was small, but I had a big voice. I had a wonderful tone. Even as a child my voice filled the whole room. People were always amazed that such a big sound came out of such a small person. I learned how to sing by listening to other people singing. My grandparents had a wind-up Victrola and I'd listen to Enrico Caruso singing. He was the only professional singer I ever heard. And I'd listen to the cantor in the synagogue and the radio, and whatever I heard I could repeat. I'd hear a song once, twice at most, and I would know it.
My mother bought an upright piano for forty dollars. Now where she got forty dollars I will never know. I do know there were many things a lot more important than an old upright piano that she could have used the money for. But that was for me, that was an investment in my future. She did her best to teach me to sing. She wasn't very musical, she could barely play that piano, but she would play all the Jewish songs and I would stand next to her and sing them.
When I was almost five years old my sister Miriam's choir was chosen to sing in a talent contest at a Valentine's Day party. I went with her to a rehearsal and sang along with her. Sang along? I practically drowned out the choir. The choir leader turned to me and asked, "Was that you making that noise?"
Noise? "I was just singing," I explained.
He asked me to sing another song. Maybe I sang "Animal Crackers in my Soup," or one of my bubba's folk songs, but whatever it was, when I finished he told Miriam I could come to the party with her and participate in the contest. "He should wear a white suit," he suggested.
My mother made a white suit for me; she sewed me a pair of short pants and a white shirt, and from somewhere she got me a pair of white shoes. I felt so good that night; I felt clean. I guess that was the first time I felt the love of an audience. It was an extraordinary feeling. I didn't want to get off that little stage. I won first prize, a big cakethe first thing I ever earned with my sound.
After that my mother entered me in every amateur contest she heard about and I usually won. I won the contests at schools and at the movie theaters. Eventually I tied for first place with a violin player in the biggest amateur contest of all, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts.
My mother wasn't a stage mother, she never had to push me onstage to sing. I craved the response that I got when I sang for an audience. I wanted to perform more than anything else in the world, and she made sure I got that opportunity. Years later she would sit adoringly in the front row at nightclubs and concerts all over the country and I would sing "My Yiddishe Mama" for her. That was my love song for her.
My talent made me feel special. Even as a small child I knew that the rules that applied to other children didn't apply to me. I could get away with things my brothers and sisters could not. I wasn't a good student in school, but no one seemed troubled by that, since I had that voice. Only once in my childhood did my mother ever hit me. When I was ten years old my teacher sent a note home to my mother asking her to come to the school the next day, a Friday. "What is this, Sonny?" my mother wondered.
I didn't knowbut I knew it couldn't be good. The next afternoon my mother met with my teacher. During this meeting my teacher complained about my attitude. I was completely out of control. I did whatever I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. When I wanted to go to the boys' room, she explained, instead of raising my hand and asking permission, I just got up and walked out of the room. When I was told to do something I often refused, telling her I didn't have to, I didn't want to. I would not listen to anybody. And I was only ten years old.
After this meeting my mother took me into the cloakroom and slapped me across the face. I was stunned. How could she hit me? How could she hit someone with a voice like mine? A singer is supposed to have special privileges. "What's that for?" I asked.
"Three-quarters of it is to bring you back to earth," she said angrily. "Just because you sing nice don't you think you're better than anyone else 'cause you're not, and you never will be. And the rest of it is because you pull me away from the house when I need to prepare for Sabbath!"
When my teacher told my mother she shouldn't have slapped me, my mother replied proudly, "All my children were brought up to be nice. If you ever have a problem again with him, I'll be right here to help you."
My talent did not impress my father. Maybe he was jealous that I was able to escape the streets that had trapped him. He never did a thing to help me. In fact, he tried to discourage me. When I was a teenager he got me a job in a pants factory, putting new pants in order. I quit after the first week and wouldn't go back. He was furious, screaming at me that if I didn't go back I'd end up being a bum. "So," I screamed right back at him, "I'll be a bum." By that time I didn't care what he thought. I had stopped paying any attention to him.
I think my success confused him. When I was fifteen years old I was earning more than he did. That must have made him feel like a failure. I always felt he hated me for it, but then I found out that he would stand on the corner of Broad and Market Streets giving away pocket-sized color photographs of me.
He didn't want me to be in show business. It was a world he didn't understand and didn't like. His dream for me was that I would become a cantor, that I would sing in the synagogue. We fought about that many times. The only time I ever saw him respond to my singing was in temple. As I sang with the cantor one Saturday morning I looked at him and he was crying. He tried to hide ithe bowed his head so I couldn't see his facebut he was crying. Neither of us ever mentioned it.
I was always aware that I was Jewish, every minute of my life I was aware that I was Jewish, but I was never religious. I learned all the prayers, I could sing them in Hebrew, but I didn't accept any of the religious teachings. I was much more a cultural Jew. I felt like I belonged to a very special club and I was proud of that. I knew that I was a member of the same religion as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, and I wanted to be just like them.... show-business Jews. I did not want to be like my father, who went to shul every Friday night and kept all the holidays and prayed and still became an embittered man.
We lived in ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Philadelphia; some Jews, Italians, Irish, but no blacks, and at times every boy there had to defend his background. I was never confronted with real anti-Semitism, just other kids making stupid remarks that I never took very seriously. I got into my share of fights over anti-Semitic remarks, but the truth is that I was never really bothered by them. And my parents never talked about their lives in Eastern Europe; it was as if that part of their lives never really happened. Even after the war, when we started to learn the details of the Holocaust, they never discussed it. If any members of my family died or suffered in the Holocaustand I can't imagine that they didn'tI never knew about it. Everything else in my life was secondary to my singing career. There was nothing, nothing, that was going to get in my way, and that included my religion. One of the best-known anti-Semites in show business was Arthur Godfrey, the host of radio's most important amateur talent contest. Godfrey owned the Kenilworth Hotel in Florida, which supposedly had a sign in front that read NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED. But when I got the opportunity to appear on Talent Scouts, I leaped at it. I didn't care that Godfrey wouldn't let me in his hotel as long as let me sing on his radio show.
The irony of that, of course, is that the audience who embraced me first were the Jews. I was the universal Jewish son ... the handsome, polite young boy with the big smile and the beautiful voice. I was the nice Jewish boy they all wanted their daughters to marry, the Jewish Sinatra. When I sang the Kol Nidre in perfect Hebrew, oy, they kvelled for me, kvelled. And when I sang "Oh! My Papa," it was so beautiful even the goyim cried.
I got my first big break at Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, the "Borscht Belt," or "Jewish Alps," as they were known. Eddie Cantor was the godfather of my career and Jennie Grossinger, everybody's Jewish mother, was the godmother. An economically powerful Jewish middle class emerged after World War II, most of them the first-generation American-born children of European immigrants, and I was one of the first big Jewish stars. I was the new American Jew, who spoke without an accent like our parents and grandparents, who didn't even look too Jewish. So when I married a shiksa, when I married Debbie Reynolds, it was all right becausewell, because we were both adorable, and following strict religious dogma wasn't the most important part of being Jewish. But when Elizabeth Taylor converted to Judaism and I married her, well, as my mother often said when trying to describe something wonderful, words can't express.
I started singing professionally when I was twelve years old. The only thing that surprised me about that was that it had taken so long. There just was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to be a star. I remember earlier that year I'd spent my life savings to buy a ticket for the first live show I ever attended, Frank Sinatra performing at the Earle Theater. After the show I joined the large crowd waiting outside for him. I just wanted to get as close as possible to him. But just before he came outside, his bodyguards started pushing people around like they were animals. I was appalled. This was Frank Sinatra. How could he treat his fans that way? As I watched, I really did vow to myself that when I became as big a star as Sinatra, I'd never treat my fans that way.
I made my debut on a local Philadelphia radio station, WFIL, appearing on a children's program called When I Grow Up. Anyone who didn't grow up listening to radio just can't imagine the impact it had on our lives. As much as the introduction of television and computers changed society, they don't begin to compare with the importance of radio. Radio connected all the towns and cities in America for the first time. It allowed us to know what was happening in the world within hours instead of days; it made it possible for us to hear, live, the legendary entertainers we'd only read about. The radio was the most important piece of furniture in most houses; the living room furniture was arranged so people could sit around the room and look at it. Every night my father would sit next to our radio, the only thing of value he owned, and listen to the news in Yiddish. The world came into my house through that device. So the opportunity to actually sing on the radio, where my parents and friends could hear me waswell, words can't express.
Officially, Skipper Dawes was the "educational director" of WFIL, but in fact he was a producer, writer, director, and talent scout. Skipper would go around to all the local schools auditioning kids for his radio shows. When he came to my school, Thomas Junior High School, I was actually too shy to audition for him. I don't know why, I'd been a soloist in the synagogue for years, I wasn't shy about singing for my family or friends, but I just wouldn't audition for him. I don't think I even told my mother about it. But when Skipper Dawes invited one of the girls in my class, a singer named Ida Schwartz, to come down to the station for a second audition, she dragged me along with her.
We went there after school. At the station she introduced me to him, then told him I sang a little too. I'm sure he smiledwhen I think of him I always see a big smile on his faceand asked me to sing. I loved moments like that, when I was about to sing for someone who had never heard me, because I knew that when I opened my mouth and this big voice came out of my little body, they would be just blown away. I didn't have much of a repertoire so I sang "The Army Air Corps Song," "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, flying high, into the sky...."
That moment marked the end of Ida Schwartz's singing career. Three hours later I was singing on the radio. I didn't even have time to be nervous. My family and my friends gathered around the radio set and listened. My mother was thrilled; my father said nothing about it at all.
Skipper Dawes must have spent years listening to perky children singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" before I walked into his studio. After I'd sung only a few bars, I think he realized that I had a special talent. Right after the show he asked me to appear regularly on The Magic Lady Supper Club, probably the most popular kids' show on Philadelphia radio.
The Magic Lady was a fifteen-minute show broadcast three times a week. After the regular performers on the show had sung a few songs, the Magic Lady would appear and take us all to the "mysterious kingdom of Natar!" or "Tip Top Mountain," where we would just barely survive some sort of danger and then, just before the show ended, find ourselves in an even more precarious situation. It was an old-fashioned radio cliff-hanger for kids, and it was very popular. My character was the appropriately named Boney, and my best friends, Joey Foreman and Bernie Rich, played Slick and Cough Drop. Skipper wrote all the scripts. Even then I wasn't much of an actor, but I could read my lines well enough to impress an audience of twelve-year-olds. I didn't enjoy acting, I was a singer, and all I really wanted to do was sing.
Skipper didn't pay us to appear on the show, although when he found out I had to walk several miles to get to the studio because I couldn't afford the trolley fare, he began paying me two trolley tokens per show. I didn't care about the money; just the chance to be on the radio was payment enough. In my neighborhood I became a star. I was on the radio. Everybody knew who I was. When I'd come home after a broadcast people would look at me differently, treat me with respect. I'd go down to Joey Foreman's parents' candy store and the other kids would know who I was. I felt like a prince, like a king.
I was very conscious of my new status. For several weeks Joey Foreman and I sold hot dogs and soda during football games at Franklin Field, but one on Saturday afternoon someone from the neighborhood recognized me. I got so embarrassed I hid under the stands until the game ended. I never went back. My family needed the money, and I probably made four or five dollars for the day, but it just wasn't worth it to me. I was a singer, a crooner, in those days, not a hot dog vendor.
Magic Lady was so popular that its sponsor, the Lit Brothers Department Store, which was right across the street from Gimbel's, hired Skipper to create a Saturday night show on which I would be the master of ceremonies. So I became the host and star of the Junior Music Hall. Joey Foreman was my announcer. Because as Eddie Fisher I was usually left hanging over a cliff on Magic Lady, Skipper decided I should use a different name on Junior Music Hall. So for a short period of time I performed as Sonny Edwards, Sonny for Sonny Boy, the Edwards for Edwin, my real name. I don't know who we were trying to foolI mean everybody recognized my voicebut it seemed like the professional thing to do. And I knew I was a professional radio performer because Skipper was finally paying me.
At the height of my success on WFIL, I was making twenty-five dollars a week. In addition, Skipper wrote jingles for our sponsors and paid me ten dollars to record them. "Beneficial Savings Fund makes saving money lots of fun"; ten dollars! "Take a six and add an `o,' to make it six-oh-six. You get a square deal at Square Deal Furniture six oh six oh six oh six oh, downtown at sixth and Mar-ket Streeeeeet!": ten dollars! The money didn't matter, but what I was doing meant everything. I was living in heaven. My father took the money from me as soon as I got home and gave me maybe fifteen cents for spending money. Throughout my entire career the money I earned never meant anything to me. I learned how to spend thousands of dollars as quickly as I spent that fifteen cents. I always thought there would be more.
After Magic Lady and Junior Music were firmly established, I became the host of Teen Time, a Saturday afternoon show sponsored by Breyers ice cream. Skipper Dawes wrote our theme song, "Teen Time"; "Let's get together 'cause it's Teen Time/No matter whether you're a sweet young thing or old as the hills/Teen Time's always loaded with thrills. So get in the groove now, 'cause things are gonna start to move now."
By the time I was fifteen years old I had three shows on the air. I was a star in Philadelphia. I was singing on the radio six days a week. My picture appeared in advertisements on the fronts of trolley cars, and the newspapers reported that by the time the trolley reached the end of the line my picture was covered with lipstick. That was all pretty exciting stuff. Once my career began I lost all interest in school. Not that I had all that much to begin with. I was never a particularly good student; school just didn't seem relevant to me. The teacher I remember most of all was Mrs. Munser, who taught Spanish. And I remember her because she gave me a passing grade when I deserved to fail. Later she committed suicide. But I really disliked most of my other teachers. I took German because the teacher was a bass in the synagogue choir, but even that didn't help me. I started cutting classes to hang out at the radio station. And in the middle of my senior year of high school I dropped out. My parents accepted it; it was not at all unusual for the children of poor immigrants to quit school to help support their family.
Besides, Skipper Dawes was giving me a much better education than I would have gotten in high school. Skipper was a very decent man. He never tried to push me. Instead he offered suggestions. When I read my lines, for example, he'd gently correct my pronunciation and inflection. He didn't tell me I had to do it his way, he didn't make me feel like an uneducated kid from the streets, he simply pointed out to me how beautiful words could sound when pronounced correctly. Initially he limited his advice to helping me with my singing and my acting, but once I learned to trust him, he began to teach me about everything else in my life.
I was a product of the streets. I wasn't just rough around the edges, I was nothing but edges. I'd never been taught anything about hygiene or grooming. It wasn't that my mother didn't care, but with seven kids and no money there was only so much she could teach me. I didn't know how to brush my teeth properly after every meal or comb my hair; I'd never even owned a handkerchief. Skipper never made me feel dirty or inferior, he just showed me the proper way to take care of myself. He made me understand that if I intended to be a professional singer, my appearance was just as important as my voice. You're a nice-looking young man, he told me, you should take advantage of that. When I showed up at the studio with dirty hands and greased-down hair, he gave me soap and a comb and sent me into the rest room to clean up. He knew I couldn't afford new clothes, but he showed me how to take care of the clothes that I had.
I cleaned up pretty goodeven I could see that when I looked in the mirror. I never thought of myself as handsome, but when my face was washed and my thick, dark hair was combed and I smiled, I could understand why the girls thought I was "cute."
After I'd been working with Skipper for almost two years he invited me to his home in the suburbs, in Swarthmore, to meet his wife and his two sons. I remember that I slept in my own bedfor one of the first times in my life I'd had my own bed with clean sheets. I remember the feeling of those clean sheets. I remember that when Mrs. Dawes opened the window in my room, fresh, cool air blew in. And I remember that at night Mrs. Dawes tucked me in bed. I guess most of all that's what I remember, that tenderness.
I don't know if I had ever really understood what it meant to be poor. I had no basis for comparison. But after spending time at Skipper Dawes' house I knew that this was the kind of life I wanted to have, that I was going to have, no matter what I had to do to get it. I didn't want to be poor anymore, and I didn't want my mother and father to be poor. And I knew that my voice was my only way out.
It was also at the radio station that I had my first real encounters with girls. Now, even before I started working there I was aware of girls. I knew that they had some sort of mysterious power over me that I didn't understand. Just about everything I knew about men and women I'd learned from Joey Foreman and my brother's two-by-fours, little illustrated books that showed characters like Popeye having sex with Olive Oyl. The only things I learned about relationships from watching my parents was that they involved a lot of screaming and unhappiness; the only advice my father ever gave me was that I should never fall in love with a shiksa, a girl who wasn't Jewish.
Never fall in love with a shiksa. The secret of happiness. I paid no more attention to my father's advice about love than I did anything else. In my lifetime I had relationships with so many of the most beautiful, desirable, and famous women in the world, not just Elizabeth and Connie Stevens and Debbie Reynolds, but sex symbols like Kim Novak and Mamie Van Doren; classic beauties like Marlene Dietrich, who advised me never to marry an actress, and Merle Oberon; movie stars like Ann-Margret and Angie Dickinson, Stefanie Powers, and Sue Lyon, who wanted to compare my sexual prowess with Richard Burton's; singers like Abbe Lane, Michelle Phillips and Dinah Shore, even women of controversy like Judith Exner, who also had long-lasting affairs with my friend, the Mafia boss Sam Giancana and President Kennedy, and Pam Turnure, Jackie Kennedy's press secretary. There were models and Playboy Playmates and New York showgirls, Las Vegas chorus girls and beauty queens. I didn't even have to pursue them; gorgeous women were constantly coming on to me. Men used to hang around with me just to get my cast-offs.
Until my marriage to Elizabeth, my singing career was more important than the pursuit of romance, but after that ... after that women became my addiction. Women became more important than my career. I know now that if I had worked as hard on my career as I did on the pursuit of women, my life would have been very different. I chased romance my whole life. I think Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein must have been thinking about me when they wrote "I fall in love too easily and I fall in love too fast/I fall in love too terribly hard for love to ever last."
It's a beautiful lyric, but it's less beautiful when it so accurately describes your life.
I didn't start out that way. If anyone who knew me when I was fifteen years old were told then that Eddie Fisher would eventually be in the middle of one of the biggest romantic scandals of the twentieth century, they'd still be laughing. That little skinny guy? With the pompadour? I was so innocent. As a teenager I would run away from girls. On Magic Lady I worked with a beautiful fourteen-year-old named Marion Hollingsworth. She was very mature; she already had all the right parts in the all the right places. And she was a shiksa, which made her really an exotic woman. I had a big crush on her. I was completely infatuated. So whenever I was around her I got very nervous. I got scared. She actually pursued me. One night, I remember, Skipper had a party for the cast at his house. She followed me outsideand I ran away from her. I wanted to kiss her, but I was just too frightened. I wouldn't dream of doing something like that with a nice girl like Marion Hollingsworth.
I lost my virginity to a prostitute when I was fifteen years old. Joey Foreman's uncle had decided it was time that Joey and I were initiated into this particular wonder of the world and took us to an apartment on North Broad Street. I'd heard of places like this, but I never would have dared go there by myself. Two women were waiting there for us. I couldn't tell just by looking, but I assumed they weren't Jewish. It was well known that Jewish girls didn't let guys do things like that. To be honest, about all I really remember about these women is that they didn't look anything at all like Olive Oyl in the two-by-fours.
That was the first time in my life I saw a woman completely naked. And I liked it. I mean, I didn't know what to do about it, but I liked it a lot. One of these women took me by the hand and led me into a bedroom. I think the thing that most amazed me was how normal everybody acted, as if having sex was something people did every day. I didn't have the slightest idea how to do it, but she taught me everything I needed to know. I was a quick learner, probably a little quicker than I would have liked. Joey Foreman always swore that I came out of that room singing "Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found thee."
Most of the women I've really been attracted to in my life were not Jewish. Or at least, like Elizabeth, they didn't start out that way. I'm certain any good psychologist could explain the reasons for that. A good place to start would be with my mother, who was constantly telling me, "Marry a nice Jewish girl. Like your sisters." Now, there was an arousing thought.
People don't believe me when I tell them how shy I was with girls as a teenager. But it's absolutely true. When I was sixteen, for example, Joey Foreman and I both had a real crush on Angelina Costellano, the soprano on the Prime Time Junior Music Hall. Angel Eyes, we called her. Joey was heartbroken when she confessed that she loved me more than him. One night I took her to a wedding and when she sat on my lap I got an erection. I sat perfectly still, terrified she would notice. I figured if I didn't move, and if I didn't think about the fact that this beautiful young woman with a perfect body was sitting on my lap, it would go away inmaybe a month. That was the entire extent of my sex life that year.
The girls loved me. We had a girl chorus on Teen Time, the Chorulines. They were all younger than me, they all had nice voices, and all of them had a crush on me. Why not? I was cute. With Skipper's guidance, my hands were clean and I was nicely dressed, I was a nice person, and I had this voice. When I looked directly into a young girl's eyes and started singing a love song ... Well, I learned very early in life how seductive that could be. But I never took advantage of it. I'm sure I could have had many relationships if I had chosen to, but the truth is that I just didn't have time for women. Let me repeat that, because it's the last time you'll see that sentence: I just didn't have time for women.
My singing career was the only thing that mattered to me. I had become a teenage celebrity in Philadelphia. In addition to starring on Magic Lady and Teen Time, I had become the host of the hour-long Prime Time Junior Music Hall, which was being broadcast from the Delancey Street Theater in front of a live audience. I had to conduct interviews, which I didn't like to do. I was too nervous, afraid people wouldn't like me. But when I sang ... when I sang all my fears disappeared. A smile came on my face. I sang straight from my heart and a beautiful sound came out.
I was surrounded by people who kept telling me how wonderful I was, that I had a beautiful voice, that I was going to be a big star. I got about as much positive reinforcement as it was possible to get. When I was sixteen years old I got one ticket to Perry Como's Chesterfield Show and took the train to New York City to see the broadcast.
I worshiped Perry Como. Long before I met him I just knew that in addition to being a magnificent crooner, he had to be a very good person. Everybody knew he had been trained as a professional barber, a working man, but had found success as one of America's most popular singers. Later, after I got to know him, I found out that he was even better than I had hoped. He was the best of them all.
Here's how much respect I had for Perry Como: When I trying to romance a woman, I played his records. What finer tribute could I ever pay to him?
His fifteen-minute show made me kvell. He was smooth, he was brilliant. I mean, I knew that someday I was going to be in his category, but he was very impressive. After the show he sang a few songs for the studio audience, then asked if anyone would like to sing a song. Where I got the courage to raise my hand I will never know. But that was the impact Perry Como had on me. "I'll sing, Perry," I leaped out of my seat and shouted, "I'll sing." I sang one of his hits, "Prisoner of Love." That was a perfect song for my voice at that point: it was right in my range. Of course the lyrics were well beyond my experiencebut eventually I caught up!
Like every other audience who had heard me sing, when I opened my mouth and this big sound came out, first they were surprised and then they were dazzled. As the applause died down, Perry asked me to sing a second song. I didn't hesitate, singing Bing Crosby's hit, "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." I was great. I destroyed, I killed. When I finished Perry looked at me, maybe he put his hand on my shoulder, and smiled. And he said, "Well, I guess I'm going to have to start sharpening up my barber tools."
After working with Skipper Dawes for four years at WFIL, I was getting very frustrated. I was all ready to be a star, but nothing was happening. I was not yet seventeen years old, but I felt like my career was passing me by. I was shocked when the ABC radio network, the Blue Network as it was known, gave Skipper his own show and he didn't hire me. He used the Chorulines on it, but not me. I blamed that on one of the program directors, a real anti-Semite whose mistress became the soloist, and I was terribly disappointed. Everybody around me was going national, but I was stuck in Philadelphia.
In 1946, Eddie Cantor came to Philadelphia to promote his new movie. At that time Eddie Cantor was one of the biggest and most beloved stars in show business. He was a great entertainer, a comedian who could sing and dance and act. He was a star of radio, movies, and the Ziegfeld Follies, bigger than Jolson. He was known for his humanitarian gestures and his long marriage. Eddie and Ida Cantor might have been America's best-known married couple, and a lot of his humor was based on their loving marriage and their five daughterstheir five unmarried daughters. Eddie Cantor was also known for discovering talented young people and giving them the chance for stardom. So when Eddie Cantor came to Philadelphia, Skipper told me Eddie was going to visit the station to talk about his movie, and while he was there he was going to listen to me sing. I was positive that was going to be my big break.
Cantor arrived at the radio station, posed for some newspaper photographs with his well-known "banjo eyes" bulging, said a few nice words about his new movie, and then left, complaining that he had a temperature. He was too sick to spend three minutes listening to me sing? Even and was about to lose my second job. Chances that I'd get this incredibly desirable job seemed pretty slim. But I had confidence, and that sound. I always had that sound.
More than 200 male singers auditioned for the job. Skipper Dawes came up from Philly to play the piano for me. The room was empty, chairs were upside down on tables, and Monte Proser was sitting by himself way in the back. I did my whole audition routine and when I finished, he offered me a job. "Is a hundred twenty-five dollars a week enough?" he asked. One hundred twenty-five dollars a week to sing at the Copa! Was that enough? Was Jolson Jewish? I was so excited I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know whether to simply say yes or fall on my knees and kiss his highly polished shoes. I was ready to start that night. But then Proser asked me how old I was.
"Seventeen," I told him. But I looked younger.
"That's a problem," Proser said. New York City cabaret regulations prohibited anyone younger than eighteen from performing in a club where liquor was served. And believe me, a lot of liquor was served at the Copa. Proser offered me a job as a production singer the following September, after my eighteenth birthday. Then he sent me over to see a friend of his named Milton Blackstone. That was the day my career really began.
Milton Blackstone had a theatrical advertising agency on West Fifty-seventh Street. It's difficult to describe exactly what it was that Milton did, except that everybody in show business seemed to love him. Particularly the important newspaper columnists, people like Walter Winchell, Louis Sobel, and Leonard Lyons. Milton made the things happen that people needed to happen. He fixed problems, he found jobs for people, and he handled the advertising for most of the important nightclubs, cafés, and hotels in New York, places like the Copa and Lou Waiter's Latin Quarter. He was also the promotional genius who transformed the Catskills from a sleepy region in upstate New York known for its numerous small boardinghouses and tuberculosis sanitariums, a place where people went to escape the oppressive heat of the New York City summer and where Jews, in particular, went because they were not welcome in many other clubs and hotels, into one of the most popular resorts in America.
In the mid-1930s Milton convinced welterweight boxing champion Barney Ross to train for a championship bout at Grossinger's. When newspaper columnists went there to report from Ross's training camp, Milton made sure they were treated very well. So they wrote nice things about Grossinger's, particularly about the woman who ran the place, Jennie Grossinger. Other boxers began training there, more reporters came, and Grossinger's became famous. After the war, Grossinger's became the place to go in the Catskills for the new, affluent Jewish middle class.
In those days the big resort hotels had resident theatrical groups, performers who lived there all summer and put on the nightly shows for the guests. Shelley Winters, for example, was on the staff at Grossinger's. It was only after the war, when hotels like the Nevele and Brown's began competing with Grossinger's, that Jennie insisted on hiring big-name entertainers. Jennie Grossinger and Milton Blackstone made Grossinger's a world-famous hotel. As Milton's advertising line correctly proclaimed, "Grossinger's has everything," and important people from every walk of life spent time there.
Milton was about my father's age, but he had all the personal warmth my father lacked. After we'd spoken for a few minutes he offered me a summer job at Grossinger's, at thirty-five dollars a week, plus room and board, to sing with the dance band.
At the time it didn't seem like much of a job. It was just a way of spending the few months until I was old enough to sing at the Copa. I'd get some more experience, I'd learn a little more about singing with a band, and I'd have a nice time. But I figured that my career would really begin when I returned to New York in September.
Skipper Dawes drove me to Grossinger's. We would never work together again. Eventually Skipper would become the producer of band leader Paul Whiteman's radio and television shows. He was the first person in my life, besides my mother, to encourage me, to help me. He'd taught me just about everything he knew. He made me believe I had a special talent.
But no one, not Skipper, not my mother, and even with all my self-confidence not even me, could possibly have imagined what was about to happen.
© Copyright 1999 Eddie Fisher and David Fisher
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