BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
By Eddie Fisher with David Fisher
St. Martin's. 341 pp. $24.95
Sometimes he thinks, Eddie Fisher says in this candid, funny and unexpectedly engaging reminiscence, that "my life has been written by Lewis Carroll." Presumably he means the Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland readers have wandered through in amazement and delight for nearly a century and a half, but once you come to the end of Been There, Done That you're likely to believe that Fisher's true affinity is with the man who used Lewis Carroll as his literary pseudonym: Charles L. Dodgson, the professional mathematician and amateur photographer who especially liked to take pictures of fetching young girls.
That is because women, by Fisher's half-boastful and half-rueful confession, are "my addiction." Fame and fortune first came to him in the 1950s because of his singing, but by the mid-1960s "women became more important than my career." To most men (this one certainly included) Fisher may have seemed an ordinary-looking guy, but something about him is pure catnip to the ladies. His "secret for attracting beautiful women," he says, is "that I had no secret" -- "I just showed up with a clean shirt, a sweet song, and occasionally a small jewel. I treated women nicely" -- but whatever it is, Lord knows it works:
"In my lifetime I had relationships with so many of the most beautiful, desirable and famous women in the world, not just Elizabeth [Taylor] 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, Michele 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 castoffs."
If that paragraph leads you to suspect that Been There, Done That has more than its share of juicy gossip, you are exactly right. Although greatest detail is (of course!) reserved for Fisher's celebrated and notorious marriages to Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, innumerable other women whose paths he has crossed get their moments in the sun; he may not remember all their names, but he well remembers -- and vividly conveys -- the pleasure of it all.
A couple of things distinguish Fisher from other Lotharios who have inflicted their amatory histories upon an unsuspecting public: He genuinely likes and enjoys the company of women, and he is unsparingly self-critical. I shudder to think of what will happen to this book if it falls into the hands of a reviewer who happens to be a doctrinaire and humorless feminist, but to attack it from that slant is to miss the point. Fisher is addicted to romance at least as much as to women, and in its own fashion this is a decidedly romantic book: the story of a boy who, for reasons he has never been able to understand, was given free run in the candy store, and to this day -- he is now 70 years old -- is amazed and delighted at his good fortune.
Truth to tell, though Fisher has had a few setbacks and disappointments along the way, he's been a lucky fellow all his life. As a very small boy, living in poverty in Philadelphia, he discovered that his voice, which would become a naturally "clean, smooth, lyric baritone," "set me apart from everybody else" and would be his ticket out of the slums. He was, and for the most part remained, utterly untrained: "I never had a singing lesson. . . . 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."
That was when he was small, but none of it changed much over the years. Singing came so easily to him that he never worked at it, never learned more songs than he needed to know to perform or record, never practiced. His self-assessment is unsparing and accurate:
"Frank [Sinatra] was the chairman of the board; I could have been at least the CEO. But I was too lazy, too interested in other things. Sinatra made it look easy, Bing [Crosby] made it look easy, Perry Como made it look easy. It took them a lot of hard work to make it look so easy. Singing is hard work. It's getting involved in what you do. Hit records are fine and I certainly had my share of them -- more than my share. But it was all bubble-gum music, and it lost its taste pretty fast. I was so busy making hit records that I forgot that the most important aspect of a singer's career is recording a catalog of songs that will live forever. . . . A singer has to record the standards and the Broadway hits, he has to find his way of interpreting the great songs. He has to put his sound on a broad body of work. I was too lazy, too busy being a star, to pay attention to the importance of the music."
Instead he chased the ladies, and they chased him; either way, the quarry was almost always caught, albeit not for long. In 1954, watching "Singin' in the Rain" in a tent in Korea -- he was in the Army, entertaining the troops -- Fisher fell in love with Debbie Reynolds, who seemed to be "the girl next door" but turned out, once love turned into marriage, to be "a self-centered, totally driven, insecure, untruthful phony." Both in their mid-twenties, they had come too far too fast, and maturity hadn't caught up with them. Before the phrase "media event" had been invented, their romance was a media event: "I loved being with her, she loved being with me, the media loved us being together, and we loved the media attention." Within three years they were married and miserable -- "There just came a time when I could barely stand to be alone with her" -- and in any event there, newly widowed with the death of Mike Todd, bereaved and lonely, was his close friend Elizabeth Taylor, "and when she desperately needed someone I happened to be right there."
You know the rest, or you know it if you're 50 or older: the torrid romance with Taylor ("For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of all the love songs I'd been singing"), the marriage, "Cleopatra," Richard Burton, Splitsville: "So much happened so fast that much of it seems like one great blur. The order in which things took place is sometimes confusing. But the one thing of which I am sure is that I loved Elizabeth every minute of this time. No matter what she did to me, how much abuse I took, I never stopped loving her." To all intents he quit his own career, making "the transition from one of the country's most popular singers to Elizabeth's companion and nurse."
If he'd known at the beginning that his relationship with Taylor would bring so much pain and end so badly, Fisher says, "I still wouldn't have hesitated." Those are the words of someone who has lived not always wisely -- "With all the experience I had, with all the opportunities I was given, I will never understand why I continued to make such terrible mistakes with my life, or why I made the same mistakes over and over" -- yet who accepts life on its own terms and has, in fact, learned much from it. It took him a good long time, but Eddie Fisher seems at last to have grown up.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.