October 15, 1999/5 Cheshvan 5760, Vol. 52, No. 7
'Jewish Sinatra' tells all
KATHY SHAYNA SHOCKET
Eddie Fisher talks candidly these days.
Special to Jewish News
He talks about leaving wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor. He will discuss in detail Elizabeth Taylor's suicide attempt. He will chat about his 37-year addiction to methamphetamines. He even will recount his story of sharing mistresses with President John F. Kennedy.
The once skinny Jewish kid, who grew up on the impoverished streets of Philadelphia to become "the Jewish Sinatra" and have affairs with famous women such as Ann-Margret, has a new book out, "Been There, Done That," and he's even willing to discuss the influence and role of Judaism in his life - although when he does so, he loses the on-stage persona to which his fans are so accustomed.
Fisher says he was always aware that he was Jewish, "every minute of my life, but I was never religious." On his list of regrets, Fisher says he wishes he had been more involved in Judaism.
"I learned all the prayers; I could sing them in Hebrew, but I didn't accept any of the religious teaching. I was much more a cultural Jew," he says. "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."
As a boy, he sang at bar mitzvah parties to make ends meet. Later, his golden voice would transport him into a world of fame and fortune.
"I just didn't understand how powerful it was, and how dangerous it would be for me," says the man who started earning millions at the age of 21.
In his new book, Fisher talks about how "the gift in his throat" helped him rise from poverty to stardom.
He recalls appearing on the once-famous amateur talent-contest radio show hosted by Arthur Godfrey, who was known to be an anti-Semite. (Godrey owned the Kenilworth Hotel in Florida, which supposedly had a sign in front that read "No dogs or Jews allowed.")
"When I got the opportunity to appear on his show, I leaped at it," recalls Fisher in an interview. "I didn't care that Godfrey wouldn't let me in his hotel, as long as he let me sing on his radio show."
Fisher quickly became a hit with who he describes as the "economically powerful Jewish middle class (that) emerged after World War II, most of them the first-generation, American-born children of European immigrants."
"I was one of the first big Jewish stars," he says. "I was the new American Jew who spoke without an accent like our parents and grandparents.
"I was the universal Jewish son, the one all the Jewish mothers wanted their daughters to marry," he adds.
Eddie was drafted into the Army in 1951 and sent to Texas for basic training.
"This was long before television and chains like McDonald's and the Gap blurred regional lines, and some of my fellow draftees had never seen a Jew before," he points out.
But Fisher would soon become one of the most popular privates in the barracks.
"At mail call, one guy got two letters; another guy got four; I got 4,500," he remembers. Eventually, he let the guys in his platoon read the mail from his various women fans.
"The barracks became like a TV sitcom, with all of them sitting around reading my mail." There were letters from Jewish and non- Jewish girls.
"Some wanted to have my baby; others were having a baby and wanted me to adopt it," he says.
Although his parents always wanted him to marry a Jewish girl, most of the women Fisher was attracted to were not Jewish, he says.
"I'm certain any good psychologist could explain the reasons for that," says Fisher. "And a good place to start would be my mother. 'Marry a nice Jewish girl, like your sisters,' she told me. I didn't want to marry someone like my sisters."
Still, when Fisher married Debbie Reynolds, who was not Jewish, he didn't get a lot of heat about it. Time magazine wrote that they were "the entertainment world's most refreshing romance."
When he married Elizabeth Taylor, who had converted to Judaism, "well," he says, "as my mother often said when trying to describe something wonderful, 'words can't express.' "
He describes his lifestyle today as a very normal one now, with the woman he's been married to for six years, Betty Lin Fisher. They love the symphony and opera and keep homes in San Francisco and Beverly Hills.
When his book hit the shelves recently, Hollywood was abuzz about Eddie dishing the dirt on his love affairs with celebrity royalty and various scandals. The book is on the New York Times bestseller list, but Fisher's success with it has been bittersweet, he says. His daughter Carrie Fisher (Debbie Reynolds' daughter) is not speaking to him, and according to published reports, other children Fisher fathered with Reynolds are upset and offended by elements of the book.