Eddie Fisher died this week, and now, thanks to this morning’s excellent Washington Post obituary, the man and his “impact” are on my mind. I’m a novelist, after all, and understanding the human heart is my job, maybe even my responsibility.
I’m just old enough to remember Eddie Fisher as someone other than the father of Carrie, the volatile, multi-talented Princess Leia of Star Wars fame. My mother, who followed the lives of celebrities with the fervor we in the DC area usually save for politicians, was devastated when Eddie divorced Debbie Reynolds in favor of Liz Taylor. Forever after, in my mother’s heart, Liz was the trashy other woman, and Debbie, the courageous champion of all women who had been trampled by their men. Mom was, unfortunately, in need of a heroine with those qualifications.
Like children all over the world, I rejected the idols of my parents. I was perplexed at the attention paid to the skinny, jug-eared crooners of their generation. I found the voices and personalities insipid, the antics perplexing. I understood perfectly why girls screamed when Paul McCartney and the Beatles stepped onstage. But Frank Sinatra? Okay, those blue eyes were mesmerizing, and there was a certain scrappy, street kid bravado that translated well to film. Eddie Fisher? Sexy? The man’s most popular song was “Oh My Papa.” What did this say about an entire generation?
Married five times, three times to well-known celebrities (Connie Stevens was the third), his 1999 memoir recounted a life of drug abuse and affairs. He claimed he spent $20 million on drugs and gambling in his lifetime. He was never quite certain why he couldn’t regain his popularity, but after divorcing both Debbie and Liz, he spent his remaining years playing second-rate venues and documenting affair after affair. When the memoir aired, Carrie Fisher wrote: “That’s it. I’m having my DNA fumigated.” Having had moments like that myself, I can relate.
I’m always perplexed at the men with whom we as a culture fall in and out of love. I think I understand the rise and fall of Eddie Fisher. He was loved for his sweet, boyish charm. About himself he said: “I wasn’t the handsomest of men, but I was adorable.” He was safe to love, user-friendly as it were. So, as a matter of fact, were the Beatles–at least at the beginning. But while in later years the Beatles toughened their image and matured into interesting if not perfect men, Eddie’s failures, first as a husband and father, then as the lover who was quickly cast aside by the glamorous Liz, were so well documented he could never surge beyond them. He not only didn’t give his public what they wanted, he wasn’t even a success at the things they didn’t want. Had he been, had his marriage to Liz succeeded until he ended it, I think he would have been forgiven for leaving his first family. His star might well have continued to shine.
As a culture, nothing impresses us like success. Imagine me telling my editor I want to write a novel about a nice man, kind to animals and little kids who plays the harmonica with a sweetness that brings tears to our eyes. Still, this sweet, lovable guy loses at everything he attempts, and at the end he loses his way into the sunset. What do you think? Interested? On your way to the book store to pre-order?
Eddie Fisher may well have been, by the standards of his generation, “adorable.” He may even have been a guy we’d enjoy having over for Sunday night dinner and a sing-along. But he fell flat on his face in public and never picked himself up. At the end of his much ballyhooed second marriage, Liz Taylor called him “the busboy.” We, the people, are interested in the guy dining at the head table. These days we’re even interested in the celebrity chef in the kitchen. But we are never, never interested in the busboy, unless he’s clearing tables on his way to stardom.
Our society has an enormous capacity for forgiveness. We love our reformed scoundrels, even when that reform is only for show. But give us a winner every time. I’m not sure what this says about us. Perhaps that we’re easily fooled? Unable to distinguish between what’s important and what’s not? Or maybe it says that in a world that’s tough for everybody, those celebrities who seem to succeed give us hope that we, foibles and all, can do the same.