At 47, Eddie Fisher has embarked on a comeback, and only a few close ringside friends know the desperate struggle he has been through. Eddie drove the bobby-soxers wild and sold millions of records worth millions of dollars before he was 25. But he was soon paying a grievous price for his fame: addiction to methamphetamine ("speed"). It resulted from his association with a New York general practitioner, Dr. Max Jacobson (nicknamed Dr. Feelgood), whose celebrity patients included other music stars of the '50s and even John and Jackie Kennedy. This year Dr. Jacobson lost his medical license for his profligate dispensing of the drug.
"I was 23 and doing five shows a day at the Paramount when I lost my voice," Eddie recalls. "I got an injection from Jacobson, and my voice came back." The doctor, who became a close friend, originally told him the shots were vitamins and hormones. Later, when Fisher learned they also contained methamphetamine he, like most people then, understood little about the drug's effects. "It literally almost killed him," says one friend. In 1969, Fisher abruptly ended his third marriage to singer-actress Connie Stevens, a year later he declared bankruptcy and eventually he moved to Jamaica. Then, down to 118 pounds from his normal 150—speed dulls the appetite—he signed himself into a Swiss hospital in the early '70s and kicked the habit. "It was very, very tough," is all that Eddie will say about his withdrawal. A lingering effect of the drug is chronic insomnia, and the mild sleeping pill Fisher takes leaves him with slurred speech for a few hours after he gets up—usually in the late afternoon.
Early this year a friend, comedian Buddy Hackett, urged Eddie to try singing again, and in February, teamed with Hackett, he made his "debut" in Las Vegas. The effect was magical—audiences instinctively compared it to Judy Garland's triumphant comeback in 1951. "He's never been in better voice," said one Hollywood critic, "and the people love him."
Fisher's return to the Catskill borscht circuit was appropriate. It was at Grossinger's that Eddie Cantor discovered him in 1949—a poor, skinny 21-year-old singer from Philadelphia. In 1955 he married America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, there. Three years later he showed up again, this time for a weekend with the femme fatale of his life, Debbie's friend Elizabeth Taylor Todd, recently widowed. The ensuing scandal broke up his marriage and damaged his career, although ironically it seemed to make Debbie and Liz even bigger stars. Then Liz left him in 1962 for Richard Burton. Fisher gambled heavily, failed as a movie producer, and through it all shot speed.
Eddie has since learned that humor is the best antidote for failure. One of his old fan-club presidents (his first was columnist Rona Barrett) told him the other day, "When you married Debbie I went crazy." "Me too," he replied.
Debbie is the only one of his ex-wives he speaks ill of. "She's not what she appears to be," he says cryptically. "Among other things she kept me apart from my children [Carrie, 18, and Todd, 17]. When I was in England last year and went to see Carrie and Debbie at the Palladium, Carrie stole the show, which was tough because her mother is a pretty good performer. Debbie did not introduce Carrie, because she was so good. If there's bitterness in my voice, it's meant to be." (In defense of Debbie, Carrie insists that even though she was a soloist she asked her mother not to single her out.)
For his other two wives he has only kind words. "Elizabeth was the only woman I really ever loved," he says. "I wish I was as nice as she was." And Connie is "great. She's my best girlfriend," Fisher says. "We just couldn't stay married because we fought all the time." His two daughters by her, Joely, 7, and Tricia, 6, visit with their father (now house-shopping in Beverly Hills) as often as they can.
Ever hopeful, Eddie is willing to try marriage "one more time, but not to anyone in show business." Meanwhile, the only constant woman in his life for the past 18 years has been daughter Carrie—although they are together infrequently. Recently returned from drama school in London to promote her film Shampoo and look for more work, she surprised her father at the Concord. Thrilled because he hadn't seen her for seven months, Fisher pulled Carrie onstage for a duet. Holding the mike close to her and toning down his own voice, he turned the number (If I Loved You) into a virtual solo for his daughter. Said one old Eddie Fisher fan: "I felt like crying."
When Eddie Fisher walked onstage at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, apprehension clung to him like five o'clock shadow. The audience had seen him around the pool that afternoon looking frail, and now they watched the '50s pop star as if he were a tightrope walker with vertigo—fascinated, waiting for the fall. It never came. Instead, after he had belted out a few songs in a strong baritone, the older patrons leaped to their feet applauding.