Life After Kovacs? Edie Adams Finds An Even Nuttier World of Her Own

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There are some things Edie won't do, but nothing she can't do.

Groucho Marx opened singer Edie Adams' act with that salute when she was playing Las Vegas one night in 1963. She was gamely performing while still reeling from the death of her husband, Ernie Kovacs, the year before in a car crash. Kovacs, a star in the early days of TV comedy, was a delightful but domineering spouse who gambled, loved extravagances like his 17-room Beverly Hills mansion, and would shush Edie's frets about finances by chuckling, "Don't worry, sweetheart. We have it somewhere." They didn't. At 32, the sheltered widow found herself facing debts of $520,000, trouble with the IRS, and a legal battle with Ernie's first wife, who sued for custody of Adams' two stepdaughters. Later Ernie's mother contested control of his estate. It was, Edie understates, "a frightening experience."

But Groucho was right: There was nothing Edie couldn't do. She won her legal battles. She scrambled out of the red by performing nonstop on TV, in movies (Under the Yum Yum Tree, Love With the Proper Stranger) and in her ubiquitous Muriel Cigar commercials ("Why don't you pick one up and smoke it sometime?"). Today, at 53, she is the millionaire owner of a 160-acre almond farm in Bakersfield, Calif. that grosses $500,000 a year. Besides that, she is a semiregular on CBS' As the World Turns, the designer of $1,500-and-up Bonham label party gowns sold at Neiman-Marcus stores, and a promoter of a chain of 350 Edie Adams Cut and Curl beauty salons. Not bad for a lady who in eight years with Kovacs rarely handled anything heavier than a charge card.

Yet Edie—née Edith Adams Enke—was never any Hollywood airhead. Raised in Pennsylvania and New York by straitlaced Welsh Presbyterian parents who wouldn't even let her see a movie until she was 16, she studied voice and piano at Manhattan's Juilliard School for four years. In 1950 she fled to modeling and showbiz. That year she won the Miss U.S. Television crown, then auditioned for Ernie Kovacs' local TV show in Philadelphia after the comic's director spotted her on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. It was love at first sight gag. "Here was this guy with the big mustache, big cigar and silly hat," Edie recalls. "I thought, 'I don't know what this is, but it's for me.' " They worked together, then eloped to Mexico City in 1954.

Edie flourished with "the mad Hungarian," as she called Kovacs. In 1956 she won a Broadway Tony as Daisy Mae in Li'l Abner. Yet she was insecure. Once Kovacs, 10 years her senior, bought her a gold pin shaped like a kitchen sink, "so I'd recognize one if I ever bumped into it." When he took a beating at poker, she'd go out to buy a chinchilla coat or an antique harpsichord. "When he'd get the bills and say, 'We can't afford this,' I'd say, 'Simple, just stop gambling.' "

After Ernie died, pals like the Milton Berles and the Jack Lemmons planned a benefit to pay the debts. Adams demurred: "Ernie would have hated that." But while covering Kovacs' liabilities, she picked up her own, including two brief marriages and a susceptibility to financial deals that always seemed to require more capital—and another foray for Edie into the nightclub circuit. In 1976, when Adams yielded her Muriel Cigar ads to Susan Anton, she took "a good look at where my money was going."

She'd been burned on so many ventures that one day she visited a pistachio grove she'd bought unseen on the advice of experts. "I was so happy to see the trees I hugged their trunks," she remembers. Convinced that she should "get back to the land," in 1977 she swapped her mansion and a Malibu beach house, then worth $1 million, for her almond farm, now valued at $2.5 million. Today she's writing an autobiography, compiling an almond cookbook (Nuts in the Kitchen), and planning a 1983 lecture tour (subject: herself). Her hazel eyes still gleam, and she jokes that while "my figure's a little cloudy around the middle, the legs are good." Yet her faith in marriage is wobbly. "You have to get independent first and then find someone who is not threatened by you," she says. When friends ask, "Who's next?" Adams merely quips: "Every time I get lonesome these days, I start another business."

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