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Oy! My Pa - Pa
I didn’t see my father all that much growing up, which resulted in him becoming a kind of mythic figure to me. I probably knew as much about him as some of his more rabid fans. I’d been told stories by other relatives of ours about how he would make plans to come pick up Todd and me and then not show up. This apparently occurred enough so that by the time I was three, when someone would tell me, “Your dad’s coming!” I would shrug as near to indifferently as possible and say, “Maybe.”
Several years later, after his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor had come to an end, he was living in an Asian-looking house in a development called Beverly Estates, located up on a hill overlooking, of all things, other Asian-looking houses in what is now part of Benedict Canyon. Now, my father was not what you might think of as an industrious type person. I mean, if you could get something done for you by someone else, my dad would have it done (obviously with the exception of having sex), so, to assist him in his very basic existence, he had this very capable, imposing black man named Willard, a man who he referred to as his “butler” as people still did in those days. Willard, who actually dressed like a butler, in a white jacket and black pants, pretty much took care of my dad for about twenty years. You might say he made my father—an extremely charming womanizing drug enthusiast—possible. He looked after him and cleaned up after him and even sometimes fed him (on the rare occasions that he ate, because by then he was shooting speed, courtesy of the original Dr. Feelgood, Dr. Max Jacobson).
I remember this one time, when my father was living with this beautiful Scandinavian Playboy model named Ula, my brother and I were going to spend the night. Amazing, right!? A sleepover at Dad’s! But somehow my mom found out that he was living in sin with Ula, who also happened to be a Playboy model. So, when the four of us got back from the movies, there was my mom’s Cadillac in the driveway, with her leaning against it, furiously smoking a cigarette. Then she waited while we gathered up our overnight bags and drove us home in uncomfortable silence, Todd and I staring gloomily into our laps.
On another occasion, when I was about thirteen, I remember taking a walk with him down the road near his home. So, you know, what do you say to someone who really didn’t know how to ask questions and coincidentally happened to be your father? I mean, our exchanges never really went much beyond an assortment of, “How are you?” or “What grade are you in now?” or “What’s your favorite subject?” This time though he turned to me quite casually and said, “I see you’re developing breasts.”
Naturally, I didn’t really know how to respond to this. I mean, maybe it would have been different if he’d been more of a . . . well, a more present sort of parent, you know? Like where there are a sufficient assortment of other subjects that we could discuss that might, say, provide us with any kind of context where that exchange could maybe occur, right? But all out there on its own . . . I have to say, well, it was awkward, to say the least.
Here’s the thing. Very early on in my father’s life it became obvious that he possessed a beautiful singing voice. Untrained, undeveloped, it just emerged—strong, pure, remarkable. So, from a very early age he was singing professionally, performing initially at bar mitzvahs. And somehow there wasn’t a huge leap from being the most gifted bar mitzvah boy to headlining in the Catskills.
I could go back and check one of his two autobiographies, but from what I can recall, my father was winning talent contests and appearing on local radio shows beginning at the age of twelve or thirteen, so that by the time he was fifteen, he had officially been “discovered” by none other than Eddie Cantor.
The upshot of this early career download is, my father was treated like a celebrity from a very early age. He had six siblings, but his mother doted on him. Clearly, he was her favorite, her Sonny Boy, dark haired and adorable. And it did not stop with his mom. No, from the first, all the girls loved him. And as such, whatever rules there were simply didn’t apply to him. He was young, he was talented, he was handsome, and he was Jewish. What more could you ask for? So by the time he was eighteen, my father was making more money than his father, and by the time he was twenty-one, he was making more than his father ever had. So what all this came tumbling down to was that my father could do no wrong, or if he did do what might ordinarily be considered “wrong” for someone else, for him these were just some of the quirks that might be found in the very blessed and gifted.
In his universe, from the very earliest of formative years, his every gesture, every utterance, every otherwise inappropriate action was not only indulged but in many cases celebrated. I don’t say this to excuse him, but in a way he was somehow guileless. I don’t know how else to describe it. I mean, he just . . . he always seemed to be able to assume the best about others—especially women, of course—and he was always ALWAYS up for a good time.
After the developing breasts talk, I think there was a seven-year gap where, instead of merely having no relationship, we had no relationship at all. Then, suddenly somehow it was 1977, the year everything changed. I was living in New York on the Upper West Side. Star Wars had opened recently, and I happened to be in it, and my life . . . I mean, what can you say after that? No, I’m really asking you? What can you say? Well, whatever it is, there’s every chance it would be said in a very weird robotic voice. Coincidentally, this happened at almost the exact same time when my term as a teenager was up. But because I had been in Star Wars, for the first time I could afford my very own apartment. I paid the rent with checks that had my name on them, money I’d earned by playing Princess Leia Organa in a movie that was so popular—so unbelievably popular—that it took whatever my life had been up to that point and transformed it into this very different thing. I mean, sure I’d spent my whole life around fame. Who hasn’t, right? But that fame was generated by my parents. This shine was mine.
Well, sort of mine anyway. And by that, I mean that Princess Leia was famous. And I just happened to look amazingly like her—I mean aside from her hair. But this was not dissimilar to the associative fame I’d lucked into with my scandal-generating folks. I now had this new and super-attenuated, dialed-up sci-fi fame and if that wasn’t enough, this fame came with Leia Organa’s salary. And it was with that salary that I rented my very own semi-private apartment between 90th and 91st on Central Park West—300 CPW. Yes, that’s right, the El Dorado. Apartment 12J1 with its actual terrace quietly overlooking . . . other buildings. No, it wasn’t big or fancy, but whatever it was, it was mine. Mine not only to live in, but to decorate and even invite people to. My life had begun, and gosh darn it all to Pete, it was gonna have all the earmarks of adventure and all the Groucho Ear Marx of fun. So there it was—spread out all around me. So, what else could I do but hunker down and live it? Naturally, one of my first stops on this new life’s journey of mine was yes, that’s right—dropping acid.
Acid had become my new best friend, my drug of choice, my companion in chief. It agreed with me—whoever I happened to be at that not so sharp point. Something about it was more of the same for me—but in a way that sameness was oh so very far from redundant. My experience of almost everything and everyone I encountered had always been intense, but I found it difficult to believe that everyone else’s was, too. But I found that when I took acid with whatever friend I was lucky enough to take it with, I knew with an almost sufficient amount of certainty that we felt something close to exactly the same way.
So, it was a hot summer night in Manhattan, one of those nights just made for hallucinating that my friend (and Jerry Garcia’s friend) Mike and I dropped some liquid Owsley LSD and we lay out on a blanket on my terrace, gazing rapturously up at the night sky listening to Keith Jarrett, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan playing on the turntable, with the volume turned up high, realizing our way to morning.
That summer, with an ever-increasing appetite for closures—random and otherwise—my open mind stretching ever wider, wider, reveling out there, shimmering in the distance . . . Who was that? It appeared to be—why, yes, it was a man—that was it! A silver-haired, half pajama-clad, plum-eating and Kent-smoking . . . WAS it!?!! YES! It was! It was my stepfather. That flatulent albeit well-groomed shoe tycoon.
Harry Karl, the man who had disappeared from our lives—1for very, very good reason—more than five years earlier, and to whom I’d never actually said goodbye. Wow . . . yes . . . it was all too crystal clear. Now would be the perfect time to correct this oversight.
So, with the acid as my guide, I picked up the phone and dialed the inexplicably remembered ten numbers that would deliver me back to Harry. (God, remember dialing?) After enough rings to convince me I’d woken him, he picked up the phone and growled in his five-packs-a-day voice, “Yeah, hello?” prompting me to cheerily say something along the lines of, “Listen, I just wanted to call you because, you know, we did actually live together for twelve years or so and, even though you and my mom got divorced, you never did anything specifically awful to me, I mean, not really at all, right? So I just wanted to say, you know, I’m not mad at you or anything and I’m, you know, I’m sorry I never spoke to you for so many years up until now.” I may have even thrown in some version of “You were always good to us,” which, I mean, he really kind of had been, in his nonverbal, having-sex-with-manicurists-who-turned-out-to-be-whores-and-taking-all-of-our-mother’s-money sort of way. Hey, at least he’d been present, right? Even though that presence included not wearing pajama bottoms and passing gas incessantly.
I don’t actually recall the ensuing conversation much beyond this point, but ultimately I know I was glad I’d called him, because soon after that we received word that he’d suddenly and quite unexpectedly passed away. And not surprisingly, it was a fairly goofy, rarely heard-of type of death.
Apparently late one afternoon, while he was shuffling and wheezing his way through the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, a man approached him, smiling and holding out his hand, saying cheerily, “Hey, Harry, how the hell are you? Long time no see!!!” and gave him a friendly punch in the arm. It was several hours later that same night, that Harry was rushed to the hospital. It seemed that a blood clot had formed in his recently punched arm, which then subsequently continued on to a place it didn’t belong at all, leaving Harry very, very dead and subsequently leaving me very, very grateful that I’d dropped acid that night with Mike, inspiring me to talk, however briefly, to Harry before he’d passed on to that great shoe store in the sky.
Anyway, having called Harry, I found myself working backwards through my mother’s husbands, leaving me to now call my actual and very own father, Eddie Fisher.
Well, as luck would have it, by now the acid was peaking, and I found a person very like myself saying something like, “Hey, Dad, you know, whatever, I love you, and I’m sorry we never actually connected that much, and, you know, maybe one day you could, I don’t know, maybe one day you’d like to come visit me here in New York sometime or whatever.”
Well, wouldn’t you know it? Eighteen hours later the doorbell rang and there, having caught the first flight out from LAX to JFK, was my long-lost papa, a grin on his face and a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag in his hand. Well, what could I say—however unconvincingly—but, “Come on in! Welcome!”
As it happened, I had very recently begun living with Paul Simon at that point, but I was still spending time in my apartment. Especially when Paul and I would break up, as we periodically were wont to do. But as a result of my acid-induced reach-out, I was no longer able to move back to my place when Paul and I had our little difficulties. Like other couples, we remained living together in our very own, very comfortable hell.
Eventually (and/or after a year) my father moved to an apartment around the corner from Paul. And it was not too long after that that he began sneaking drugs to me. This was when, like most fathers and daughters, we began doing coke together. Our relationship had started with me longing for him to visit, eventually evolving into my being desperate for him to leave, settling finally and comfortably into us being drug buddies. As I’ve been known to say, in my family, the apple doesn’t fall down far from the tree.
After our New York inbred incarnation had run its delightfully inappropriate course, he managed to relocate to San Francisco, remarrying yet again. Only this time his wife was neither a beauty nor a celebrity, but was a lovely, wealthy Asian woman named Betty Lin. In addition to her wealth, Betty’s ample attractions included her being very much a family person. And so, it was in large part due to her that I began to see my father more regularly. And not only me, but my brother and my two half-sisters from his marriage to Connie Stevens, Joely and Trisha, also enjoyed this resurgence in our no longer neglected relations. As if all this weren’t enough, Betty turned out to be an enormous Debbie Reynolds fan! So my very estranged parents occasionally found themselves once more at the mercy of one another’s company.
But for all of that, my father was this unbelievably lovable person. I mean, you know those people that for some inexplicable reason are just a pleasure to be around? Well, maybe you don’t, but I do, and my father was very much one of these endearing humans. Even after everything he both did and didn’t do, I somehow couldn’t help but enjoy spending time with him.
My father wasn’t successful with women because he had been rich and famous, though that didn’t hurt. People gravitated toward him because he enjoyed them. He had a way of making you feel special. Because when you stepped into his sphere, you were all but guaranteed a good time. And though you knew with every part of your being that time with him couldn’t be scheduled or relied on, all that was somehow forgotten within minutes of finding yourself in his company. There you were yet again, the chump that couldn’t seem to resist his playful charisma. Not even after promising yourself that the next time you found yourself succumbing to his eternally boyish charm—you’d remember, you wouldn’t be that innocent putz who would buy into anything he promised. You would never again end up going through the withdrawals after, inevitably, once more finding yourself being denied access to that incredible way he had of making you feel not only special but necessary, even essential, to him.
And all of this was as true to him as it was to you while it was happening. You can’t counterfeit feelings like that, right? Again, I’m really asking. In my opinion though—in the well-appointed interim, until you get back to me—the answer is absolutely and unequivocally NO!
• • •
I had workshopped my show Wishful Drinking at the Geffen Theatre in Westwood, California, for a number of months before moving it up to the Berkeley Rep theatre in 2008. This was where we settled in to further work on it with an eye on eventually taking it to Broadway.
I’ve always been one of those people who loved San Francisco, and not just because it’s a beautiful old city situated around a sparkling bay. Over the years I’ve found myself spending quite a lot of time there attending to all things intergalactic. And, in addition to George and all the folks who work for Lucasfilm, over time I found I’d collected a small group of other friends, several possessing a sort of literate/spiritual bent.
And, as if all these enticements weren’t enough, it appeared that my now newly widowed father—Rest in Peace Betty Lin—was in dire need of a mother. And as I had been recently suspended from my mothering duties, I was free to parent anyone who might enjoy being parented by me in the otherwise awful extended interim. And who should turn out to long to be cuddled and mothered like the big bad overgrown baby boy he’d always been? You guessed it—Eddie! That’s right, I became my father’s mother. It turned out that the best way to have a loving reliable familial bond with my dad was for me to give him everything I’d ever wanted from him, and in so doing, corny as it sounds, I’d get everything I gave him back again. In spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. He needed me. Finally. Somehow and happily, nothing and no one but me would do.
Over the course of the time I found myself performing in Berkeley, my father confided in me that there was something he wanted to do before his life was over. He didn’t have a bucket list as it turned out. What he did have was a bucket wish. And it took a few weeks for him to express just exactly what that wish was. And when you hear what it was, you might understand just why he was somewhat shy about sharing it with his eldest child.
What my father wanted was access to the recess between a woman’s legs. One last romp—a romp at his age being a fairly limited affair, but that did not concern him. He’d devoted his entire life to getting laid, sacrificing everything he’d ever had to it—his career, his fortune, and basically any real, lasting relationship with either friends or family. Now, I’m sure many men at the end of their lives entertain similar fantasies. The only difference here was that most of them would be too embarrassed to admit such an undignified longing in someone of such advanced years. But my father had no such compunctions, though initially it wasn’t me to whom he confided this final desire of his. It was to my friend Garret, who traveled with me also as one of the producers of my show. He called Garret “Cowboy,” though in later years there were times he was convinced that Garret possessed an assortment of other identities including, but not limited to, President Barack Obama. It turned out that after suffering several strokes as the years progressed, my father was showing increasing signs of dementia. Of course, his daily marijuana intake didn’t help matters, but ultimately I don’t think it was the pot that caused my father to confuse a 32-year-old white boy from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with our president. But in his right mind or out of it, his passion for one last pass at pussy remained undiminished.
So one night, while I was performing my show, I made an announcement that if anyone knew any prostitutes, please leave a note with one of the ushers. I did this in large part not only to amuse and/or shock people; it turned out that it wasn’t all that simple to find and secure the services of a prostitute. At least not in San Francisco in 2008. I’d spent inordinate amounts of time searching Craigslist. But after a while, I would’ve perused any list! Schindler’s! Or Franz! I fantasized that even though my brother and father were far from close, I might be able to induce my brother to take on this task, but that potential bonding experience did not come to pass.
As it happened, though, my father had a very capable, kind nurse named Sarah, a Mongolian woman who devoted herself to his care in his declining years. But after a while my dad’s care became more . . . challenging, you might say, so Sarah hired a very cute little girl who ill advisedly came to work wearing a little outfit consisting of a short little skirt and a little shirt that ended very close to where her midriff began—a kind of slutty cheerleader type of get-up. And it wasn’t long before Sarah phoned to tell me that this new part-time nurse had expressed outrage—OUTRAGE!—when my elderly parent attempted to put his arthritic hand on her breasts. Which was enough to bring us to a moment where this girl accused him of sexual harassment. Now, this was a man who not only couldn’t do anything for himself anymore—he could barely move—but would also mistake a blond 32-year-old white boy for Barack Obama. At that point, had he been able to understand what was going on, my dad would have seen it as something of an honor to be accused of sexual harassment. But I had to tell him that I had talked to the girl (which wasn’t true, though Sarah had) and that she’d apparently said, “What does he think I am, a prostitute?” I don’t think it was so much that he thought she was a hooker as that he hoped she might be induced to behave like one.
Anyway, I’ve thought since then that this is one of the best ideas in the world for a movie: the quest to get your very confused, very stoned “Puff Daddy” a hooker. Who do you give to the man who is about to lose everything? He couldn’t even get a blow job because he was past the point where anyone with a decent blow job would consider hiring him.
I had heard that once an older person—and especially an older infirm person—falls and breaks his hip, it’s just a matter of time before he passes away. And not all that much time, the proverbial “they” say. So you can appreciate my concern when Sarah called one morning in mid-September to tell me that my father, who, despite having been unable to walk for the past five or six years due to a series of strokes and a beyond-obsessive devotion to the daily smoking of marijuana, had somehow forgotten the nonnegotiable fact of his irrevocable and enduring immobility. And, so, on this particular sunny Berkeley morning, he had risen to greet the day and, swinging his useless legs over the side of his bed, stood up for a nanosecond before falling and breaking his hip. And, naturally, my Eddie, being so much more than some average everyday ordinary Eddie, didn’t just break his hip—he broke it sort of in the place that prevents someone of his age from spending more than another week or two on the planet.
So now we all knew that it was only a matter of time before we’d lose him. Somehow, though, I expected that the time he had remaining would be somewhat longer. And because of that unreliable assumption, I wasn’t with him the night that he suddenly up and expired. And though there’s something ironically perfect that after a lifetime of enduring his absences I wasn’t present for his death—well, this somehow continues to haunt me. I don’t mean that he haunts me. I just wish I had been there. I wish it wasn’t just another missed opportunity with Eddie. Only unfortunately this time, it turned out to emanate from my end.
Was this my unconscious way of giving him a taste of his own ever-elusive, intoxicating presence? Maybe. I like to think not, though. I prefer to imagine that I’m not that obvious. Let me dream.
But by the end, it turned out that the overseeing of my father’s care had ultimately fallen to me. And I’d come to be very grateful for this fumble. I mean, we both knew I was under no obligation to arrange and oversee his care. Whatever I did for him was because I wanted to. Not as some kind of payback that, as my dear old doting dad, was his due.
But he actually had been there when I had entered this world. The story goes that he watched me being born. And, though he fainted from the offensive horror of it, he was really there at the beginning of our shared time on the planet, just as I wasn’t there at the end of it. Like I said, we both knew that I didn’t owe him anything. But owing didn’t have any place in this. I owed it to who we’d come to mean to each other in the seven or eight years leading up to his death.
And so, yes, I do regret that I wasn’t there to hold his hand at the end. I regret that I wasn’t there to gaze at him with tender, anxious eyes. Go figure. Maybe I’m just quirky that way. But there’s something else that factors its way onto this missed death bed boat before it left the harbor.
The thing is, I’ve helped people die. Not that they couldn’t have done it without me. And lord knows all too many people end up doing it alone. But I’ve kept my fair share of vigils at the bedsides of those with only a few moments, or days, or weeks to spare. I know many folk that might find this a fairly daunting proposition, but there’s something in that final fatal situation that I understand completely. I know what’s required inherently of me, and I know that I’ll do everything to be equal to this considerable situation. Everyone understands their role. One stays until the other can’t anymore. And the one who won’t be able to stick around is much more important than the one who can. And I find relief in the understanding and acceptance of the unspoken urgency in this arrangement. I’ll love them until they can’t be loved anymore in this whatever you call it . . . what’s the word? Dimension? Plane? Could it be as riotlessly new-agey as that?
In any event, I have accompanied several of my friends to that place where they can’t be escorted any longer. Where you remain with a dying person, accompanying them as far as you can go, ultimately finding yourself standing still while they’ve kept moving. Moving until that place where they stop, arriving at that terrible stillness that goes on way longer than any life someone might have led. You continue leading your life while they follow theirs into the great beyond. Being and nothingness. You love them until they can’t feel loved anymore, then you keep on loving them as if they were still there—as if there’s been a reprieve at the last moment and fate has reversed itself. It all turned out to be a bad dream that you both had and now get to wake from.
My friend Julian was the first. Julian needed a prom date to take him to the dance that he wouldn’t return from, his last waltz. Julian was one of the earliest sufferers of the AIDS virus in New York. Born in Australia, he’d moved to Manhattan, where he eventually came to work for Paul Simon’s business manager at the time, Ian Hoblyn.
When Paul and I split up for the last time, I moved back to Los Angeles, which is where Julian contacted me a short time later to see if he could stay with me before he continued on to Australia, where his family would then care for him. But what we didn’t know—but probably should have, could have, guessed at—was that the flight from New York to Los Angeles would take whatever vitality that Julian could lay claim to. So for him to now get on yet another even longer flight to go somewhere else that was even farther away . . . Well, that was just a thing that wasn’t going to happen.
So a new plan had to be devised. And that plan included Julian staying with me for several weeks or more—until staying anywhere fell outside Julian’s formerly considerable skill set. One night Julian threw up what must have been about a pint of bright red blood into a stark white bowl. Then, in response to my 9-1-1 call—or rather, shriek—four men arrived at my home wearing what appeared to be space suits, from their fishbowl helmets to their Pillsbury Doughboy outfits, complete with inflated gloves and boots. And these four men drove Julian to a hospital over the hill into the valley where he spent his remaining days in and out of consciousness with his sister, a male nurse, and me by his side. Making that final transition from wherever he was to wherever he was going, there I was, his friend and devotee, learning as I—or as he—went, so I could potentially use this daunting skill set again at a later date. And as we watched, his nurse said quietly, “It won’t be long now. He’s gone into reverse labor. He’s starting to die.” And die he did. Death had come to take him.
But it wasn’t entirely selfish. After death takes someone from you, it gives you something back. It makes smells sharper and the sun brighter and sex more urgent. It’s as though you’re living for two now. Their memory lives inside you, and you feed it. You live for them now that they can’t anymore. So given the choice between Julian and the rest of us, death chose our friend, our loved one, over us. He took the bullet, and we were left standing there with our empty guns, watching a tiny cloud of smoke barely making its way out of the barrel.
Michael was next. This is what I found myself thinking at his death bed, located between his death chair and death end table. There he was on his last legs, last words, last laughs. It was Michael’s turn to be the first to cross over the finish line. Would he be waiting patiently up ahead for our inevitable arrival? Exhausted from running our own last lap, would he be there to ease us into death as we’d eased him out of life?
Michael’s light was dimming while the bright light of loss grew brighter and brighter in us until we were blazing with the grief of losing him, yet unable to warm ourselves. But I could swear that I could see things more clearly once he’d passed. Clearly and completely different, at least for a while.
Over time I found that my love transformed into longing. A slow turning, like winter to spring. And it was in the spring that I started to breathe a little easier. I noticed the flowers that were growing instead of those ones that I placed on a grave. I looked at things and thought, “He’d have loved to see this”—a swarm of fireflies, sunset on a lake, a two-headed fish, the palest of blue eyes. I found myself looking two and three times, again and again, at these glories that I was continuously stumbling across, looking once for myself and once for the one who had gone missing.
But I tell myself at least I had them for as long as they lasted, whether it be a friend or my father. Having lived alongside them, I hope to one day catch them up at last on what they’ve missed, smoking the weed that grows on the ground above you both, above all of us eventually. They can show you the ropes until the day we can all swing from them. Together again, laughing in the heavenly breeze, having lived to the half-empty, half-fullest—having lived until all that’s left to do is die. Would you forgive me for beating this fucking metaphor to death? Here’s hoping.
Had I had these experiences, these intimate brushes with certain friends’ deaths, as a way to prepare to escort my dad to that last big club date in the sky? And if so, why hadn’t I been given the opportunity to use my hard-won skill set? And if there is a reason, would knowing what it was really matter? At least I have his voice captured like a rare butterfly in the saved message section of my cell phone. Trapped, a digital prisoner, still leaving me messages from the good to great beyond.
My love for my dad was always more like longing, and it retains that quality, only now it can never be relieved. But in the end, finally, it doesn’t have to be, because before it was too late, he was mine at last.
Edwin Jack “Puff Daddy” Fisher passed away on September 22, 2010.
There hadn’t been a note he couldn’t hit, a girl he couldn’t hit on, an audience he couldn’t charm or bring to their feet cheering. He’d done everything, and whatever he’d done he’d done to excess. Emptied that glass, drank the last dregs of the best wines, brandy, Champagne. He’d lavished his women with jewels—there was talk of a diamond and emerald necklace worth some impossible sum that he’d given to Elizabeth Taylor, who didn’t just love but required gifts, and preferably, if not exclusively, jewels.
I see the scene: Elizabeth is seated in front of her three-way mirror so she can be seen full face and from either side. There are lights around the mirror. Glowing, they line the top, dropping off straight down both sides. She is framed in illumination. Her shining dark hair is held up off her pale neck with a few well-placed bobby pins, as she gazes at her reflection, chin up, those extraordinarily colored eyes of hers sparkling with the curiosity of a recently arrived guest. She holds a soft pink puff shimmering with the almost invisible glitter of powder, a powder that hangs over her, a devoted, loyal cloud.
We see Eddie appear—her interim spouse, the mate that would escort her from her first great love to her last. My father kept Elizabeth Taylor warm and entertained and bejeweled between Mike Todd and Richard Burton. The later loves that dotted the rest of the spectacle that was her life were in some ways inconsequential.
There he is . . . see him? He appears over her shoulder, brandishing that black velvet box, holding it out to her, his eyes shy and hopeful. She puts one of her perfectly manicured hands to her throat, a diamond blazes from the third finger of her pale left hand. Her so-called violet eyes sparkling, she bites her bottom lip, her head tilting to one side. “What have you done, you big silly man?” she says, smiling.
Eddie shrugs helplessly, placing the mysterious dark box into the small swell of her tentatively outstretched hand. “Open it,” he suggests warily. The thrilling proximity of treasure is implied. Her right hand—the one temporarily unadorned by jewels—stretches toward her almost unexpected (but always somehow deserved) prize. Eddie is important now, as he opens the top of the box, and the bright flash of diamonds is revealed. Bright gems interspersed with deep green ones—the diamonds making the emeralds just that much darker, the emeralds making it that much easier for the diamonds to claim the light. Elizabeth’s eyes study this offering, almost as if recognizing it from somewhere else. That place where all jewels begin making their smooth otherwise uncharted way straight to her. Jewels arriving in her hands, having found the shortcut to get to her, a cut sharply forged by desire.
In my father’s case, perhaps a feeling that he didn’t really deserve to lie by her side—that this time with her was only temporary. Soon the bubble would burst, the clock would strike midnight, the footmen would return to being mice, and her real mate would arrive to claim her. So there in the charmed meantime, Eddie would keep the area around her littered with jewels, with furs, with any and all things a queen both requires and deserves. It is her due. Allowing him access to her beauty—this is the price paid to travel that distance beyond looking to touching. He hurries quickly, his pockets filled with offerings, to fill the suddenly empty place his now deceased best friend has left for him to occupy. Recognizing his duty to keep her warm and shining with jewels until the arrival of the male who was more actually fit to be her partner, her equal, her mate—a king for Her Highness.
So Eddie takes the time, whatever time he is allotted. Remember this moment, he tells himself as he drapes the jewels shadowing past her face. Glowing with satisfaction at her glowing, he closes the circle of jewels around her proud neck, her consort till King Richard arrives to claim her. Somewhere he must’ve known that she’d converted to Judaism not for him but as a belated tribute to his predecessor, the mighty Michael Todd. And maybe that was all somehow as it should be. But, whatever and whichever way it was, this was his time.
My father’s time to stand in the light with her, with Elizabeth. So still, and yet he could swear they were dancing.
In 1967, when William Manchester was about to publish his book The Death of a President, the author balked at making certain changes that Jackie Kennedy requested—changes which actually altered the truth. She tried to stop its publication and, counseled that such an action could make her look bad in the public eye, she famously retorted: “The only thing that could make me look bad would be if I ran off with Eddie Fisher,” who, among other things had a few years prior been publicly humiliated when Elizabeth Taylor left him for Richard Burton.
Having waited the appropriately respectful month following my father’s (timely) death, I hesitated only briefly before Googling him—the post-modern form of grieving electronically in the twenty-first century. PDDD. I was surprised to discover that he had only been dead—an awful word when actually applicable—a little more than a month. It seemed like he’d been gone so much longer, and really gone this time. This was final, there was no getting around that this time he was undeniably, permanently, and conspicuously out of reach, except for those cell phone messages he’d left me, now embedded like a rare insect in digital amber. Somehow I’d known it might come in handy to save them, I just didn’t realize how soon.
His voice. His voice had been his most characteristic feature. It was the gift he’d been born with that had, among other things, ultimately purchased his celebrity for him. And when you combined that gift with his charm and boyish good looks, a trifecta of appeal emerged—erotic and otherwise—that made him, for a short but intense period of time, irresistible to essentially any woman. Well, okay, perhaps not any woman, but he had had that reputation—certainly during the ’50s and ’60s—of being able to bed a hearty selection of some of the most beautiful women in the world and doing this not only during his prime but also theirs.
Sure, he was still having sex with his (and a few other men’s) share of very attractive women in the ’70s and ’80s, but their quality—if not their quantity—may have gone ever so slightly down a notch. Let’s face it, his allure for the opposite sex had taken the standard beating that all of us endure over time—not only for the opposite sex, but the same sex and everything in between. My father not only had to contend with his somewhat diminishing physical attractions, but in addition he’d developed something of an awkward reputation over time when it came to women. Though many of them were still drawn to him as a result of the gravitational pull of his original appeal and abilities, perhaps more often now, though, a woman might be drawn to him so that she might have something in common with Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor—considered by oh so many to be one of the most beautiful women of her/their/all time—who had married my father.
It had been early on in my conspicuous existence that I’d developed a habit—some might even suggest a defensive one—of mocking my family’s tendency to generate public scandal and its attendant absurd behavior. This mocking, though it originally began in what might laughingly be referred to as my “private life,” eventually spilled over into the much more public arena. Over time I had begun to be known as someone who could be counted on to be amusing when presenting an award, giving a speech, or hosting the odd event. These speeches quite frequently included references to my infamous family. And as it turned out, one of these events—an AIDS-related fund-raiser in Los Angeles chaired by my onetime stepmother, Elizabeth—happened to be an event that I’d agreed to host.
I’d spent quite a bit of my public life fielding questions about Elizabeth and how I felt about her now. Did I know her at all? Did I forgive her? And perhaps even more to the point, did my mother forgive her? For that matter, did anyone forgive my father?
The truth was, up until that point I didn’t really know Elizabeth at all. I think that I may have met her once at the Beverly Hills Hotel while she was still technically however briefly my stepmother, and then we crossed paths many years later in London, when she was once again married to Richard Burton. This meeting had taken place because my childhood friend Gavin de Becker was in their employ in some security-related capacity. Needless to say this reunion was more of the uneventful variety than our awkward overlap during my infancy, although it was not entirely devoid of discomfort. Following that, I don’t recall our crossing paths in any significant way until this AIDS fund-raiser.
On the day of the event, a bouquet of flowers was delivered to me at my home. This beautiful and quite enormous arrangement turned out to be from Elizabeth, and it even included a personal note signed by her, though it had quite clearly been dictated and sent to anyone and everyone connected to the imminent evening. It was nonetheless a very nice thank-you note, which I quite heartlessly used as part of my speech that night.
Yes, there I was at the podium, facing a sea of gleefully Western-clad gay men and friends and fans of gay men. (It was, inexplicably, a cowboy-themed evening.)
So, assuming the air of incredibly quiet dignity that was made possible by my not being decked out in cowboy gear, I strode up to the microphone and introduced myself to what might as well been the cast of Oklahoma! before launching into my ironic familial tale.
“Today a beautiful bouquet of flowers arrived at my doorstep—flowers that actually turned out to be from my onetime stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor. Upon seeing Ms. Taylor’s signature at the bottom, I read the attendant card with some excitement. I knew that it was more than likely the long-awaited apology for having stolen my father from me all those years ago, and so, clutching the little blue card in my hand, I ran back to my bedroom and, closing the door, I sat on the edge of my bed near my phone, lest it become necessary for me to call my psychiatrist after having absorbed Elizabeth’s emotional and contrite communiqué. So, I carefully opened the little envelope and, my heart pounding excitedly, I began to read. ‘Dear Carrie,’ the note began, ‘thank you so much for your participation in tonight’s important event and for joining me in this extraordinarily important fight against AIDS. Yours sincerely, Elizabeth.’ Okay, perhaps the note hadn’t directly addressed the long-ago theft of my dad, but I could read an apology between the lines if I wanted to.” Well, as I hope you can imagine, my remarks caused the audience of gay cowboys to enthusiastically cry and laugh. Many later observed that most everyone in the room was laughing hysterically—everyone that is, with the exception of Elizabeth. But then, that might in part have been because she wasn’t there.
It was mid-morning on the following day that Elizabeth’s assistant Tim phoned to invite me to her house that Sunday for her annual Easter Party. “There’ll be an egg hunt and brunch and swimming for the kids,” he informed me gaily. “Oh, so then I can bring my daughter?” I asked him. Billie was about to turn six at the time. “Of course!” he cheered.
I spent the ensuing six days assembling the perfect Elizabeth egg hunt outfit.
So the following Sunday, I found myself poolside at Elizabeth’s elegant ranch home, tucked humbly into a hillside crowded with trees in the area of town referred to as the Beverly Hills. I sat in a chair near the pool and watched while Billie splashed around with the assortment of other favored children in attendance. After about half an hour or so, Elizabeth appeared in the open sliding-glass doorway wearing a colorful, age-defying dress draping over her somewhat ample iconic form. Looking every inch the aging movie star that she was—hair arranged perfectly and makeup just so—she paused, drawing any and all eyes to her as she made her way to one of the chairs situated under the umbrella near the shallow end of the pool that Billie frolicked in.
Naturally, her hair dresser José made his way confidently toward her, handing her a plate full of canapés, his cowboy hat poised atop the head that was known by many for the golden braid that made its way down to his ornate belt and belt buckle.
I stood at the pool’s edge clad in my usual black attire—worn for the rumored magically flattering effect it had on the chubbier body. (Though I was much thinner at this stage, I nonetheless imagined I was the portly person I eventually became.) Sitting in the shade drinking chilled glasses of iced tea, Elizabeth squinted through the sunshine, studying me.
“I hear there’s something we need to discuss,” she ventured, tilting her head to one side. I shrugged and approached her, nervously smiling a smile that I hoped appeared more confident than I felt.
“Not really,” I assured her, pushing my hair away from my eyes. “It just . . . well, I heard at some point that you had said something not all that great about my mom at a dinner party recently and I didn’t think that that was . . .” I searched almost my entire head for the right word, finally coming up with “polite.” As she blinked, looking past me toward the lawn opposite, I continued. “Someone told me you called my mother a Goody Two-shoes at this dinner party recently. And . . . And, I, uh . . . I just didn’t think it was all that appropriate. I mean, among other things it’s not accurate, you know? I mean, there had been a point where she might have shied away from swearing, but for many years now she’s been cursing like a sailor.”
Elizabeth frowned at this, gazing stonily at me. “I don’t remember saying that,” she said definitively, looking remarkably to me as though she actually did remember saying it. It also crossed my mildly ill-mannered mind that my father’s former wife maybe wasn’t all that accustomed to being spoken to about the possible inappropriateness of her behavior. Not that what she’d said had been that big of a deal. I just thought, you know, maybe it was time to revisit the nature of how Elizabeth viewed and/or discussed my mother in our ultimately not all that private of a life.
Elizabeth rose, her head held high, and imperiously disappeared back into the house, only to reappear a short time later. She made her way back over to the pool, where I’d returned to watch Billie and/or avoid Elizabeth.
“I’m going to push you in the pool,” she informed me. Not in a threatening way, but more as if catching me up on the afternoon’s upcoming events. I studied her. Was this a threat or a . . . threat?
“Do it,” I challenged her, causing her to tilt her head to one side, suspiciously, her eyes narrowing.
“No, you’ll just pull me in after you.” I shook my head, removing my non-waterproof watch and setting it on a nearby glass table. We studied one another in the hot sun.
“No, I won’t,” I assured her, in part because I’d recalled hearing that she’d had her hip replaced a while back, and I wasn’t anxious to rust any potential titanium additions she might now be sporting. So, with my watch now safely resting on the poolside table, I did my best to maintain my friendly—albeit respectfully challenging—expression. We continued holding each other’s gaze for the briefest amount of time, until, finally, she pushed me gleefully into her pool, causing the warm water to spray high into the air, wetting any guests who might have had the anecdotal luck to be in range. Then, with both my knees bent, I pushed my bare feet off the bottom of the pool, catapulting me back up through the water’s once-smooth surface. And, catching the fastball of my breath, I drew whatever amount of the available sunlight into my lungs and, gasping, broke free and was finally able to begin the friendship with my former stepmother. “Liz!”
I started laughing. I felt like an Olympic runner who breaks that white tape with her chest with everyone cheering wildly from the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth stood there, clapping her bejeweled hands. Somehow this entire semi-event-ish moment made perfect sense, you know? For whatever totally weird and insane reason, maybe everything in our tragically well-documented relationship had been leading up to this moment, like we’d sort of had this date from the beginning. Elizabeth was still standing at the edge of her pool watching me while I splashed around, no doubt incredibly relieved to have fulfilled our destiny. Our team—Elizabeth’s and mine—had won whatever race or game it turned out we were playing! It was all over except for the sobbing. Elizabeth, who was now kneeling down, extended her arm to help me out of the pool and back into a world where we could now have a relationship that, though born out of an ultimate tabloid phenomenon, was so lifelike it almost had a genuine quality of love.
“Get her one of my robes!” E.T. called out to Tim. “Either the violet or the yellow, whichever. Oh, and a towel!” Tim nodded as he returned to the house to do her bidding while I, having hauled my wet black ass out of the pool, now stood bent over beside Elizabeth, laughing and gasping for air. When I stood up, we slung our arms over each other’s shoulders, laughing riotously—she largely dry, and me soaked to the skin. By then, people had begun to gather around us, cheering. Around us! Elizabeth Taylor and me. Us!
Soon after, a towel was magically produced and enclosed me in its white wings, while from stage left, a Coca-Cola materialized. Eventually Tim returned with Elizabeth’s yellow muu-muu, which made me look like a tent with a head. Soon after, the ever-present hairdresser José stood poised to one side, ready in case I needed a quick blow out.
Ever since then, she loved me and I her. Simple as that. This was how we neutralized anything that might have otherwise been toxic to our situation.
A few months after that, she invited me and my mom to lunch, and to round out the table, two-blonds-and-two-brunettes-wise, I brought Meg Ryan. So it was me, my mom, Meg and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was giving Meg some romantic advice because Meg was with Russell Crowe at the time, and for whatever reason—maybe the hard-drinking-movie-star-with-a-British-Empire-accent aspect of him—Elizabeth equated Russell with Richard Burton. So we all went over to Elizabeth’s and it was—well, it was great. By then she and my mom had returned to that long-ago time in their lives when they got along really well—only my mother was now using words of the four-letter variety. We got together fairly frequently after that. Then presenting her with awards became a regular thing with us. For one of them I even thanked her for getting Eddie out of our house. Big joke, right?
But it was when we filmed These Old Broads—a TV movie I wrote—that she finally actually did apologize, for real, to my mom. I mean, she’d sort of apologized before, but now my mother told me that she’d said, “I hope if there’s any outstanding . . . you know . . . whatever . . . I . . .”
And as I watched I saw my mom following Elizabeth out of the trailer that day with tears in her eyes. It was a really nice gesture on Elizabeth’s part. I mean, you know, considering. And when Elizabeth discovered that my mother had become kind of a potty mouth, things became much easier between them. They could really be motherfucking friends again.
A few years before Elizabeth died, we were on the phone, and I asked her “Did you love my father?”
After the smallest of pauses she said, “We kept Mike Todd alive.”
The last time I spoke to Elizabeth, she called to get my father’s number because she was going to try to make amends with him or something. Apparently you get to a certain age and, if you’re still alive, you want to contact people from your past. I realized recently that Elizabeth and Eddie were married for the same amount of time as my mom and Eddie. And that whole clusterfuck of choices completely ruined his career. Just slaughtered it. Well, that and the fact that he shot speed for thirteen years—another distinction for me. I mean, who else in my class could say, “Dad, show everyone your tracks!”
The thing is, my parents weren’t really people in the traditional sense. I think this was partly because they were stars before their peopleness had a chance to form itself. The studio essentially designed my mom—they taught her to talk, had her ears surgically pinned back, shaved her eyebrows (which never grew back) and changed her name. Made her into this celebrity someone, new and improved. A STAR!
My dad’s big break happened at fourteen, which was when he was discovered by Eddie Cantor while he was singing in the Catskills. Cantor put him on his radio show, which led to him getting a record contract with RCA. A few years later, he was drafted into the Army and served his country by entertaining the troops. (There was no way my father was gonna be caught with a gun in his hand, unless we’re talking about a chocolate-scented euphemism.)
While he was in Germany, he’d apparently seen my mother in Singing in the Rain, so when he was asked, “What’s the first thing you want when you get back to America,” he said, “I want Debbie Reynolds.” So, fast as a bullet to a bad guy, a publicist simply set it up. Arranged for them to meet at a Hollywood restaurant, and from that point—I mean really from the very first few minutes—people were watching them. On their fourth date, the publicist arranged for the two cute stars to go to Yankee Stadium. As they entered the stadium, thirty thousand people stood and cheered. And that was it—the game was ON.
My mother was twenty-two, my dad twenty-six. She was known as a good girl, so he became her adorable other half. It took a lot of years for him to be known as this womanizing, drug-addled rake. It’s hard to know if he ever really loved her. I think he did in his youthful, infatuated way. I do know that they both loved being adored by millions of people they’d never meet. Who wouldn’t? I mean, except somebody secure and sane. They just happened to be treasured as a twosome. She was this really pretty, famous girl who everyone seemed to agree was adorably fun and desirable, so you gotta figure that if everybody else wanted her, well, then, he probably did, too. Right?
Everyone just seemed to love the notion of my dad and my mom together. I mean, look at them—he had black hair, she had blond hair. He could sing, she could dance. And they both had pearly white teeth—not only pearly white, but also über straight—and to top it all off, neither one was a hunchback, which put them way ahead of a small but significant portion of the population right there. Bottom line: the two of them looked like a perfect teensy couple that could be found perched optimistically on a wedding cake.
They were good for show business, so what the hell, they just went with it. I honestly think they were just kind of swept along. I don’t think they really had any idea who the other one was. What they did know was that they had a big impact on a lot of people when they were together. They were America’s Sweethearts, they embodied the American ideal, they belonged to the fans who had invested all this energy in their unbelievably cute coupleness. So, when it all went so incredibly wrong, people felt betrayed.
I really think there was a point when one—or maybe both of them, but certainly him—kind of said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second. How did we end up here! Whose idea was it to fucking get married?” But by then they’d been cast as husband and wife in the most popular early version of a reality show ever. So in a way, they kind of lost their vote in the whole thing. I’ll bet they spent more time together in front of the camera than they did when the cameras weren’t around. Certainly the time in front was probably a lot more fun.
So there you go. This was the dream, that elusive fantabulous American dream. The dream where these two little ordinary anybodies from nowhere all of a sudden had everything, demonstrating perfectly what was not only possible in America, but what was great about it! Two poor kids who had just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps meet, fall in love, have a few children, and BOOM! Happily ever after the deluge!
Cut to a million years later and now one of those two children of that couple with their wonderful life was twenty-one and living in New York, and one day she was taking this cooking class from some Yugoslavian woman who felt that it was not only necessary but important to tell her, “I hate your father. He is a not good, very very bad, mean, mean man. Your mother, she is an angel—a good woman, yes?” She shook her head emphatically and repeated, “Your father, him I hate. Also the woman who is Elizabeth Taylor, no good. You cannot trust a lady like that. A lady with the black hair.” She made a spitting sound. It was as though she wasn’t talking about real people, and certainly not real people who were related to me and who maybe it might not be appropriate to speak about like that.
You know how when people pass away they leave instructions as to what to do with what remains? I believe they’re referred to as “wills”—but then so is one of those two princes in Great Britain.
True to form, my father continued to neglect his parental duties in death as he did in life. No last will and testament, no wishes or instructions on where he wished to be buried or however else his remains or possessions should be disposed of, was found among his effects. This could be because he essentially left nothing behind, but I also think that, having never done anything that could be misconstrued for some kind of responsible act, why start now? Why begin at the end?
So without any last wishes to guide us, Eddie’s offspring—myself, Joely and Trisha (Todd having chosen not to attend the division of my father’s lack of spoils)—descended on his little Berkeley cottage overlooking the bay. The nice thing about all this was there was nothing for the three of us to fight over. Oh, there was a piano, an assortment of sheet music, a closet full of clothes that hadn’t been worn in over a decade, a watch, and the one item ultimately worth coveting—my dad’s diamond pinky ring that he’d worn for as long as any of us could remember.
This famously flashy multi-faceted diamond ring was the one and only item that any of us wanted. And I thought it only fair(ish) that, since I was the main one of us to look after him in his declining years, this ring should go to me, and then eventually to my uniquely spectacular child.
A few years prior to his final decline, I’d moved my dad from his San Francisco apartment which was located on a hill directly across the street from Grace Cathedral and reinstalled him in a little white house in the Berkeley hills with a spectacular view of the bay and bridge, all of whose charms were, alas, lost to my ailing parent, whose gaze remained faithfully fixed on the iconic vistas of CNN. Eventually I realized that I’d simply moved him from one bedroom on one side of the Bay Bridge to another bedroom on the other. But while he may not have been impressed with the view, he had become much more involved with me. Or was it me that had gotten more involved with him? The bottom line—one of the few my father failed to snort—is that we had both become increasingly involved with one another, finally and for the first time in our once strangely uninvolved lives.
Somewhere along this line I finally found that maybe I had to stop waiting around for him to give me something he probably didn’t—at least not in any conventional sense—actually have to give. But, what if that turned out to be enough! Or how about if it were more than I could have ever imagined getting—especially given how low, bordering on nonexistent, my expectations actually were. But there I was, looking after him in those last however many years. I talked to his doctors, keeping in constant contact not only with him, but with his ever-changing, reliably constant rotation of Asian caregivers who not only rolled his joints, changed his jammies, administered his medication, and fed him his meals, but also routinely scrubbed the age lines that regularly creased his pale worn skin till it seemed to return to its former appearance of being both shiny and uncommonly smooth.
The ladies held on to both his watch and pinky ring for me after they’d been removed following his recent unsuccessful surgery. And holding his ring in the flat of my hand, I remembered the square-shaped stone sparkle as he nervously gripped my upper arm as we stood dead center stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where I had been performing my show Wishful Drinking. On this particular evening my father had attended my show, accompanied by his two nurses Sarah and Augy, his dealer Randy (naturally), and his little dog Minnie. The audience applauded wildly as I stood beside my beaming father, his head hunched over and his left leg jiggling nervously. When the applause finally subsided, I leaned down to him and whispered, “Do you want to sing ‘If I Loved You?’ ” I asked him this tentatively, with my shoulders scrunched up high, and he began to laugh, his eyes shining.
“Of course!” he replied enthusiastically.
So, I held my hand up in order to silence the cheering crowd and told them, “My dad and I are going to sing the song we always sang together, ever since I was a little girl. It’s the song ‘If I Loved You’ from the show Carousel.” And as the audience’s clapping and cheering once more subsided, I kneeled down next to him, my face upturned to his and, with his gaze fixed tightly to mine and after a hush no bigger than your fist, we began to sing—face to face, voice to voice, each wound round the other, father and daughter, two voices, no waiting, one song. My father, wheelchair-bound at my side, riding the song to the end of its harmonious journey. And as the last note slowly faded back to silence, the crowd rose to its feet as one, cheering. My father sat quite still, holding my hand, seemingly absorbing his ovati