Milton Berle’s Suite
[Editor’s Note: This is the third of three excerpts from “A Redneck's Progress: A Memoir,” an autobiography Mr. Meachum has been writing for some time. Be aware that Mr. Meachum was a comrade- in-arms with the late pop singer Eddie Fisher during their U. S. Army days and after. Mr. Fisher passed away last week at the age of 82.]
Over the years since Army Band days, Eddie Fisher and I played a now-and-again role in each other’s life, notably one morning in Milton Berle’s suite at the Essex House, loaned to my friend. At the time, I was in New York on National Symphony business. He did his Coca Cola show; he and Debbie Reynolds had become an “item” in the gossip columns. We had dinner the night before and I slept in the suite’s second bedroom.
The conversation started in our boxer shorts and T-shirts; most men then did not sleep in pajamas. On the top shelf of the mostly empty bookcase rested a box of Cuba’s finest cigars: Romeo y Julia, Churchill size, the longest available; he offered me the first choice and then selected one for himself. I never knew where the cutter came from. There was a lighter on the table. We continued the discussion started the night before, now smoking very expensive cigars, like boys with corn silks. The topic was the possibility of his marriage to Debbie. The argument ran along the lines:
“Forget about it,” I said. “She’s a fundamentalist Christian.”
“What does that mean?” he shot back.
I knew born-again Christians did not then announce themselves to the world. Fundamentalist was anyone who read and believed in the Bible, holding personal conduct to the highest religious expectation.
“You’re not much of a Jew,” I said. “You only go to shul when somebody dies. Maybe for a bar mitzvah, at times. But Debbie, with all love and best intentions, will make your life a living hell.”
This was the level of the debate, delivered with little rancor. We had been each other’s best friend in our Army time; we remained very close still. Eddie rejected my version of this future and talked about how he and Debbie enjoyed a meeting of minds about every detail in their married life; I doubted principally because I had a measure of her faith and his lack of religion. Anyway, that morning we smoked Romeo and Julias while we continued to press the argument, on each side.
At a lull in the discussion, for whatever reason he sauntered from his chair reached for the bookcase and dropped a prayer cap lightly on his hair and went on talking and smoking.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A yarmulke,” he said.
“You know I know that very well. What is it doing here? I thought it belonged to Berle.”
“It’s mine,” he said almost cheerily. “For when my son makes Bar Mitzvah.”
“Give me the crap about meeting of minds,” I said, rising from the Essex House stuffed chair. “I’m going to hit the shower.”
Of course they married; they came back east to promote their film, “Bundle of Joy.” I was invited to join them in the limo for the New York premiere. She was nice, always, maybe because I was married with children.
FOOTNOTE: She became nicer after the divorce, I discovered, when she opened at the National Theatre in Gower Champion’s version of “Irene.” Daughter Carrie Fisher was in the chorus. Debbie Reynolds talked family talk with me, asking for my wife and Tommy whom her husband saw the first days he was home from Walter Reed. Eddie was never mentioned, nor was Elizabeth Taylor.
Copyright 2010.Roy Meachum
[Mr. Meachum’s “journey” with Mr. Fisher will conclude tomorrow.]