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How Elizabeth Taylor Humiliated Eddie Fisher—At Home

My name is Fred Oates. I am Italian. For three whole months, from November, 1961, till February, 1962, I had the privilege of being the butler in the Roman residence of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. All the time I lived under their roof, I shared Mrs. Elizabeth’s secrets and I was tolerated as a witness to the quite intimate life of the famous couple. I have to state in advance that when I left the Fishers after ninety days of honorable service, I did so because the situation became embarrassing. When I entered their house, I had the intention of serving them both with the very same faithfulness and consideration but, owing to Mrs. Fisher’s temper and to some other particular circumstances which I shall mention later on, this became impossible. The moment has come when I should speak a little about Mr. Eddie. He’s a very good man—generous, discreet, tolerant, unselfish and, as far as I am concerned.

a bit too submissive. During the time I lived with them, I discovered in him not so much a husband in love with his wife, but a man who was sacrificing himself for the love of his wife. He was aware of his sacrifice, but he did it for her profit and without hoping to get anything for himself. I am sure that Mr. Eddie considered himself for those last three years only someone acting for the good of Elizabeth Taylor. He took care of her, her children and her business without asking for a thing—not even to use the little time that was left for the music he simply adores. He was happy only with what he was doing and happy to be going on doing it. If this definition of Mr. Fisher hadn’t already been told from one friend of theirs to another, I would have liked to have said it: “He is the vestal who takes care night and day of the sacred fire of the goddess Liz.” And in judging the events of the menage of the Fishers I found out that I started to take Mr. Eddie’s side while I would criticize certain attitudes of Mrs. Elizabeth. This was precisely the opposite of what I had in mind when I started serving them. I therefore came to the conclusion that it was much better for me to resign than to live in that situation, and I left the Fishers’ villa on February fourth last.

I left many illusions behind me, but in my suitcase I had my every day’s diary of the last three months. I had carefully written down everything that had happened in the Fisher household . . .

My faithful diary justifies my attitude in many episodes, and to demonstrate, here is an example in which the protagonists and the victims were at the same time two of the very best friends of Elizabeth Taylor: Audrey Hepburn and her husband, Mel Ferrer.

Audrey Hepburn was invited for dinner at the villa on a night at the end of December. “There will be six people for dinner tonight, at 7:30 P.M.,” Mr. Fisher told me in the morning. The four guests (Audrey and Mel Ferrer, her sister and her sister’s husband) arrived on time. Later on the hosts, who had been held up at Cinecittà Studios, arrived. Elizabeth Taylor, as always after a long day of work, appeared to be tired and rather nervous. At the bar, which had been set up in a corner of the lounge, she was very nice and even succeeded in being a perfect hostess—she gave suggestions about the drinks, took part in the conversation and even paid a compliment to Mrs. Ferrer.

Then her way of acting changed completely.

When it was time to sit down for dinner, Mr. Fisher thought of informing the guests that the different courses would have to be brought rather rapidly as to enable his wife to go to bed early. He apologized for this, and added that he hoped they would understand this, being actors themselves, and would forgive an actress who spent almost twelve hours on the set every day.

I noticed (and the four guests did too, I am positive about it) that Mrs. Taylor had accompanied her husband’s words with a gesture of impatience; and when he turned towards her, he was rather surprised in noticing that her mood had completely changed. “But Elizabeth,” he told her very patiently, “you know that you have to be careful about your health, and that you have to go to bed early.” What followed was very embarassing both for the guests and for myself. Elizabeth Taylor got up angrily from her chair and left without saying a word. When she was near me she stopped for a moment and said: “Bring my dinner up in my room, Fred, I am going to eat alone.” She then walked very rapidly up the stairs towards her apartment.

The dinner had had an unhappy start. Half an hour later (I had just taken her plate and silver away from the table and was going to bring it to Madame up in her room) Elizabeth Taylor once more came downstairs. She wore a pink nightgown and a white bathrobe of “crepe.” She sat at the table and asked her husband why her plate wasn’t there any longer. Trying to help Mr. Fisher, I thought of telling her that I had merely done what she told me to. “I was just going to bring your dinner up to your room,” I said. Madame looked at me in such a dramatic way that she made me think that maybe she still thought of being on the set. She probably realized it, too, since her tone of voice changed completely and she said rather ironically: “Well, if my dinner is ready, then I shall go up to my room and eat it.” After this she got up and left, and didn’t come back. She probably did not know that she had succeeded in making her guests uncomfortable . . . and this was at a dinner that should have been rather “formal.”

I never understood the reason for her irritable attitude, and I tried to figure out if it was due to her little physical strength and to her difficult profession, or if it was her own temper. It is therefore understandable that when I have to answer the questions of people who ask me how this famous Elizabeth Taylor really is, I use the word that English-speaking people apply to little children: spoiled. But to tell the truth, I think that Mrs. Taylor has a lot in common with the little spoiled children who tend to consider themselves the center of the world and to think that everybody is always at their disposal.

And the people around her help give her that impression. . . .

During a weekend the episode which, in my diary, goes under the name “The incident of the phone call,” took place. One evening, towards 9:00 P.M., the phone rang. The Fishers had finished eating a while before and were probably already resting. I took the phone call which came from Beverly Hills, from the parents of Elizabeth Taylor. I was previously ordered not to pass any phone call which would come to the villa after 9:00 P.M., but on that evening, and considering where it came from too, I passed it through the house-line to their apartment. Mr. Eddie answered it. He spoke in a low voice and didn’t seem to appreciate my initiative. “Sorry,” I answered, “I thought that it might have been something important.” From the way he spoke to me I understood that he had accepted my apologies. “Don’t accept the call, Fred,” he said, “and remember that there isn’t anything more important than the sleep and rest of Elizabeth Taylor.”

Mrs. Taylor’s health is very fragile. She isn’t physically very strong and she is undoubtedly very nervous. I wrote in my diary “January 12: nervous breakdown of Madame, who left Cinecittà studios and came home.” It is always like this at the end of the week. She is tired, one can notice it right away, because her face is very pale. She looks to me as if she only could stand on will power. She eats like a bird: orange juice in the morning and coffee and the usual can of chili in the evening. Her lunch at Cinecittà studios, as far as I know, is never more than a small piece of fried chicken.

I often ask myself how this woman can stand to work fifty hours a week on the set, practically always standing and always under flood lights. I have the impression that Mrs. Taylor started working too soon after the very serious illness she had in London. I know that the doctors told the producers that she could face the effort of making a film, but it is obvious that if she could have had six more months of rest her health could have improved a lot.

I thought about this, since I saw her go out only once, during my whole stay, on the weekends. She spent them in bed, and left the room only to enable the servants to sweep and change the linen every day.

Another indication of her ill health was due to something which had happened some days before. On an afternoon in the middle of the week Elizabeth Taylor came back from the studios at 4:00 P.M.—three hours earlier than usual. The bell rang and as I went to open the door I saw the car (given to the Fishers by the producers) in front and the driver as he ran towards the back seat with a pair of crutches. Mrs. Taylor was very pale, and her face had that expression showing physical pain that she had in the pictures taken last year in a London hospital. She slowly got out of the car and took the crutches. I promptly offered my help, too, and asked her what was the matter. “Nothing, Fred,” she answered. “I am only tired, very tired.” She was brought up to her room, and after a while she received the visit of Doctor Pennington, her personal doctor. For three days she had to stay in bed without moving, and when, on the following Monday, she went back to the studios, she still wasn’t feeling well and had the left leg completely bandaged.

Madame’s cigarettes

But the reason of her ill health is not why she seems so spoiled. Mrs. Elizabeth has some eccentricities, like some other film stars, and these whims are catered to by everyone who knows her.

First of all. I have to inform you that Elizabeth Taylor never uses matches which are commonly sold on the market, nor does she light her cigarettes with a lighter. She uses only matches which I think she gets from 20th Century-Fox. Since I could only get a few at a time, they are probably made for her alone. They are made of shining wood with golden heads, and they are closed in elegant boxes which have on the outside a small reproduction of very famous paintings.

Mrs. Taylor smokes generally a pack of cigarettes a day, and since she never uses the same holder more than twice I figured that she needed at least ten holders a day. What really struck me, when I first started to serve there, wasn’t the number of these gadgets which were to be found all over the place, but their colors. I found out the reason for it on the occasion of a party where Mrs. Taylor wore a green outfit. She ordered us to set the table with a turquoise table cloth and to put on it the box with the emerald-colored holders.

It was exactly that evening when I was given a new duty concerning the cigarette holders. I had to have a new box of holders in the proper colors ready every morning and had to give them to Madame before she left for the Cinecittà studios. I had to choose the ones for the evenings (paying particular attention in the evenings when there was to be a party) so that they would not only match the color of her outfit, but also the color of her tablecloth.

I tried to do my best as to accomplish these duties, but became gradually aware of the fact that I would find it rather difficult to get used to the American way of thinking in a house ruled by the moods of a film star and of a singer.

But now, when I think about these episodes, I do sometimes believe that before condemning Elizabeth Taylor one should consider the mitigating circumstances. Living there three months, I think, helped me to understand her situation—a situation of a woman who is, day in and day out, in the position of having to live up to the growing and at times inhuman exigencies of life as a number one star. This too explains, in a way, why she is so spoiled and why she lacks consideration for others and even why she is so extravagant.

Her clothes, her jewels, her colored cigarette holders and the specially prepared matches were not the only methods Mrs. Taylor used to remind herself that she is a star. But they were used like dope—to be taken daily to keep that self-excitement that she needed to survive outside the set.

She is probably the only actress who has, as far as I know, a manuscript bound in Moroccan leather. And I know, for having seen it under the Christmas tree, that her set chair, which she used to rest in while working at the studios, was similar to the manuscript. Instead of being simply made, as all other ones, of cloth and painted wood, with the name of the star it belongs to on the back, the one of Madame has been made with a special kind of wood from California and Russian leather by a Roman artisan. The chair was a veritable masterpiece, and I know it had been paid for by Mr. Mankiewicz.

Bath by candlelight

The furniture of her private bath revealed her movie-star taste. Elizabeth Taylor wanted her bathroom floor covered with a white woolen carpet, just like the one she had in the nearby room. The bathtub, very elegant and very low, had a big mirror around it and nearby there were three green crystal candle holders of Murano and white candles. I have no doubt that Mrs. Taylor took her two daily baths (one at 7:30 A.M. and the other at 8:00 P.M.) in the candlelight. I think she did it, besides the fact that it was very fashionable, because the lights often went off in the villa.

But besides her wilfulness and eccentricities, there was also, at certain times, a sort of mystery curtain around Mrs. Taylor and her villa . . . and a strange atmosphere of conspiracy created in the house by the people very near to the Fishers. In the case I am referring to, mystery could be felt in the air already at the beginning of December, and in spite of my trying to find out something, I didn’t succeed in it till the 15th of the same month. On that date, Dick Hanley, the secretary of Elizabeth Taylor, called me on the phone and told me to have the guest room, near the one of the Fishers, thoroughly cleaned. “Try and have it disinfected too,” he told me, “but do it without any fuss. The guest is supposed to be a surprise for Mr. Fisher.”

This didn’t convince me at all, since Eddie Fisher found out about it right away—and even had he not been aware of it, he could very easily have guessed what was going on. Two days later we were told that “one of Mrs. Taylor’s relatives will bring a baby along.” It was easy to understand that this had been said in order to justify the many objects which were brought to the villa on the same afternoon: a high chair, a small plastic bathtub and lots of baby clothes.

The time draws near

Starting from the morning of December 20th, I realized from little signs that the baby’s arrival was near. When I brought Mrs. Taylor’s breakfast to her bed, I groped about trying to find the light and a place for the breakfast tray on the table beside the bed which was regularly full of all sorts of things, starting from bottles and various other containers, cosmetics, remedies and such. Unfortunately I walked on the tail of Teresa, the favorite dog of Madame, and, in any case, the only one of the five dogs of the Fishers, which (maybe on account of the fact that it had been one of the first gifts to Madame of the late Mike Todd) had the privilege of sleeping always in their bedroom. The dog yelped and to make it worse Mr. Fisher woke up in the darkened room and started to ask for an explanation.

This accident had happened before, but on that morning, instead of casting an annoyed look on me, as she usually did, Mrs. Taylor smiled at me. It must really have been a very important day to start so well.

In the afternoon the Fishers received a lot of phone calls from abroad, which made me think that something must have happened to someone very dear to them. The last one came from Munich, and was for Mrs. Taylor. It must have brought to her dramatic news, since I saw her collapse on the chair of the office, trying to hold the receiver with one hand and to keep her head up with the other. I couldn’t get anything of what was said on the phone, since she had already started to cry. When she got up she was still crying and went slowly upstairs to her room. The servants were told that a girl friend of Mrs. Taylor was very ill, and that she was very upset about it. But it was quite obvious to everyone that it was the baby who was ill. We thought: Maybe something happened to it and it won’t come anymore. But the last communication of Richard Hanley, Mrs. Taylor’s secretary, made us change our minds. “Is everything ready?” he asked. “The guest will arrive tomorrow.”

The little orphan girl arrived in the evening of December 21. I was the first one to see her and welcome her, since Mr. Fisher was upstairs and Mrs. Elizabeth was working.

As soon as she saw him, Maria liked her adoptive father Mr. Fisher. She was only eleven months old, but she was already a charmer. She let him play with her tiny hand and decided to repay all his compliments by an adorable smile which showed the presence of two front teeth (which weren’t any bigger than two rice grains) in the upper gum. Half an hour later Mrs. Taylor arrived from Cinecittà studios. She must have already known about the arrival, since she walked in quickly, threw the sweater she wore on a couch and went, without hesitating, up the stairs which led to the apartment, sure to find there the little girl about whose health she had worried so much twenty-four hours before.

The Fishers would usually dine upstairs after Madame came back from the studios (that is to say between 7:00 and 7:30 P.M.), but on that night they seemed to have forgotten all about their appetites. Only towards 9:00 P.M., after two hours in the nursery, Madame called me on the housephone to come upstairs.

Maria’s effect on Madame

I can’t recall any other moment where the actress made me forget her attitude towards those who worked for her. On the contrary, on that occasion, Madame showed understanding and kindness, two qualities that before and after that I never had the pleasure to notice in her. I often thought about that, and have no doubts now, that only the presence of the little Maria could have produced such a change, even if only for a short time, on her temper.

p I knocked at the door of the nursery thinking that Madame called me just to order her dinner, and in that case, Mr. Fisher would have come to the door to take care of it for her. That evening it was different, though. As a matter of fact, while I was trying to open the door, Madame told me: “Come in, Fred.” I didn’t know what the orders were going to be, and therefore I left the door opened, thinking to leave right away. But Elizabeth Taylor must have wanted me to watch the scene she was interpreting with the help of Eddie Fisher and the little Maria. After asking me to come in, she pointed at the little brass bed and with a kind smile I had never seen before on her face, she told me: “This is Maria, Fred.” For a while she let Mr. Fisher and myself watch the baby and listened to our compliments. Then she started to talk about the baby and herself in a very different way from the one I was used to, softly, and rather hesitating, not as sure of herself as usual: “I can’t very well explain what this little girl means to me, Fred, try and understand it alone. The only thing I want to tell you is that she means so much to me that I’ve decided to adopt her and love her as much as Michael, Christopher and Liza. Now you know it, and I am very confident that you won’t talk about it. Until all the papers for the adoption have been filled out completely, this news must remain just among us.”

It was quite easy, during the following days, to discover the illness of the little girl, whereas it was rather hard to find out something about her adoption. It seems that Maria was born in Bayern during the month of February of 1961. In the beginning Maria’s life was in danger, since the baby was born asphyxiated and had the subluxation of the hip and the dislocation of the right femur.

With the help of some other information, I could even be almost sure that Dr. Horst Haechler, husband of the actress Maria Schell, and as far as I know, former child-specialist, was the first one to talk to the Fishers about Maria. Mrs. Taylor is a very good friend of Maria Schell, and I guessed from all the phone-calls which came daily from Munich, where the Haechlers live, that they must have had a very important part in Maria’s adoption.

In spite of all the difficult words doctors use to write on her clinical picture, and of her bandage which didn’t leave her completely free in her movements, the little girl seemed to be in good health and not to resent at all the consequences of the accident at the moment of her birth. The little girl is adorable, she is a blonde with blue eyes, which look very much like the ones of her adoptive mother, and she seemed to have a good temper.

I think that the Fishers encouraged her tendency of liking people too much. That is to say they made her lead a social life which was simply too tiresome for a little girl a year old.

Mrs. Taylor wanted to have her in her arms whenever she came in, with the excuse of showing her to her friends that still didn’t know her, and when she had guests she always wanted her in the lounge or in the dining room, and this even during certain hours of the day where a baby should reasonably be in bed. Mr. Fisher, who simply adored her, seemed to need her presence even when he took his daily bath. He often asked Bertha, Maria’s nurse, to bring him the little girl and made her sit on the highchair near the bathtub, while he hopped in the water and started to splash and play until the little girl smiled at him.

But all this intensive life started to have a negative influence on Maria’s leg. Fifteen days after her arrival, the little girl started to lose her appetite and cried all night long. Bertha informed Mrs. Taylor about it right away and she called a doctor. On that same evening Maria’s leg was put into a cast from the hip to the malleolus. This was done by a doctor who had been chosen very carefully. But, still, when Mrs. Taylor found out that he was a Roman doctor, she did everything to try and hide from him the true identity of the little girl, and the precautions she took seemed a bit curious to me.

The masquerade

Mrs. Taylor’s makeup expert, Viviane, and her husband were supposed to act as if they were the little girl’s parents, and I was told to address Viviane as “Madame.” When Maria was taken home I was ordered to lock the three children in a room and to turn all the lights of the villa out, except the one of the hall and the one of the office.

Then I was supposed to make everything disappear which could reveal Elizabeth Taylor lived in that house. The picture of Mike Todd happened therefore to end up between the marriage license of Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor and the picture of the two children Mr. Fisher had with Debbie Reynolds. But the most humiliating destiny was the one of the Academy Award statue, which I put with little respect in the silver drawer. But in spite of all these precautionary measures which, in a certain sense had a tragicomical taste, I don’t think that the Roman doctor, when he left the villa, still ignored the identity of its owners. An episode that took place on the following day made me think that he might have had some suspicions about it.

I don’t know whether the doctor forgot his notebook in Maria’s nursery by chance or on purpose, but there it was. On the following morning, when Bertha gave it to me, I promptly called the doctor up to tell him that I would send one of the two drivers with his notebook. The doctor thanked me, but said that it wasn’t worth taking out a car for it, and that he would pass the villa himself in a few hours. When he came to get it, he smiled at me, winking at the same time with an air of silent complicity.

The masquerade that Mrs. Taylor put up to hide her identity to the doctor wasn’t the only peculiar episode that took place at the villa in connection with Maria’s presence.

Another one concerned Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and the poor Bertha. When the three of them had to enter or go near the nursery, they would put on an antiseptic mask which was very similar to one used by surgeons when they are operating. This sight was ridiculous. But even more ridiculous was the complete uselessness of this hygenic precaution in an apartment where five dogs and four cats were completely free to go around as they pleased and to do all that any animal does when it has the run of the house.

But I found the most revealing thing about Mrs. Taylor is her closet. Even if I would never have had the chance of taking a look at Liz Taylor’s wardrobe, I would by now know that the one who ruled the Fisher place wasn’t the husband. but the wife. One can’t be married to a woman who owns ninety-seven pairs of slacks without running the risk of having her rule over him. And I was so deeply convinced about this that every time I answered the phone it would come natural to me to say “Taylors’ residence” instead of “Fishers’ residence.” Naturally I never did it. but only on account of the respect I had for Mr. Fisher and not for the sake of saying the truth.

At the Cinecittà studios and at home as well, everything depended upon Liz’ orders and in consideration of her wishes. I am not saying that this wasn’t fair (after all she is the one who owns all the money), but all I want to say is that after all, at least in front of the servants, she could have let Mr. Fisher act like the head of the house.

Anyone who reads my memoirs may ask why I never spoke about the three children of Elizabeth Taylor. The fact is, that during my three months’ stay, I saw them so seldom together with their mother, that if I had to express an opinion about her motherly love, based on what I saw, I would have to say that it is a bit lacking. On the contrary, Mr. Fisher (who isn’t the father of his wife’s children), didn’t let a day pass by without trying to give them the love that they should have gotten from their mother.

I don’t think, though, that one should judge Mrs. Taylor as a woman lacking of feeling, with no sensibility or maternal love. It is my opinion that her free-and-easy approach to her duties of mother and wife was due to a psychological distortion, owing to her profession and popularity. She was always a star—in the beginning as “enfant prodige,” later on as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I think she sometimes resented the above mentioned fact. I always noticed in all her emotional manifestations that her biggest problem was to secure to herself a public ready to see and appreciate them. . . . This way of acting might be questionable, hut it shows at least the existence of a certain sensibility.

The sleepless nights of Mr. Fisher

But her behavior to Eddie—that was a different story. His devotion to his wife touched at times heroism. We can’t talk about conjugal egoism when a man used to lead a night life, or better, used to take night for day and not going to bed before five o’clock in the morning, takes up his wife’s habits so much as to close his door at nine o’clock in the evening. I am talking about this, because I am convinced that the “Nine O’Clock Retreat” (as the servants called it) was the most irksome duty that he had taken upon himself as prince-consort, and probably the only one that he couldn’t get used to very easily.

Eddie Fisher would every night retire together with Madame at nine o’clock sharp, but every night, between midnight and one A.M., we could see him get up and walk around the villa. I have to admit that it wasn’t a happy sight. In those circumstances Mr. Fisher would offer a very touching image of himself; the one of a man who in spite of everything was still used to setting his watch on the ones of Las Vegas nightclubs much more than on the Egyptian sun dial of Cleopatra.

One night, when his insomnia seemed more unbearable than ever, and when his walking around had brought him to the servants’ hall where I was taking care of the monthly bookkeeping of the house, I got the nerve to tell him: “Mr. Fisher, why don’t we put our jackets on and go out together? I know some of the Rome-by-night places that are just right for someone who doesn’t want to sleep.” He smiled at me very pathetically, and the way he gently patted my shoulder made me understand that he had appreciated my butler’s solidarity. But the husband in love won once more over the man who loves night life: “Thank you, Fred,” he told me, “but for me now there is only Elizabeth Taylor, her work, her worries. I have to stay with her and near her.” And before starting to walk around the villa again, maybe thinking that I hadn’t fully understood what he meant, he added: “These sacrifices can be done for Liz and her happiness.”

Soon after he said those words, Mrs. Taylor was through with him. Now Eddie Fisher will never have to make those sacrifices again. . . .




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