Two Flawed Jewish Geniuses

At one point, Tony Curtis and Eddie Fisher represented a new realm of possibilities for a middle-class Jewish boy—but their personal lives would ultimately mar their status as idols.

It is of course a very sad thing that Tony Curtis has died and it is even a sadder thing that Eddie Fisher is also gone because they were, in their own ways, great talents and also because they were, in the same way, role models for countless middle-class Jewish boys of a certain era. I am talking, of course, of moi.

It was well known in my neighborhood that Curtis had been born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, and Fisher was still Fisher, a middle-class Jewish kid from Philadelphia. They were both revered, not just for their talents but because they had seduced and even married women of incredible beauty and gentileness. In Fisher’s case, his first wife was the incredibly American Debbie Reynolds, a woman so cute and wholesome she was the female equivalent of Wonder Bread. And his second wife was the astonishingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, who was eclipsed only—and then only briefly—by Ava Gardner in the 1948 movie, One Touch of Venus. Oy!

As for Curtis, not only did he play leading men and beat up other men and outdraw them in Westerns, but he married the quite unbelievable Janet Leigh, who was a reigning shiksa goddess of the time—that time being my adolescence. It was, of course, a matter of some sadness in the extended community that neither Leigh nor Taylor were Jews themselves (although Taylor had converted when she had earlier married Michael Todd, and is listed in Wikipedia in the category “British Jews”) but this was of no great import to me. As far as I could tell, anyone could marry a Jewish woman—all the men in my family had done so, after all, and so had just about everyone in the neighborhood. It was marrying a stunning non-Jewish woman that was the real triumph. Fisher and Curtis showed it could be done.

All that is history now, and a sad one it is. Fisher was flagrantly cuckolded by Taylor as the whole world watched the filming of Cleopatra in Rome. Even before that, he had left Reynolds for Taylor and it had severely damaged his fan base. (Lesson to Jewish boys: If you marry a Real American, you’d better stick with the Real American.) He then went on to marry several times more and make a general fool of himself.

Fisher’s first wife was the incredibly American Debbie Reynolds, a woman so cute and wholesome she was the female equivalent of Wonder Bread.

Curtis did the same. He left Leigh for a 17-year-old model whom he later married. He philandered marvelously, indefatigably, and this, too, cost him. As with Fisher, he stayed around to play the fool (Fisher played the sucker also) and they both, to my chagrin, tumbled out of my pantheon, becoming anti-role models until the end of their lives. They had everything a man could want, except everything a man ought to have—self-discipline and values. May they rest, finally, in peace.

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Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.