Connie Stevens: A Cricket in the House
This is an odd little feature from the October 1990 issue of Movieline magazine. Charles Oakley goes on a tour of Connie Stevens’ house which she had recently rented to Mike Nichols for use in the movie Postcards From the Edge. Postcards was based on Carrie Fisher’s novel of the same name which was a fictionalized account of her relationship with her mother. Fisher’s mother is Debbie Reynolds, the first wife of singer Eddie Fisher. Stevens was Fisher’s third of five wives and Carrie Fisher’s stepmom. Awkward!
After a life spent in Tinseltown, Stevens was reinventing herself as a make-up mogul selling cosmetics on the Home Shopping Network.
In the late 1930s, Sonja Henie, the Norwegian ice skating movie novelty whose salary topped Shirley Temple’s and Clark Gable’s, hired an architect to design for her the ne plus ultra of Beverly Hills movie star showplaces. Chez Henie, designed by Paul Williams, turned out to be a surprisingly graceful, three-story colonial on five terraced acres fitted out not only with standard movie star trappings–sweeping circular drive and imposing staircase, swimming pool and sunken tennis courts–but also with quirky nods to Henie’s heritage: hand-carved woodworking with kitschy Scandinavian motifs. Although Henie doesn’t skate here anymore (she died richer than God, in Oslo in 1969), in one of those corkscrew ironies that are everyday occurrences in Hollywood, I find myself one night at a party in her former home, gazing upon that once and future million-dollar mermaid, Esther Williams–Henie’s ’50s counterpart–elegantly beached on a chaise by the swimming pool.
A few weeks later, I conjure up the image for actress-singer Connie Stevens, who bought Henie’s manse in the ’70s and has lived there since. As it turns out, Stevens, whose career has had its share of chutes and ladders, can relate a few ironies of her own. “In the past, I’d leased out the house for a few years to people like Herb Alpert,” she explains, looking and sounding not unlike the teen idol she was when she played perky singer/photographer Cricket Blake on TV’s “Hawaiian Eye” in the late ’50s. “I went to Montreal last year to do a TV series and a friend told me that Mike Nichols was looking for a house to shoot a movie in–I didn’t know which movie. I thought: ‘My girls are gone. The house is empty. I don’t know where life is going to take me.‘ So, we made the deal.” Nothing unusual there. Nothing, that is, except that the movie to be shot in her home was Postcards From the Edge, from Carrie Fisher’s scabrous novel about a smart, drug-prone, Carrie-like actress and her platitude-spouting, show biz war horse, Debbie Reynolds-like mom.
Connie Stevens, as any Hollywood scandal aficionado knows, shares with Debbie Reynolds an ex-husband–Eddie Fisher, father of Carrie–who, you’ll doubtless recall, left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor (whom he later divorced), then went on to father two daughters with Stevens, Tricia Leigh, and Joely. That means, Stevens rented out her home to a film crew shooting a fictionalized movie version of the life of her ex-stepdaughter’s tsuris with her ex-husband’s ex-wife. Got that? Good. “It became a nightmare,” says Stevens of the filming. “I’m glad they weren’t here long enough to really stick their imprint into the house.”
The occasion for my first glimpse of the soon-to-be-seen-in-a-major-motion-picture house was a party/publicity wallow thrown by Stevens to toast her latest incarnation, diva for “Connie Stevens Forever Spring,” the cosmetics line she created and sells on TV’s Home Shopping Network. Amid sympatico lighting and Rosebowl float-sized flower arrangements, such always-will-be’s, used-to-be’s, and almost-were’s as Cesar Romero, Jane Withers, Anne Jeffreys, Gloria De Haven, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Eva Gabor, Frankie Avalon, Jack Jones, Peter Brown, and Nancy Sinatra kissed for the cameras and noshed fabulous catered food.
Meanwhile, Connie Stevens associations flitted through my head like flash cards from the ’50s and ’60s: Four years of TV stardom that led to over 200 magazine covers and such hit records as “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” and “Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)”… Stevens whispering to Grant Williams in Susan Slade, “We’ve been sinful,” and to Troy Donahue in Parrish, “When it gets too hot, I sleep raw”–before she loses Troy to a crewful of hunky submarine mates… Two widely publicized marriages to James Stacy and boy tenor Fisher… Quitting Warner Bros, for shoving her into drive-in fare like Palm Springs Weekend and Two on a Guillotine rather than roles she wanted in My Fair Lady and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…. Losing to Sandy Duncan (!) the movie version of the role Stevens created on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl… Making it big as a Vegas nightclub headliner… Giving her Monroe-like all (and showing it all too, at least for Europe) as “The Sex Symbol” on TV in 1974… Careening from a slam-bang quickie, Scorchy, to a stint on commercials as the Ace Hardware Girl, to knowing self-parody in Grease 2 and Back to the Beach. And now, for a new decade, Connie Stevens reinvents herself as makeup mogul and throws a splashy, media-heavy launch that puts her back in the spotlight. As I looked around at the room filled with icons of old Hollywood, I thought, let the agents who run today’s studios consider Madonna and Warren the Pickford and Fairbanks of the ’90s, I’ll die happily right here, right now.
When we meet again several weeks post-party, Stevens whispers, thrillingly Susan Slade-like, “Let’s go in here–no one else will know we’re even in the house.” She spirits me through the high-ceilinged foyer and entryway, and past a grand staircase that Bette Davis would have killed to play scenes on. We bypass a capacious living room with a baby grand–the walls facing the sprawling grounds are glass–in favor of a nook filled with couches. Nearby, a custom-built, tropical fish tank (“the first in Beverly Hills,” Connie says proudly) stands imbedded in a wall like a giant ice cube. Other than the family photographs that crop up here and there, one looks in vain for tchotchkes–endearing home decorating don’ts–that might mar the oceanic, impersonal Beverly Hills airiness. Some might call the ambience the unbearable lightness of Connie. Most of us would move in there in seconds flat. “So much life happens here that I really believe there’s something about this property,” says Stevens, dressed with flattering simplicity, snuggling into a floral patterned chair and running her fingers through her meringue of hair.
“Probably Sonja Henie had a nice, peaceful feeling about her, because there are very good vibes in this house–as though they’ve been handed down. I’ve evened out a few walls, rounded a few others, but the bones of the old house are still the same. Indicating a majestic elm that anchors a corner of her manicured, rose-spattered acreage, she says, “There’s a tree house up there that, as kids, my girls used to climb up and down and out of. Oh, come here a second–I want to show you something.”
I trail Stevens back to the living room–you could give a party for 200 in here, comfortably–which is dominated by a gargantuan fireplace with a carved oak mantle. Pointing out a framed Miro, she follows the painting’s circuity and bold blobs of color with her finger, explaining, “This is Joely, this is Tricia, this is a scale, this is the umbilical cord. That’s why I bought it.” Of a larger, ethereally abstract painting by an unknown artist that graces another wall, she smiles and shrugs, saying, “This one’s just peaceful and I like being around it. I take it with me wherever I go. Every decorative piece in this house is my feeling, my choice. It might be wrong, it’s not the fanciest and by far not the best, but it’s bright and it’s cheerful.”
But it’s the fireplace that seems to stir Stevens’s house-pride. Her hands riding the curves of three-dimensional carvings that suggest twisted vines, she explains, “I had a French wood-carver do this from a solid piece of oak and you can actually stick your fingers in and out of the carvings. It’s beautiful, but so sad that people don’t do this kind of work anymore.” When we settle back into her out-of-the-way sitting room and Stevens boasts about her daughters (“Tricia Leigh has a new movie, Book of Love, and also a record out,” she purrs), I ask her how she feels about the movie version of Postcards From the Edge, a fictional addition to the cottage industry of Tell-All’s by movie stars’ pissed-off daughters (Haywire by Brooke Hayward, Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford, Detour by Cheryl Crane, My Mother’s Keeper by B.D. Hyman). “When I heard that that’s what they were going to film here,” she says, unsmiling, jiggling her tumbler of designer water, “it was completely ironic. But this stuff goes further back, you see, because some years ago, I had been waiting for a house in Malibu to come on the market. I was retrenching then, trying to find my life. I wanted to live at the beach, raise my children, have them go to Catholic school there. When I bought the house, I said to the realtor about the place next door, ‘Is that the height of decadence? Who would build a swimming pool in the sand? He said: Debbie Reynolds.'”
Stevens throws back her head, letting out a tinkly, room-warming laugh. Nonetheless, the bad blood has cooled between the former Mrs. Fishers, so much so that Stevens and daughter Joely were the headline entertainers at a recent fundraiser the proceeds of which went to the Thalians, the charity organization headed by Reynolds.
But, I persist, what if one of her offspring were to unleash a roman a clef about growing up absurd in Hollywood even half as scathingly funny as Carrie Fisher’s? Stevens says firmly, “I started to write an autobiography, You Had to Be There, but I got so uncomfortable with the idea. There are a lot of people involved you don’t need to be reading about right now. If and when my children write their books, it will be with a lot of love, good nature, and [understanding] of the struggle I had in trying to keep things together. My kids are pretty secure, bright, and know who they are. They’ve been loved real hard, as I was by my dad. I think my kids know that they’re number one; I could have taken the easy way out so many times, by marrying wealthy. And I’m not just talking about Postcards From the Edge now, because that has so much to do with Carrie, but about anybody who writes books like that. I made the decision a long time ago that I had an obligation to my children that I happily fulfilled. I was more secure being a mother than I was walking on a set.”
When Stevens pointedly steers the conversation away from personal confessionals, I ask if it is true that she once converted a third floor area of the house–decorated by Henie like a Scandinavian skating rink–into a playroom for her daughters. “This isn’t a house for little kids, so I put in a floor that they could roller skate on,” she says matter-of-factly, as if any mother might do so. “Then, I closed it off so that they could have on their radios and TVs.” She describes, but declines to show, two of her favorite upstairs rooms. One of these she calls “The Womb,” which she talks about in a way that suggests a safe house crossed with a permanent, floating pajama party: “a place to hang out for girlfriends who have fights with their husbands or boyfriends, my mom, old friends.”
Just as Stevens begins to talk about her other favorite room–her bedroom–in strides a guy as strappingly handsome as any of her Warner Bros, sires. “This is my fella, Charlie Taylor,” she says, beaming, as she introduces us. After they excuse themselves to briefly catch each other up on details of their mutual business concerns, Stevens fondly watches her partner disappear down the hall before resuming her description of the bedroom. “The walls are glass and slide open, which isn’t done anymore. The birds nest right outside and aren’t afraid, so they wake you up and sing all day.”
She reaches behind her to tap on a wall, which sounds as solid as concrete, saying, “There’s two feet of space in there. You know that this house is going to stand up. To me, it’s all very symbolic. I have a lot of fun digging out there in that garden and I take care of those roses. I keep the bottom half of the land very rural, rough, to remind me.” To remind her, she says, of her roots as “a chubby street kid,” who was born Concetta Ingolia, of Italian-Irish-Mohican Indian descent, the product of the marriage of a rakish Sicilian bass player (“the handsomest, most romantic man I’ve ever known”) and a band singer. “My whole family’s buried in Brooklyn,” she says. “I probably will be, too.” George Burns, with whom Stevens starred in 1965 on the short-lived TV show, “Wendy and Me,” once said that Stevens had one foot over the picket fence. She corrected him: “No, George, a chain-link fence.” Stevens says, “My grandfather used to say ‘Own a piece of land and don’t ever sell it. In your old age, you can grow your own food, feed your family. You won’t have to depend on anybody.’ Through the bad times, I could have lost this place or made a foolish decision. But that’s part of the game. I take it as a challenge. I don’t let [things] get me so far down that I don’t rise, decide to give bad times a kick in the ass, and say, ‘Get out of my way.’ This house represents that to me. Every dime I put into it is my own.”
Beneath Stevens’s penchant for pinks and lavenders, one often detects a bracing slash of Scarlett. Since buying the house she has often ridden career bumps by renting it out and moving into more manageable quarters. Whenever she’s in residence, she and this home are renowned for glitzy, all-night blowouts–at “the one that really kicked this house into gear,” George Burns, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, and the Ritz Brothers swapped jokes; at another, Beverly Hills doyennes hiked up their designer gowns for a 3 a.m. tennis match. But having once been called by a columnist an “apple blossom with the wham of a bulldozer,” Stevens also has a reputation for scrappy levelheadedness. By 15, she had moved to Los Angeles, where she got early lessons in show biz survival at Hollywood Professional School and with a singing group, The Fourmost. “I had a boyfriend who was a junkie who took me to church on Sundays,” she recalls. “But I was still a virgin when I was 21. That says it in a nutshell.”
A long-term Warner Bros, contract rescued her from doing Grade-Z movies like Eighteen and Anxiousand The Party Crashers, the latter a career-ender for both Frances Farmer and Bobby Driscoll. But she describes her stint on “Hawaiian Eye,” which made her a household name across America, as “four years of oblivion,” and regards her studio’s build-up with ambivalence. She felt her looks compared unfavorably to such other movies-and-TV series contractees as Diane McBain and Dorothy Provine (“in makeup, I’d put a big picture of Audrey Hepburn in front of my face so I wouldn’t have to look in the mirror”), but takes pride in having been placed on suspension by the studio “more times than I can remember.” Once, when she was refused a $50-a-week raise to match her TV co-star Robert Conrad’s, she sold Avon cosmetics outside the studio commissary. Stevens got her raise.
Steeliness creeps into her breathy voice when she ruminates on career opportunities she felt Warners denied her. “Delmer Daves was the best director I ever had,” she says, referring to the creator of such campy hoots as Susan Slade and Parrish, adding: “I polished an awful lot of turds.” She lobbied for loan-outs to such directors as Billy Wilder, who considered her for One, Two, Three as James Cagney’s co-star before he instead cast Pamela Tiffin. After slogging through forty-eight out of fifty-two weeks’ shooting on “Hawaiian Eye,” Stevens walked, going to Australia to fight Warners in court. “I was only making $300 a week, but they sued me for $3.5 million,” she recalls. Still refusing to return to the series grind, Stevens received a personal summons to appear in the lair of mighty studio president Jack Warner. She recalls, “He told me how Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan and others had all tried to beat the system. But by the end of the conversation, I knew I was right.”
Stevens kept her convictions while Warners froze her out. “For almost four years,” she says, her jaw set, “they wouldn’t let me do anything but ‘Hawaiian Eye.’ No films, no other TV shows, nothing. So I went to bat and finally got a couple of roles.” Of sorts, Stevens might have added, considering that she was confined to Two on a Guillotine (playing an heiress who, between bouts of screaming, pauses to warble “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) and Never Too Late (as the dull daughter who’s dying to get pregnant).
Finally, Stevens staged her last, grandest stand at Warners by bursting into the offices of writer-producer Ernest Lehman, who had refused to consider her for the role of Honey, the hysterical, babbling young professor’s wife in Mike Nichols’s movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–yes, the same Mike Nichols who just shot his latest movie in Stevens’s home. “I’ve never forgiven [Lehman),” Stevens says, eyes blazing, “for not even letting me read as a courtesy.” Despite a petition signed by 1,300 colleagues urging Lehman to test her, Stevens lost the role to Sandy Dennis (who won an Oscar for it). “I was the hottest thing on the lot and it probably would have changed my whole career,” she says. To add insult to injury, Stevens then had to pay a whopping $60,000 to buy out her Warners contract so that she could go to Fox to play an astronaut opposite Jerry Lewis in Way. . . Way Out.
Today she says, “I’ve dropped the bitterness long ago.” Besides appearing in such movies as Back to the Beach and Tapeheads, Stevens pops up occasionally on such TV shows as “Murder, She Wrote.” More happily, she spends weeks on tour with her concert act. “If I had stayed in this beautiful house and not played places like Flint, Michigan, when it was roaring, then, later, when Flint was boarded up and families were homeless, I wouldn’t have the same empathy or generosity of nature. You can’t live in a place like this and not get isolated. My daughters and I have dined with kings and queens but we’ve also seen poverty that would make your head spin.”
Indeed, Stevens, whose great-great-grandmother was Mohican, has for years dedicated herself to helping eradicate the head-spinning poverty, teen suicides, disease, and social disintegration of Native Americans. As chief fund-raiser and founder of Project Windfeather, Stevens radiates passion as she describes “the true homeless ones who have no voice, no advocates,” and joy over an arrangement to distribute surplus goods from the Home Shopping Network to reservations.
Having struck a $20 million deal for her cosmetics line, Stevens plans to activate several longtime “big dreams” by building at her home a recording and rehearsal studio. “Bill Cosby told me my biggest mistake was giving up making records,” says Stevens, who had a hit concert tour in Japan last year. Also on the drawing board is a two-story, modernistic pied-a-terre for visiting friends and relatives. In another irony, although Stevens looks befittingly youthful for a cosmetics entrepreneur, she now hungers for non-glamorous roles. “Aging well can sometimes be an obstacle,” she observes. “God allowed to me to show my age a little slower than everybody else. But I think I’ll probably start to age pretty good along about now.”
Among several properties Stevens has in development is a script she wrote for Anne Bancroft and also a “Hawaiian Eye” reunion project. “I’ve had times when I was confused or ill that put me down for a while, but I’ve paid my dues and it’s time for me,” she says, beaming. “I realized at the recent Warner Bros, anniversary party that even though a lot of us [in TV] built those soundstages, it’s movies that withstand time. And I want a crack at that. I’m not afraid anymore to do any role.”
While Stevens hopes to tackle “gutsy, meaningful stuff,” she admits that, in the tradition of such Warners survivors as Troy Donahue and Joey Heatherton, she would “love to do something for John Waters. As a human being I want to look as good as I can, but I’m an actress. I don’t want to play Endless Summer forever.” While a match between a former teen idol once directed by the maker of They Saved Hitler’s Brain and the bad boy auteur of Hairspray and Cry-Baby is a natural, in the meantime, says Stevens, “My house has been my saving grace, especially when I wanted to follow some dreams, like giving up movies and doing Broadway.” These days, a dreamgirl of the ’60s is ready to dream big all over again.
Charles Oakley, the writer-explorer who profiled Ernest Lehman for Movieline in June, is currently organizing the Conn-White Memorial Ascent of Mt. McKinley.