Connie Stevens: A Cricket in the House
Connie Stevens has led a definitive Hollywood life. Twenty-five years ago, when she was best known as Cricket on TV's "Hawaiian Eye" she couldn't even get an audition for Mike Nichols's first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This year, Nichols rented her Beverly Hills mansion to shoot his film version of Carrie Fisher's novel Postcards From the Edge. And if that twist isn't surreal enough, keep in mind that Carrie is the daughter of Stevens's ex-husband Eddie Fisher.
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 crew-ful 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.