Among this year’s worst news, for me, was the death of Bobby Fischer.
Telling a friend this, I got, “Are you out of your bloody mind? He was a Nazi-praising raving lunatic and anti-Semite. Death is too good for him.”
He did, indeed, become all that. But none of it describes the man I knew.
Towering genius, riches, international fame and a far from normal childhood might be too heady a mix for anyone to handle. For him they proved fatal.
I’m still sad about his death. In our three encounters on my late-night show, I became quite fond of him.
Viewing the tapes of those memorable appearances, a licensed professional in the field of psychiatry might see foreshadowings of the savage illness that eventually engulfed him. I didn’t.
Some years back, the writer Rene Chen was working on a book about Fischer, and confessed to being unprepared for the maddening — and maddened — thing that the poor man had become.
Getting low on advance money, and having learned that Fischer had been on my show several times, Chun asked if there were any way he could see these “invaluable documents — short of unaffordable fees.” I sent them to him.
He had written me about a still picture he’d found:
Thought you might like to see this photo. When I came across it recently, I was struck by the warmth it transmits to the viewer. Both of you look like you are having a fabulous time. Studying the photo it’s obvious that these two men genuinely like each other. Fischer is clearly comfortable with you.
If you screen Fischer’s Tonight Show appearance, which aired shortly after his ‘72 victory, the enigmatic chess champ comes off well, but doesn’t look nearly as comfortable or spontaneous during the course of 15 minutes as he does here in a single frame. Of course, this is just an isolated image. One would have to see the entire show to make a judgment. But I suspect that the Fischer in your interviews is a Fischer we haven’t seen before. The famous 60 Minutes piece that aired just before the ‘72 match depicts a totally different Fischer — anxious, guarded, serious as hell.…
You were lucky enough to be the only media person that Fischer seemed to be completely at ease with. Taping not one, but several interviews with you speaks volumes about your character and integrity. [I’ll be the judge of that. — D.C.]
Fischer could smell a show biz phony in an instant….
It must seem strange to people too young to remember that there was once a chess champion — of all things — who became arguably the most famous celebrity on earth. And that his long-anticipated match against the reigning Russian champion, Boris Spassky, was broadcast and watched worldwide as if it were the Super Bowl, except that chess drew a much bigger audience.
There was another element that added to the drama. With Fischer the American and Spassky the Russkie, the monumental match was seen as a Cold War battle.
The Russian chess champions considered themselves the undoubted best. Time out of mind the Soviet chess dynasty had reigned supreme, viewing themselves as a rightful symbol of Soviet superiority in all fields.
PBS broadcast the drama in sports fashion, complete with play-by-play commentary by Shelby Lyman, who himself became a household name. People stayed home from work, glued to their sets, and PBS got its highest ratings ever. The country and the world became chess-crazy. And Fischer-crazy. Chess sets, dusty on the shelves, suddenly sold in the millions.
We ordinary mortals can only try to imagine what it might feel like to be both young and so greatly gifted at a complex art. And to be better at it than any other living being, past or present. There are plenty of geniuses and lots of famous people, but few are both. Is anyone really capable of surviving such a double burden?
We assume that geniuses are blessed creatures who don’t have to work hard to achieve their goals. Hard for us, easy for them. But Bobby as a kid — IQ pushing 200 — put in 10 to 15 hours a day of brain power and heavy concentration that would kill an ordinary person. (Or at least me.)
The chess world was already well aware of this kid prodigy. But they were unprepared for him to suddenly go up against the acknowledged top player of the day in the United States Chess Championship. And win — at the age of thirteen. When asked what happened, he said, “I got better.”
What does such dedication to seemingly unreachable goals — until he reached them — do to the rest of you, the over-achiever? Touchingly, when he returned to my show after having disposed of Spassky, triumphant in the eyes of the world, he opined that he might be wise to try developing some of the rest of himself. He had begun to see that a life of nothing but chess was “kind of limited.” (He went to dinner in Reykjavik with friends. “Bobby couldn’t follow the conversation,” one said. “He sort of backed into the corner, got out his little pocket chess set and played with himself.”) He announced on my show that he was now “reading a lot of magazines, trying to keep up with what’s going on in the world.” He was still in his twenties.
Until the advent of Bobby Fischer, my image of a young chess genius was not flattering. I pictured a sort of wizened and unpopular youth, small of frame, reclusive, short, with messy hair, untended acne, thick glasses and shirt sticking out in back. And also perhaps, as the great V. Nabokov wrote in describing somewhat genderless piano prodigies with eye trouble, obscure ailments, “and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters.”
Getting Fischer on my show that first time, before the big match, was considered a major catch at the time. If anyone in the audience shared my image of what a chess genius probably looked like, Bobby’s entrance erased it.
Here was no Nabakovian homunculus. There appeared, somewhat disconcerted, a tall and handsome lad with football-player shoulders, impeccably suited, a little awkward of carriage and unsure how to negotiate the unfamiliarity of the set, the bright lights, the wearing of make-up, the band music, the hand-shaking and the thundering ovation — all at the same time. I had hoped to avoid the cliché “gangling,” but Bobby gangled. He sort of lurched into his chair.
Once seated, he was something to behold. Six foot two (tall in those days), athletic in build, perfect in grooming, and with striking features. The face radiated intelligence. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone you’d ever seen.
And there were the eyes.
Cameras fail to convey the effect of his eyes when they were looking at you. A bit of Svengali perhaps, but vulnerable. And only the slightest hint of a sort of theatrical menace, the menace that so disconcerted his opponents.
Looking out over the audience, I could clearly see entranced women gazing at him as if willing to offer their hearts — and perhaps more — to the hunky chess master.
When I asked him about such matters, he said that the awful demands of his life — the global travel; the constant study, sometimes until dawn, followed by play; the punishing five-hour sessions at full concentration, day after day — all this made it “pretty hard to . . . [hesitates] . . . build up a relationship.” He seemed quite surprised with himself, as did friends watching, that he had allowed so revealing a moment. (That old Cavett magic, no doubt.)
One thing he said in that first appearance became famous. At one point I asked him what, in terms of thrills, the chess equivalent might be of, say, hitting a home run. His answer: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” There was a trace of a chill in his laughter.
For me, watching the Fischer shows after all this time contained quite a few surprises. For example, I winced watching the first one when I heard myself use the word “paranoid.” That awful word that in the later, bad years became almost part of Bobby’s name. But back then it passed unnoticed.
On the post-Spassky show it was Bobby himself who uttered the p-word. I re-winced. He claimed that Harold C. Schonberg, then the Times’ music and chess critic, “said I was paranoid.” Somehow the joker in me came up with, “No he didn’t. You’re imagining it.”
Happily he got the joke — a beat before the audience did — and laughed heartily. (People who who knew him were in disbelief that he could actually laugh and be funny on the show.)
He didn’t know it, but I had spotted him earlier that day. We were walking to my studio at the same time, but from opposite directions. He towered over passersby who would stop in their tracks and gaze worshipfully. From a distance, you could see the consonants in his name on their lips: B, F. He seemed unaware of them, with his ever-present little transistor radio clapped to his ear like a teenager.
He had come to like soul music, he said.
That night Tony Randall was on, which Bobby enjoyed, and both of us inquired about his reported loutish behavior in Reykjavik that nearly prevented the Great Match from happening, what with his incessant demands and threats to walk out and accusing the Russians of cheating and demanding to have the swimming pool to himself. (They had actually promised him that in their eagerness to get him.) Bobby, looking thoughtful, surprised lots of people with, “I’m afraid that a lot of what I did was . . . not too bright.” [Friendly laughter]
Crazy as it sounds, the paranoia was not all on one side in Reykjavik. The Russians demanded that Bobby’s chair be taken apart, so they could look for a hidden device that Spassky thought might be causing him to feel hypnotized. Bobby loved it.
Randall had vastly amused the audience when he told a story about a piece of hate mail that came to him not at his own show but, of all places, at the old “Opera Quiz” weekend radio show with its presumably cultured and genteel limited audience. Tony was a sometime panelist. The nasty letter began, “The only thing more disgusting than watching a faggot like you on television is when you go on Dick Cavett’s and having to watch you two faggots sit there together, yakking like two faggots,” etc. The audience was hysterical.
Fischer, having watched this from backstage, came out to a long ovation. Wanting to dispel the myth that he and Spassky were non-speaking enemies, he insisted that despite all the gossipy press to the contrary, he and Boris were truly quite good friends, and went bowling together. “Really buddy-buddy,” he said, adding, “not like you two, of course.” [Booming laughter.])
Tony asked him if he’d like to be on “The Odd Couple.” Bobby’s “maybe” fetched a healthy laugh.
With a little pressing about could he imagine another life for himself, he confessed to having given some thought to becoming an actor. If he had been able to use all that was in him, he might have proved a forerunner of the genius actor, Javier Bardem. Fine actors can use a touch of madness. (Geo. C. Scott, with several touches, comes to mind.) Bobby had acquitted himself stylishly as a guest on “The Bob Hope Show.” Strange to think that at that time Bobby was known to even more people even than his world-famous host. I couldn’t help wondering if Bobby F. knew who Bob H. was until then. “He’s a funny guy,” Bobby allowed.
Our mental health advisers, shrinks and friends advise us to avoid guilt at all costs. But they don’t tell you how. There seems to be an unlimited number of guilts available to us. When someone we know — or are related to — comes apart and deteriorates physically and mentally and commits suicide, don’t most of us think, “Maybe I’d have been the one who could have made the difference; done or said this or that and saved the poor soul?” How much of such thinking is charitable and how much egotistical? For a time I was pained by that thought that I might have been Bobby’s salvation. But then we comfort ourselves, concluding that of course it would have been too late. And then, alas, comes, But would it have been?
I like to think I would have gladly boarded a plane and tracked Bobby down — in wichever of his far-flung refuges around the globe he was holing up in — and tried to be of help. But how would he have, as they say, received me? Would I still be one of the few (some said only) people Bobby ever really liked? Might pathology have erased memory? Would I have been utterly forgotten? Or a Jew bastard, sent to further hurt him? (Bobby’s mother was Jewish, as was his biological father, who left when Bobby was two.)
The thought that he might have been delighted to see me and that I might have brought him even brief pleasure — parted the clouds for him for a while — is hard to think about. Because it means I should have done it. This is going to always haunt me.
Somewhere on the internet I ran across a picture of the later, ailing Bobby. I don’t know where it was and don’t want to see it again.
It’s a color head-shot. It’s not pleasant to see how the magnificent edifice had crumbled. He looks ancient, is balding and that great face that shone with intelligence is all but hidden by a massive growth of white beard. It could be an actor playing King Lear. He is facing the camera but the eyes are cut sharply to one side. They look both suspicious and frightened. Those great Fischer eyes of old have been replaced. They’re not these.
I’m surprised in writing this how much emotion there still is in the subject for me. There’s no story like it: genius kid, precocious, plunged into triumphant victory, money and world fame — no one under 30 should be subjected to fame — then gradual decline into raving lunatic. “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
You’d think, with all the hells Bobby descended through in his allotted 68 years, that those gods could have spared him the agony of kidney disease — a notoriously painful way to die. A Sioux friend of mine likes to quote, “Count no man lucky until he has had a good death.” If there be such a thing as a place of rest, I hope that Robert James Fischer has found it.
I’ve sat for a while trying to figure out how to close A faint glimmer of a bit of poetry had been swimming elusively in my head, just out of reach. And then it emerged.
It’s from E.E.Cummings’ famous poem about another lionized and legendary figure who, after triumph and glamour, also did not have “a good death”: Buffalo Bill.
With Cummings’ quirky punctuation, it’s a short poem, with no title but referred to by its first three words: “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct.”
Its closing lines somehow seem appropriate here. They are:
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy