Edith Adams

Television celebrity, impersonator, and comedienne, Broadway and film actress, singer and untiring archivist Edith Adams (more often known as Edie) (b. Kingston, PA, 16 April 1927; d. Los Angeles, CA, 15 October 2008) was the Daisy Mae to Peter Palmer’s Li’l Abner in the 1956 musical, for which she won the ’57 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In fact, even though she appeared in only two Broadway shows in her entire life, she has the unique distinction of never having appeared in any for which she did NOT win an award: her 1953 debut, as Eileen Sherwood in Wonderful Town, brought her a Theater World Award.

Perhaps best recognized as the partner and wife of television’s comic pioneer Ernie Kovacs, and the nineteen-year commercial spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars (“Pick me up and smoke me sometime”), Adams worked tirelessly in her later years to locate and preserve her first husband’s legacy on tapes and kinescopes.

Edith Elizabeth Enke grew up in Pennsylvania and in Tenafly, New Jersey, where at fifteen she starred as the town’s champion baton twirler (a skill she later used to advantage as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella). Her mother taught her to sing and to play the piano, and her grandmother taught her to sew and to love making her own clothes. It is said that she initially chose music over fashion design as a career by the toss of a coin, but in fact she continued to study in both fields well after high school, at the Traphagen School of Fashion Design and the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where she earned a degree in vocal performance. She went on to take acting classes at the Columbia School of Drama and at the Actors Studio, and later had her own line of designer clothing, Bonham, Inc.

After five years at Juilliard, it was becoming clear to Edie that her degree did not guarantee an operatic career, so she began auditioning and entering beauty contests wherever she could. She managed to win titles for “Miss New York Television” and “Miss U.S. Television,” which gave her the opportunity to sing on a Milton Berle show, “so long as I wore a bathing suit.” She auditioned to be a contestant on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, with a classical selection she had had some success with at Juilliard. The show’s musical director advised her against it and suggested a pop song instead. She only knew three pop songs, and sang them all. “If they had asked to hear another, I never would have made it.” She made it on to the broadcast as a contestant, and although she did not win, a television executive caught her performance and thought she would make the perfect foil for a certain unorthodox comedian in Philadelphia. He signed her up as a featured singer on Ernie Kovacs’s Three To Get Ready, starting in July 1951.

In one of Kovacs’s last interviews he confessed, “I wish I could say I was the big shot that hired her, but it was my show in name only – the producer had all the say. Later on I did have something to say and I said it: ‘Let’s get married.’”

Ernie Kovacs shows were live, unrehearsed, outrageous, and often mystifying, and had a hard time catching on. They changed titles frequently: Ernie in Kovacsland (later 1951), Kovacs on the Korner (1952), and finally The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952–1956). Edie Adams’s gifts as a singer and comedienne (she became notorious for her impersonations of Marilyn Monroe) reached the antennae of Broadway director George Abbott, who chose her for the role of Eileen, from a field of about 300 auditioners, to co-star with Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town. Adams got rave reviews and two Donaldson Awards, besides the Theatre World Award. Two months after the show closed in July 1954 (the time span included a proposed six-week vacation alone, during which she was supposed to contemplate whether to do it or not), she and Kovacs eloped to Mexico City, where they were married by the mayor of New York in a ceremony in Spanish, a language neither of them understood.

After Wonderful Town, Adams was in great demand, in nightclubs and on national tours as well as on television. Over the next fifteen years, she would perform on the variety shows of Walter Winchell, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Perry Como, George Gobel, Gisele MacKenzie, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Jackie Gleason, Mike Douglas, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, David Frost, and Johnny Carson. She frequented panel shows as well: Password All-Stars, What’s My Line?, and I’ve Got a Secret.

In 1956 Adams was back on Broadway as Daisy Mae in the musical version of Al Capp’s cartoon strip Li’l Abner, with Peter Palmer, Charlotte Rae, Stubby Kaye, and Joe E. Marks. She won the 1957 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress, and the show was a 693-performance smash hit running until July of 1958. (Edie took a break in March 1957 to play the Fairy Godmother in the original television broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Julie Andrews. And a little later, both Adams and Kovacs received Emmy nominations for best performances in a television comedy series.) She would have gone immediately, like most of the rest of the cast, to Hollywood for the film version of Li’l Abner (which was nearly identical to the Broadway version) if it had not been for the birth of the Kovacs’s daughter Mia at just the most inconvenient time. As it was, Ernie and Edie did move to the west coast from New York in the late ‘50s.

Strange to say, Kovacs and Adams never made a movie together. Their very last appearance as a pair was on the final Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz TV special on CBS in 1960, playing themselves.

Edie Adams started her significant movie career in supporting roles as the unsympathetic secretary to Fred MacMurray’s character in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film The Apartment (1960). In 1961 she was more of a sex kitten, in Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s second romantic romp, Lover Come Back.

Suddenly, in mid-January 1962, Ernie Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident. More than a tragedy for Edie Adams, the event was a hydra-headed disaster. It turned out that Kovacs, who had been of the opinion that the tax system was unfair, had not paid the IRS in several years, and owed several hundred thousand dollars. His two teenage daughters from a previous marriage had been living with them, and now Adams was faced with a fight against Kovacs’s ex-wife for their custody. (A 1984 documentary, Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, in which Adams plays Mae West, chronicles Adams’s victory.) His mother, too, wanted money, and took Edie to court, accusing her of mismanagement of Kovacs’s estate and petitioning for the custody of all three granddaughters. This last dispute was not resolved for years.

Celebrity friends offered to produce a benefit TV special to raise money for Adams and help her avoid bankruptcy, but she declined: “I can take care of my own children.” She was determined to pay off the back taxes herself, and proceeded to spend the next few years working practically without rest.

For the 1963–64 season, ABC presented Edie Adams in her own variety show, Here’s Edie. Despite receiving two Emmy nominations it was not renewed for the following season. But Adams was busy enough: in 1963 alone she made four movies, Call Me Bwana with Bob Hope, Under the Yum Yum Tree with Carol Lynley, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (an Oscar-winner with top comedians Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters, plus Ethel Merman), and Love with the Proper Stranger with Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. In 1964 she played Cliff Robertson’s wife in The Best Man.

Meanwhile, she was ever-present on the small screen, plugging Muriel Cigars. Husband Kovacs had hardly ever been on camera without a cigar clamped in his teeth, and she was there to show that it was perfectly lady-like for women to smoke them too. She invented and patented a cigar-holder ring that appeared in many of her Muriel ads.

Adams started several businesses of her own: Edie Adams Cosmetics, Edie Adams Cut ‘n’ Curl beauty salons, a 160-acre California almond farm, and Ediad Productions, Inc., still in existence today. For a time she was a spokeswoman for Sun Giant nuts. Her popularity as a television guest never faded (Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, Designing Women, among others).

She continued to make movies (Made in Paris 1966, The Oscar 1966, The Honey Pot 1967, Up in Smoke 1978, Racquet 1979, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood 1980, Boxoffice 1982) and returned frequently to the stage (Nunsense, Sweet Bird of Youth, Annie Get Your Gun, Mame, Little Me), even appearing in some productions of opera (The Merry Widow, Così Fan Tutte, La Perichole). She paid off millions in Kovacs’s debts (he had also been a gambler) and by 1989 she was herself again a millionaire.

Soon after Kovacs’s death, Adams had become aware that his legacy, heretofore stored on kinescopes and tapes, was rapidly disappearing. Videotapes were being recorded over, obsolete media being discarded (she witnessed that three truckloads of film were dumped into New York Bay), and Kovacs’s considerable (if often baffling) achievements being altogether neglected. Initially she used the proceeds of his insurance policy to purchase as much footage as she could and pay for its safe storage. Her efforts have paid off in the preservation and availability (on DVD) of the largest collection of vintage television programs created by a single artist, most of it unseen by the public since the 1950s. She also wrote a book about her life with Kovacs, Sing a Pretty Song (1990), published by Morrow & Co. (It is not a full autobiography.)

Edie remarried twice: in 1964 to photographer Martin Mills, with whom she had a son, Joshua Mills. After a 1971 divorce, she married jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli, from whom she was divorced in 1988. Her daughter Mia Kovacs was killed in a traffic accident in Los Angeles at age 22, just twenty years after her father’s similar end.

The beloved Edie Adams died at 81 of cancer and attendant pneumonia. She is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery between her daughter Mia and her stepdaughter Kippie.

– Lucy E. Cross