Ernest Jennings Ford was at heart a family man devoutly devoted to his wife and two sons. At the very peak of his Hollywood success, the man who will forever be known as “Tennessee Ernie” Ford, the radio character he created for himself, decided to walk away from all the glamour because of his concern for what the Hollywood lifestyle was doing to his family. The great irony of his life is that Ernie Ford would die in October 1991 under the care of a second wife who was determined to deny his two sons any part of his legacy, financial or otherwise, a woman who even tried to deny them access to their father’s funeral.
In River of No Return, Jeffrey Buckner Ford, eldest of the Ford sons, mixes his fond memories of growing up next door to Bob Hope and of the several successful television series that his father hosted with sad recollections of how alcohol and pills ended up destroying both his parents. He speaks frankly of the addictions and dissatisfaction with her life that resulted in his mother’s suicide after several earlier attempts had failed, and he speaks just as honestly of how his father failed to do the things that might have saved her life. Perhaps saddest of all is his disclosure of how Ernie Ford’s decision to protect his sons by moving them from Hollywood was doomed to failure because of what the boys witnessed in their own home, wherever it might be located.
Betty Jean Heminger met Ernie Ford when he was stationed at Victorville Army Air Base in California, where she worked as a secretary; she was only nineteen years old when they married. Betty Jean, an avid reader and an accomplished artist, was at first content to be labeled simply an entertainer’s wife but, as the years went by, she seemed to grow frustrated with her role, turning to alcohol and drugs to get through her day. Ernie and her sons sensed when she was losing control, but though they did their best to protect her from herself, they were not always successful. As the couple grew farther and farther apart, Ernie turned more often to alcohol to ease his own pain, a decision that would eventually lead to liver disease, severe memory loss, and ultimately his death.
But River of No Return is not just about the bad times. Jeffrey Buckner Ford celebrates the good times as well, and his pride in and love for both his parents are evident. He remembers the times when being around his parents was sheer joy, days spent on the set of his father’s television shows, his brief encounter with Bob Hope when he crawled through the hedges dividing their property in order to sneak a picture of Mrs. Hope, whom the neighborhood boys insisted swam in the nude in her backyard, and days spent basking in “celebrity” as only the child of famous parents can.
Ernie Ford was a spectacularly successful entertainer, a man with the voice and talent to sing any style of music but who, almost by default due to his “Tennessee Ernie” image, became best known as a country music singer. At the peak of his career, he was world-famous and played to particularly large audiences in England. As so often happens to a singer, today he is probably best-known for a single recording, “Sixteen Tons,” which in 1955 became the fastest selling single in the history of the record business. Ernie Ford received numerous honors during his career, but four of them particularly stand out because they reward his decades as an entertainer: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and three stars on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame (one each for television, recordings and radio).
Jeffrey Buckner Ford presents the contrast between Ernie Ford’s public success and the frustrating failures he experienced in private in what is often a conversationally ironic tone, an approach that makes the sadness of Ernie’s life especially vivid. Longtime fans of Ernie Ford are certain to find River of No Return a gratifying experience despite its sad revelations about his personal life. Those not as familiar with Ford as a performer will likely read the book more as the cautionary tale it is but might, at the same time, find themselves compelled to investigate his musical history. They will be better off for having discovered why Ernie Ford is still considered to be an American music legend.