REYNOLDS REMAINS UNSINKABLE
jangled, and Debbie Reynolds lifted the receiver. "Hello,
Elizabeth, how are you?" she said. In a whisper she
explained to a visitor: "It's Elizabeth Taylor."
To a reporter
hearing half of the conversation, it seemed weird. After all, 43
years ago Taylor stole Reynolds' husband, Eddie Fisher,
igniting one of the biggest Hollywood scandals.
conversation ended, Reynolds said: "Elizabeth has had a
very dramatic life, and how she has made it we don't know.
Somebody up there likes Elizabeth very much, because to overcome
all these real illnesses — and these are real; brain tumors
are not something you dream up — I think it's a miracle that
she's still with us. Now all she wants to do is good.
old days, if Elizabeth saw a man she wanted, she got him, no
matter who she stepped over. She admits that ... She laughs a
lot about why in the world she wanted Eddie. It was just because
Mike Todd had died, and Eddie was his best friend. She
thought she should be with him so they could talk about Mike
Todd all the time."
interview took place in the living room of the house she has
occupied for 19 years and is soon to abandon. It's a compact
redbrick place surrounded by a chinhigh ficus hedge in a
middle-class section of North Hollywood, not far from the modest
Burbank bungalow where she grew up. The room was jammed with
objects of all kinds: a Teddy bear, Mickey and Minnie Mouse
dolls, childhood photos of her children Carrie and Todd,
a signed portrait of Cary Grant, a packed suitcase and
The house has
served as a pied a terre for the peripatetic entertainer,
who says she is on the road 48 weeks a year. It also provided a
refuge during the periods when she was flat broke, a condition
she blames on ill-advised marriages.
"All of my
husbands robbed me blind," she remarked calmly, with just a
tinge of bitterness. "The only one who didn't take money
was Eddie Fisher; he just never paid anything for the
preparing to move across the street from daughter Carrie Fisher.
The reason: "So I can be close to my granddaughter, Billie
Catherine, who is now 9. I want to be close to her before
she becomes a teen-ager; then she'll have no interest in the old
At 69, Debbie
Reynolds seems amazingly upbeat considering the tragedies that
have befallen her recently. The collapse of her Las Vegas hotel,
where she performed indefatigably in the showroom and displayed
her prized movie memorabilia, forced her into bankruptcy. Last
year brought the deaths of her mother and Lillian Burns
Sidney, her coach and adviser for 45 years. Last New Year's
Day, she fell and broke her hip and heel (the hip is recovering,
the heel is still troublesome).
still here," she announced, echoing the Stephen Sondheim
anthem of a star's survival.
She's not only
here, but thriving. She travels with her act; she appeared with
the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July; she makes one or two TV
movies a year. Her biggest project is her collection of movie
costumes and artifacts, which she's been amassing since she bid
at the MGM auction in 1970.
She has finally
found a home for the collection: in the mammoth development on
Hollywood Boulevard that includes the permanent theater for the
Academy Awards. She'll have 22,000 square feet of display space.
The opening is scheduled for March.
smooth face belies her age, was in the midst of a three-day job
of cataloging her collection for an appraisal that would allow
her to borrow funds for the museum. Dressed casually in black
pants, a flowered silk shirt and a back turban that covered her
hair, she took time out to talk about her remarkable life and
little about her early life in El Paso, Texas, where she was
born April 1, 1932, except that the family was poor. Their
condition was even worse when they moved to the MacArthur Park
area of Los Angeles — then and now one of the city's most
where we lived had bedbugs, so we slept out on the
sidewalk," she recalled. "You didn't dress as well,
you didn't eat what other people ate. There was no unhappiness
with being poor. The only extra that I remember is that once a
month, Daddy would get a cigar, a little, stinky nickel
moved to a house in Burbank, where conditions were better, but
not much. At Christmas there were no presents, and the tree was
a hedge that their father had cut. Mary Frances (her birth name)
and brother Bill decorated it with colored paper cutouts.
Conditions improved during World War II when their father found
work at Lockheed Aircraft's massive Burbank plant.
beauty contest as Miss Burbank led to a contract for Mary
Frances at Warner Bros., where she acquired a new name, Debbie.
After minor roles in two films, she moved to MGM. She was cast
in three supporting roles, then thrust into the big time with Singin'
in the Rain.
Kelly was hard on me, but I think he had to be," she
said. "I had to learn everything in three to six months. Donald
O'Connor had been dancing since he was 3 months old. Gene
Kelly since he was 2 years old. Cyd Charisse and
everybody were so talented. To be thrown in there, I think Gene
knew I had to be challenged.
terrified, I was crying. I was practicing and rehearsing all the
time, my feet were bleeding. I was trying, but it was so much to
The success of Singin'
in the Rain called for a star buildup, part of which
involved pairing Reynolds on publicity dates with rising young
actors. Her father was concerned the actors might take advantage
of his little girl. "He needn't have worried," she
remarked. "Most of my dates were on the gay side."
admitted that when she married Fisher she was totally ignorant
in matters of sex: "What college do you go to about sex?
You either are inexperienced or you're experienced. If you don't
have affairs, how do you become a femme fatale? Obviously when I
married Eddie, I was as dumb as a post. Unfortunately he didn't
have the patience to teach me. I obviously was not an exciting
partner for him.
blame him at all for leaving me for Elizabeth Taylor — now. I
did at the time. We were together for five years, and it took me
two years to get over it."
from her second and third marriages proved just as punishing,
though more for monetary reasons. Harry Karl, owner of a
string of shoe stores and an inept gambler, died and left her
with $2 million in debt, which she says took her 10 years of
steady work to pay off. She claims that husband No. 3, Virginia
businessman Richard Hamlett, with a little help from
friends, caused her hotel to go broke. She says she has spent $2
million suing him, and it isn't over yet.
Despite all the
travails, Debbie remains true to her song from The Unsinkable
Molly Brown — I
Ain't Down Yet.
in the future for me performing right to the end, always able to
make my own living, and I always have," she said. "I
will never marry again. I really don't want to fall in love
again. I find it much too exhausting and committing and hurtful.
I don't want to go that path any more."