DEBBIE REYNOLDS REMAINS UNSINKABLE 


By Bob Thomas 

November 29, 2001

The telephone 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.

After the 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.

"In the 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."

The Reynolds 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 more.

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 children."

Reynolds is 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 folks."

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).

"But I'm 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.

Reynolds, whose 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 career.

She remembers 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 impoverished sections.

"The motel 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 cigar."

The family 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.

Winning a 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.

"Gene 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.

"I was 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 learn."

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."

Reynolds 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.

"I don't 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."

The recovery 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.

"I see 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." 

 

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