Debbie Reynolds: The Golden Girl
Hello, dear,” says Debbie Reynolds with a smile, offering a hug at the door of her Beverly Hills bungalow. Sunny, modest and packed with memories, her home is equal parts everyday-grandma’s house and glamorous testament to Reynolds’s 60-plus years in Hollywood. “See Charlie over there?” she says, pointing to a ceramic statue of Charlie Chaplin sitting on a grand piano once owned by fellow silent film star Harold Lloyd. On the way to her “MGM room,” which is covered in photos of stars Reynolds worked with, the 79-year-old actress pauses by a cherished photo of two A-listers dear to her heart: “Elizabeth gave this to me,” she says of the framed snapshot of her daughter Carrie Fisher with Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, of course, famously helped break up Reynolds’s marriage to Eddie Fisher in 1959. But long before Taylor’s death this March, both grande dames had decided their friendship, like the proverbial show, had to go on. “I made mistakes,” says Reynolds. Looking around her home, she adds, “But this is my life. This is what I know. I’ve been lucky.”
Reynolds is wistful these days, following the deaths of her friends Taylor and Jane Russell. “It’s the end of an era with the passing of Elizabeth,” she says. Now the star of Singin’ in the Rain, who shared the MGM studio lot with the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Greta Garbo, is one of the last survivors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And she’s done her best to preserve that history: Her vast collection of roughly 4,000 costumes and props from classic movies, intended for a museum that Reynolds was never able to sustain, will go up for auction starting June 18 at the Paley Center in L.A. (see box). Joe Maddalena, owner of auctioneer Profiles in History, estimates the first round of items will fetch $5 to $6 million. “I want them to go to movie-lovers like me,” Reynolds says.
Reynolds herself first fell in love with movie musicals as a kid in El Paso, Texas, “I would mow lawns so I could watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” In 1939 her family moved to California, and, at age 16, Reynolds won the Miss Burbank beauty pageant, leading to a contract with Warner Bros. and later MGM.
That meant attending school on the lot with classmates Taylor and Roddy McDowall. Eventually, her singing talent got MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s attention. “He said, ‘You’re going to star in a movie with Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain.’ I said, ‘I don’t dance.’ He said, ‘You will.'” For five months Kelly and instructors drilled the teen until her feet bled. Singin’ in the Rain became a sensation, and Reynolds, tagged America’s Sweetheart, worked alongside her icons for the next 17 years. “The lot was its own city,” she says. “My children were raised there. We were always playing on the trains.”
Along with acting and singing, Reynolds made her mark as a party hostess. She recalls one blowout whose guests included Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart and Groucho Marx, who “wore a T-shirt with his face on it.” While Lana Turner and Ricardo Montalban tangoed, Broadway stars Ann Miller and Gower Champion “jumped off the roof into the swimming pool.” At another party, her son Todd had a surprise run-in with Davis. “Bette was sitting in my son’s bathroom,” she says, laughing. “Todd walked in, and she just kept talking to him, asking, ‘So how do you like your new home? What grade are you in?’ Nothing shocked my son after that.”
Life on the A-list wasn’t all a party. When Fisher left her for Taylor, Reynolds recalls, “it was a very difficult time. I was left to raise the children.” Later, with Reynolds remarried to businessman Harry Karl, and Taylor to Richard Burton, the women made amends on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship. But “I had more pain to go,” she says, referring to Karl, who left her over $10 million in debt, and third husband, developer Richard Hamlett, with whom she owned a failed Las Vegas hotel and casino.
Her relationship with daughter Carrie has also endured ups and downs. “It took 30 years for Carrie to be happy with me,” says Reynolds. “She wanted a mother who baked and did embroidery. I was in show business and didn’t do that.” In part to pay the storage bills for her costume collection, Reynolds still sings 42 weeks a year around the country, and she’ll be back onscreen next year as Katherine Heigl‘s grandmother in One for the Money. She says she’ll slow down once her beloved costumes are sold-a bittersweet moment. “It’s the end of the golden era for me,” she says. “I’m delighted I lived when I lived-and I’m still here. I’ve had a wonderful life.”