Reynolds was thinking of her daughter in her final moments. “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie,” she said shortly before passing, her son Todd told TMZ.
Reynolds was at her and Fisher’s property when she had to be rushed to the hospital for a possible stroke on Wednesday afternoon, PEOPLE confirmed .
On Tuesday, Reynolds had taken to social media to thank fans for their support in the wake of her daughter’s death.
“Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter,” Reynolds, 84, said on Facebook. “I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop.”
Among the last legends from Hollywood’s golden age, Reynolds — an actress, singer, dancer, entrepreneur, humanitarian and historian — achieved fame that was bigger than the parts she played — from Singin’ in the Rain to her offscreen role in one of the most famous scandals in celebrity history when her husband, Eddie Fisher, left her for her friend Elizabeth Taylor.
Reynolds had one of those classic Hollywood discovery stories. Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, to parents Maxine and Raymond, she moved with the family around age 7 to Burbank, California. It was in the Miss Burbank beauty pageant, when Reynolds was 16, that a talent scout from Warner Bros. discovered her and signed her to a contract with the powerhouse studio.
Asked what the turning point was in her career, Reynolds told PEOPLE in 2011, “Winning this contest, which was unusual. My suit came from the Salvation Army … I didn’t have high heels. There were talent scouts, and they thought I was a funny little kid. They took me to Warner Brothers and signed me up.”
She made five films in three years with luminaries like Lana Turner and Fred Astaire, but it was her sixth that turned Reynolds from just another ingénue into America’s Sweetheart: Singin’ in the Rain.
The 1952 musical-comedy about the death of silent films and rise of the talkies starred Reynolds as Kathy Selden, a chorus girl who meets cute with silent movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly). Thanks to Selden’s golden pipes, she winds up as the stand-in for the imperious (but squeaky-voiced) Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen. There are a couple of ironies in the fact that Singin’ turned Reynolds into a star. The first is that before filming, Reynolds couldn’t dance. She learned, and hoofed until her feet bled for the “Good Morning” scene with Kelly and costar Donald O’Connor.
“For five months they trained me before we started shooting,” Reynolds told PEOPLE in 2011. “They would really bleed on ‘Good Morning, Good Morning.’ We would never stop shooting, so we would continually do the number and my feet were all bloody.”
The second irony is that the ballad “Would You,” which Kathy dubs for Lina, was not actually sung by Reynolds, but Hagen herself. Still, Reynolds’ plucky performance won the heart of a nation.
Reynolds soon starred in a string of crowd-pleasers, including The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (’53), Susan Slept Here (’54) and The Tender Trap (’55), opposite Frank Sinatra. She and Sinatra became pals. “He was very good to me and gave me some very good advice that I did not listen to,” Reynolds told PEOPLE in a 2015 interview. “He said, ‘Don’t marry Eddie.’ He said you shouldn’t get married to a singer. We’re not faithful.” Eddie was, of course, Eddie Fisher, the first great love of Reynolds’ life, whom she wed in 1955. He was the father of her two children, Carrie and Todd.
Eddie was also why Reynolds became wrapped up in one of the greatest scandals in Hollywood history. Reynolds and Fisher were best friends with another A-list celebrity couple: Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd. After Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, Fisher took it upon himself to comfort the young, stunning widow. As Reynolds put it, Taylor “liked [Eddie] enough to take him without an invitation.” Fisher and Taylor become an item, leading to Fisher’s widely publicized divorce from Reynolds in 1959, and marriage to Taylor. All sympathy, of course, went to Reynolds, whose career thrived while Fisher faced ruin.
“I felt you can’t make a man leave, you can’t make him do something he doesn’t want to do,” Reynolds later told PEOPLE. “He obviously chose to leave, didn’t he? She didn’t lasso him. She was just beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. And he wanted her, and he wanted to be her lover, so he left and he was. He was the selfish one. She just gave him what he wanted.”
Reynolds was also a prolific recording artist at the time, making the hit gold record “Tammy” from her 1957 film, Tammy and the Bachelor, and putting out an eponymous album in 1959. In the wake of her divorce, she also went on to make dozens of pictures, including John Ford’s How the West Was Won (’62); The Unsinkable Molly Brown (’64), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award; and The Singing Nun (’66), which spun off into a TV show.
In her personal life, Reynolds didn’t stay heartbroken for long. She wed businessman Harry Karl in 1960, in a union that lasted for 13 years, then was married to real-estate developer Richard Hamlett from 1984 to 1996.
Meanwhile, Reynolds developed a deep passion for something else — Hollywood memorabilia. It started in 1970, when the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio sold off its huge collection, with Reynolds picking up every piece she could buy. She went on to amass more objects: Marilyn Monroe’s famous dress from The Seven Year Itch, the blue gingham dress Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, and thousands more items of clothing and props from Hollywood’s golden era. “The studios should have taken each of their famous articles and preserved the history,” she told PEOPLE. “But they didn’t do that. They didn’t feel it was very important.”
But Reynolds did. She collected so much, that she fought long and hard to create a Hollywood museum, briefly installing many of the pieces in her Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel in Las Vegas. The business eventually folded, forcing Reynolds to offer her pieces in multiple auctions that raised millions of dollars.
But even during her years of collecting, working with charities and dealing with business ventures and failings, Reynolds never tired of being onscreen. She memorably played Albert Brooks’ irascible mom in the 1996 film Mother, and Liberace’s in Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra. She guest-starred on everything from Wings to Will & Grace, Rugrats to Roseanne.
Reynolds also took it upon herself to heal fractured relationships. After years of tension with daughter Carrie, the two had a rapprochement, maintaining a close relationship until Fisher’s death. Reynolds even made up with Taylor, approaching her on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship and rekindling a friendship of “many, many years,” she recalled. They starred together in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads, written by Carrie.
In 2014, the Screen Actors Guild awarded Reynolds the Life Achievement Award for her decades on screen and stage, followed by an honorary Academy Award in 2016 for her charitable work on behalf of mental illness. The awards were acknowledgements not simply of the work Reynolds did, but of the contribution she made. Along with a staggering list of roles and songs, Reynolds leaves behind her son and granddaughter, Billie Lourd. Through them and her screen presence, one of Hollywood’s last golden lights will continue to shine.