Looking west across Central Park from Fifth Avenue. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017. Raining in New York, all through the day yesterday and into the night, temps in the low 40s.
It’s been a very quiet holiday time for this writer. I’ve rarely ventured out except to buy food, an occasional dinner. It’s been like a vacation although I’ve been working everyday. A week later and I’m still thinking about Debbie.
Bette Davis, who played Debbie’s mother in “The Catered Affair,” called her memoir “The Lonely Life.” In many ways Debbie’s life mirrored that title.
Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds in "The Catered Affair," 1956.
Coincidentally, Davis’ first scene in “All About Eve” where she’s in her dressing room removing her makeup, having a cigarette and commenting on whatever in that very actress-y, dramatic, almost arch way, always reminds me of Debbie — the real Debbie. After hours, when she’s relaxed and the audience has left the house, and she’s back in her dank dressing room removing the mask of her character, to reveal her own to herself.
Still performing, in a way, and enjoying the performance for herself and those around her — that was Debbie when there were others around. But it’s the actor’s life; it never leaves. She wasn’t harsh (unless the role required it). She was gentle in manner, but full of wit, sweetly caustic and otherwise, but the show must go on. That was Debbie the woman.
Even her final ending became to the public eye as dramatic as a Joan Crawford film. Debbie was also a friend — and a lifelong fan — of Crawford. In “Debbie; My Life,” she recounts seeing Joan in her later years living here in New York when Debbie was working on Broadway. Debbie recalled a cocktail party at Crawford’s Fifth Avenue penthouse where, as screen legend answered the door, ready for her closeup, Debbie, the first to arrive fortunately, saw that Crawford’s eye makeup was applied with a heavy and unsteady hand. Hers.
Joan Crawford and Debbie Reynolds in the 1950s.
In her motherly way, without missing a beat, Debbie took Joan into her bedroom, sat her down at her dressing table, and explained that she needed to fix something. Crawford being the ultimate star (read Professional) got it; the pro helping the (old) pro. Debbie loved and respected her profession. Crawford to her was the ultimate example of that, and this was her private tribute.
Mary Frances Reynolds, age 14, in her Girl Scout uniform.
I came to know Debbie the way we know a close relative, or even the self. She let me in. I’m sure she felt the same about me. Her original concept of a collaborator was a person with whom she had a lot in common, like her hairdresser or makeup man. Not fitting that image, she nevertheless embarked and we got each other. We talked the same language and came from similar American socio-economic backgrounds. She was older than I. but I had sisters her age so I was familiar with her symbols.
She described her family beginnings as “poor.” It was the Great Depression. Her father was earning $2 a day working on the WPA. Her mother taking in laundry, washing everything with a tub, and scrubboard and hand wringer (and ironing everything afterward), while little Mary Frances and baby brother Billy played in the dirt around their hovel in El Paso.
She and her parents were of the great migration from the Dust Bowl to California during and after the Depression and the Second World War, post-“Grapes of Wrath.” Life in the dirt and dust of El Paso was transformed into the verdant flora and fauna and citrus groves of the San Fernando Valley. In real life, she was closer to the young Bronx girl she played (with Bette Davis as her mother) in Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Catered Affair.”
Her “success” at that young age was really a flourishing, a flowering of that powerful (and “sweet”) personality. She was an intelligent, naturally ambitious woman with curiosity. She was also hard working, disciplined, and indefatigable by nature. By the time I met her she had long ago experienced her transformation from little Mary Frances Reynolds to “Movie Star.”
Warner’s talent scout Solly Biano told me about that night he first saw her at the high school in Burbank for the local beauty contest. He was there with another talent scout, from MGM. The studios were always looking everywhere for new talent. Solly was the man who “discovered” Lana Turner in a lingerie shop where he’d gone to buy his wife a present.
Debbie crowned Miss Burbank of 1948. Months later she would sign a contract with Warner Brothers, and two years later she'd be in her first MGM film with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, "Three Little Words."
Recalling that night at the beauty contest in the Burbank High School, Solly told me how this kid came out on stage and lip-synched a popular Betty Hutton song. Hutton was a big movie star in those days with a boisterously husky voice and a lot of all-American pizazz. This kid was doing her with so much “personality,” Biano recalled, that he and the guy from MGM both wanted to test her. They tossed a coin to see who would test her first. Solly won.
Debbie rode her bike over to the studio for the test, and they signed her. She was 16. Her parents went along with it although they were natural skeptics. Jack Warner wanted to change her name. She refused to lose her father’s name. They finally came up with Debbie. Bill Orr, Warner’s son-in-law, was having a meeting in his office one day when a screenwriter named Delmar Daves came by with a handful of cigars. “Congratulate me boys, I’m a father.” A girl. And her name? “Debbie. Not Deborah, Debbie.” Bill Orr thought: “Debbie Reynolds.”
Debbie in front of her childhood home in Burbank, California.
In a very real way, she was never “Debbie.” She was still Ray and Maxine’s daughter, and always would be. But fate had a grander path, and she played the public role of Debbie Reynolds to the point of being on automatic. She came of age in an internationally sophisticated world. She also became rich, despite her ups and downs financially, caused by her second marriage to Harry Karl.
Debbie and Harry Karl on their wedding day, 1960.
The bungalow she occupied in North Hollywood after the financial debacle of the Karl marriage, was small but adequate. The dining room furniture came from the set of “The Good Earth,” the MGM version of Pearl Buck’s novel. Other pieces from film sets were acquired when the studios started divesting their entire costume and sets departments. Her greatest collection was the hundreds of costumes that ran from the early silent films (including Garbo, Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks) right up to the 1980s and Barbra Streisand. She’d made the acquisitions simply because it distressed her to see these treasures sold off to oblivion.
Debbie with Marilyn Monroe's subway dress from "The Seven Year Itch."
She lived simply with Maxine in the big house across the road. Furnished comfortably, it was unremarkable except for the bedroom, the only tactile reference to the effect of Hollywood on her life was the eight foot hallway leading to her bedroom door. Both walls were covered floor to ceiling with framed autographed photographs of famous movie stars, all of whom she knew and/or worked with.
The bedroom was the prize however. A creamy ivory and white-on-white room, white upholstery, white rugs and white curtains, it was an updated depiction of Jean Harlow’s bedroom in the classic “Dinner At Eight.” The bedroom of a Hollywood star as imagined by any movie fan.
Jean Harlow’s bedroom in “Dinner At Eight.”
There was a four-poster with a canopy of crisp, white lace. And on the skirted table next to her bed, beside the lamp and the phone, were two 9”x11” black and white photographs in silver frames of Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. Both with personal inscriptions.
Cary’s message was longer than Jack’s. They were words of praise, affection and appreciation. Jack Lemmon’s inscription was short in a large penmanship: “Debbie — Who loves you?? — Jack.” Yet there was nothing pretentious about this almost Jean Harlow-esque boudoir. It was the real thing, the bedroom of an authentic Hollywood star.
She was also a shrewd investor. Pieces of her costume collection sold at auction a few years ago for more than $20 million. In the 1970s when the government was selling off many of the post office properties across the country, Debbie bought the post office building in Burbank. It was a large, one-story brick building with a large parking lot. She turned it into a warehouse for her enormous costume collection as well as a dance studio and rehearsal rooms used by the industry for all kinds of entertainers for their rehearsals and classes, Michael Jackson among them. The DR Studios became a very prosperous annuity and remains an important piece of her estate.
When we first met in the late '80s, her film career was basically over and had been for twenty years, with a couple of memorable exceptions. She liked having her own show on stage which she produced and ran and kept moving and changing. She loved nothing more than standing before the mike and making you laugh, just like that experience on the high school stage when the two talent agents both wanted to test her.
In her older years, she could get down in her references, and play the sly one, little Miss All-America’s Sweetheart. With age she became a bit bawdier, although never quite Sophie Tucker – whom she admired. Her star which had been on the wane after MGM a half century ago, was still and always a star across America.
Debbie at home in North Hollywood, 1988, where I introduced her to Bob Schulenberg who during the course of the evening did this sketch of her. Schulenberg reminded me recently that I left later in the evening and the two new friends talked into the night and finally ended their conversation at 8:30 in the morning. They are the only two people I have ever known personally who could carry on a conversation from dusk to dawn. Whatever the conversation when he made this sketch, it must have had to do with Carrie for Debbie had just remarked (as Schu quotes her): "It's fine for some mothers — but ... I'm not another mother."
When Lillian Sidney’s career was over and the studios no longer developed talent or even kept people under contract, she took up a new profession which was teaching deaf people how to speak. She was a stern but gentle teacher, I am sure, and her pupils learned to speak beautifully. She did this by demonstrating what the tongue does in speaking. She’d sit across from her student and hold the tips of their tongue while speaking a word while she mouthed it.
At that later stage in her life, she also had the misfortune of having her husband of 30 years leave her for Jane Robinson, the widow of Edward G. The Sidneys and the Robinsons had been friends for decades, as well as friendly with the first Mrs. Edward G. who had been cuckolded by Jane. Lillian was horrified and outraged when after Eddie G. died, Jane and George Sidney began an affair and he left Lillian. It all ended badly for her. She lost her husband, her home, her beloved antiques as well as her life savings which had been removed from joint accounts before the news was presented to her. She was 70 and on her own.
Edward G. Robinson and wife Jane. After Eddie G.'s death, Jane began an affair with George Sidney.
Debbie came to the rescue. At first Lillian wouldn’t even see her. Debbie finally told her she was going to sit outside her door until she opened it even if it took weeks. An exaggeration to make a point, Lillian agreed to see her. Then Debbie drafted two more of Lillian’s students — Janet Leigh and Donna Reed — to assist her in assisting Lillian’s recovery. They hired a housekeeper for her, hired people to put her new home together, and began to take advantage of her professional talents. Debbie paid her rent and her housekeeper for the rest of Lillian’s life.
Lillian’s creative influence never flagged. When Carrie finished the film script of her novel “Postcards From the Edge” starring Meryl Streep (as the Carrie character and Shirley MacLaine in the Debbie role), Carrie gave it to Lillian to read.
Streep and MacLaine in "Postcards From the Edge."
When she finished, Lillian told Carrie that the only problem with the script was there was nothing sympathetic about the Mother character, and that made her flat and unbelievable. She advised they add one line: When the mother and daughter are having an argument, and the daughter is “winning,” Lillian suggested she the mother speak the following line to her daughter: “Yes, but I came from nowhere and made something for myself. You came from somewhere and made nothing ...” It was added.
Meryl Street, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher at a post-screening party of "Postcards from the Edge" in which Streep plays Carrie Fisher.
Lillian died in 1998 at age 95 after a long illness. Her final years were difficult and she was mainly bedridden. Her condition not only troubled Debbie, but made it more difficult to communicate with her. This was a great loss for Debbie. Lillian had for years been her “shoulder to cry,” her devoted mentor, advisor, and coach; her alter ego. Suddenly Debbie had no one to talk to in those late night hours. She told me “how lonely” she was with no one to talk to.
This was not literally true but it was the way she felt about her life at that point. This was Debbie’s personal dilemma. Carrie, with all of her aspects, her problems, her dramas, her professional life, her communication with her mother filled some of that void. In the last couple of years with Debbie’s own health suddenly failing and work became impossible, Carrie and her needs became the focus. But fate had another plan, and I don’t doubt that Debbie had accepted it. Carrie left, and she followed.
Debbie Reynolds had become a Movie Star in a time when it was a rarity, not a celebrity. That transformed not only her life, but also that of her mother, her father, her brother, and her children. Her story, it turned out, is encapsulated in her own words, in the first paragraph of her “Debbie; My Life,” uttered on tape to me in the late fall of 1987.
When I was just about finished with the manuscript, I had everything but the opening lines. Discussing this with her — A Life in Hollywood — what could be the first sentence to begin the story of a great career, she, like the pro, gave it to me:
“For a movie star, ultimately there really is no such thing as Hollywood. It’s a name, and it’s a map. It’s not an industry. It’s a very fickle business where you’re here today and gone tomorrow. After one hell of a ride.”