Lillian and Debbie, Part II; mentoring the movie star
Looking along Rue Royale towards La Madeleine. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017. Yesterday was the Day After holiday, and very grey and rainy, off and on. It felt like a blank day. In the mid-afternoon I went to the local Citarella to buy food for my dinner. I had no appointments or dinner dates, which was a relief as it was a perfect day to say inside.
Getting the job. I first met Debbie at Lillian Sidney’s apartment in Westwood on a weekday afternoon in late 1986. I had already had more than one interview with Lillian as a possible collaborator (the fancy name for ghost-writer) on her newly contracted book. This particular afternoon Lillian had already told me she wanted me for the project – as long as Debbie agreed. The memoir had been Lillian’s idea. She had written the two-page proposal which Debbie’s agent had sold to William Morrow publishers and their editor Lisa Drew for $250,000.
Debbie's first book, If I Knew Then, written by Jim Bacon and published in 1962 by Bernard Geis.
This was not Debbie’s first book. She had published another in the early 1960s after the Eddie Fisher divorce. It was light fare, written by a well known Hollywood columnist named Jim Bacon. Lillian, wanted something substantive for Debbie, and the real story. She saw it as a tribute to a great career of a very talented lady. She’d already told Debbie she’d have to really open up and let her hair down with the writer on this new one.
I must have been nervous on that first meeting although I don’t recall any tension of uncertainty. I had never met her before, never been in the same room, or around her before. I knew not much more about her than the average movie fan. But when we sat on either end of the sofa in Lillian’s living room, with Lillian in a chair next to it, we both didn’t really know what to say. She was supposed to make some kind of judgment about this guy who she’d be confiding in to write her good book.
She wasn’t that cheerful, beaming personality that was part of her public image. She wasn’t quiet either, but direct and welcoming in her manner. She was naturally a courteous person and always very polite with “civilians” – those of us who buy the tickets.
Debbie at home Los Angeles the year we met, 1986.
She explained to me that she had a busy travel schedule, that she worked 44 weeks a year, all across the country as well as overseas wherever she got the bookings. She had replaced Lauren Bacall in "Woman of the Year," the Broadway musical; and starred in the revival of “Irene” on Broadway. Aside from other theater appearances, work was mainly a nightclub act which she could also perform in large theaters and auditoriums. It consisted of chorus boys, a music direct/musicians, costume changes, sometimes a guest such as Donald O’Connor or Harve Presnell, who was her co-star in the film (and later on the road) of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Debbie with Harve Presnell in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
At the time of our meeting she was in her fortieth year in show business. The days of her great stardom in films as well as on television with her own weekly shows, were long over. So was her marriage to Eddie Fisher and her marriage to Harry Karl which left her with a tax debt (of his) of $20 million. Her third marriage to Richard Hamlett was in the offing but hadn’t yet occurred. As it turned out, it wouldn’t last.
Debbie was soon going to marry Richard Hamlett at the time.
I didn’t know until we got started interviewing, all of which I taped and transcribed, that Lillian was like her Mother Confessor, her mentor, her “ideal” mother. Many many of those nights during all those years she was working across the country, would end, after the show, talking to Lillian on the phone for hours. She unloaded her thoughts with Lillian who was deeply empathic as well as sensible, practical and wise about life and work.
Debbie with "Mother Confessor" Lillian in 1950.
Their relationship was as important to Debbie as her relationship with her children. Debbie’s mother Maxine Reynolds was still alive, and her presence was very much known and felt in Debbie’s life on a daily basis. But Maxine was not apparently empathic or even sympathetic about daughter’s life and struggles. They were close – proximity-wise, like many families – but Debbie sought advice as well as comfort elsewhere.
When I finally finished the manuscript, Lisa Drew came in from New York and we three met with Debbie at her house to edit it. It came in at 160,000 words and the publisher didn’t want more than 125,000, otherwise they’d have to charge more for the book.
That first day of editing, Maxine Reynolds – who lived across the road in a large, two-story house with pool that her daughter had bought for her long before – happened to be in Debbie’s house when we arrived. She came into the living room to say hello to us while we were waiting for her daughter. I had placed the huge (tall) manuscript on an ottoman in front of where Debbie would sit on the sofa.
Maxine, spotting the tall pile of pages, said in a less than curious tone: “Is that the manuscript?”
I replied that it was. “Well,” she added, “I wouldn’t give you ten cents for it. Sure, she’s been abused but so has everybody else; who cares?” And she tossed away her remark with a wave of the arm, leaving the room and the house. That was her version of Mother.
Debbie with mother Maxine in 1983.
I’d met Maxine before and wasn’t surprised by her attitude. Once early in the interview process, Debbie and I had a meeting at 2 in the afternoon at her house. When I arrived, she was still in bed, fully clothed but not camera ready which she always was outside her house. I wasn’t surprised because she kept very late hours, often well into the early morning and not infrequently until dawn. Her workday began at dusk and finished after midnight, so too her body clock.
Mother and daughter in earlier days.
On this day, she was still on the phone. When she finished she told me that only an hour and a half before she had concluded a two-day appearance in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, over the phone, for $160,000.
She was very proud of having made the deal without an agent. In telling me about the phone call, she said that just as she hung up after making the deal, she heard a key in her front door – which was directly down the hall from her bedroom. She knew it was her mother who came and went as she wished.
Maxine came right into Debbie’s bedroom, took one look at her daughter who was still in bed sitting up, and scowled: “Still in bed?! When you gonna get up and do a decent day’s work?!”
Debbie just shrugged inside. She never argued with her mother. Maxine was not an unpleasant lady to converse with. She had no pretense about herself. Her daughter was the movie star, and then, God save her, her granddaughter. Neither mother or father was especially impressed with daughter’s work. Ray Reynolds never saw his daughter in a movie until 1963 when he saw “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” She’d made her debut sixteen years before in Warner’s “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” in 1947. When Ray Reynolds was asked by a reporter why he had never seen his daughter in a movie before, he responded: “I don’t need to. I see her in the kitchen.”
Maxine with daughter Debbie, granddaughter Carrie, and great-granddaughter Billie.
Maxine and Ray had a different relationship with Carrie and Todd. They were grandfather and grandmother. Maxine was simply a very religious (7 Day Adventist, at one point) woman from south Texas who had been a wife, mother, housewife all her life – or at least until that daughter became a high income earning movie star who provided a much more comfortable life as a woman of certain leisure. Maxine had no pretenses but she was also not impressed by her daughter’s great talent. There might have been a natural jealousy that often exists between parent and child when the child has excelled in some way had the parent never had opportunity to exploit.
Debbie with her parents Maxine and Raymond Reynolds, Toni Clark and Bob Neal in Las Vegas.
Lillian Burns Sidney was the adopted mother. It was a perfect fit, a mutual interest in Debbie’s career. It began when Debbie first went to MGM in 1947, lent out by Warners to play a small role in the Fred Astaire/Red Skelton musical picture “Three Little Words.” Soon she was taking the bus from Burbank over the hill to Culver City where she was now under contract to Metro. She was green but she was a natural, and like a serious athlete, she wanted to learn everything necessary to win. And she loved it. Lillian was her counselor, always believing that Debbie could do more.
Debbie, then 17, as Helen Kane in “Three Little Words.”
Lillian was also by then a powerful figure at the Studio. It was she, as acting coach, who decided which of the contract players would get the Star Treatment whereupon the individual would be groomed by the studio for starring roles. She started with MGM in 1938. Her first assignment was to train a woman named Betty Jane to play in a musical film opposite another new player on the lot, Duncan MacFarland. The Studio was grooming the two young actor/singers to succeed the very successful singing duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald whose careers were “aging” (MacDonald was all of 35 and Eddy 37).
Lillian in Hollywood, circa 1947.
Evidently the main office didn’t think things weren’t moving fast enough in the preparation of Betty Jane for her role. One day Mr. Mayer happened to pass the new acting coach Miss Burns (she hadn’t yet married George Sidney the director) on the sidewalk in front of the Thalberg Building.
“When’s Betty Jane going to be ready for the picture?” the fearsome mogul gruffly asked Miss Burns.
“Never!” responded Miss Burns – who would someday be known as “Burnsie” to all the actors – adding, “If you want to know what I think, I think you should put her on the next train back to Chicago.”
Ida Koverman, Mr. Mayer’s longtime secretary, hearing about the brief encounter between mogul and acting coach, said to Lillian, “You may as well empty out your desk drawer. Nobody talks that way to Mr. Mayer.”
“Well, if he doesn’t want to hear the truth, I may as well ...” Lillian responded.
She didn’t and he didn’t. Lillian soon had the boss’ ear on many matters having to do with talent and scripts. She would often read a script to him in his office, acting out all the parts and pointing out which actors could play the part best.
Studio mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Louis B. Mayer and the studio acting coach Lillian Burns Sidney worked together beautifully for the next fourteen years, until the glory days of movies were over. Mayer was replaced by Dore Schary, formerly a screenwriter who wanted to take the studio’s films in another direction (they were beginning to suffer the box office implosion thanks to the popularity of television).
The final product.
In 1952 studios were beginning a serious transition. They were dropping major talent when their contracts came up. When Mr. Mayer retired, Lillian went to work for Harry Cohn, the notoriously bombastic founder/owner/mogul of Columbia Pictures. Cohn wanted Lillian because Mayer had Lillian. Mayer’s career was over but his legend was still living on with guys like Harry Cohn who were mere hustlers compared to the king.
As she settled in at the new studio, Lillian made it her policy – as it had been at Metro – to always formally thank writers, directors, actors, etc., after their pictures were completed. She did not misrepresent herself, doing everything in the name of Harry Cohn.
Once when she was in the studio commissary, passing by Cohn’s table he stopped her and reprimanded her in front of a group of his yes-men, asking her in a nasty tone of voice why she did such things “thanking” people. Her answer? “Because it’s important to encourage the artist.” Cohn responded with some expletive, exclaiming he didn’t want people working for him talking to the talent like that.
“Then,” Lillian interjected, “I have no business working for you Harry.” He dropped the matter.
The bombastic Harry Cohn, whom Lillian went to work for after Mr. Mayer retired.