Friday, June 15, 2018

Fame and fortune

Debbie Reynolds' house on Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills, photographed this past January. Photo: JH.
Friday, June 15, 2018.  Bright, beautiful and sunny yesterday in New York. Temperatures in the perfect summery mid-70s, into the low 60s at night.

Yesterday I had lunch at Michael’s with Donald Light who lives in Los Angeles where for the last 25 years of her life, he was Assistant/MajorDomo/MessageTaker/Driver and Protector of the late beloved Debbie Reynolds.

Lillian Burns Sidney and I at the initial book signing of Debbie's memoir "Debbie, My Life" in Los Angeles in June 1988. Lillian had hired me (with Debbie' approval) to write the book. Lillian had joined MGM in 1938 to become the Acting Coach. She grew in stature on the studio lot as an adviser to Louis B. Mayer about talent. Years later she became an important and influential mentor to Debbie. Lillian died in 1998 in her 90s, and it was a great loss to Debbie.
Many readers of the NYSD may be aware that thirty years ago I wrote a memoir for Debbie.  It was “As Told To” or what is technically a collaboration. A hundred hours of interviews, followed by transcribing her every sentence of recollection and story telling, it is as close to her having written it herself (she spoke it instead).

I loved her in the movies when I was a kid. I was indifferent to her as a performer when I was a young adult, and I came to love and admire and respect her forever as her collaborator. In summation, she had one of the longest most successful careers in the history of film as well as live entertainment performances – seven decades from 1947 to 2013.

Debbie was one of those people whose persona was always in her presence. In other words she was real on-camera/on-stage and off. Hers was a sweet, gentle but dynamic personality who loved to entertain. Once; back in the mid-1960s when she been nominated for an Oscar (for The Unsinkable Molly Brown) someone asked her father, Ray Reynolds – whom she adored – what he thought of the film.  It turned out he hadn’t seen it, nor had seen any of her films, ever!  Asked why, he replied, “I see her in the kitchen.”

She was what she appeared to be. As a veteran showman she was also very witty and loved the fellowship of show business life. She loved Hollywood and the stars. The walls of the hallway leading to her bedroom in her North Hollywood house, were covered, floor-to-ceiling with autographed of the many stars she admired and/or worked with. On the skirted table next to her bed in the all white-and-mirrors bedroom were signed photographs to her from Jack Lemmon (“To Debbie – Who loves you…. Jack”) and Cary Grant (“For Debbie, Love Cary”) That’s not to be confused with Show Business itself.  

She was well aware of her fame and her changing fortunes. Like any great pro she knew her audience and what they came for. As she matured, as did her audience, she grew bolder in her nightclub performing, and the audience loved it as much as they loved the teen-agee (she was 17) “Abba-Dabba Dabba Honeymoon” girl from the early '50s. But the off-stage Debbie could be arch with her humor. She’d grown up in the great big world of movies and retained her kid from Burbank values.
This visit yesterday was the first time I’d met Donald. I’m not sure why he contacted and asked to lunch, but I was glad on hearing from him. He happened to be coming to New York and thought to introduce himself. 

It was a pleasure to talk about Debbie with another who knew her well and knew her family and family history. The kind of stuff that is incidental but pertinent in remembering someone we loved.

Donald Light, Sue Cameron, and Debbie's oldest friend, Leon Tyler.
Although Debbie and I worked closely together, and I was exposed to her private life in a way that much became familiar to me, we saw very little of each other after the book was published (“Debbie – My Life”, William Morrow publishers). I’d seen her only twice since the beginning of this century – on the evening of 9/11 when she and I had dinner at Swifty’s, and four years ago when she appeared at the Café Carlyle where she filled the room every night for ten days.

Donald filled me on her latter years as she grew older and had seriouis health issues that required close attentions and changed her living habits. He lived with her during those last years in the house on Coldwater Canyon at the beginning of Carrie Fisher’s driveway.

Carrie and her mother became very much closer in these last years. Their houses were only footsteps away. Debbie always liked to have someone nearby. When I was working with her, she had a small bungalow in North Hollywood where her brother Bill Reynolds lived on the property and her mother Maxine Reynolds lived in her house directly across the street.
Debbie with brother Bill and her niece Leslie Reynolds.
In those latter years, Donald told me, once a week she’d to have him drive her up to Elizabeth Taylor’s in Bel Air where the two women would get together to watch films and talk. Only a month and a half difference in age, they had been the last two kids in the MGM Schoolhouse and had known each other for more than sixty years. Of course they also had a marital connection – a marriage to Eddie Fisher. (Coincidentally Carrie’s house once belonged to the costume designer Edith Head who had a wing always ready for her “daughter” Elizabeth when she was between husbands.
Debbie Reynold with her ex  Eddie Fisher and best friend Elizabeth Taylor.
Debbie was also a woman who kept her friendships from girlhood including Paula Kent who grew up with her in Burbank and later started Redken which she owned outright until it was sold several years ago to L’Oreal. Paula’s house in Trousdale in Beverly Hills had previously been owned by Elvis Presley.

Debbie with girlhood pal Paula Kent.
Billie Lourd with her grandma.
Sightseeing buses always pointed it out loudly on their neighborhood sight-seeing tours. One afternoon when Debbie was visiting Paula, Donald was about to get in his car to leave when the bus stopped and loudly pointed him out saying he’d just come from Elvis’ house. “Elvis doesn’t live here any more,” Donald shouted out for the sightseers.

Debbie’s and Carrie’s houses were inherited by Debbie’s granddaughter Billie Lourd. Donald loves Billie. He said she has a lot of her grandmother’s talent, and personality.

I asked Donald how he and Debbie met. This is a classic Hollywood story, and not uncommon in that industry but always unique like any great relationship: He had been “stalking” (his word not mine) her for sometime, when he finally met in 1988 at a book signing of the book I wrote.

A relationship slowly began between the two, and he was a man willing to follow it. In some ways, it bears a strong resemblance to Denis Ferrara’s relationship with Liz Smith. These are very close and in many ways very intimate associations. In some ways they resemble staff-employer, but Show business is a very democratic business, and the most successful performers are very often those closest to the people in the audience. They know their audience because they come from it.

Donald came at the perfect time in Debbie’s life as her personal needs (care and the comfort of companionship) were escalating with age. For Donald, Debbie was a unique education on life in the fame-lane, movie stars and devoted friendship. It is the stuff of novels (and adapted by film).

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