Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unsinkable A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway

Debbie Reynolds has led a fascinating life. As a teenager she was signed to MGM during the last days of the movies’ “Golden Age,” she starred with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In The Rain, was encouraged by the master himself, Fred Astaire, when the dancing seemed impossible and she doubted she could do it,  co-starred with popular leading men like Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Dick Powell, and became a star in her own right, portraying the indomitable Titanic heroine in the boisterous musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she became one half of “America’s Sweethearts” when she married crooner Eddie Fisher, then front page fodder for the tabloids when she, and their two young children, lost him to the siren charms of Elizabeth Taylor. In her eighty years, Debbie Reynolds has pretty much seen it all. She was also one of those rare individuals in the disposable world of Hollywood who saw the need for preserving the past and fought a lengthy crusade to establish a permanent museum displaying the costumes and memorabilia she had collected over the years, including such well known treasures as a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Rudolph Valentino’s matador “Suit of Lights” from Blood and Sand, the stunning black and white lace gown Audrey Hepburn wore to Ascot in My Fair Lady, and Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch.

When she ended her autobiography, published in 1988 (which I have not had the pleasure of reading), she optimistically believed that the third time really was the charm and that she had finally found Mr. Right. But Mr. Right betrayed her in just about every way a man can, through him her dream of a Las Vegas hotel and museum for her collection, briefly came true, but then was lost in a morass of lawsuits. Ultimately, she had to sell the bulk of her precious collection, to escape from ruin. As a classic movie fan, it really saddened me to read of her decades long fight to save these relics of Hollywood’s past, to find a permanent home for them so everyone could see them, but in the end, to save herself from total ruin, to see them dispersed throughout the world into the hands of private collectors. But she had to do it, to clear her massive debts, a little something for the future, and to give herself a fresh start.

The book also includes some anecdotes and reminiscences about her Hollywood years, which began at sixteen when she entered a beauty contest just because every girl who entered got a free blouse and a scarf and led to her being signed to a movie contract. She started as a starlet and worked her way up to stardom and is still working today. She also relates clearly and candidly, the whole infamous Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor saga, and how she and Elizabeth Taylor mended their friendship and remained friends until Elizabeth Taylor’s death, and gives some insight into her daughter Carrie Fisher’s courageous ongoing struggle with mental illness.

Despite the financial and emotional struggles it relates, this is a very readable and lively book written in a frank, down to earth tone, candid and funny even through the tears, by a woman who has always lived her life by the philosophy “The show must go on.” This is one of those books that really shows that fame and fortune are never the answer to life’s many problems.

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