On days when she wasn’t expected anywhere, Debbie Reynolds held court from her king-size bed. With papers, pencils and books strewn about, the actress, dressed in her bathrobe, made phone calls, raised money for her favorite charities and met with old pals. “Debbie was a very tiny little person,” recalls her close friend and frequent visitor, actress Ruta Lee. “She looked minuscule in this big bed.”
Debbie also packed a ton of talent, moxie and a great big heart into her tiny frame. The former Miss Burbank, who became a star with 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, enjoyed a brilliant, decades-long career that included films, hit recordings, television, cabaret and Broadway. Along the way, Debbie also endured more than her fair share of heartache.
“She learned not to get distressed about things she couldn’t control,” Ruta, a star of 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and author of the delicious Hollywood tell-all Consider Your Ass Kissed!, tells Closer. “She would take a deep breath and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I’ve got to sustain my health. I’ve got to keep my kids going. I’ve got to work.’ That was her.”
Before Debbie became a household name, she was Mary Frances Reynolds, the Texas-born daughter of a carpenter and a laundress. “God, she loved her parents. Her father was quiet, stoic, never laughed,” recalls Ruta, 87. “Her mother had a mouth. I think [Debbie’s daughter] Carrie [Fisher] took after her grandmother. She was a bit of a smart-ass, but hardworking and loving.”
The strong work ethic that Debbie inherited was deeply ingrained. When her marriage to her second husband, shoe magnate Harry Karl, ended after 13 years in 1973, Debbie discovered he had gambled away all of their money. At 41, she started playing nightclubs to make ends meet. “She never cried the blues to anyone. I wasn’t aware of how tough life was for her, when she was literally living out of her car with her children,” says Ruta, who met Debbie in the 1950s. “She borrowed a good chunk of money from me, but she insisted I keep her diamond drop earrings until she paid me back — which she did in no time.”
Debbie later admitted that she had “very poor” taste in men. Singer Eddie Fisher, the father of children Carrie and Todd Fisher, famously walked out on her. Her second husband not only squandered her money, he also cheated on her and even quietly offered to set up her friend Ruta as his mistress! “That’s when I lost respect for him,” says Ruta, who turned Harry down and never told Debbie about the indecent proposal. “I thought she’s suffered enough. She doesn’t need to know that one of her best girlfriends is being pitched by this schmuck,” Ruta says. Debbie’s third marriage, to real estate developer Richard Hamlett, also ended after 12 years in 1996.
Despite the heartbreak Debbie knew, there were plenty of good times, too. She and Ruta were tireless in their dedication to the Thalians, a Hollywood-based charity. Debbie used her many showbiz connections to raise millions for mental health causes via Thalian galas and other special events. “She said that you can ask anyone for anything as long as it’s for charity,” Ruta says.
Debbie truly believed in the power of kindness. As a teenager, she refused to stay silent when her friend Paula was shunned for becoming pregnant and getting married at 16. “Debbie and her mom gave her a shower to which they invited everybody. And Paula never forgot it,” Ruta recalls.
Paula Meehan, who found enormous success as the co-creator of the Redken hair-care line, remained a lifelong friend. “Paula had this wonderful yacht, Sophisticated Lady, which she kept in the South of France,” says Ruta, who was lucky enough to be invited on girls trips with Debbie and Paula to France, Italy, Turkey and Japan. “It was just the most glorious time. To enjoy that kind of luxury and sit back and laugh and rehash all the craziness of this business with your friends.”
The end of Debbie’s third marriage made her financially vulnerable again. She had invested her money in a Las Vegas hotel that never turned a profit and a collection of Hollywood memorabilia that no one else seemed to believe was valuable. “They literally threw away our history,” said Debbie, who bought up as many of MGM’s costumes and props as she could carry.
She tried in vain to find backers for a new movie museum, but in 2001, Debbie was forced to sell off pieces of her collection. Though it broke her heart, the auctions were a huge success. A dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in My Fair Lady, which Debbie purchased for $100,000, sold for a whopping $4.4 million. Other items, including Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch, a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat and a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, attracted collectors from around the world. “They sold for millions,” says Ruta, “but it’s a shame she didn’t live long enough to really enjoy it.”
After Carrie Fisher died suddenly in December 2016, Debbie vowed to stay strong for her granddaughter, Billie Lourd. “But the next day, she was gone,” says Ruta. Asked to remember her friend on live television, “I felt guardian angels keeping me going despite my heartbreak,” says Ruta. “It felt like Debbie tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re on, kid.’”