Debbie Reynolds always took movie nights very seriously. Twice a week, the Academy Award–nominated actress settled in with her kids, Carrie and Todd, for an evening of classic films and popcorn followed by a discussion. The movies they screened ranged from cinema greats like Citizen Kane and Now, Voyager to family favorites, including It’s a Wonderful Life. “We liked happy endings, since we never got to live them,” Todd explains to Closer.
Discovered by a studio talent scout as a teenager, Debbie lived every girl’s dream by becoming a star in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, but her good fortune never followed into her love life. Abandoned by her first husband, betrayed by her second and financially ruined by her third, even Debbie had to admit she got love all wrong. “My marriages have been one of the greatest voids in my life,” she said. “I married all the wrong men.”
But despite her troubles, Debbie never allowed herself to give in to despair or bitterness. “Her survival capabilities came from her belief in God,” explains Todd, 63, who wrote about his life with Debbie and Carrie in his 2018 memoir My Girls. “Her faith got her through all the difficult times.”
The heartache started early. Debbie wed singer Eddie Fisher in 1955 and gave birth to their first child, Carrie, a year later. Todd joined the family in 1958 but was still in diapers when Eddie ran off with Elizabeth Taylor, causing a public scandal. “My mother had this dream of having the perfect husband and the little family with a boy and a girl. It happened, and then it didn’t happen,” says Todd. “Truthfully, Eddie was the best of the husbands. He didn’t do anything with malice, and he didn’t take a penny from her.”
Eddie also never paid child support, so to provide a stable home for her children, Debbie wed shoe magnate Harry Karl, whom she called “wise and strong and kind,” in 1960. The couple had some good years together before the bottom dropped out. “He loved my mother, for sure. But she didn’t have any clue that he was going to turn into this nightmare gambler. Between the gambling, drinking and bad judgment, it eventually led to him cheating on her as well,” says Todd.
By the time Debbie divorced Harry in 1973, she was $10 million in debt. “The financial ruin was bad,” admits Todd. “But the foreclosure on her house, that was just humiliating.” To pay off her creditors, Debbie went on the road singing in nightclubs. “I’m 45 and I don’t have $20,000. You think I haven’t learned the hard way? I’ve lived it. But I want to survive. I’m going to survive,” she said.
The performer had largely sworn off marriage when she called Todd with a surprise invitation in 1984. “She said I’m in Florida, and I’m getting married in four days,” recalls Todd, who flew down to meet Richard Hamlett, a real estate developer who became his mother’s third husband. “He was a very classy, good-looking guy,” he recalls. “I liked him right up until I learned he was stealing from her.”
Richard had convinced Debbie to invest in his business ventures, including a Las Vegas hotel casino. “They found some transfers of money going out of the country from the hotel,” recalls Todd, who showed the evidence to Debbie. “My mother didn’t believe it. But when she showed it to Richard, his response was so ridiculous that it was obvious he was guilty.”
Debbie also wrote in her 2013 memoir, Unsinkable, that Richard made her fear for her life. During a heated argument at their hotel, he suggested they take the conversation outside. “Why did he seem so intent on getting me out to the balcony?” Debbie wrote. “Was he thinking about my million-dollar life insurance policy with him as a beneficiary? I could practically see the dollar signs floating above his head.” They divorced in 1996 and spent a long time in litigation over Debbie’s squandered fortune.
Debbie taught her children that happiness comes from within, and despite her misfortunes, the actress lived a happy life. But Todd wishes his mother had found lasting love. “She really deserved to be with someone who appreciated her,” says Todd, who notes that Debbie had some less publicized relationships he wished had gone further. “In the 1990s, Robert Wagner used to come around to the hotel and they’d hang out until 5 in the morning, like two peas in a pod,” he says, adding that Debbie had a lifelong “crush” on Robert.
“The last words she spoke to me, 30 minutes before she left the earth, was a message for Robert Wagner. I wrote it and hand-delivered the note to him,” confides Todd, who lost his mother and his sister within a day of each other in 2016.
Though Debbie never found a partner worthy of her big heart, she tried to live her days to their fullest. “I made mistakes,” Debbie said. “But this is my life. This is what I know. I’ve been lucky.”