Debbie Reynold’s death on Dec. 29—a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher suddenly passed away—brought back my memory of meeting the “unsinkable” actress.
More bubbly than champagne, she charmed the reporters and press reps at an October 1982 reception at the Palace Theater prior to her starring in a revival of The Unsinkable Molly Brown on Broadway. During our chat, I asked her, “Why a revival of The Unsinkable Molly Brown?” Reynolds, who starred as Molly in MGM’s 1964 film for which she received an Academy Award nomination, said, simply: “It’s a very American story—a variation on the Horatio Alger theme!”
Someone then had the chutzpah to ask if she had read Eddie Fisher’s then autobiography. “I saw no reason to read his book,” she replied dismissively. “Will you write a book about yourself?” the reporter asked. She replied: “Now that my second husband is no longer alive, I might. But hopefully, I will be too busy to write a book.”
She also touted her then immersion in rescuing movie memorabilia and campaigning for a Movie Hall of Fame relating to “everything movies”: “I bought half the sets at MGM auction, bought what I could store—scripts, pictures, letters… I once asked Fred Astaire if he had kept any of his tuxedos. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I’m not dead yet!’ ”
I told her of my passion for American films since childhood in pre-war Warsaw, and that during the war in Soviet-occupied Vilna, Hollywood films provided a sanity buffer. When my mother and I were slated for repatriation to Poland following our “duration of the war” stay in Canada (1941-1945), my mother ordered me to write to Mrs. Roosevelt for intervention. The opening line of my 14-page letter was: “I want to come to America because of Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers, and Fred Astaire.” Reynolds roared.
“Where do you get all that energy?” I asked her. “I have more energy today than twenty years ago,” she replied. “If you can’t keep it up now, it means you’re going to the wrong exercise class. Now that my children are adults, no more problems in my life. Mother can do what she wants to do. We must stay in touch.” We did for a while.
The event ended with Debbie posing on a grand piano with legs kicking in the air!
In 1988, six years after meeting Debbie, I attended an “Italian Seder” at Marcello’s, an East Side restaurant led by Cindy Adams’ late husband, Joey Adams. Eddie Fisher—Carrie’s dad—was the cantor of the event. Instead of opening the Seder with the traditional Ha Lachma Anya (this is the bread of our affliction), he sang the pop tune “Sing a Song of Israel.” Though he was fawned on by many of the guests, not one mentioned ex-wife Debbie.
Variety ran a note that a public memorial for both Debbie and Carrie will be held March 25 in Hollywood.
Masha Leon is an award-winning journalist and longtime cultural columnist for The Forward and other publications. She has won Poland’s Knight Cross of Merit Medal for articles relating to Polish-Jewish affairs, and is a frequent speaker on her history as a Sugihara survivor.