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Debbie Reynolds’ new memoir reveals an ‘Unsinkable’ spirit

Dennis King Published: May 6, 2013
            No one has ever accused Debbie Reynolds of being a shrinking violet. She’s always appeared in the public eye to be perky, spunky, brash, bold, funny and an amazingly versatile talent (singing, dancing, acting and generally being a supreme old-Hollywood movie star). She’s endured ups and downs in both her career and her personal life and now, at age 81, she’s proven herself virtually unsinkable.

Drawing on that enduring quality – and from her memorable title performance in 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” – Reynolds now holds forth with cutting wit and a born raconteur’s verve in “Unsinkable” (William Morrow, $28), a candid though rather flatly written memoir that picks up where her 1988 book, “Debbie: My Life,” left off.

In a utilitarian partnership with co-writer Dorian Hannaway, Reynolds takes up her life after the blush of her early starlet years had dimmed, when broken marriages, lost fortunes and a cunning knack for collecting Hollywood memorabilia seem to have defined her middle age.

“Unsinkable” touches only lightly on earlier material – on her infamous first marriage to crooner Eddie Fisher (who left her for Elizabeth Taylor), on her relationships with her children (devoted son Todd and feisty actress-writer daughter Carrie) and on her financially disastrous second marriage to wealthy gambler and businessman Harry Karl.

Mostly, this memoir concerns itself with her harrowing third marriage to real estate developer, womanizer and prize cad Richard Hamlett. On that score, she relates details of a toxic relationship that included threats of violence, honeymoon-night infidelity and a ruinous divorce that Reynolds claims cost her $8.9 million and essentially wiped her out financially. It’s a tawdry but fascinating tale.

Along with her marital woes, Reynolds writes colorfully about her passionate penchant for collecting vintage Hollywood costumes (including such items as Marilyn Monroe’s billowy white dress from “The Seven Year Itch”) and her desperate attempts to find a museum-quality home for the priceless collection (which led to an ill-fated try at buying a Las Vegas casino and to bankruptcy).

She’s brutally honest about those sad episodes of her life, but it’s in the book’s second section that Reynolds sparkles and is most outrageous and most brilliantly entertaining. That’s when she rummages through her memories of old Hollywood and offers up a freewheeling commentary on various stars and studio folks she encountered along the way.

Among the juicy nuggets, Reynolds identifies celebrities with the largest endowments (Milton Berle and Bob Fosse), tells who was gay (Montgomery Clift, Farley Granger, Tab Hunter), who was gay but still had the hots for Liz Taylor (Clift), who warned her to steer clear of Eddie Fisher (Frank Sinatra) and who was her biggest Hollywood crush (Robert Wagner).

Clearly an indomitable spirit, Debbie Reynolds is indeed larger than life but appealingly humble in her affection and thankfulness for an extraordinary life in show business. That comes through clearly in this memory of walking through MGM’s busy soundstages:

“You heard the sound of music as it was being written, and the lyrics being fit to the music. MGM also had a lot of younger people under contract. Peter Lawford drove his Cadillac convertible down the studio’s streets with his surfboard in the backseat. Mickey Rooney was on the prowl, as usual flirting with everyone. Grips and electrical workers walked around the lot beside stars like Spenser Tracy, Judy Garland and Greer Garson. It was like your life itself was a movie and you were part of one big creative family.”

- Dennis King