I was eight years old when my family and I went to the Trail Drive In to see Tammy starring Debbie Reynolds. I truly enjoyed that movie much as today’s young girls like to watch the programs on the Disney Channel. It was a wholesome and uncomplicated film about an innocent seventeen year old who finds love for the first time. I instantly learned the words to the song Tammy that Debbie Reynolds sang so romantically in the film and belted out the simple tune as I rode my bicycle around the neighborhood. Mostly I became an unapologetic fan of Debbie Reynolds after seeing Tammy and never lost my admiration for her even as the years went by and I became a well seasoned woman.
I often caught snatches of the conversations that my mother had with her sisters when I was a child and I knew that they highly approved of Debbie Reynolds. She was an all American princess in their eyes, as uncomplicated and lovely as the character she played in Tammy. One of my aunts often read a magazine called Confidential which was a precursor to The National Enquirer. I remember seeing photos of Debbie Reynolds in the pages of that publication with her husband Eddie Fisher. He was a singer and a heartthrob of sorts but I never particularly cared for him. Because I was still an uninitiated child I thought that Debbie had the most perfect life nonetheless and I wanted to be just like her one day.
Eventually a tremendous Hollywood scandal made the headlines. Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher had been close friends with Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Mike Todd. They had even named their son Todd. When Mike Todd died suddenly in a plane crash a grieving Elizabeth Taylor found comfort from her good friends, especially Eddie. One thing led to another and the two stars wound up having an affair. Stories about the sordid incident seemed to be everywhere and of course my mom and her sisters were aghast by the turn of events as they whispered comments while they sipped on their coffee. I would have had to have been deaf not to hear them discussing how horrible the whole situation was and how much they felt for Debbie who by then was the mother of two children including a daughter named Carrie.
I loved Debbie Reynolds even more fiercely after that sensational scandal and thought of her as a brave warrior who somehow soldiered on even after enduring public humiliation. It would be decades before I would be able to forgive Elizabeth Taylor for her egregious behavior and I disliked Eddie Fisher forevermore. I was happy when his star power plummeted in the aftermath. He ultimately disappeared from the limelight and his tryst with Elizabeth was short lived, but Debbie continued to perform and remained beloved to me and her fans.
I was grown when I finally discovered the movie that seemed to most accurately depict the duality of sweetness and spunk that seemed to define the real Debbie Reynolds. Singing In the Rain became one of my all time favorite films. The casting was incredible and Debbie more than held her own with giants of the screen like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner. There are few scenes from cinema that are as iconic as the one in which she dances with her male co-stars and they all three end up tilting over a sofa. Her star quality shone through and that charisma would never die even after she left the silver screen for a quieter life.
Debbie Reynolds showed up from time to time in Las Vegas and on television programs like Will and Grace where she always seemed to light up the room but it was her daughter Carrie who would eventually become even more of a Hollywood icon than she had been. When Carrie Fisher played the role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars series she immediately became a role model for a new generation of little girls just as her mom had been for me. Carrie was beautiful and intelligent and showed the same spark of independence that her mom had always displayed. Young men across the world fell in love with her more feminist version of the ideal woman. She was an equal to the male characters who fought side by side with her against the dark side of life.
Carrie Fisher had a brilliant mind and went on to display her intellect and her sense of humor in the five books that she eventually wrote. She possessed a sometimes defiant honesty in which she told of her own demons and struggles. For a time she was estranged from her mother because of her willingness to so publicly speak of her life. She suffered from addictions and mental health issues and was never afraid to talk openly about them. She became an outspoken advocate for everyone who deals with the heartache and loss that comes from fighting for their mental well being. She understood that by admitting her own weaknesses she not only freed herself from their grasp but helped others who so often feel abandoned and alone in the battles against their cravings.
The world was shocked to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death from a heart attack that she suffered while flying home on Christmas Day. Her many fans both young and old recalled the joy that she had brought to them. Her friends and family grieved for the giving and sensitive person that she was. Her mother Debbie was distraught and missed her beloved daughter immediately. Only one day later she too died, possibly from a stroke.
After my father was killed in a car crash at the age of thirty three my grandmother commented that she had lost her parents, many siblings and even a husband but the death of her child was the most difficult thing that she had ever endured. I watched her change from that day forward. She was a fighter who carried on but there was a shadow of sadness that seemed to follow her in spite of her efforts to smile and be optimistic. She spoke often and wistfully of my father and provided me with snatches of her own history as though she was preparing me for her own demise. Eventually she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and she died after a short but painful battle. Somehow I always felt that it was her broken heart that took her and I suspect that the same might be true of Debbie Reynolds. It is just so incredibly shocking and wrong in the grand scheme of things to lose a child.
I feel a profound sadness today as I think of the family of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. They will be dealing with a great deal of pain in the coming days and weeks and months. In the end the icons that we so worship as fans are just people like ourselves. They have brothers and daughters and close friends who love them and know them in the most personal ways, “warts and all” as my mother used to say. Behind all of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood are humans who experience the very same feelings that we all have. They give away much of their own privacy to those of us who fantasize about them and make them famous. We share vicariously in their triumphs and their tragedies but we never truly know them. We forget just how human they really are. The death of Debbie Reynolds just one day after her daughter reminds us of what matters the most in life. In the final analysis the most important thing that we do each day is to love and never forget just how fragile the human experience is. We can’t take a single day for granted because we never really know what our final destiny will be. We need to attempt to live with courage and open hearts like Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher tried so valiantly to do.