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Book Club

Unsinkable by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway - reviewed by Vinton Rafe McCabe

“Debbie Reynolds knows exactly how to steal the scene . . .”

Actress and singer Debbie Reynolds’ new memoir, Unsinkable, picks up right where her last memoir, Debbie: My Life, written in 1988, ended.

In the first volume, we followed her life from El Paso to Hollywood; from being crowned Miss Burbank to being a 19-year-old contract player first at Warner’s, then at MGM; to being America’s sweetheart; to becoming a film star, a wife, and mother then a single mother when her husband, singer and wannabe film actor Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor; to being a Broadway and Las Vegas entertainer, a television talk show fixture, and, once again, a single mother after her second marriage to shoe tycoon Harry Karl.

In the last moments of her first memoir, Debbie Reynolds stood before the altar about to marry the man she called “brave, loyal and loving.”

In her new volume, a book with the truly great and apt title Unsinkable, she begins by debunking that myth.

She goes on from there to prove just how unsinkable she is, was, and always will be, beginning with a paraphrase from All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts, I’ve had a bumpy ride.”

Right up front we also get a sort of warning from Ms. Reynolds’ daughter, actress/author Carrie Fisher:

“My mother has an amazing memory. She doesn’t seem to remember things utterly and all at once. Her recollections can come gradually, or they’ve been known to come to her intermittently, even late at night and suddenly—maybe on a plane, when entering an elevator, deciding not to exercise, not to go to bed yet, to spend time reading, watching TV, or returning calls, while eating or alone.

“The bottom line is that she’s never quite gotten to that bottom line. In the end, the end gets farther and farther away. Just when you think you’ve heard her last word on a subjects—a vivid and vast assortment of reflections—you find that you’ve been happily swept up into another anecdote long forgotten, hoisting memory’s anchor, embarking on a new long-forgotten cruise, sailing storied seas on the S.S. Other Hand.”

Obviously, Ms. Fisher speaks from a long and loving history with the author. Her comments also indicate that she likely read the working manuscript.

Because just when we thought that there was nothing left for Debbie Reynolds to tell us about how Eddie left her for Liz, who then left him for Dick, our author decides to explain how it was she got pregnant the second time (with Carrie’s younger brother Todd) within the bounds of her troubled marriage:

“I ordered Eddie a beer, and he drank it, even though he preferred the highs provided by his friendly physician, whom I called Dr. Needles. Then I asked the server for another beer for my sperm bank—uh, husband. Eddie being a nondrinker, it was enough to put him in the mood.

“After dinner Eddie and I went up to bed. Sure that I was fertile, I was excited about getting my hands on Eddie. I soon got Eddie excited too, even though he was half asleep. I was swift, and so was Eddie. When the deed was done, I used the beautiful headboard on our bed to prop up my legs all night, determined to keep every molecule of baby ingredients inside me until the last possible moment. I stayed that way until I left for the airport the next morning.

“Eddie remained in Italy while I flew home with my friend Jeannette, who’d accompanied us on the trip. When Eddie returned to L. A., he was distant once more. He was stunned when he found out he was going to be a father again, but he became a good husband as we waited for our new baby. Nine months later, Carrie had a brother and my wish came true. Two beers, in and out—I got Todd. Todd Emmanuel Fisher, named after Mike Todd.

“Mission accomplished.”

Of her first husband, Eddie Fisher (who jumps in and out of the narrative willy nilly, as Ms. Reynolds, no doubt entering an elevator or deciding not to exercise while dictating her memoir, takes the Other Hand out for another spin) ultimately concludes that he indeed was the best of her three husbands, all things considered.

And when you consider that he more or less abandoned her and her two children, left her chagrined on the front pages of every newspaper and magazine and on the receiving end of diatribes from gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper, who took her to task for not giving Eddie a quick enough divorce so that he could “follow his heart,” that’s saying something.

But consider that her divorce from second husband Harry Karl left her penniless and living in her late model Cadillac and you begin to get the point. And as it turns out Mr. Karl would likely rank as her second-best husband in the end.

A large portion of Unsinkable covers the tale of her third marriage to real estate developer and all-around cad Richard Hamlett. Given that he apparently once felt that an ideal solution to their marital troubles was to throw the actress off a balcony, it’s safe to say that, of the three husbands, he was indeed the worst. And Ms. Reynolds’ account of their toxic relationship makes for harrowing reading.

But the best parts of this book are the non sequiturs, the moments in which the Other Hand is in full sail out on the wide ocean of remembrance.

This is Debbie Reynolds at her best, whether on talk shows, on film on in the pages of her books, when her eyes light up recounting tales of the studio system.

Moments like this one from the second part of the book, in which she shares anecdotes about all the films she made and all the people she made them with.

Like the time when she had to hit Jean Hagen in the face with a cake.

It’s in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. Her first major film. And a film in which she was cast by the Louis B. Mayer over the objection of the film’s star Gene Kelly and the film’s director Stanley Donen, neither of whom welcomed her onto the set with open arms.

In the scene. Reynolds is to attempt to throw the cake at Kelly, who ducks, leaving Hagen as the target. Before the cameras rolled, Donen told Ms. Reynolds that she would only have four chances to get the shot right by hitting Hagen square in the face.

“I can do it in one take.” Reynolds told the director with the full brio that young provides.

Both Kelly and Donen laughed.

“No, no, I can,” she insisted. “I’m Miss Burbank!”

In the telling of it, the point seems to be that Ms. Reynolds actually manages to get the shot off perfectly on the first take in spite of the men’s disbelief. But to me, the point remains that Debbie Reynolds somehow equated being Miss Burbank with having a deadeye and a catapult of an arm.

In the best moments, she shares with her readers what perfume she wears (L’Air du Temps), and what outfits she chose for various court appearances (the divorce dragged on, she put together and lost several development deals, most notably for her own Las Vegas hotel and casino and Hollywood memorabilia museum—all of which seemed to end up in court), as well as which of Hollywood’s leading actors had the largest endowments (notoriously Milton Berle, of course, but also Bob Fosse, who was only too willing to share).

She tells the tales of who was gay (Montgomery Clift, Jack Larson, Farley Granger, Tab Hunter), and who, in spite of being gay could not resist the allures of Elizabeth Taylor (Montgomery Clift) and who warned her not to marry Eddie (Frank Sinatra, who said, “It’s a hard life, marrying a singer. I know.”)

She reveals her Hollywood crush (Robert Wagner), and she tells the tale of how she once taught Liberace how to fly out onto the stage of the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. And why the star of Tammy and the Bachelor didn’t get cast in Tammy Tell Me True.

The Hollywood she recalls seems a Technicolor place, where Walter Brennan and Thelma Ritter taught the new kid how to steal scenes and where Marjorie Main, with whom Ms. Reynolds worked, along with Lana Turner, in Mr. Imperium in 1951, showed the virtue of eccentricity:

“Marjorie’s husband, Stanley Krebs, had died in 1935. She still carried his urn around with her, so she could speak with Stanley. When she went to the lunch counter, she would hoist up the urn, order an extra meal for Stanley, and chatter away as if he were part of the conversation.”

And then there’s this, a remembrance of walking through the soundstages at MGM:

“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.”

As always, in the pages of Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds knows exactly how to steal the scene, wring tears, and most important, how to leave her audience feeling thoroughly entertained.

Originally published in new york journal of books, the web's most comprehensive professional book review. Reviews of other books are available at: www.nyjournalofbooks.com www.nyjournalofbooks.com 

 

 

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