Debbie Reynolds found herself in a love triangle involving her husband and close friend – but she refused to lose herself.
The actress, who led a decades-long career in Hollywood as a wholesome leading lady, died in 2016 just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher. She was 84.
Today, the screen legend’s Sin City years are being spotlighted in a new free exhibition as part of Duck Duck Shed by The Neon Museum, “The Persona, The Person: Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas.” It features many of her handmade gowns, costumes and personal mementos from her time living and performing in Las Vegas from 1962 to 2014.
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“She never got rid of anything,” Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher, who curated the exhibition, told Fox News Digital. “This collection that we’ve had for all these years has been largely just stashed away in warehouses in California and Las Vegas. This is a chance for people to see some of the things that would not normally be on display… This is the first time some of these things have been seen by anybody else – and there are a lot of personal items.”
Reynolds was not yet 20 when she won a starring role opposite Gene Kelly in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” In 1955, she married crooner Eddie Fisher. America’s sweethearts welcomed two children, future “Star Wars” icon Carrie in 1956, followed by her brother in 1958.
The couple’s best friends were producer Mike Todd and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds even served as maid of honor when Todd and Fisher married in 1957. And the foursome was close – so much so that Todd Fisher was named after Taylor’s third husband. And when Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958 at age 48, it was Reynolds and Eddie who rushed over to Taylor’s side.
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That’s when Reynolds was met with a great betrayal.
“As Carrie likes to say, my father rushed to Liz’s side, gradually moving his way around to the front,” Fisher chuckled.
Fisher described how the press pounced on Reynolds as she stepped out of an airplane. They asked how she felt about Eddie leaving her and their two young children for the grieving femme fatale.
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“She hadn’t even heard yet,” said Fisher. “You could see she’s a little shocked, but she just handles it with such grace. That just goes to the quality of her character.”
Taylor was assailed as a husband stealer, Fisher as a deserter of his family. Reynolds won sympathy as the innocent victim, a role emphasized when she appeared before news cameras with diaper pins on her blouse. A cover headline in Photoplay magazine in late 1958 blared: “Smiling through her tears, Debbie says: I’m still very much in love with Eddie.”
After Eddie and Reynolds divorced in 1959, he married Taylor weeks later.
“She never talked my father down to us,” said Fisher. “She could have given us an earful about Eddie leaving her for Liz. And a lot of it, of course, was in our faces too as children growing up. And this scandal never really went away. To this day, it’s still talked about.”
The scandalous union lasted five years. Taylor left husband number four for Richard Burton, whom she met on the set of 1963’s “Cleopatra.” The Welsh actor became husband number five from 1964 to 1974. Burton became husband number six when they rekindled their marriage in 1975. They called it quits for good in 1976.
Despite the public extramarital affair, Fisher said his mother never shed her squeaky-clean image, both professionally and personally.
“What you saw is who she was – she really was apple pie,” Fisher explained. “There was no dark side to her. I’ve known a lot of people [who] had one image that they portrayed to the public and a different image that was who they really are. But my mother really was that person.”
“When she made this one movie called ‘Mary, Mary’ [in 1963] they had to teach her how to smoke a cigarette,” he said. “And even then, she did a bad job… She was a girl scout for real and then became this big movie star. She was squeaky clean.”
“My father left my mother for Elizabeth Taylor,” he reflected. “A lot of people were mad about that… A lot of people were like, ‘So your dad left the good girl for the bad girl.’… Liz made no bones about being the bad girl. She came a long way from ‘National Velvet’… So when my mother was put in the position of being humiliated by my father… my mother was a classy person.”
It would be decades later when Reynolds said Taylor “probably did me a great favor.” In her 1988 memoir, she described her marriage to Eddie as an unhappy one.
“He didn’t think I was funny,” Reynolds wrote. “I wasn’t good in bed. I didn’t make a good gefilte fish or good chopped liver. So what did he have? A cute little girl next door with a little turned-up nose. That was, in fact, all he ever said he wanted from me. The children, he said, better have your nose.”
Fisher said that years later, his mother and Taylor “became great friends again.” They starred in 2001’s “These Old Broads,” which was co-written by Carrie. In the film, the women poked fun at the affair.
As for Eddie, Fisher said, “I don’t think the press ever forgave my dad – the public certainly didn’t.”
After Taylor, Eddie married Connie Stevens, the third of his five wives. He died in 2010 at age 82.
“They got married when they were in their early 20s,” Fisher said about his parents. “And I think Hollywood pushed them together, too. I mean, I’m not saying they weren’t attracted to each other. My dad picked my mother off the stage… and told his best friend, ‘I’m going to get that girl.’ And he did – he married her. I’m not sure if it was the best move, but he did.”
“Actually, I’m glad he did – otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Fisher laughed.
Over the years, Reynolds suffered through marital woes. But her true love was always performing.
“My mother loved to entertain,” said Fisher. “She loved live entertainment more than the movies. And she performed in her 80s and her career spanned all seven decades… And in those seven decades, she made about 100 movies… She was one of the most brilliant performers in front of a live audience. She would go into the audience and interact with them, and people loved it. They could get so close and touch a movie star. What kept her going was a passion for loving to [perform]. If she didn’t like to do it at any given point, she could have retired long ago, and she never did because it drove her.”
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Today, Fisher hopes younger audiences will discover more than just the movie star or the public figure who faced scandal.
“She’s just my mom,” Fisher beamed. “She was a doting, loving, caring mother. She was awesome as a mother…. Carrie and I had a very attentive mother. We were taken to the sets. Many of my friends were never taken to the sets. We were taken on locations. I was in every location you could think of… And that’s an unusual characteristic for entertainers, especially big stars. The children are sidelined. And we were not.”
The exhibit is free for all ages to view in the Grand Gallery of City Hall. It runs through Oct. 26.
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