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Book Review: Debbie Reynolds’ Messy Life Makes ‘Unsinkable’ Memoir Readable

Book Review: Debbie Reynolds' Messy Life Makes 'Unsinkable' Memoir Readable

Written by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway, “Unsinkable,” a memoir of Debbie Reynolds’ messy life after middle age overtook the bubbly teenager who spent decades starring in MGM musicals, is not a good book, but it’s worth reading.

In dull and pedestrian language, “Unsinkable” – which will be published today, (April 2) one day after Reynolds’ 81st birthday –  tells the fascinating story of a third marriage gone disastrously wrong.  The disaster began on their honeymoon cruise.  Richard Hamlett had invited three women to join them, something Reynolds didn’t find out until they were at sea.  She was at sea, figuratively at least, for the next decade.  Her husband kept a mistress, forged “Reynolds’ signature so he could put her property in his name, “borrowed” money from her pension fund, and transferred the property he had stolen from her to his girlfriend.  In the divorce settlement he was awarded $8.9 million.  She collected almost nothing.

Nowhere does Reynolds or the co-writer who turned her words into a book seriously answer the question of how the actress could have been hooked, at the age of 52, by a con man after her equally disastrous second marriage to a gambling rich man, Harry Karl, cost her all the money she had saved and left her millions of dollars in debt.

“I was a romantic,” she says, in an attempt to explain.  “It never ceases to amaze me that people feel free to help themselves to my money and property.  There is a mentality at work that says, ‘It’s okay to rob Debbie blind, I work for her.’  Or, ‘She’s my wife, everything she has is mine.’  I don’t think like a thief, so I never see this quality in others until it’s too late.” 

Reynolds’ first marriage, which ended when Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor, is barely mentioned.  Nor is there much about her daughter, writer-actress Carrie Fisher except the harrowing story of Fisher’s overdose in London when Reynolds’ was about to be married to Hamlett. Carrie was in a London hotel room.  She hadn’t overdosed but had taken too many pills because she was ill.  When she didn’t answer her phone and the hotel refused to let a staff member check the room, Debbie sent her trusted pal Ava Gardner, who was in London, to the hotel to take care of things.

Reynolds’ third husband cannot be blamed for all of her financial problems.  She purchased a Las Vegas hotel without getting a gaming license.  One reason she bought the hotel was to have a home for the Hollywood costume collection into which she had poured her passion, her energy, and her money for decades.   For a few years the hotel housed her museum.  But, eventually, she lost the hotel. 

And in June, 2011 the costumes and artifacts she had spent 45 years collecting were auctioned, with many of the best costumes sold to buyers from Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia.“Unsinkable,” which takes its title from her movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” is divided into two parts.  Part II simply recaps her career with comments from Reynolds on each of her movies.

The most affecting section of the book deals with Debbie Reynolds’ desperate attempts to find a home for her collection as she sinks deeper into the quicksand of debt.  Warren Buffet gives her this advice:  “Debbie, don’t sell the farm.”  She understood that Buffet was warning her that “by raising money for a museum to house the collection, I was risking the security I had after a lifetime of work.”

In default on a loan to build a museum in Hollywood, she owed $5.3 million.  Her children by Eddie Fisher, Todd and Carrie, urged her to sell. Throughout the pain of her third marriage, the tangle of lawsuits in Las Vegas, and the preparations for the auction, son Todd was her bulwark, the man on whom she could always count.

Molly Brown survived the sinking of the Titanic.  The collection was Debbie Reynolds’ lifeboat.  One costume, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore as she stood on a subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch,” brought $4.6 million dollars.  Hundreds of other costumes sold for two or three or four times their estimated value.  The collection that Hollywood did not value had inestimable value for the rest of the world.  She was out of debt with money in the bank once more.

“I had saved the collection,” Debbie Reynolds wrote.  “And now the collection had saved me.”

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Debbie Reynolds is a legend from an era when triple threat meant true natural talent. It's sad that she had to sell off a collection when she had dreams of displaying the items together, but with such bad taste in men and business, se la vie. But the fact that she has kept her sense of humor makes her a grand dame in my book!

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