Last month when Florence Henderson passed, a mutual friend emailed me a powerful statement that "everyone gets a turn." The stark truth of those words echoed in my mind again.
Actress and entertainer Debbie Reynolds died yesterday at age 84. Earlier in the day she was rushed from her home to the hospital with shortness of breath. She apparently suffered a stroke, and succumbed a short time later. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that her daughter, Carrie Fisher, unexpectedly passed away a day earlier, having suffered cardiac arrest aboard a flight from London to Los Angeles. I assume the shock and stress of Carrie's death, coupled with her own ongoing health issues, triggered Debbie's demise.
I first crossed paths with Debbie decades ago when Hollywood architectural preservationist Bob Nudelman was hoping to acquire the old Max Factor Building on Highland Avenue and to convert it into a Hollywood history museum. Nudelman gave us a tour of the iconic art deco structure, including a walk-around of the hauntingly empty upper floors. His pitch was that he wanted to display her legendary costume collection and my 1930s Mickey Mouse and Disneyana memorabilia in the facility, but for a variety of reasons that didn't happen with our respective collections.
I lost touch with Nudelman over the ensuing years, and he died in 2008 at age 52. However, he and Debbie remained close, both very interested in the conservation of Hollywood history. In fact it was Debbie who informed me of his death a couple of years later after I was reintroduced to her as a result of our mutual friendship with Phyllis Diller.
Phyllis and Debbie admired and adored each other and she often visited Phyllis who was 15 years her senior. She sometimes borrowed wacky wardrobe from Phyllis to use in her own act, which included many remarkable impersonations.
On a hot summer night in 2010, Phyllis and I attended a small dinner party with Debbie and several other guests at businesswoman Paula Kent Meehan's Beverly Hills estate. We had all removed our shoes at the door of Paula's Japanese garden room and put on slippers. I was wearing a sport coat. Debbie looked at me and said, "Bernie, you don't look very comfortable," and she proceeded to literally remove my sport coat and roll up my shirt sleeves. She then brought me a tall cool drink. I had been friends with a late singer named Eileen Barton, who had a hit song entitled "If I Knew You Were Comin I'd've Baked A Cake," a tune that really reminded me of Debbie -- always making one feel welcome, validated, and special.
In July of 2010, I hosted a birthday party for Phyllis' 93rd in my home. In spite of a hectic work schedule, Debbie joined us for a memorable night. She graciously sang "Happy Birthday" to Phyllis, and everyone had a wonderful time. She attended to Phyllis in a touching sisterly manner, yet carefully avoiding taking any attention away from the guest of honor.
In 2011 Debbie was conducting a major auction of her remarkable Hollywood costume collection, with a red carpet preview at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Phyllis and I attended together. Debbie was at the top of her game, working the media, and still taking time to give some personal attention to her invitees.
Debbie's wish was to keep her collection together to display in a museum, but it was not to be. She was ambivalent about breaking it up, but the time had come to do so. As one collector to another, I assured her that highest bidder for each item is the one who would preserve and treasure it the most. At the end of the day, the prices realized were indeed impressive.
In July of 2013, Ruta Lee called me and asked what we should do for Phyllis' 95th birthday. Phyllis' health was declining, so we decided to have a small pot luck dinner at Phyllis' home with just Debbie, Ruta and her husband Webb Lowe, and Jean and Alex Trebek. Paula Kent Meehan intended to join us and bring one of her staff members with her to help, however a last minute health issue prevented Paula from attending. Shelly Sparks worked for Phyllis, and served dinner with some assistance from all of us-- but Debbie is the one who really took charge like "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" she had played in film. She had no hesitation about serving food, clearing the table, and otherwise lending a helpful hand.
A few nights later, Debbie was planning a little soiree in her Coldwater Canyon home, and she called to invite me. I could not go, as I was having a small dinner party on the same night in my home and Debbie said to me, "I hope you have more help than you had at Phyllis' the other night-- I worked my butt off!" After a bit of back and forth banter, she admitted she was just giving me a good-natured ribbing
Phyllis died a month later, and I know Debbie was glad to have been with her before Phyllis' final curtain.
In May 2014, some friends were hosting a small surprise birthday party for Ruta Lee in a Los Angeles restaurant. Ruta was like a sister to Debbie, and the out-of-town hosts asked me to invite Debbie to the dinner. I emailed Debbie, and she called me and said that she had not been very well since January, and could not attend. In fact, that year seemed to be the beginning of her physical decline.
Ironically, on Tuesday I mailed Debbie a note of condolences about Carrie's demise. The next day Debbie followed in her daughter's footsteps. Debbie was a fighter, but Carrie's death proved too much for this seasoned show business survivor to endure. Godspeed to both of you.