Wednesday, January 4, 2017

David Patrick Columbia on Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

David Patrick Columbia is the founder and proprietor of New York Social Diary, one of my regular stops on the web. The title tells you his beat, more or less, but it doesn’t tell you that he is a wise and humane man, a gentleman if you will, and a good writer who has a style – yes, his own style, he knows the language well enough to use it to his own ends, rather than be used – worth attending to (see my old piece at The Valve, Stylistics: New York Social Diary).

He has recently posted four articles particularly worthy of our attention, for they speak to the human realities behind very public lives. The first was written on the occasion of Carrie Fisher’s death and is about Carrie and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. The other three are about Debbie Reynolds; Columbia worked with her for a year or so on her 1988 memoir, Debbie: My Life. Here are links to the articles and a passage from each.

Remembering Debbie and Carrie. December 28, 2016.
It was often assumed by those outside Carrie’s circle that the differences in lifestyle between mother and daughter created difficulties in their relationship. That was only publicity dressing on what was otherwise a normal mother-daughter relationship. Debbie from the beginning of her motherhood had always been very conscious of the fact that her work could demand her full attention and even at times, separation from her children. Her children always came first, as it was in Maxine and Ray’s family. When she couldn’t be with them, the grandparents were there, so the family was always together.

As Carrie grew up and into her own public personality and career, Debbie was deeply proud of her. She always regarded her daughter as more intelligent and talented than herself. It was simply a matter of pride and wonder. Daughter knew this and underneath her own charm and wit, deeply admired her mother.
The name of the game. January 2, 2016. This passage is about Lillian Burns Sidney – “a tiny woman, no more than 4’11” and standing (always) erect” – who, in her position as head acting coach, was a power at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1938-1952.
She was the woman who decided who among the contract players would get the star treatment. And who wouldn’t. She didn’t take her job lightly. She was very sophisticated in all aspects of theatre and films – as well as opera and the classics (she read from Shakespeare’s portfolio every night before she went to sleep). And she saw everything. After all, she’d say, “the camera doesn’t lie” so truth is everything.

Her relationship with Debbie Reynolds began when the teenage Debbie went from Warners over to MGM as a contract player, a starlet as it were. Debbie was sixteen or seventeen. In those days, the studios educated their contract people with a regimen that impressed discipline, commitment and focus. They were schooled in not only the arts, but in diction, dancing, walking, talking, smiling, singing, etiquette, and lighting – as well as learning, to maintain that “star’s” image at all times (while in public). Right down to one hour a day with the photographer to get that million dollar smile down to a science. The camera was king.
Once early in the interview process, Debbie and I had a meeting at 2 in the afternoon at her house. When I arrived, she was still in bed, fully clothed but not camera ready which she always was outside her house. I wasn’t surprised because she kept very late hours, often well into the early morning and not infrequently until dawn. Her workday began at dusk and finished after midnight, so too her body clock.

On this day, she was still on the phone. When she finished she told me that only an hour and a half before she had concluded a two-day appearance in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, over the phone, for $160,000.

She was very proud of having made the deal without an agent. In telling me about the phone call, she said that just as she hung up after making the deal, she heard a key in her front door – which was directly down the hall from her bedroom. She knew it was her mother who came and went as she wished.

Maxine came right into Debbie’s bedroom, took one look at her daughter who was still in bed sitting up, and scowled: “Still in bed?! When you gonna get up and do a decent day’s work?!”

Debbie just shrugged inside. She never argued with her mother. Maxine was not an unpleasant lady to converse with.
Debbie: The Final chapter. January 4, 2016.
She lived simply with Maxine in the big house across the road. Furnished comfortably, it was unremarkable except for the bedroom, the only tactile reference to the effect of Hollywood on her life was the eight foot hallway leading to her bedroom door. Both walls were covered floor to ceiling with framed autographed photographs of famous movie stars, all of whom she knew and/or worked with.

The bedroom was the prize however. A creamy ivory and white-on-white room, white upholstery, white rugs and white curtains, it was an updated depiction of Jean Harlow’s bedroom in the classic “Dinner At Eight.” The bedroom of a Hollywood star as imagined by any movie fan.

There was a four-poster with a canopy of crisp, white lace. And on the skirted table next to her bed, beside the lamp and the phone, were two 9”x11” black and white photographs in silver frames of Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. Both with personal inscriptions.

Cary’s message was longer than Jack’s. They were words of praise, affection and appreciation. Jack Lemmon’s inscription was short in a large penmanship: “Debbie — Who loves you?? — Jack.” Yet there was nothing pretentious about this almost Jean Harlow-esque boudoir. It was the real thing, the bedroom of an authentic Hollywood star.

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