December 29, 2016

Wednesday brought more sad news from Hollywood: Debbie Reynolds passed away at 84 after suffering a stroke, just one day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Her son Todd Fisher said the loss surely contributed to her death and that she said she wanted to be with Carrie. It’s tragic but understandable: there is no grief on Earth as painful as that of parents who lose their child. It doesn’t matter if that child is an adult. Your child is your child as long as you live.

For those too young to remember, Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood princess long before her daughter became Princess Leia. Debbie rose to stardom from deep poverty. She was raised in a shack in El Paso, Texas, where her mother took in laundry, her father dug ditches, and he made sure the family was fed by occasionally shooting a jack rabbit. After they moved to California, she won a beauty contest at 16 that led to a movie contract that provided her with bit parts and lessons in acting, singing and dancing. She worked her heart out to learn her trade, so that by the tender age of 19, she landed her first starring role, holding her own alongside the greatest dancers in movies, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in what is now considered the best musical ever made, “Singin’ In The Rain” (coincidentally, two decades later, her daughter Carrie also made her movie debut at 19, in Warren Beatty’s “Shampoo.”)

In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, Debbie Reynolds was America’s Sweetheart, and a star in virtually every medium: films, television, theater, nightclubs and records. Later, she owned her own Las Vegas hotel/casino, wrote an advice column for the Globe and won numerous honors for her work in film preservation and helping the mentally disabled. She was even kind enough to make up with Elizabeth Taylor after Taylor famously stole her then-husband, Eddie Fisher. But for all her many accomplishments and awards, the role she obviously cherished the most was as the mother to her children.

Here’s something you might not know: Debbie Reynolds cared so much about all children that she damaged her career by briefly quitting her popular variety show after learning that NBC aired a cigarette ad during it in violation of her contract. She said she was shocked that such an unhealthy thing would run during her show that had so many kids watching. This was in 1970, a full year before the government banned tobacco commercials.

Since Debbie Reynolds was always such an indomitable force (appropriately, she was nominated for an Oscar for playing “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), any tribute to her should allow her to have the last word. I think she would like it if I shared her views on parenting, which I share as well. Rest in peace:

“One of the advantages of having been poor is that you learn to appreciate good fortune and the value of a dollar, and poverty holds no fear for you because you know you've gone through it and you can do it again...But we were always a happy family and a religious one. And I'm trying to inculcate in my children the same sense of values, the same tone that my mother gave to me.”

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