Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood's Perennial Girl-Next-Door, Looks Back on a Life of Broken Promises

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In a cozy booth at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas four years ago, a handsome, 6'2" Virginia real estate developer proposed marriage on his first date with Debbie Reynolds. "I had known her through the movies and had this vision of this sweet gal next door," explains Richard Hamlett. "And by dessert, I said to myself: 'She really is Tammy.' "

But Reynolds, whose first two husbands, Eddie Fisher and Harry Karl, had also mentioned matrimony by at least the second date, couldn't believe it was happening again. "You belong in a home!" she told Hamlett. "I'm a terrible risk!" Still, she agreed to a second date. This time, resolute Richard refused to leave after escorting her home to her condo. When Reynolds shut herself in the bedroom, he snuggled up on the sofa. "I woke up the next morning with a $27,000 sable coat laid across me," chuckles Hamlett, 52. "So who do you think covered you up, little baby?" coos Reynolds, 56, as she squeezes his hand. "And by the way, it cost $32,000."

Reynolds and Hamlett, who became husband number three in 1984, are sitting in the living room of Debbie's simple, ivy-covered brick cottage in North Hollywood. The house was all Reynolds could afford after shoe store owner Harry Karl frittered away $7 million of her money on gambling, bad investments and hookers. To recoup her finances, Reynolds still spends 42 weeks a year on the nightclub circuit, hoofing, singing and doing imitations of Dr. Ruth and Zsa Zsa Gabor. "Two more years and I'll have enough to retire," says Reynolds, dressed in a green velour bathrobe to receive an afternoon visitor. Isn't she angry at Karl, who died in 1982? "Sure I'm angry. But I still haven't changed. I'm gullible, I believe totally in my husband, and I like to treat a man well."

Unfortunately, until Hamlett came along, Reynolds says her men had not always returned the favor. Her just published autobiography, Debbie: My Life, written with the help of Los Angeles author David Patrick Columbia, chronicles one betrayal after another. In the public mind Reynolds has always remained the pert, wide-eyed innocent, the teenager who danced her way through Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, the kid who became America's ideal girl-next-door in 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor. The reality of both her personal and her professional lives, however, has been far less rosy. Reynolds—who was only 26 when Fisher scandalously dumped her for Elizabeth Taylor—could never quite make the transition from ingenue to grown-up roles, though she briefly resurrected her career on Broadway in the early '70s in the musical comedy Irene. Even now as a nightclub star, Debbie—still apple-cheeked and bright eyed—projects such a radiant, energetic image that it's hard to imagine that this woman has been bilked, jilted and left brokenhearted time after time.

"I wanted to write a woman's story," says Reynolds. "I wanted to explain that you can suffer and be taken in by men and still survive." She also seems eager to reassure readers that despite her travails, the sunny, upbeat Debbie on the big screen is not so far from the truth. To this day, she says, "I would never do a nude scene and I still can't say f—."

Such innocence was the undoing of her first romance, at age 19, with actor R.J. Wagner. He got out because she wouldn't put out, Reynolds writes. Wagner does not dispute her memory. "Debbie," he recalls, "wanted to remain a small-town girl."

"My daughter was a Texas girl raised to take people at face value, and she still does," explains Debbie's mother, Maxene Reynolds, 76, who lives across the street from Debbie in a house her daughter bought for her. "That has made her very gullible." She was also raised, it seems, to be fearful of her mother's temper. "My mother is a very emotional woman," says Reynolds, who reports in her book that Maxene once unexpectedly sent her flying across the bedroom. Says Maxene: "Sure, I did pop her one time because she sassed me back. Yet I don't ever recall knocking her clear across the room. But if she says I did, I did."

Debbie, christened Mary Frances Reynolds, grew up in El Paso until she was seven, when her father, Raymond, a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad, was transferred to California. The family settled in Burbank, and pretty Mary Frances, a natural comedienne and the family show-off, decided to enter the Miss Burbank contest at 16. She won by doing an imitation of Betty Hutton, and a Warner Brothers talent scout arranged for a screen test. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie and a career was launched. By 1952, with the success of Singin' in the Rain, Reynolds was on her way to being one of the biggest box office draws in America.

Enter Eddie Fisher, who charmed 22-year-old Debbie with sweet talk and expensive baubles. "I always thought their whole courtship was a sort of press release," says their daughter, Carrie Fisher, 31. "They were riding the wave of being a media couple more than having any real compatibility. And I think the burn-off on the infatuation was very quick."

In fact, just months after their 1955 wedding, writes Debbie, she discovered that Eddie was moody, jealous of her success and a cold, distant spouse. "He was an impatient, lazy lover," says Reynolds. "I'm sure he would say I was lousy too, and I bet I was." But the marriage muddled along until Eddie's best friend, Mike Todd, died in 1958, and Eddie felt the need to console his grieving widow, Elizabeth Taylor. "I could understand why he wanted her. I couldn't understand why she wanted him," Reynolds now says. "In the long run, Elizabeth did me a big favor."

At the time, however, it didn't feel that way. Debbie faced raising two young children, Carrie, then 1½, and Todd (named for Mike), 6 months, on her own, not to mention one of the most public divorces in Hollywood history. Moreover, she writes, Eddie paid only two alimony installments of $2,500 a month before the funds dried up. "He never sent the kids money or presents," says Reynolds. "I'd put gifts under the Christmas tree from Daddy. But when Carrie was 9, she gave them back and said: " 'Give it to a kid who really doesn't have a daddy.' " Todd Fisher, 30, who is now a scriptwriter, recalls that his dad "pulled a lot of no shows. My mother would cover his ass like nobody's business."

Even today, Todd remains wary of his dad. "I love my father, but I look at him as being terribly flaky," he says. "I don't get too close." Sister Carrie, who recently gave Eddie a 60th-birthday party in New York, is more forgiving. "Dad's a great guy, but he doesn't have a lot of qualities that make him a good parent," she says. "I coddle him more than he coddles me." Eddie, who says he's working up a new nightclub act, won't comment on Debbie's book.

Husband number two, Harry Karl, wasn't much of an improvement. Though Debbie portrays him as a loving husband and devoted stepfather in the early years after their 1960 wedding, she discovered—too late—that he was also a compulsive gambler and womanizer. A trusting woman, Debbie allowed Karl and a business manager to handle all the family money. In 1967 she discovered that Karl had squandered both his fortune and hers. Shattered, Debbie confided some of her problems to Carrie, then 14. "I was so furious," recalls Carrie. "I couldn't believe he had done that to my perfect mother. Harry Karl was a very weird guy, stupid and afraid."

Todd is slightly more sympathetic. "I'm the only one who cried when Harry died," he says. "He loved me and my sister, but he did a lot of bad things. I remember as a kid opening the door when my mother was away and some beautiful woman would come in, go upstairs for 15 minutes and leave. I understand he paid them 200 or 300 bucks."

Hurt and humiliated, Reynolds nevertheless tried to keep the marriage together until 1972, when she fled to New York to star in a Broadway play. When she returned to California in 1974, she filed for divorce and was forced to pay out another $2 million to settle debts.

A successful nightclub career helped rebuild Reynolds' finances. But inside, she was still the same naive, sexually repressed woman. "I thought of sex as a duty, not a pleasure," she says. "You know, there should be a school to teach sex. It's so important and yet we have no teachers, no classes." Instead, Debbie completed her education with producer-businessman Bob Fallon, whom she met when she was 40. "Bob taught me what it was like to feel a true climax of lovemaking," she writes. "I had never felt that." But the relationship ended abruptly four years later when Reynolds found out Fallon had another woman on the side. "You say to yourself: 'How stupid can a woman be?' Look, I'm not chopped liver, but this just keeps happening to me," Reynolds says. "I must have terrible taste in men."

In Hamlett, though, she seems to have picked a winner, and the whole family approves. "My father was once a druggie. Harry was a gambler," says Carrie. "Richard is the closest our family is going to get to a regular guy." Indeed, at home in North Hollywood, Reynolds and Hamlett seem like any middle-aged couple. He watches the Rams on television while she fusses over the leak in the kitchen and boasts that she made him his favorite chipped beef for breakfast (though there's an empty Stouffer's package on top of the garbage). "Debbie babies me," says Hamlett. "When I come in tired, she rubs my forehead with her $40 face cream."

Hamlett, in turns, tries to be with his wife on the road or in her Vegas condo whenever he can escape from his real estate businesses in Virginia and California. "Sometimes when I check into her hotel, the desk clerk asks if I'm Mr. Reynolds. I just tell them I go by my maiden name," says Hamlett. He even gamely bent and stretched with her on her new exercise video, Couples Do It Debbie's Way. And, like other family members, Hamlett approves of Debbie's decision to be blushingly honest about her past. "People think: 'Oh, she's little Miss Movie Star. Debbie had it so easy,' " says her mother, Maxene. "Well, now they'll know."

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