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

Thompson on Hollywood By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood April 2, 2013 at 12:32PM

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.
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Debbie Reynolds in 'Singin' in the Rain'
Debbie Reynolds in 'Singin' in the Rain'


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. 

This article is related to: Books, Debbie Reynolds, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.