Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor were pegged by the press as the original Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie of their day due to a scandalous affair and the breakup of a so-called perfect marriage. But despite the tabloids, their friendship endured for decades.
Reynolds and Taylor meet as classmates at the studio school on the MGM lot. “I was just a beginner, and she and I were not in any manner alike, but we got along very well because I was in awe of going to school with Elizabeth Taylor,” Reynolds told People in 2015.
Reynolds married actor Eddie Fisher. They had two children together, Todd (named after Taylor’s husband Mike Todd) and Carrie Fisher.
Taylor married producer Mike Todd. Reynolds served as the matron of honor and Fisher as best man. The couples were neighbors in Los Angeles.
Todd died in a plane crash, leaving Taylor absolutely bereft. Fisher became her main source of consolation. “Eddie always wanted to be Mike Todd… So, when Mike passed on, Eddie became Mike,” Reynolds told Entertainment Tonight in 1988. “He started smoking cigars, he started drinking. He had never drank, never smoked cigars, you know? And all of a sudden, he just took on this other personality. Well, naturally, Elizabeth, who was deeply mourning, was attracted to Eddie.”
Reynolds first heard rumors of the affair at a dinner party she attended solo, which were confirmed when she called Taylor at her hotel room in New York and Fisher answered.
Carrie Fisher described the affair a bit differently in her 2001 book, Wishful Drinking. “Naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth’s side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis,” she wrote. “Now this made marriage to my mother awkward, so he was gone within the week.”
Taylor issued a statement in September 1958 confirming the affair in an unprecedented (and rather defensive) move. “Eddie is not in love with Debbie and never has been… You can’t break up a happy marriage. Debbie and Eddie’s never has been.”
Reynolds and Fisher divorced and he quickly married Taylor in Las Vegas; they became the original Brangelina. Taylor was branded a home-wrecker by the press and NBC canceled The Eddie Fisher Show because of the negative publicity generated by the affair. The newlyweds starred in BUtterfield 8 together, in which she plays a promiscuous woman having an affair with a wealthy married man.
Taylor began an affair with Richard Burton while filming Cleopatra, which led to her divorce from Fisher two years later.
More: Debbie Reynolds lived a life of heartbreak but didn’t let it destroy her
Finding themselves on the same cruise ship to Europe, Reynolds and Taylor reconciled their friendship. “I sent a note to her room and she sent a note back to mine saying that we should have dinner and get this over with and have a good time,” Reynolds recalled. “The four of us ended up having dinner and it was wonderful… we had a wonderful evening with a lot of laughs. She’d moved along in her life and so had I. If your husband’s going to leave you for anyone, it might as well be Elizabeth Taylor. She was beautiful, smart, and a very sexual woman and I was very different — not exactly a sex kitten. I told [Fisher] she’d throw him out eventually and that’s exactly what happened. But he wasn’t the brightest of men.”
More: Debbie Reynolds reveals all to Oprah
1970s – ’90s
Reynolds and Taylor kept up their friendship privately throughout the ensuing decades. Taylor earned a second fortune hawking her own perfume line and was instrumental in driving the push for government funding of AIDS research. Reynolds married twice more, developed a critically acclaimed Broadway career and began collecting Hollywood memorabilia in the hopes of creating a museum, which never came to fruition.
In her final onscreen appearance, Taylor co-starred in the Carrie Fisher-penned TV movie These Old Broads with Reynolds, playing two former rivals who fell out when one stole the other’s husband. Reynolds later described how Taylor contributed to the script as a means of public apology for their own past. “Liz told Carrie to write that scene because she said I deserved to have that after all these years,” Reynolds told The New York Times. “She kept saying, ‘Have her really tell me off and make it meaner — it’s not funny enough.'”
On Sept. 11, the two found themselves stranded in New York until airspace opened back up and spent several days holed up together in Taylor’s hotel suite watching news coverage together.
When Taylor died, Reynolds revealed that she last spoke with Taylor a mere two weeks before the icon’s death.
“‘Getting old is really shitty,’ I said. Elizabeth laughed that wonderful full laugh. ‘It certainly is, Debbie. This is really tough.'”
Taylor left Reynolds an astonishing bequest in her will: a stunning jeweled set of sapphire and diamond earrings, bracelet and necklace.
Reynolds died just a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
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