Now in their 80s, these two divas have been called by many names over the years: Debbie Reynolds has been described as America’s sweetheart or the quintessential girl-next-door. Rita Moreno has been called a spicy Latin spitfire, and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer once called her “a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.” Now these stars have written memoirs that are must-reads for anyone who wants to explore their lives beyond those labels.
The title of Reynolds’ book — Unsinkable: A Memoir — refers to her Academy-Award-nominated role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. This memoir picks up from the last chapter of her previous autobiography, Debbie: My Life, which came out in 1988. In that book’s closing pages, she wrote about finally finding love with her new husband after two broken marriages. This one, she believed at the time, would last for the rest of her life — but life seldom works out the way we plan. No matter how painful the subject matter, the actress shares, in excruciating detail, a very personal account of her husband and money troubles — and how the one caused most of the other. The immediate, “you-are-there“ style that Reynolds and co-author Dorian Hannaway use makes this book hard to put down..
Over the latter half of Reynolds’ life, she has become known and celebrated for her astounding collection of cinematic memorabilia, including Marilyn Monroe’s “subway” dress from The Seven Year Itch and Audrey Hepburn’s “Ascot “ gown and hat from My Fair Lady. Throughout much of the 1980s and ’90s, her quest was to find a permanent home to house these items.
She thought she had finally found one when she opened a hotel and museum in Las Vegas. Within a few years, however, Reynolds discovered that her husband had betrayed her emotionally and financially — she even writes how, at one point, she feared for her life from this man she thought she knew. Along the way, her dream was destroyed and much of her incredible collection was lost. Yet this same collection would ultimately save her from financial ruin. Though it’s heartbreaking to read about someone’s dream crashing and burning, it is equally inspiring that Reynolds refused to give up and continues to prevail.
In the second half of the book, Reynolds lightens the mood considerably by recounting her film career, movie by movie, and sharing memories and juicy stories about each one. These include how she once found Tony Randall jumping up and down in the dressing trailer next to hers, completely nude, and how dancer Bob Fosse groped her on the set of Give the Girl a Break. (“Bobby would come up behind me and press his ‘gift’ into my backside,” she writes.) Among her lighter anecdotes are those involving her long friendships with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra, and how she co-starred with the Lincoln Futura that would, in due course, become TV’s Bat-mobile.
By contrast, Rita Moreno: A Memoir is a full-on autobiography She is one of the very few artists — and the only one of Hispanic descent — to be awarded an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and two Emmys. Moreno triumphed over many boundaries in her career, easing the way for countless performers.
“Pretend to be someone I’m not,” Moreno writes; “this idea has lasted most of my life — it is how I coped — but not without profound consequences.”
Born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico, she relates how, when she was 5 years old, her mother took her to New York City, leaving behind a baby brother she would never see again. After a harrowing ocean voyage, they eventually wound up in the barrios of the Bronx.
While studying Spanish dance with Paco Cansino, an uncle of Rita Hayworth, she made her nightclub debut performing opposite him at age 9. She made her Broadway debut at 13. Before long she was signed by MGM, and numerous pages of her memoir are devoted to stories of her adventures there, including one memorable publicity tour with Ann Miller where they encountered a flirtatious soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy.
Show-biz enthusiasts will also love reading about the making of West Side Story for which Moreno won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. In the book, she characterizes the film’s original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, as being “filled with a puzzling self-loathing that spilled over onto all the people with whom he worked. He was never mean to me, but he was brutally hard on me.”
Several years later, Moreno added a Tony Award to her Oscar for portraying the outrageous Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally’s classic comedy The Ritz. But Moreno’s absorbing narrative is also heart-wrenching, particularly when she admits to being involved in a number of toxic and often obsessive relationships with several Hollywood heavy-hitters. Not the least of these was her passionate — and passionately dysfunctional — romance with the mercurial Marlon Brando, which led her to attempt suicide.
Each book offers a refreshing glimpse into the family lives of these entertainers. Moreno has been married once — to physician Lenny Gordon – a union that lasted for 45 years, until his death in 2010. She discusses her loss in an especially poignant chapter titled “Losing Lenny.” And she expresses the “incomparable” joys of being the mother of her beloved daughter Fernanda. Reynolds, too, devotes plenty of space in her book to her close relationship with her children, Todd and Carrie Fisher — without whom, she says, she would never have made it through all that she has.
It’s interesting to note where the two actresses’ lives have intersected. For instance, leading man Gene Kelly personally hired Moreno for her supporting part in Singin’ in the Rain, but that was not the case with Reynolds. and she reports that early on, the actor even seemed to resent her, driving her to tears during production. In another coincidence, Moreno alludes to a “disastrous” date that she went on with Harry Karl, heir to the Karl Shoes dynasty, who eventually became Reynolds’ second husband.
More recently, Moreno starred on the hit TV show Oz from 1997 to 2003, and she will receive the coveted Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in January 2014. Reynolds has had supporting roles in films such as In and Out and this summer’s Liberace: Behind the Candelabra.
These two incredible women are American treasures, and their stories are valuable to all of us, as well.
Unsinkable: A Memoir, published by William Morrow, and Rita Moreno: A Memoir, published by Celebra Books, are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retail outlets.