With Debbie Reynolds’ death on Wednesday, Hollywood has lost a true legend of the Golden Age. At the height of her career, Reynolds was known as America’s sweetheart — and her fame often outshone the parts she played.
In fact, one of her most famous roles came during an offscreen drama which involved a love triangle seemingly ripped from a movie script.
Back in 1958, Reynolds and her husband, famed crooner Eddie Fisher, were among the most glamorous couples in Hollywood. The only other duo that came close to their star power also happened to be their best friends, Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, producer Mike Todd.
Reynolds had known Taylor since they were classmates together at MGM. “I went to MGM when I was around 17, and Liz was there too, but she was already a star,” Reynolds previously told PEOPLE.
“We went to school together on the lot, when she was in between films. 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. And if anyone said they weren’t, then they were lying. Or blind.”
The two remained close friends after school, and their husbands hit it off as well. In the mid-’50s the two couples were inseparable, and when Taylor and Todd married in 1957, Fisher was Todd’s best man and Reynolds was Taylor’s matron of honor.
But everything changed after Todd died in a 1958 plane crash. Fisher took it upon himself to comfort his best friend’s stunning young widow. As Reynolds later put it, Taylor “liked enough to take him without an invitation.” Fisher and Taylor became an item, leading to Fisher’s widely publicized divorce from Reynolds in 1959 and marriage to Taylor just a year after Todd’s death.
After the divorce, public sympathy went to Reynolds, who was left to raise the couple’s two young children, Carrie and Todd, as a single mother. “When he left, I raised the children. He never sent any money, so I found it a little scary,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds went on to marry a wealthy businessman named Harry Karl, who would later steal her fortune to pay off his gambling debts, and Taylor left Fisher, who’s career was floundering, for Richard Burton.
The former best friends did not speak for years, but Reynolds later told PEOPLE that she put the blame mostly on her former husband. “I felt you can’t make a man leave, you can’t make him do something he doesn’t want to do,” she explained. “He obviously chose to leave, didn’t he? She didn’t lasso him. She was just beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. And he wanted her, and he wanted to be her lover, so he left and he was. He was the selfish one. She just gave him what he wanted.”
Fortunately, the two old friends were able to reconcile before Taylor died in 2011. The reunion happened by accident, with both actresses embarking on a cruise without knowing the other was onboard. As Reynolds told it, she first learned they were shipmates when she saw an inordinate amount of luggage being loaded onboard. “I said, ‘Who has all that luggage?’ And they said, ‘That’s Elizabeth Taylor’s luggage.’ ” When she got the news, Reynolds said, “I almost changed my mind and didn’t go.”
Once onboard, the two sent each other notes and “she came to the stateroom and we had drinks, and we had dinner together.” While Reynolds did not remember any apologies being exchanged, she felt ready to put the drama to rest. “At that time, in my cabin, before we went to dinner, we both made our little . I said, ‘Why in the world would you want him anyway?’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t know why I did it, and I certainly was wrong. But look what I have now!’ I said, ‘Well, lucky you!’ And that’s how that got over.”
Not only did they get over their differences, Reynolds and Taylor even went on to costar together in a TV movie called These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher. “It was just fun. It was like girls getting together in a high school reunion or a class party,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds was also able to speak with Taylor not long before Taylor died in 2011. “She was very ill. She was feeling really miserable, just trying to survive, to rise above it … She expressed how scary it was. We talked about that for a while, that it’s really hell getting older. We were complaining to each other about that. Like two girls would.”
Reynolds joked that her men after Eddie Fisher were no prizes either. “I had another person after that who was a louse and another husband after that who was another louse. So I’ve had my share of louses,” she told PEOPLE. “So it wasn’t all Elizabeth’s fault. I had much more pain to go. I had many more bumpy paths to go along the way.”
Ultimately, Reynolds credited her faith with helping her find forgiveness. “I’m very religious. I believe that things happen and you have to go along with them. You don’t have to be angry and become an ugly person. You don’t have to become what the the people are who are attacking you. Love blinds all. I just had to grow up and realize that.”