VANITY FAIR – Her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother, Debbie Reynolds, for Elizabeth Taylor—and that was only the beginning.
Carrie Fisher, who died Tuesday, had a complex relationship with Hollywood, which she hilariously described in her autographical books, one-woman show, and interviews over her four-decade career. While it can be grotesque to watch celebrities publicly lamenting their life’s hand, Fisher used her wit, talent, and experiences to entertain audiences everywhere from movie screens to Twitter streams. And in a 2009 interview, Fisher told Vanity Fair how sharing her stories—which had an atypical, wry perspective on Hollywood’s usual trappings: stars, addictions, and broken marriages—played a large role in her mental health.
“The fact that I can make somebody laugh at this stuff—it can be very cathartic,” Fisher said of opening her life up for public consumption. “If you claim something, you can own it. But if you have it as a shameful secret, you’re fucked; you’re sitting in a room populated by elephants. I have a lot of elephants to kill. But I also have a lot to be grateful for. Most of my problems are high-class. As Mike Nichols used to say, ‘The champagne is flat and the caviar has run out—will it never end?’”
Fisher’s life began with the same flash-bulb crack that would accompany her to her untimely end. The first child of pop singer Eddie Fisher and Singin’ in the Rain star Debbie Reynolds (who died one day after Fisher did), Fisher later joked that she—a cynical Hollywood misfit plagued by addiction and bipolar disorder—was “truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.” In her autobiography, Fisher described what it was like entering the world as the offspring of two of the world’s biggest stars:
When I was born, my mother was given an anesthetic because they didn’t have epidurals in those days. Consequently, she was unconscious.
Now, my mother is a beautiful woman—she’s beautiful today in her 70s, so at 24 she looked like a Christmas morning. All the doctors [in the delivery room] were buzzing round her pretty head, saying: ‘Oh, look at Debbie Reynolds asleep—how pretty.’
And my father, upon seeing me start to arrive, fainted. So all the nurses ran over saying: ‘Oh look, there’s Eddie Fisher, the crooner, on the ground. Let’s go look at him.’
So when I arrived I was virtually unattended. And I have been trying to make up for that fact ever since.
Two years later, Fisher famously left Reynolds and their two children—Carrie and her younger brother, Todd—to be with Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor had recently lost her own husband, Michael Todd; Carrie later deadpanned that her father was simply trying to be a supportive friend to Taylor. “He rushed to her side, gradually moving to her front,” Fisher joked in her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, during which she relied on a chalkboard diagram to help audience members keep track of the family’s relationships. “He consoled her with flowers and, ultimately, he consoled her with his penis.”
“My mother and my father were America’s sweethearts,” Fisher said. “They literally received that tag. Even my parents sort of went along with the assumption that they were a good couple, but they probably weren’t a very good couple.”
The scandal was gargantuan, though Reynolds had to put it into perspective for younger generations: she compared herself to Jennifer Aniston, with Fisher as Brad Pitt and Taylor playing the role of Angelina Jolie. But Reynolds ultimately did not seem to regret her dissolved marriage; later, she even said that she understood why Fisher would leave her for a smoldering sex symbol like Taylor.
“My three husbands all left me for another, woman and obviously I wasn’t a very sexual lady,” Reynolds told The Express in 2015. “My husbands all repeatedly said the same thing—that I was not a very passionate woman.”
“I have never wished that I had had more sex,” she admitted. “I was never a sex queen in real life, and I was never pursued by men. . . . I was friends with Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner and they craved and loved sex and talked about it. . . . They were very sensuous women, desiring passion. . .It seemed that I was more interested in raising my children, not in pursuing my husbands.”
With a career to maintain, though, Reynolds could not put her entire focus on her children. In her memoir, Fisher remembered that her mother was away so frequently that she and her brother took advantage of her time at home any way they could.
“When my mother was at home at weekends, we stayed with her as much as possible, which frequently meant we watched her dress and make herself up,” Fisher wrote. “When Mom was at home, she did a lot of sleeping because she worked so hard, so Todd and I wanted as much of her company as we could get. I slept on the rug on the floor next to her bed, and my brother slept on the couch near the window. In the morning when Todd and I got up, we would creep out of her room so we wouldn’t wake her.”
As Fisher grew older, she grappled with the notion that her mother “belonged to the world” as much as she belonged to her own children. Whenever the pair went out together, they were interrupted by so many Reynolds fans that “it was not like having private-time with Mom. And I didn’t like sharing her.”
“When we went out, people sort of walked over me to get to her, and no, I didn’t like it,” Fisher later reiterated to the New York Times. “I overheard people saying, “She thinks she’s so great because she’s Debbie Reynolds’ daughter!” And I didn’t like it; it made me different from other people and I wanted to be the same.”
“She was so beautiful, and I dreamed of looking like her one day,” Fisher wrote in her memoir. “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now, the beauty that my mother was. I was a clumsy-looking and intensely awkward, insecure girl. . .I decided then that I’d better develop something else—if I wasn’t going to be pretty, maybe I could be funny or smart.”
Fisher also wrote of her strained, distant relationship with her father and how it affected her as a child.
“I started reading really early,” Fisher admitted to The Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I wanted to impress my father, who is impressionable. . .My family called me ‘the bookworm’ and they didn’t say it in a nice way. I fell in love with words.”
“I always wrote. I wrote from when I was 12,” she also said. “That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know.”
Although Fisher confessed that she saw her father “more on TV than on the planet,” she still found herself gravitating towards him—and when he was not available, as was often the case, to his likeness instead.
“My father was a short Jewish man,” she once said. “My husband [Paul Simon] was a short Jewish man. Go figure.” After he died, Fisher eulogized her father by saying, “There hadn’t been a note he couldn’t hit, a girl he couldn’t hit on, an audience he couldn’t charm or bring to its feet cheering.”
“He defined me more by his absence than by presence,” Fisher told The New York Times. “In later years I realized that we could have a relationship if I was taking care of him. If I had an expectation that he was going to be some kind of parent to me, that was always going to disappoint. For whatever reason that is who he was. At least he did one thing: He knew he didn’t deserve my care and attention, and he appreciated it.”
Although the elder Fisher did not leave a last will or testament when he died in 2010—“True to form, my father continued to neglect his parental duties in death as he did in life,” she wrote—he left his daughter with something that would linger: her bipolar disorder.
“My illness took hold when I was 14 or 15 years old—my father had it too,” Fisher told People in 2013. “Having had this illness my entire life, I accommodated it by developing a very big personality. . .Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it. That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous.”
Although Fisher satirized her sometimes rocky relationship with her mother in her book and film Postcards From the Edge, Fisher and Reynolds grew figuratively and literally close in recent years—even occupying side-by-side homes that share a driveway in Los Angeles.
“She is still a little eccentric,” Fisher wrote of her mother in recent years. ”Whenever she calls she says: ‘Hello, dear, this is your mother, Debbie.’ (As opposed to my mother Vladimir or Jean-Jacques.) My brother and I talk this way to each other now: ‘Hello dear, this is your brother, Todd.’ . .Another example of her eccentricity: she suggested several times that I should have a child with her last husband, Richard, because ‘it would have nice eyes’. It hadn’t occurred to her this might be odd. I think she just thought, you know, my womb was free and we’re family.”
Fisher made her stage debut at the age of 13, in her mother’s nightclub act. Over the course of the past year, their professional lives realigned once more through a documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Ironically, Fisher said she wanted to make the film because of her mother’s declining health.
“I didn’t know how much longer [Reynolds] would be performing,” Fisher told The Washington Post during the festival. “It’s the thing that gives her life, but it was also pulling it out of her, because she’d perform and then she’d have to recover. But this is someone who wants to go back and do it now.”
Last year, while presenting Reynolds with a SAG Life Achievement Award last year, Fisher gave a warm speech, saying, “She has been more than a mother than me—not much, but definitely more. . .She’s been an unsolicited stylist, interior decorator and marriage counselor. . . Admittedly, I found it difficult to share my mother with her adoring fans, who treated her like she was part of their family. She has led two lives, public and private—sometimes concurrently, sometimes not.”
In 2010, Fisher acknowledged that she, like her mother, also blurs lines between the private and the public.
“I’ll never be known for my work with boundaries,” Fisher said in 2010. The year before, Fisher noted the irony in her conversation with Vanity Fair. “There’s a line in Postcards from the Edge where Meryl Streep says to my mother, ‘We’re designed more for public than for private.’ I’ve finally turned into my mother.’”
In an acknowledgement addressed to Reynolds in her latest book, The Princess Diarist, Fisher wrote: “For my mother—for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.”
In the end, Fisher acknowledged that Reynolds was the role model who allowed her to survive bouts of medical illness, addiction, and heartache.
“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive,” Fisher told The New York Times. “That’s my word for it. She would go through these amazingly difficult things, and the message was clear: Doing the impossible is possible. It’s just not fun. She broke her ankle one night during a performance and went back onstage and sang ‘Tammy’ with her foot in a bucket of ice. She should be put on that thing with the four presidents—Mount Rushmore. Right after Teddy Roosevelt, but have his eyes looking down at her cleavage.”
In an interview with NPR last month, Fisher added of her mother, “She’s an immensely powerful woman, and I just admire my mother very much. She also annoys me sometimes when she’s mad at the nurses, but she’s an extraordinary woman. Extraordinary. There’s very few women from her generation who worked like that, who just kept a career going all her life, and raised children, and had horrible relationships, and lost all her money, and got it back again.”
For Fisher, the hard part wasn’t writing about her struggles afterward—it was getting through them in the first place, much as her mother did before her.
“There’s a part of me that gets surprised when people think I’m brave to talk about what I’ve gone through,” Fisher said. “I was brave to last through it.”