Debbie Reynolds' Close Friend Ruta Lee Recalls Yacht Trip With Alex Trebek and a Search for Hot Dogs in Monaco
The late actress' longtime pal reflects on her "crazy humor."
I first met Debbie Reynolds after I had been elected to the board of The Thalians. I came to her wonderful house on Greenway Drive in Beverly Hills. We went there every month for our meetings, and that first one for me was kind of wonderful. She and this amazing Chinese couple who worked with her cooked fabulous food, and I was so impressed that this major movie star was just a plain kick-ass girl.
Debbie noticed that I had the same kind of work ethic that she had and any assignment she gave me — she was the president at the time — I would follow through on. She taught me that you can ask anybody for anything in this world, as long as it's not for yourself. You can go to the jeweler or the washroom attendant and just ask. That's a lesson that has stood me in good stead through all of these years of fundraising. She honored me by assigning me those tasks and eventually putting me in charge of The Thalians. She was the first to say, "Don't struggle, just go, go, go! Do it, honey." Boy did we have fun working it together.
She was the first one to say that she had terrible taste in husbands but wonderful taste in girlfriends. It's so true. I lived through a lot with her. I was happy to support her left, right and sideways, both personally and doing whatever had to be done with The Thalians. What always stood out to me was that no matter how tired or how occupied or preoccupied she was with her personal situations, she always had time to hear and listen and give a moment's advice for the organization. She was never too tired for that.
But she was very quiet about the miseries in her life. There were times when she slept in her car, but you would never hear her complain about it. She assumed all the debt that Harry Karl [Reynolds' second husband, who burned through her savings in the 1960s] left and she tap-danced her ass off making up that debt. She refused to go into bankruptcy, so she did it all very honorably — the Girl Scout forever.
She can wear diamonds and beautiful clothes by Helen Rose and she could also clean a toilet. That's who Debbie Reynolds was. We were joined at the hip for a lot of years, and Debbie was the kind of friend that did not cry the blues if you didn't call her that week or that month. Time would go on and we would pick up the conversation a month later.
One of the most fun experiences we had was my darling June Haver and her husband, Fred MacMurray, were being honored. Debbie and I did a special performance as the Dolly Sisters. We had swings installed onstage, hanging from the Century Plaza Hotel. We were wearing gorgeous dresses with long trains that we swung out from under us, out over the audience. Debbie, being the clown that she was, pretended she was falling off her perch. It was an exciting and beautiful moment. When I think of the shows we created in 55 years, it's just amazing.
I was performing her Broadway show, Irene, in Fort Worth and Dallas, and the costumes arrived and they were horrendous — just awful. Someone called up Debbie and told her that I was in a desperate state of affairs so she not only sent her original costumes but she sent the costumer to help me through all of it. That's the kind of lady that Debbie Reynolds was.
One time, on a yacht trip with her best friend, Paula Kent Meehan, who co-founded Redken, everybody got desperately hungry for hot dogs. We were with Alex Trebek, and we all went traipsing around Monaco looking for hot dogs. Eventually, we found some cold but very delicious hot dogs. You can imagine the jokes that flew around after that on the boat. It was a silly moment but so wonderfully indicative of the crazy humor Debbie had. She always appeared to be this darling little lady who was super serious about everything, but two glasses of wine later, the cat was out of the bag.
I'm honored to have been one of her friends and will always have a smile and a giggle in my heart for her. Debbie made life so much happier for me, but also for people she will never know, people whose lives she brightened with her performances, and people whose lives she saved through her work with The Thalians. She will be in their prayers, as she is in mine, thanking God for making life brighter and better.
Both Debbie and Carrie were fabulously big klieg lights and now that they've gone out, the world has become a dimmer place.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.