Remembering Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, royalty of Hollywood and a galaxy far, far away

It was unthinkable. If that story line had been written into a screenplay, no producer would have gone near the idea; too unlikely, it wouldn’t play well with audiences. But it really did happen at the end of last year, and the public reaction was huge: People were staggered by the news that Debbie Reynolds died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, suffered a fatal cardiac arrest during a 15-hour flight from London to Los Angeles. They didn’t get to say goodbye. Carrie lay in a coma and on life support for some hours at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center before her death last Dec. 27. She was 60 years old; her mom was 84. And behind the shock and disbelief, nearly everyone had a few tears to shed. I know I did, although my friendship with Carrie had drifted away over a stupid argument many years earlier.

Buck Henry — best known for his screenplay of The Graduate (in which he also played the small role of a hotel clerk) and his many appearances on Saturday Night Live during John Belushi’s tenure — introduced me to Carrie Fisher in the early ’80s at a small party held in the courtyard of artist Ed Ruscha’s studio. Buck, whom I’d known since we both lived in New York, said, “You two dames have got to meet.” Then he took me by the hand and guided me to a spot where Carrie stood, surrounded by admirers. Buck was right: Carrie and I clicked, and during that first conversation I was fascinated by her blazing intelligence and touched by the overlay of disillusionment around her singular beauty. We exchanged numbers and soon I was being asked to visit her home in the canyon (I can’t remember which one; it was before the bigger house on, I think, Tower Road) on a fairly regular basis. Carrie liked company and usually there were people around. Once I saw Timothy Leary dive into the swimming pool. Steve Martin was a warm presence at a brunch I attended. I met Debbie Reynolds one afternoon at the house when I was walking past the living room and heard a small, nearly musical “Hello” coming from the depths of one of the sofas. I sat next to her and we talked for a few minutes — small talk, but very pleasant; there was nothing of the big movie star about her. 

Shopping with Carrie was an interesting — and rather maddening — experience. One had to be careful not to admire anything, because Carrie would immediately try to buy it for you. She was the most generous and talented giver of surprise gifts, as well. I have a vivid memory of a clear plastic tote bag with an inside container (also clear) that held a perfect replica of a trout, a wedge of lemon and three or four ice cubes. Carrie Fisher’s eye for deadpan kitsch was supreme: she kept a life-size replica of a Guernsey cow in the area near her pool, and  a lamp with a wooden base carved into bears climbing a tree in a guest bedroom. Carrie shared an October birthday with director Penny Marshall and every year it was celebrated with a big party at Carrie’s house. Tables were set out on the patio, the food — home-fried chicken and all the fixings — was supplied by Debbie’s housekeeper and cook, Gloria. The list of guests rivaled that of a seating chart at the Academy Awards and Carrie was an exceptional hostess: welcoming, funny and as always, genius smart.

It has been well recorded (by Carrie herself in her first book, Postcards from the Edge, and later, in Wishful Drinking) that she had a major penchant for drugs. During an interview with Diane Sawyer she admitted to taking LSD and using cocaine as well as a variety of other stuff. I had a memorable experience with Carrie one evening: I’d recently begun attending meetings at a 12-step program (I had my own bout with drugs) and I convinced her to come along with me to a meeting in Westwood. We stopped for dinner first. When we walked into the meeting, Carrie was immediately pulled into a hug by an award-winning leading man with whom she was friendly. She was able to sit through half the meeting before leaning in close and whispering, “I’ve got to get out of here.” On the way back to her home, she asked me to drop her off at a friend’s place so she could pick up her car. I pulled up to a duplex in Beverly Hills. Carrie got out and ran up a flight of stairs to the friend’s apartment.

I decided to wait, figured she was going for the car keys — her BMW was parked near the stairway — but what if the friend wasn’t home? It seemed to take a longer time than a fast pickup and I turned my radio to an R&B station. Halfway through a version of Tipitina, Carrie came out of the apartment. She was clearly high on drugs. I jumped out of my car and yanked the car keys from her hand when she swayed to the bottom of the stairs. I’d take her home, I told her. She didn’t argue, just slumped into the passenger seat of my car. Even by the dashboard lights I could see her eyes were unfocused. We didn’t speak during the drive back to her house; Carrie was slipping into a deeply drugged-out state. When we pulled into the driveway, I got out from behind the wheel, steered her to her front door and rang the bell — I knew she had a couple friends there. A young woman opened the door, a young guy standing just behind her. They asked me to come in and between us we guided a nearly unconscious Carrie to the living room sofa.

I was offered a cup of tea, took a sip and headed back out, weary of the whole evening, but as my car motor purred to life, I heard my name shouted. Both of Carrie’s friends ran up to my car to tell me she was more than unconscious: her lips were turning blue. I told them to make a kind of chair with their forearms and carry her to my car. They managed to slide her into the back seat and each sat on either side of the clearly overdosed Carrie. The guy — by then I’d learned he was the author Paul Slansky — held her head up, his hand under her chin, while the young woman, also a writer — Carol Caldwell — braced Carrie’s shoulders. We raced down the hill; I was heading toward Cedars-Sinai, the closest place I could think of. When we screeched into the emergency entrance, Carrie was placed on a gurney and rushed into a treatment area. I parked the car and we all headed into the waiting room. The three of us sat, waiting, for three or four hours — until Carrie’s stomach was pumped and she was taken to one of the celebrity suites.  I visited a couple times and she looked exponentially better each time, making wonderfully funny, self-deprecating comments, some of which appeared in her first book. After that, we argued over a guy and drifted apart.

When the movie version of Postcards, starring Meryl Streep as Carrie with Shirley MacLaine playing her mother, was released, I was surprised to see my part of that adventure-in-the-drug-trade assayed by Dennis Quaid. But who cares? Carrie Fisher is gone now, and her mom, Debbie, wasn’t able to stay behind.

That’s a Hollywood — and an international — tragedy.