When I heard the late Debbie Reynolds singing Tammy on the radio the other day, I felt something visceral in her wistful rendition, a heart-breaking nostalgia recalling a far more innocent era –an era we haven’t seen in a long while and, I fear, we won’t see again.
I hear the cottonwoods whisperin’ above Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love! The old hootie owl hootie-hoo’s to the dove Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love! Does my lover feel what I feel When he comes near? My heart beats so joyfully You’d think that he could hear! Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreaming of! Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love!
When did we last see this kind of innocence? The kind that would make “the old hootie owl hootie-hoos” sound so…lyrical? Today’s contemporary music reflects our own world as much as Tammy reflected the world of the 1950s and really, it suffers in the comparison. For all its flaws, I’d almost have rather lived back then.
Evil and virtue, an old story
Reynolds came to the scene at age 20 in 1952, a year after my birth, and for me, had always been there in the background, part of the old Hollywood studio system. Just seven years later she’d be divorced from Eddie Fisher, a four-year marriage that exploded in scandal when he had an affair with the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. Debbie and Elizabeth: two more polar opposites could not be found. Black and white. Good and bad. Pure and…well, sinful.
My mother was a fan of Photoplay; that and other screen mags were always around the house. Hungry for more and more to read, even so young, I devoured them. (I also devoured the True Confessions she hid in a kitchen cabinet. But that’s another story.) So even at the young age of eight or nine, I remember the wholesome-looking Debbie and her two children left by a villainous Eddie Fisher who had been drawn in by the wiley vixen, Elizabeth Taylor. That’s how it played out in the screen mags.
Later, Reynolds married rich business man Harry Karl, whose gambling and terrible investments left her in dire financial straits. Work became a necessity.
For practically her entire life, she was one of the hardest working performers in show biz. The public never lost their view of her as wholesome, despite gossip about her salty language and ability to drink most men under the table. Someone told me that her alcohol rider for her public performances rivaled that of heavy metal bands.
But that’s not the Debbie Reynolds we knew and loved. Not the beloved star. Not the mother of an actress and writer who was also a true character. But in a different way.
So when she died a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, it was–well–shocking. After all, Debbie had always been there in the background of my life, representing that guileless, virtuous purity of the 1950s. All that stuff that’s now gone with the wind, and my pangs of nostalgia when I heard the song, were pangs of, well, a kind of regret that those innocent days are gone and a keenly felt sadness that we’ll not see them again.
In the New York Times, Wesley Morris wrote incisively about Debbie (but not definitively) as a trouper, selling pragmatic romance and stardom. A show girl who was, at the same time, innocent and un-apologetically corny.
And, as Morris closed his piece, she was the good-natured subject of her daughter’s first big memoir.
Who can explain a mother-daughter bond so complex? I thought when I recalled Fisher’s book.
“There was a moving, human beauty in the extremity of that bond,” Morris wrote and her son, Todd Fisher underscored in a moving interview on 20/20. “They so couldn’t live without each other that they couldn’t die without each other, either.”
Here’s Reynolds, singing Tammy. Listen yourself and tell me you don’t feel a little pang of sadness at the innocence we’ve lost.