Later today, at 12:45pm, Elizabeth Taylor stars in the epic 1963 movie Cleopatra on BBC 2. This iconic Hollywood film is where Taylor met her fifth husband, Richard Burton. She stayed with the actor for ten years before divorcing him (and then remarrying him and re-divorcing him a year after that). But before that ordeal, Taylor stole the husband of her best friend, Debbie Reynolds.
Taylor and Reynolds had come up in Hollywood around the same time. They were both child stars who learned the ropes as starlets before transcending into mature film stars who took the world by storm. They reportedly double-dated and spent many evenings together hanging out and getting up to no good.
Reynolds and her husband, Eddie Fisher, were madly in love. He would introduce her on stage as “my princess” and worshipped the ground she walked on. But everything changed a few years into the marriage when Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, died suddenly in a plane crash. Fisher consoled Taylor, and before long, their friendship blossomed into a sordid affair.
One night, while Fisher was away “working”, a lonely Reynolds called the hotel room of her best friend, Taylor, for a chat. She was stunned when her husband picked up the phone.
“Suddenly, a lot of things clicked into place,” Reynolds recalled in 2010. “I could hear her voice asking him who was calling – they were obviously in bed together. I yelled at him, ‘Roll over, darling, and let me speak to Elizabeth.'”
Fisher reportedly dropped the phone and ran home to face the music. He told Reynolds: “I’m sorry. Elizabeth and I are in love and I want a divorce.”
Reynolds assured her soon-to-be ex-husband: “If you marry her, she will throw you out within 18 months.” Of course, she was right. When Taylor joined the cast of Cleopatra she fell for Richard Burton.
But before that, Reynolds did not want her marriage to be brought to an end. She told the Daily Mail: “I was very religious so I didn’t believe in divorce.” But the new couple insisted, giving her no choice.
“They laid guilt on me that I was keeping them and true love apart,” she recalled. “So, I finally let Eddie off the hook. I told him to go.”
Reynolds was truly shocked and hurt by the events. “Eddie had been best man at [Taylor and Todd’s] wedding and I had been a bridesmaid. We saw a lot of each other and I never suspected that she was going to entice my husband away.”
Looking back, Reynolds confessed she didn’t completely blame her husband for sneaking off with Taylor.
“I might not have been as surprised were it anyone else. But how it all happened was rather scandalous in that they didn’t take more care to avoid hurting me,” she reminisced. “I understand when I look back on it. Who would pass by Elizabeth? No woman living was as beautiful as her. And Eddie had even tried to act like Mike Todd, smoking big cigars.”
Reynolds knew there were rumours in the press about her husband hanging around with Taylor after dark – but she took no notice of them. She dismissed them as nothing more than rumours.
Unfortunately for her, she was wrong. She said: “I was the last to find out about the affair. There had been hints in the papers and I had noticed that when I turned up at functions or parties on my own my friends were whispering. Although I didn’t want to find out the truth, I had to face up to it. Even so, it was a great shock to find them together. It left me shattered.”
Still, Reynolds had the last laugh. Her warning came true: Taylor dropped Fisher when she met Burton, and they rarely saw one another again for the rest of their lives.
Reynolds, on the other hand, remarried a year later, in 1960, to Harry Karl, a shoe store owner.