Sometimes leaders are the unlikeliest of people. Sometimes leaders appear in the unlikeliest of places. Sometimes leaders emerge in the unlikeliest of professions. Sometimes leaders have followers only after they are dead.
Actor, singer, dancer, comedienne Debbie Reynolds, who died four years ago at age 84, is such a leader. While she was alive, she was recognized as remarkable for two reasons. First, her work. She had a long, highly successful career as a Hollywood star, capped while she was still young when she played opposite the fabulous Gene Kelly, in perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time, “Singing in the Rain.”
Second, her life. Reynolds’ first husband, and the father of her two children, was 1950’s crooner and heartthrob, Eddie Fisher. Trouble was Eddie left Debbie for another woman, who happened to be the most perfectly beautiful, famously gorgeous movie star arguably of all time, Elizabeth Taylor. The fact that not long after Taylor left Fisher to begin a legendary romance of her own, with “Cleopatra” co-star, Richard Burton, who she eventually married, and later remarried, never dimmed the memory of Reynolds being left and bereft. Of course, one of her children with Fisher was a daughter, Carrie. Carrie Fisher who became world famous in her own right, forever enshrined in movie memory as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” series.
What, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with leadership? The answer: Debbie Reynolds was a pistol, a genuine original. A visionary. She had a particular passion for movie memorabilia, specifically costumes worn by great movie stars in great movies from Hollywood’s golden era. “These pieces are cultural touchstones,” she insisted, “that still carry the energy of the stars who performed in them. There is magic” she went on, “in every thread, button and bow.”
But for her cherishment of these garments – such as the indelible red shoes that Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz” – Debbie Reynolds was derided. A silly woman thought the Hollywood elite. So silly that when she offered her invaluable collection to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences she was turned down – five times. In her memoir Reynolds remembered David Geffen as saying, “Why don’t you just sell that stuff?” Which, after being so frustrated for so long, and needing or maybe just wanting the money, she finally did. She sold a large part of her treasure trove which, of course, can never again be fully reassembled.
Here though is the irony. Turns out that Debbie Reynolds was a woman ahead of her time. She saw then what others came to see only years later – how valuable and irreplaceable the pieces she had gradually, lovingly, assembled.
Set to open next April at a cost of $482 million is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which has now come begging. The museum’s director has asked Todd Fisher – Debbie’s son, Carrie’s brother – who still has pieces from Reynolds’ original collection, to donate them to the Museum. According to the New York Times, Fisher will oblige. He will oblige given that the Museum’s conservation studio will be named after his mother – and for as long as the Museum “properly” recognizes “her contribution.”
Good for him – better for Debbie Reynolds. Now she will forever be remembered as a leader of the movie industry. As a leader who, while she was long demeaned for her passion for preservation, understood before the rest of the Hollywood community that threads, buttons, and bows can have value. Great value. Value that transcends not only time but money.