Christmas Eve with Debbie Reynolds

Christmas Eve with Debbie Reynolds

Rita Lerner of Englewood Cliffs remembers an evening with Carrie Fisher and her mother

Abe Gurko and Carrie Fisher
Abe Gurko and Carrie Fisher

There was something so very gripping about the entwined stories of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher — they lived such public lives, so clearly struggled with each other and loved each other, in fact adored each other, and died within a day of each other, one too young to die, the other clearly felled by grief — that we cannot hear enough about them.

Rita Lerner of Englewood Cliffs didn’t have to wait for news reports. Years ago, through her brother, Abe Gurko, who worked with Ms. Fisher, Ms. Lerner spent Christmas Eve with the two of them, and got advice on her love life from Ms. Reynolds. It was an experience that she cherishes, she said recently.

Ms. Lerner, the oldest of three children, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her mother, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, who managed to live through the destruction of the Vilna ghetto, was a singer; in fact, “Leonard Bernstein accompanied her in three concerts in a DP camp,” she said. Her uncle, Wolf Durmashkin, was a famous conductor, generally accepted as a brilliant musician, who was murdered just as the war was ending.

All this is to say that the Gurko family, which includes a sister, Vivian Reisman of Englewood Cliffs, was profoundly musical. (But “I’m like my father,” Simon Gurko, Ms. Lerner said. “We just clap.”) And this is important because it explains why Abe Gurko worked with Carrie Fisher, who was not a professional singer but also came from a musical family and had music deep in her DNA. It was a professional relationship that lasted for about 25 years, until 2015, and took a variety of forms during that time.

Soon after her brother had begun his work with Ms. Fisher, “about 25 years ago, I flew out to California, where he lives, to meet him,” Ms. Lerner said. “And I went to Carrie’s house.

“Debbie Reynolds invited me to Christmas Eve. It was a big holiday for them, and she was nice enough to invite me to Erev Christmas. Isn’t that what every Jewish girl wants? And she couldn’t have been any more gracious or more adorable.”

From left, Riter Lerner, Abe Gurko, and Vivian Reisman
From left, Riter Lerner, Abe Gurko, and Vivian Reisman

Ms. Lerner just had been divorced, “and she sat me down and started giving me advice. I was getting advice from Debbie Reynolds!

“She sat me down and said, ‘My first husband left me for another woman.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Are you kidding? The whole world knows that!’ And then she said, ‘My second husband took all my money and he lost all my money, and it turns out he was a gambler. And my third husband — well, we’re still married, but he’s not here now.’”

As everyone knows, her first husband was Eddie Fisher, Carrie’s father, who left her for Elizabeth Taylor; her second husband was failed shoe magnate Harry Karl, and her third was Richard Hamlett. All ended in divorce.

“She said to be careful about the kind of men you meet,” Ms. Lerner recalled. “She couldn’t have been sweeter. She gave me candies and chatchkes and little goodies. She took a real interest in me.

“She was a real woman’s woman. She was up, dancing and singing, a little to the embarrassment of Carrie. She was always entertaining.”

“And the funny thing is — Carrie was second-generation Hollywood and I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. They — second-generation Hollywood — think of themselves as Hollywood survivors.

“The word ‘survivors’ has a completely different meaning for them,” Ms. Lerner said.

Ms. Lerner also met Carrie Fisher’s father, Eddie Fisher. She is very active in an organization that supports Holocaust survivors. Among those groups is the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. “Once, about 18 years ago, we had a gathering for survivors at the Fontainebleau in Florida,” she said. The Gathering’s president, Ben Meed, was there. Using her brother’s connections to the Fisher family, “I said that maybe we could get Eddie Fisher there,” she recalled.

She asked, and he came. “He performed, and if you were there you would have seen Holocaust survivors, with canes, with walkers, running around like they were in high school. When he sang ‘O My Papa,’ they were like young women again.

“It was incredible,” she said. Eddie Fisher died in 2010. He was “a great performer,” Ms. Lerner said. “He was a horrible father,” but he was able to give those elderly survivors great pleasure, and she holds that memory with love, as she holds the memories of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.

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