The actresses first met as classmates in the early 1950s. "I went to MGM when I was around 17, and Liz was there too, but she was already a star," Debbie told People in 2015. "We went to school together on the lot, when she was in between films. I was just a beginner, and she and I were not in any manner alike, but we got along very well because I was in awe of going to school with Elizabeth Taylor. And if anyone said they weren't, then they were lying. Or blind."
Debbie became a movie star in her own right after her performance in 1952's Singin' in the Rain. Three years later, she married singer Eddie Fisher, making them one of Hollywood's first power couples; Taylor and Mike Todd officially became a power couple when they tied the knot in 1957. (Debbie served as Elizabeth's matron of honor, while Eddie served as Mike's best man.) The four friends, who just so happened to be neighbors, were said to be inseparable back then.
Of course, everything changed after Mike died in a plane crash in 1958.
Eddie decided to console Elizabeth—and before long, their platonic relationship turned romantic. "I was the last to find out about the affair," Debbie told The Daily Mail in 2010. "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."
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As Debbie told People in 2015, Elizabeth betrayed her trust. "We were friends for years and years, but we had a lapse of time when she took Eddie to live with her because she liked him, too," the Bundle of Joy star said. "She liked him well enough to take him without an invitation!"
Debbie and Eddie's daughter, Carrie Fisher, was similarly wry about the situation when she wrote about it in her 2001 memoir, Wishful Drinking. "Naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth's side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis," the actress quipped. "Now this made marriage to my mother awkward, so he was gone within the week."
Debbie—America's Sweetheart—was in utter disbelief. "I was a virgin when I married Eddie, but Elizabeth had been married three times. I was devastated because I had two children," she told The Daily Mail. "I was very religious so I didn't believe in divorce, but they laid guilt on me that I was keeping them and true love apart. So, I finally let Eddie off the hook. I told him to go."
Seemingly overnight, she became a single mom to Carrie and Todd Fisher. "When he left, I raised the children," Debbie told People. "He never sent any money, so I found it a little scary."
In 1960, Debbie married millionaire businessman Harry Karl (who later gambled away her fortune). Elizabeth, meanwhile, left Eddie in 1965 for Richard Burton, her co-star in Cleopatra.
The actresses went seven years without speaking to one another.
But, in 1966, Debbie and Harry ran into Elizabeth and Richard while they were boarding the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner to London. "I looked up and I saw tons of luggage going by me and birdcages and dog cages and nurses and I realized Elizabeth was on the same ship as me," Debbie revealed to PopEater in 2011 (via The Hollywood Reporter). "I almost changed my mind about going, but my husband said, 'Don't be silly; we won't be on the same floor.'"
Fatefully, Debbie and Elizabeth were on the same floor.
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"I sent a note to her room and she sent a note back to mine saying that we should have dinner and get this over with and have a good time," Debbie recalled. "The four of us ended up having dinner and it was wonderful. She'd moved along in her life and so had I. If your husband's going to leave you for anyone, it might as well be Elizabeth Taylor. She was beautiful, smart, and a very sexual woman and I was very different—not exactly a sex kitten. I told [Eddie] she'd throw him out eventually and that's exactly what happened. But he wasn't the brightest of men."
Debbie placed most of the blame on Eddie, anyway.
"I felt you can't make a man leave, you can't make him do something he doesn't want to do," the How the West Was Won actress told People. "He obviously chose to leave, didn't he? She didn't lasso him. She was just beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. And he wanted her, and he wanted to be her lover, so he left and he was. He was the selfish one. She just gave him what he wanted."
While Debbie salvaged her friendship with Elizabeth, she and Eddie never reconciled prior to his death in 2010. In 1999, the "Oh! My Pa-Pa" singer trashed her in his memoir, Been There, Done That. "Debbie's whole life has been an act," he wrote. "When I left her for Elizabeth Taylor, she should have won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the wronged woman."
Neither Debbie nor Eddie was fond of the other post-divorce. During an appearance with Carrie on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, Debbie went so far as to suggest Eddie had a small penis. "His brain wasn't that big, either," she quipped to The Daily Beast later that year. "Carrie says he turned out to be the nicest of my husbands. But he didn't support the children. He didn't call them or send Christmas or birthday presents, or cared about their education or their lives. Why should I respect that? I married very poorly. If I knew why, I would go back and redo it all."
Debbie and Elizabeth remained in each other's lives for decades. And in 2001, they starred alongside Joan Collins and Shirley MacLaine in the film These Old Broads, written by Carrie.
Shortly before Elizabeth died in 2011, Debbie was able to speak to her longtime friend one last time. "She was very ill. She was feeling really miserable, just trying to survive, to rise above it," she told People. "She expressed how scary it was. We talked about that for a while, that it's really hell getting older. We were complaining to each other about that. Like two girls would."