Debbie Reynolds spent a great deal of her life amassing one of the largest collections of Hollywood memorabilia — most of which she bought for a reported $600,000 from MGM’s infamous prop and costume auction in 1970. And while her collection was packed with invaluable items from the golden age of Hollywood — like the Rat Pack tuxedoes, Elizabeth Taylor’s headdress from Cleopatra, and Charlton Heston’s tunic from Ben Hur — Reynolds, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, was never able to realize her dream of opening a Hollywood museum.
“She tried for many years,” said Joe Maddalena of the Calabasas, California-based Profiles in History, an auctioneer and dealer of Hollywood memorabilia. “This collection was her life. She tried for many years to get a museum — a casino in Vegas, a museum upstairs at the Kodak Theatre that didn’t work, a building in Tennessee that’s now an empty shell. Debbie was like, ‘I’m done. I’ve tried for years to convince Hollywood to build a museum and nobody would step up. I can’t keep fighting this battle.'”
In 2011 and 2014, Reynolds and Maddalena sold off most of her massive collection. Every day of the auction, Maddalena recalls, Reynolds was there with her daughter, Carrie Fisher (who died Tuesday at age 60), and son, Todd Fisher, as she watched items like Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress from The Seven Year Itch sell for $5.52 million and the Audrey Hepburn gown from My Fair Lady go for $4.44 million. (The collection would ultimately fetch in excess of $30 million).
“I think there was relief and sorrow,” Maddalena recalled. “She did not want to sell this stuff, it was really hard for her. These were like her children, it was not an easy decision to make. This is was her identity.”
Adding insult to injury: Reynolds was reportedly frozen out by a planned Academy museum that’s in the works at Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles. She told THR in 2014 that she approached the Academy five times about collaborating. “I said, ‘Please, let’s do this together.’ It was refused each time,” said Reynolds. “I did it all when nobody else would.”
Reynolds didn’t let go of everything. During a 2015 interview for PEOPLE, Reynolds showed off her pair of ruby red slippers and the Maltese falcon from the 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name. She displayed both items on her living room mantle. “I just kept a few of my things,” said Reynolds, who never forgot the impact of that MGM auction more than 40 years ago. “I think everybody took it for granted it would stay forever and we were stunned when they had it. People paid no money for everything. All their beautiful costumes sold for $50 and [were] just given away as Halloween costumes. I bought chairs and chandeliers and wonderful things that I collected for 20 years. I saved all the stuff. I didn’t realize at the time that I was saving what should have been a museum built out of the Fox studio and MGM, and all the studios should have taken each of their famous articles and preserved the history. But, they didn’t do that. They didn’t really feel it was very important.”