recently celebrated her iconic TV variety show's 50th anniversary, but for the enduring redhead
— survivor of a traumatic childhood, alcoholic parents, two divorces and the deaths of her husband and daughter — there has been a lot more crying than laughter!
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The 84-year-old escaped a humble — and horrific — childhood in San Antonio, Texas. “Daddy drank from when he was a teenager,” Carol revealed. “Unfortunately he couldn’t hold a job. And then Momma, she started to drink in her 30s, and then she became an alcoholic also.”
Carol’s parents both died in their 40s, when she was still in her 20s, and she moved to Hollywood with her grandmother. The two were sharing a one-room apartment when Carol was cast in her first play at UCLA — and she was hooked the moment the audience laughed.
“After so much coldness and emptiness in my life,” Carol says, “I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me.” She got her big Broadway break in 1959, earning a Tony nod for the musical “Once Upon a Mattress.” It also led to her lasting friendship with Lucille Ball
— who had few others.
Lucy had a “tough” reputation and wasn’t afraid to demand what she wanted — something Carol struggled as she made her way in showbiz. But Carol will never forget Lucy's praise after watching Carol perform as the woebegone Princess Winnifred in “Mattress.”
“Kid, you were terrific!” Lucy told her. Carol has recalled those words made her feel lifted “ten feet off the ground!” Despite the poor example of her parents’ marriage, Carol wed college sweetheart, Don Saroyan, in 1955. Their union lasted nearly seven years.
Then she was swept off her feet by TV producer Joe Hamilton (left), a divorced father of eight. They married in 1963 and had three daughters — Carrie, Jody and Erin. It was Carrie (to right of Carol, next to Dinah Shore) who brought Carol’s greatest heartache.
At 13, she began a terrifying battle with drugs, including cocaine, Quaaludes, mushrooms and marijuana. Desperate, Carol shuttled her in and out of rehab. Carrie finally turned her life around, becoming an actress, writer and rocker.
In a cruel twist of fate, Carrie overcame her problems, only to meet an agonizing end from brain and lung cancer. She died at age 38 in 2002. “Carol was shattered,” says a source. Added a pal: “Carol looks forward to seeing Carrie in the afterlife.”
The star says her daughter left her with one lasting lesson. While promoting her book, “Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story” in 2013, an insider heard Carol remark: “My daughter taught me how to prepare for the end with dignity.”
Sadly, Carrie’s loss was the second time cancer ravaged Carol’s life. She and Joe had divorced in 1984, but the family was devastated when he died of cancer in 1991. Carol’s daughter, Erin, has also suffered through her own past struggles with drugs.
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Still, she has found lasting happiness with Brian Miller, a musician who is more than 20 years her junior. They married in 2001. Despite her heartbreak, Carol says, “I’ve had a great run.”