Get excited, kids, this is a humdinger.
Last weekend at the Library of Congress, Angela and I were able to listen to Nelson’s most elusive Chase and Sanborn radio broadcast from January 22, 1939—three days after his misguided and heavily intoxicated elopement with Ann Franklin.
Before I go into those details, Angela has written up a little piece about her experience at the LOC, so I’m enclosing it here. Thanks, Angela! 😀
June 13, 2014, Washington DC – Library of Congress – My social media status reflects my current location as I add a photo of my research tools: a pen, a Library of Congress reader card, a pink work request slip and a black and white composition book.
“What are you researching and for what reason?”
Somehow that comment from a friend of long gone High School days annoyed me. I had to think a bit on how to answer. Just how did I end up here and why had I cancelled a planned spa day to wake up at the crack of stupid and take a jostling commuter bus from Herndon, VA into Washington, DC?
“Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.” I answered.
“Should have known – since they are your faves.”
My faves? Really? Does that even begin to describe it? And do you really care? Most of my friends and family certainly don’t. Their eyes glaze over whenever I mention the dreaded names. Except Chris, she understands. She recently told me of the time she took a 12 hour bus ride from her college in Boston to meet up with a fellow Judy Garland fan somewhere in Minnesota. Speaking as her mom, I’m glad I didn’t know it then, speaking as a fellow fan girl, all I can say now is, I raised her right.
So here I am, awaiting my fellow MacEddy obsessive and comrade in arms, Katie, a young girl with an old soul. We’ve been plotting this for weeks but are not nearly prepared enough and we know it. We are frantically texting as she approaches the city by train and each can sense the others nervousness over how it will go. I know my job and set about culling information and targeting available research opportunities as I await her arrival.
Phyllis, the research volunteer de jour, gives me the lay of the land and recommends the reading room providing detailed directions. The Madison building is a large rectangle and color coded she explains, I nod. “What are you researching?” Phyllis asks. I tell her and guess what? She actually knows who they are and even a bit about them. This is promising. I love retiree volunteers.
“Go to Reading Room 113,” she tells me. “Performing Arts, that’s where you’ll find the radio programs.”
So I scamper off. There I meet and befriend Jan M, maybe a few years older than me, hard to tell. Jan is the archetypal librarian, frumpy skirt, support hose, no nonsense shoes; her steel grey hair is pulled back into a low pony tail. Only the kohl rimmed eyes bespeak of the girl she once was. I glance at her younger self staring at me from the name badge she wore clipped to her neat sweater. Yes, I knew that girl, I could picture her walking my High School halls. She wore jeans and Birkenstocks, her long hair parted in the middle, no makeup except for black lined eyes. She spoke very precisely, was serious, focused and knew what she wanted to do with her life, unlike the rest of us.
Jan helps me find what I’m looking for and it’s just dumb luck that the January 22, 1939 Chase and Sanborn program is already digitized and available for listening. Oh, I had to spell Sanborn for her; Jan must not be a coffee drinker but she is very anxious to help. I set up an appointment for later that morning and text my co-conspirator to alert her of our rendezvous location. I love research librarians.
Katie arrived overheated from her three block hike (Blogger’s Note: “Sweaty and disgusting” is more like it! The cab let me out too early and I had a huge purse and super heavy backpack and I found out which building I was supposed to be in and ran the 3 blocks in 95 degree heat. Yuck.) but anxious to get to work. We queued up our recording in Booth 15 and began. All I can say is I was gob smacked (thank you my British friends for that lovely word) as I listened with St. Anthony and the Blessed Mother jangling away on my wrist as I furiously wrote in my composition book, Katie scribbling out a bit of mumbled dialogue I’d missed. I love bright young researchers.
Two days later, I am back in Connecticut, at my real job. “Did you have a nice vacation?” My colleague asks me. I whip out my Library of Congress official reader card and show her. A fellow bibliophile and longtime book club member, she looks at it longingly and sighs.
“Yes, I had a wonderful time.”
So that takes us up to where we were in Booth 15, getting ready to listen to newlywed Nelson on Chase and Sanborn. Sharon had told us that it was going to really mess us up, and boy, she wasn’t kidding. Right from the beginning, you sense that something is “up” with Nelson—anyone familiar with his radio work (and he did a TON of it) knows that his style is easy and affable, interspersed with the great singing that made him famous. Only, on this day, he doesn’t want to come to the microphone. You hear the other people trying to improvise to make up for the fact that he didn’t jump in when he should have, and then, finally, he mutters, completely audibly, “I must have the wrong script.” What, in real life? You sure do, brother. To me, that sounds like a sideways way of saying he doesn’t want to participate in any of this wedding talk. The playing of the wedding march, in this context, sounds brash and horrible. The idea that they’re all having a good laugh and talking about throwing rice (and maybe they did, the studio audience is laughing)—while he is totally silent—is just a great big helping of awkward sauce. And then the normally yakkity-yak Nelson doesn’t say ONE WORD. Just goes into his first song. Weird, weird, weird.
Is this a good time to point out that absolutely nobody likes Ann Eddy? Because…absolutely nobody likes Ann Eddy.
Then he sings the lament from the opera Boris Gudounov, usually sung by a basso; a favorite role of Nelson’s idol, Feodor Chaliapin, so on a normal day in normal context, it is understandable that he’d be interested in singing it. Sort of the same reason why I can only ever make Baked Beans using Jeanette’s recipe. Boris was done in English at the Met in 1963, sung by Jerome Hines. This particular selection can be heard at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UGIy-wdAqI for anyone wishing to compare the legit Metropolitan translation with what Nelson sings.
I have, to the best of my ability, transcribed Nelson’s lyrics. One wonders where they came from. Did he do this translation himself? It is entirely possible; he spoke Russian. He frequently did this sort of work with his songs. To say this is a dark-as-hell piece is putting it mildly. Let us remember that Nelson, while a great singer, was no actor and never claimed to be (check him out in his movies without Jeanette sometime. Oy. I love the guy to the ends of the earth, but….oy.). What he was, was a seriously professional musician. Dramatic interpretation of a piece is one thing—singing off key is something else. Nelson would never have done it on purpose, and the fact that he does–repeatedly in this selection—really speaks to his highly heightened emotional state.
And why is he so emotional? Well, for starters, he’d basically been blackmailed into this marriage with Ann. Trustingly naive Nelson had unburdened to this older woman, whom he thought was merely a friend of his mother’s, during the many nights she was a guest in their home when Nelson was having trouble in his relationship with Jeanette. He talked way, way, way too much. Ann got him into a compromising position and essentially forced his hand with everything she knew about Jeanette and their relationship—the depths of exactly what she knew that was so very, very damning may never be fully realized. The bottom line is, she had him just where she wanted him: emotionally broken, beaten down and blackmailed over a barrel. According to Isabel Eddy, his mom, after he passed out from whatever substance he was on for the very brief, very clinical ceremony, he asked what they were doing on a train. Well, shit. Ann Eddy won that round and she would have him painted into a corner for the rest of his life.
Here is my best transcription of Nelson’s lyrics of the sad tzar’s lament. Please note how vastly different they are from the English translation used at the Met. The meaning is essentially the same, but some of the word choice is very, very interesting (and yes, this is very dramatic, very flowery language. This is opera, people.):
I stand supreme in power
Five years and more my reign has not been troubled
Yet happiness eludes my sad and tortured soul
In vain I hear astrologists foretell long years of life in power
Peace and glory
No life, no power, no promises of glory
No praise from the crowd
Can soothe my aching heart
I look among my children to find comfort
And soon to see a brilliant marriage feast prepared
For my Kseniya, my dearest daughter
But cruel death has struck the one she loved
How heavy is the hand of God in His wrath
How merciless a doom awaits the sinner
In gloom I walk, grim darkness surrounds me
No single ray of light bring solace
My heart is torn with anguish, it’s hopeless and weary
Naught avails me
A secret terror haunts me
I wait, I tremble
With all my heart I implore saints above
And a God I beseech to grant me mercy
And I with all my power; all of Russia I feared and envied
In tears have vainly begged for pardon
[Cannot make out this line]
Pestilence, disloyalty, starvation!
Like a beast of prey the hungry peasants are prowling
The land is bare, Russia weeps
[Nelson’s voice is breaking on this next line and I can’t understand it, maybe something about a flood?]
And groaning under the weight of the burden
And awful and great pain inflicted
I’ll throw the flame on me
They who loved me, they hate my very name
Openly curse me
And now my sleep has fled, at night I see visions
A blood be-spattered child appears to me
Sobbing in anguish, writhing, lamenting
Praying for mercy and mercy was not granted
Blood from his wounds is falling, loudly he cries
With death he struggles…oh God in Heaven….oh my God.
Let’s not forget that July 26th of the previous year, Jeanette had lost their son at about six months of gestation (newspapers reported her hospitalization, and the subsequent one in September, but cited ear problems as the reason). She was, by her own admission, a “bleeder”—very thin blood. She had difficulty with bleeding after several surgical procedures, including her somewhat botched tonsillectomy. On that occasion, Nelson had “never seen so much blood in his life” …sad, yeah, but it had to have been on his mind. The man is crying at the end of this selection.
Some wise-ass decided, the day after Nelson’s elopement, to run onto the set at MGM where Jeanette was winding up filming on Broadway Serenade, and loudly announce that Nelson had eloped in the night. Jeanette screamed, ran off the set, locked herself in her dressing room and downed a bottle of sleeping pills. Woody Van Dyke, beloved pal and frequent director of our Sweethearts, got wind of what had happened and, finding Jeanette’s dressing room door locked, kicked it in and found her on the floor. L.B. Mayer himself arrived on the scene and carried Jeanette to the car, cursing Nelson the entire time, saying he [Nelson] had killed his beautiful star. Jeanette’s stomach was pumped and she recovered, only to attempt suicide again a week later. The source for this information? Woody Van Dyke’s wife, Ruth. This story was verified by Eddy associate Marie Collick, two people who worked in wardrobe, Ken Hollywood (studio guard) and Isabel Eddy, whose letters of that time indicate that she was spending time with Jeanette, whom she adored, basically keeping suicide watch.
News of this had to have gotten back to Nelson. Having an easier time understanding his mental state now? Damn, the poor man.
For his final selection, Nelson changed gears completely and will effing tear your heart out and step on it with his rendition of Little Grey Home in the West. Angela and I played this for Di on Skype Sunday afternoon and all three of us were in tears. It’s just so sad, and so unfair. Here, have a sad graphic:
He wasn’t talking about Ann, kids. He just….wasn’t. There’s no way. And of all the songs he could have picked to end this hour of despair, this choice is one of the most poignant he could have made. There are dozens of songs he could have sung and we would have been all “OH EM GEE He’s singing to Jeanette!” but seriously….this sweet little song they had sung together in happier times just aches with romantic simplicity and longs for domestic bliss….two things that nobody has EVER accused him of having with Ann.
Here it is, guys—all of Nelson’s parts of the radio broadcast from January 22, 1939. Please listen for yourselves. Angela put the video together.
People are so quick to over-simplify their situation. The truth of the matter is that Ann held all the cards that Mayer didn’t. After their tenure at Metro was over, Jeanette COULD HAVE divorced Gene. Nobody has ever said Gene wouldn’t let her out. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t—what was the point of her getting a divorce when Nelson couldn’t? Nelson could not/would not stand for Jeanette getting tarred and feathered in the public with the dirt Ann had on her. For someone as willful as Nelson to be that gun-shy about Ann…well, she must have had a hell of a hand of cards to play. We only know some of that data. For Jeanette’s part, at least, at minimum, being married to Gene gave her the “protection” of being Mrs. SOMEBODY—I can’t think of her wanting to deal with being gorgeous, unmarried and in love with a married man. I can’t think that she was in any mood to deal with the eligible bachelors of Hollywood. On some level, it worked. Some of the time, anyway, at this point in their lives.