It was a rough few days. Interesting that, though he could only have been described as being in good health when Jeanette died, Nelson declined rapidly and would be dead just under 26 months later. He drank, he didn’t watch his health, he pushed himself beyond all reason, driving himself harder and harder, working ridiculous hours and keeping ambitious schedules to escape having to be alone and think. He aged ten years overnight and the man known for his boyish energy and vitality would never look boyish again.
Nelson’s anguish is palpable even in his letter to the JMIFC…..the pro-Gene, Happy MacRaymonds Originial Saint Brigade. I quote:
Your grief is mine – as you must know. And I appreciate the many letters expressing sympathy to me personally in the passing of a great lady, a most beautiful songbird, Miss Jeanette MacDonald. I cannot believe such loveliness is stilled.
He goes on to say: It was indeed a privilege in life to have worked and played with Jeanette, and to have loved her as a close friend.
After that, he very respectfully tries to put the spotlight back on Gene. I love the as you must know—because so many, MANY people in THAT CLUB were so shitty about Nelson, just as members of Nelson’s club were shitty about Jeanette–so shitty, in fact, that he threatened to disband the whole thing if they didn’t knock it off.
(Side note: they’re still super shitty about Nelson. At a “Clan Clave”, when screening any MacEddy picture, you may applaud duets or Jeanette solos, but NOT Nelson solos. If you do, you will be told that you are being “tolerated” but to not make any noise. I am completely serious right now.)
One of the most telling statements from Nelson during this time was this: I shall be at the funeral on Monday. It will be the most miserable day of my life. (Boston Sunday Herald, Jan 17, 1965.)
Of his life? Not his mom dying or an experience he had during WWII when he was doing top secret work for the Counter-Intelligence Corps…nope. Saying goodbye to Jeanette. Worst day of his life.
William Tuttle, MGM makeup man, did Jeanette’s makeup for her funeral. Edward Baron Turk reports that he “lovingly restored luster to her complexion.” In actual fact, he confirmed that she was “very blue” and he had to do her makeup twice over to cover that fact. In a tape-recorded interview, Tuttle let on that he thought the open casket at Jeanette’s funeral was a) really, really distasteful given her emaciated appearance and b) Gene’s idea. According to the source notes in Sweethearts, Tuttle actually talked more about how Jeanette looked in death and other details about her funeral but due to his friendship with Gene Raymond, he asked for the tape recorder to be turned off. (For many years, he was a featured part of the JMIFC gatherings.) That’s fine with me. The whole thing sucks so much already, it’s so distasteful and unworthy of her that I really just don’t need to know. Gene really, as her husband of record despite his douchebag tendencies in this era, could have spared her being put on display when she didn’t look her best. Hell, *I* know Jeanette well enough to know that she wouldn’t have wanted people to see her like that, and she died 21 years before I was even born. Once, when she was asked if she minded people wanting to take her picture, she replied that she didn’t but she preferred it when they asked her or at least said something first so she would be prepared and “not snapped in some awkward position.” She took pride in her appearance and, you know, as one of the world’s great beauties, this should not be shocking. Nevertheless, in typical tacky Raymond fashion, she’s laid out like for all to see, complete with “orange Harpo Marx wig.” For the love of God. Nelson termed the whole affair “a circus” and indeed, it was. Experiencing Jeanette’s funeral was enough to make Nelson say he was going to go right home and change his will. (He did not, in fact, do this, but he wanted to be cremated. However, you’ll see soon enough that his wishes weren’t carried out.)
Here is some footage that is available online–slightly different than the 36 second clip that’s on youtube. You can see a distraught and lost looking Nelson walking in, licking his lips as he did a number of times in emotionally charged interviews from this week of his life. He catches up with Ann and Gale (did he not arrive in the same car with them? Did he arrive in the same car but have to take a moment to gather himself before he could face walking through the circus to get into the church?) and continues walking.
Lloyd Nolan gave her eulogy, and I am sorry, I love the man to death (he looks like a grasshopper though, f’real) but that is the trippiest, most vomitous piece of drivel I’ve ever read. The only thing worse than that eulogy is the famously barfy pink and yellow Jeanette website run by the trolliest troll who isn’t who he says he is. Why do I feel like Dorothy Kilgallen right now. Anyway. And they piped her own voice all over the place—inside the church and outside to the surrounding areas (thousands and thousands of fans turned out to stand around the church–that’s pretty cool)–and I personally find the use of her voice to be pretty tacky. Her music, maybe, but—I don’t know, for the people who were keenly feeling her loss, that might have not been the most appropriate choice.
Her one request, as far as music went, was I’ll See You Again. Digest that. And freaking cry.
According to historian and personal friend Madeline Bayless (daughter of Jim Bayless, a sound recording guy who worked extensively with Nelson, built the home recording equipment Nelson had, saw him and Jeanette together many times and went on to be one of the founders of Capitol Records. Look him up, kids.), Nelson was allowed to add a couple of personal touches, as far as Jeanette was concerned. One that we’ve been able to figure out is the fact that the JMIFC write-up of her funeral notes her “lovely hands clasping a pink rose and the same white prayer book she carried at her wedding.” Uh, the book she carried at her wedding was PINK, and embossed with a J and a G on the front. Nelson gave her a WHITE book of Psalms. Whoops. The other thing is that Nelson was the last person to walk past the casket–the last person out of the Family Room–and he stood there for a long moment. The report is that it was then that he slipped her emerald ring back onto her finger, or at the very least placed it in her casket. I hope to God that’s true. When you see Nelson walk out of the church in the footage, later, he is at the back of the pack–so that, at least, is consistency that we can see. The casket was then closed for good, so that would have been the ideal moment to place the ring inside—that way nobody would get it.
Nelson gave Jeanette’s obituaries a total of 14 pages in his scrapbooks, underlining and making notes of things on certain clippings, most notably that she “shared headlines with Johnson Inaugural.” There he is again, being proud of his girl. At her funeral, he was an honorary pallbearer, among many other famous names from Hollywood and political circles. You can google that on your own. The list is super impressive. However, during the service, he didn’t sit with the other pallbearers; he went into the Family Room and sat next to Blossom. After Jeanette’s funeral, he never socialized with Gene, her family, or her other associates again. He was done. Strange, don’t you think, since both couples were such great and wonderful friends….? He only saw Blossom once more after the funeral and he totally broke down, saying, “I didn’t know she was so sick.”
That, of course, was of Jeanette’s own design. This is the hardest thing for me, emotionally, to think about in this whole story. Jeanette knew several things: 1) Nelson always saw her as young and beautiful and he had a really hard time dealing with the reality of her failing health. This is so common among couples who have been together a long time—one has a really hard time accepting that the other is failing. 2) She knew she was dying. She knew it would kill Nelson, too. She called it—she said he wouldn’t live long. He didn’t. 3) She knew he would be wracked with guilt over not being there, but at the same time she knew he HAD TO WORK. He had to. He could not function, not working. He had been horrendously poor as a kid and in his later life, Ann got her hands on his money at every damn turn, no matter how hard he tried to keep it where she couldn’t get it. He had put away money to take Jeanette away with him, thinking that they were older now and nobody would care—and then he found that the money he thought he’d saved was gone. So he worked. He couldn’t live with the idea of being poor. 4) He would have dropped this all in a flash, however, to come to her, but she couldn’t have him under those circumstances, pitying her. She was a proud woman and she was one hell of a lot stronger than she’s usually given credit for being. How would you like your boyfriend, your lover, your soulmate–the person for whom you want to be beautiful and sexy and satisfying–hanging around when you can’t stand in the shower long enough to shave your legs or you need help getting to the bathroom? He would have been there in a heartbeat, but she kept him away.
My take on this all is that she wanted to leave him with his memories–she wanted him to remember their better times together, not the fact that he witnessed her death. She put him away from her to spare him. She was neglected and treated like crap and not given attention and assistance that she needed, but Jeanette MacDonald was NOT a victim. She forbade Blossom to call Nelson when Blossom wanted to, to tell him how things really were. As heartbreaking as her final days were, I have to believe that she did it on her terms. She loved Nelson so selflessly, so powerfully, that she could rise above her need for him in order to spare him.
That, folks, is what love is. And THAT is what makes this story so tragic. That she had to make those kinds of decisions. However, in retrospect, you see the thread of how she handled this and if your respect and admiration for who she was doesn’t grow tenfold you have no soul.
What I have to offer you here is another discovery Angela and I made during our researching weekend together. Like the Nelson interview in the last post, it has not been seen by anyone since it was originally taped for use in the news coverage of her death and funeral, and similarly, we paid for this to be digitized from the original reel of footage. Do not post this elsewhere online without permission from one of us.
Here is extensive ABC news coverage of Jeanette’s funeral at the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Glendale. What strikes me about this footage is, first of all, after her casket passes in front of the honorary pall bearers en route to the hearse, the men (obviously a sad, sad group–she was so loved, and it’s clear) break into a more informal group and Nelson is the recipient of so many condolence handshakes, started off by Lauritz Melchior. Even as he is trying to get away, people are approaching him to shake his hand. Where did Ann and Gale get to? Several of the “featured players” in this footage were on hand for both Jeanette’s and Nelson’s funerals–they shared pall bearers. Nobody talks to Gene when he leaves behind Blossom, Nanette, Elsie, Barney and Emily +1. Gene is, yet again, the forgotten man when Nelson is around. We may as well be back on This is Your Life.
Secondly, you can see Nelson emerging from the church with the honorary pall bearers. He is at the back of the group. This is consistent with the earlier report about him being the last person to stand at the casket before it was closed.
Thirdly, you see Blossom being absolutely darling as she comforts the very, very beautiful Nanette, who, by the way, is Elsie’s granddaughter. Very easy in this few seconds to observe the difference in the two sisters and why Jeanette was so close to Blossom and not at all to Elsie. We’ve seen/read about this many other times. Emily looks pretty broken up and I swear to God she’s wearing one of Jeanette’s hats. And there’s Gene, for whom the expression always a bridesmaid, never a bride seems to have been coined. Neither of his sisters-in-law are with him, nor is Emily. He’s just sort of in line–nobody comforting him or really even paying him much attention.
Here it is.