If there’s one thing you learn QUICKLY when you become a Jeanette MacDonald fan, it’s that you have to pick a “side” regarding what you believe about her marriage to Gene Raymond and her relationship with Nelson Eddy. You can say you’re staying neutral, or that you don’t care, or that it doesn’t matter because you just enjoy her work and think her personal life was nobody’s business. Yeah, that’s great and all, but that’s not really how this works. When you’re a member of the uber-famous, your life, to some extent, becomes everybody’s business. That’s the price of fame, kids. If nobody was interested in the private, personal lives of famous people, the field of biography wouldn’t be a thing. We care. We’re interested. Actually, we’re fricking nosy. And because we care, we form opinions. We study. We dig. We become Cold Case Detectives and Monday Morning Quarterbacks.
I’m a big fan of analyzing pictures. It’s not foolproof, it’s maybe not always 100% accurate, but it’s fascinating. Without going into a lot of the technicalities (which, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably pretty aware of anyway) of who was where, when and why, what I’d like to do with this post is just offer my thoughts on some pictures. I’ve already made my case about Gene’s unfathomably unforgivable handling of Jeanette at the end of her life, and if I go into all that again, I’ll just get pissed and rant a lot. If you need to review that, find the post about it.
There is no arguing that the two “main” men in Jeanette’s life were Nelson Eddy and Gene Raymond, no matter what stance you decide to take on the workings of her relationships with them. She actually knew Nelson first (late 1933) and dated him first, so their relationship is longer, but in general terms, give or take a couple of years, the length of the two relationships is comparable. Both relationships continued until her death in 1965.
I think Gene is a useless jerk, basically. Sometimes amusing, sometimes affable, sometimes watchable, sometimes harmless, but usually, he’s just kind of a dick. He drinks too much, he has an inferiority complex and he acts like a shitty little bully with his body language. He’s not more famous than Jeanette, he’s not wealthier than Jeanette, and on one hand he had absolutely no problem being kept by a wealthy, older woman (he married again, into a similar situation, after Jeanette died); on the other hand, he seems to be kind of frustrated—and you can hardly blame him, if we’re being honest—but his frustration manifests itself in the way he treats Jeanette. She was “the balls” in the operation, no doubt, (and I’m quoting someone who worked with the two of them on The Guardsman), but at the same time, there were many cases of people witnessing him acting like an ass: browbeating her mercilessly at a dinner party where they were the guests (until someone had to actually tell him to knock it off) while Jeanette just looked at her lap and took it. There is the well known story of him throwing the plate of party snacks at the wall in 1961, Jeanette was helping fix stuff for a party that night and Gene came in, drunk, and flipped his lid. People say that she would have left him in a heartbeat if he actually treated her badly, but that’s WAY over-simplifying the situation. One of her friends, when asked why she stayed with Gene, answered, “Guilt.” I think she did care for him and I think she did feel bad about involving him in some of this mess, to some extent. At the same time, he certainly didn’t starve and as long as he didn’t try to keep her from seeing Nelson, stuff was status quo. Anyway, the moments cited above are just a couple of examples, and certainly every marriage has rough parts, but there is a frequent undercurrent of dischord and tension in their pictures together. Yes, I know there are sweet pictures of them, there’s no denying it. I’ve seen them. However, I also find that Jeanette frequently looks “social” with Gene—politely happy but not lit from within and glowing. She looks like the elevator isn’t going to the top floor—her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Many times, she does not look happy and comfortable with his hands on her.
I’ll be blunt: the way he touches her a lot of the time skeeves me right the hell out. He grabs her hard, his fingers look like they’re digging, it looks like he’s trying to overpower her. It looks like it’s about control. He looks like he squeezes too hard. His hands are not gentle, loving, sexy or kind. They are awkward and they handle her roughly. It’s frickin’ weird. He has a thing about grabbing her upper arms. If you’ve ever seen Smilin’ Through, you may have noticed it in the way he holds her throughout the movie.
Or in real life:
(She looks SO sarcastic in that picture.)
And with Ralph Edwards:
I mean, he could just as easily have his hand on her waist in SO MANY pictures, but he prefers the arm hold thing (less intimate and loving; more controlling). And he isn’t grabbing her hard in the last picture, but it’s still very much a “thing” that he does. These examples are just a sample of the plethora of pictures where you can see it, all from different periods in their lives. And he’s the only person I have ever seen consistently hold her arms like this. I have a couple thousand pictures of her lying around on various hard drives and flash drives and have been interested in her for about thirteen years. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I know enough to have an opinion based on available evidence.
Here’s a shot of her and Nelson “backstage” at a radio broadcast in 1945. At first glance, it’s a cute picture of them:
But let’s look more closely at her arm and hand:
The bruised vein on the back of her hand looks like she could have just inadvertently hit it on something, right? No big deal.
But the bruises on her arm are clearly fingerprints. Three of them. And who do we know who constantly grabs her by the upper arms?
Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
Makes you a little sick, doesn’t it? I’ve never grabbed someone hard enough to bruise their skin in multiple places, but I imagine you’d have to do it pretty hard. So, was she trying to wrench away when she hit the back of her hand and caused the other bruise? Who knows.
I was fortunate to be able to view/work with an episode of Toast of the Town, August 5, 1951, at the Library of Congress. Gene acted as MC that week and Jeanette was the guest star. Here she is trying to remove his hand from her inner arm:
I hope to be able to provide the actual video footage of this happening some day, but he grabs her by her inner arm and her hand immediately flies up to loosen it. You’re hurting her, asshole. Let go.
And speaking of their appearance on that show, WHY does he have to have this weird deathgrip on her arm?
Is it not enough that he’s already holding her hand? I’m telling you, this two-handed control thing that he does with her is really effing strange.
She’s fully enchanted with his clutching and slobbering, as you can see. 1948-1952 was a stinking rough time by all accounts anyway, but gee.
And then there’s this charming moment:
Was he drunk, here? Was he goofing off? I don’t know, but this picture does not make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Fred MacMurray is just trying to not get involved. Jeanette looks like she would appreciate it if he DID get involved. I’m not sure exactly what her expression is conveying, but it isn’t delight. Maybe quit strangling her, Gene.
And, at first glance, when I saw this next picture, I thought it was adorable. No lie. And I even said so on facebook. Which launched some conversation, including Angela’s very well-made points that made me reconsider that first opinion. Upon actual study of it, here we go again. Can’t you let her just……put her arm around you if she wants to? Why ya gotta hold her hostage all the time?
She does not seem to be participating in this picture as much as he wants her to. You’re trying too hard, sir.
I can’t find the picture that made this super clear (if I do, I’ll edit the post to include it), but another thing Angela and I were talking about with regard to Gene’s treatment of her is that Gene seems to have no problem blowing his cigarette smoke in her face. We’ve seen it in a number of pictures where he’s doing this, but I don’t have any of them saved as “smokeblowing.jpg” so it would take forever to find them. When I do, I’ll stick them in. But……she’s not a smoker. So, again, don’t be a dick, Gene.
I just get a snarky, sarcastic vibe from them 60% of the time. And I get a “he looks abusive” vibe 25% of the time. And 15% of the time they look cute.
And then there’s Nelson.
Nelson, who was photographed with her hundreds and hundreds of times, both posed promotional photo shoots for their films and candid shots, over their 32 year relationship.
Nelson, who has a really hard time keeping his hands off of her, but whom I have never, EVER seen with his hands on her in anything other than a loving, gentle, supportive, interested and often sexy way.
We’ve seen them look unmistakably pissed at each other:
But notice how their clear displeasure is manifested through looks, not potentially harmful touching. This is how grown-ups argue, Mr. Raymond.
These two people stare at each other a lot, often when the other is not looking back at them. I have never seen her look at Gene, or anyone else, for that matter, with the same expression with which she is staring at Nelson in that second picture. My God.
Study Nelson here (click on the photo to enlarge it), between shots of I Married an Angel. We know Jeanette had a lifelong phobia of stairs, which may have something to do with why she’s being secured in place here. Nelson has one arm around her back and his other hand is on her stomach, keeping her steady and balanced. Notice that he is watching her body and that his face is pretty serious—the boy is singularly devoted to keeping her safe. He’s probably not thinking that in so many words, but his face and stance indicate that he’s not about to let anything happen to her. And the thing I love about this, too, is how relaxed her arm is, on his shoulder. She’s not gripping on for dear life because she KNOWS he’s got her. She’s comfortable enough to be arranging her dress and not look like she cares at all about being up there. She trusts him.
On the subject of stairs, look at this darling gentleman, giving a tutorial on how to hold a lady’s arm in a supportive and sweet way. There’s a perfectly good railing behind him, but who wants that when he’s right there to offer his gallant assistance?
He brings her flowers on the set.
He cuddles her on the set and manages to not look like a creeptastic control freak bully. His hands and arms are gentle and cozy.
He holds her hand without cutting off her circulation.
He finds ways to clue people in to how he feels, even during staged publicity shoots. I’m sure he was ORDERED to hold her finger like this. Don’t you think?
He sits with his arm draped around her. Not all clutchy and grippy and weird, but relaxed and easy because it belongs there and this feels natural to these people.
When given the choice between the arm grip and the waist, Nelson picks the waist just about every time.*
*(and he doesn’t give two shits that Gene is standing right there, either.)
But they don’t even have to be touching to completely slay you with the way that they look at each other. Adrian might as well not even be there.
And that never changed. Ever.
Nelson treats her like he loves her. He touches her like he loves her. He looks at her like he loves her. He talks about her like he loves her.
Nelson is, for the most part, secure in himself—certainly as compared to Gene. He doesn’t need to overpower her, control her or put her down to get the limelight. He doesn’t bully her or yank her around. He adores showing her off. He leads the applause and acts like her biggest fan. He embarrasses her with the laser-like focus of his adoring attention. One of my favorite tiny moments is during a recorded rehearsal for one of their radio shows—she finishes her solo and there’s no real applause because there’s no audience, but you hear Nelson in the background saying, “Pure talent!”
That’s a real man, guys.
Of course they fought, and they had break-ups, and there are many things we wish we could go back and tell them to do differently, but that’s not the point of this post.
Why is this hard to comprehend? I mean, it’s one thing to maybe misinterpret one picture or a few pictures, but there are hundreds of these and they all tell the same story.
PS: A couple of these good scans came from the collection of Maria Escano, and I so appreciate being able to use them to help illustrate the (rather obvious) points of this blog! Thank you, Maria! 🙂