Fifty years ago today, we lost our dazzling Iron Butterfly.
An excerpt from Nelson’s letter to Jeanette’s fan club — incidentally, the same organization that tried (and old members of that defunct organization are still trying) at every turn to minimize his importance and vehemently deny the role he played in Jeanette’s life:
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. The world has done me the great honor to associate my name with hers in this sad time. It was indeed a privilege in life to have worked and played with Jeanette.
Later, he told the Boston Sunday Herald, “I’m asked to reminisce about my life with Jeanette. I am asked to recall funny happenings, so-called interesting incidents of our working life. People just don’t seem to understand that I’m terribly upset. That I am feeling extremely low. Besides which, it seems to me almost sacrilegious to talk of happier days at a time like this. I shall be at the funeral on Monday. It will be the most miserable day of my life.”
It’s bad enough that she died at age 61. The way she died, the way she was allowed to die, is, to me, the most horrifying chapter of this whole saga.
Nelson, who could only be described as in good, robust health before this happened, declined at an alarming rate of speed and joined her in death not quite 26 months later at age 65. A frequent happening among devoted couples of long standing. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence. (Gene Raymond, a heavy smoker with a long history of drinking too much, made it to a few months shy of 90. Go figure.)
This is the part where I say that I could never have imagined that I would care so much about two people who died twenty years before I was born…but I’ve loved old movie stars my whole life, so that wouldn’t be strictly true. However, other people whom I’ve loved at this “level” — Katharine Hepburn immediately comes to mind — have had their truth universally accepted for a long time. Fifty years after Jeanette’s death, there are STILL people who would deny the truth about her life. There are STILL people who leave deliberately horrendous book reviews and nasty remarks for Sharon Rich, who has done more than anyone (except perhaps Jeanette’s sister Blossom, who made the choice to communicate the truth to Sharon all those years ago, and started this ball rolling) to get the word out about the truth of Jeanette’s story.
But we’re a valiant group. We keep meeting, we keep discussing, we keep adding bits and pieces of information to this story. We keep researching, we keep introducing new people to these movies, we keep Skype-ing and calling and texting and writing and making youtube videos and colorizing pictures and laughing and captioning and theorizing and screen-capturing and wanting to hug them and protect them and ask them questions and crack their heads together.
They deserve our best because they gave us their best.
They deserve our best because fifty years ago they didn’t have the support of a group of people who loved them for themselves, and not as idealized, angelic pedestal-sitters. Fifty years ago it wasn’t possible for them to live openly in a way that is possible today.
I want them to have the recognition that they deserve as artists who gave us a very unique and specific gift, and I want their truth to be understood. I know I’m not alone. I learned from the pioneer of this particular movement.
Basically, what I’m saying here is that I write this blog for Jeanette and Nelson. They are why I’m here and who I’m working for, because they are worth it. Keeping that in mind makes it very easy to elect to keep going.
God KNOWS we love you, Jeanette. We miss you terribly even though we never met you. We won’t stop studying and telling your truth. If this blog is helping do that, well, it’s a privilege.
Jeanette Anna MacDonald
“Stunning and Startlingly Beautiful”
June 18, 1903 – January 14, 1965
We Will Remember.