In my view, Jeanette Anna MacDonald is one of the most talented humans in an era rife with talented humans. Aside from her obviously glorious voice, she was a better actress than she was given credit for (including by herself) and an excellent dancer. A real Triple Threat. One of the world’s great beauties and most gifted charmers, she held masses in the palm of her tiny hand (Side note: Babygirl wore a size 2.25 ring. What.) whether in a performance venue or later in life with her prolific and endearing letter-writing and card-sending to friends and fans alike. She commanded generations of love and loyalty. As a lot of first generation fans have died, many who love her today were introduced to her by an older person in their lives. Comparatively few remain who actually met her, but in talking to as many of them as I’ve been able, the stories all portray a darling lady, funny and cagey and gracious. I interviewed a soldier who met her — because she insisted on staying after her concert performance until all “the boys” who wanted to meet her were able to do so. She “shook every hand, kissed every cheek” and by the time my interviewee reached her, she had removed her shoes from fatigue and was still signing and shaking away in her stockings. Typical Jeanette. Her core group of insiders remained largely the same over the years. Her secret-keepers. She maintained unbelievably cordial relationships with all the major exes in her life. Bob Ritchie is still calling her pet names decades later when he’s writing her back concerning her autobiography! Sunny Griffin said it best: “Nelson put her on a pedestal. She deserved to be on a pedestal.” Yes. Yes, she did. But not in the creepy JMIFC Golden Voiced Angel Diva Princess Snow Queen Perennial Virgin Doesn’t Cuss or Drink or Smoke way. More in the This is a Good and Kind Human Who is Doing the Best She Can Navigating a Difficult Life Scenario and Trying to Please Everyone with More Plates in the Air than You or I Will Ever Have and People Still Love Her and Want to Help Her because She is Worth It and has a Maddening Tendency to Put Her Own Happiness Last way.
Yet, despite the fact that she, by her own admission, had been, “Very, very blessed,” she also admitted, “My problems, I have glossed over, simply because they’re not as pleasant to tell about, for one thing. There are plenty of them, plenty of vicissitudes I had, many, many set-backs, and many disappointments. I had to do a lot of things I hated doing.”
This woman, who gave so much to so many, who at several different points of her life had the world at her feet, was fraught with crippling self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence and self-worth that is downright frightening. It stemmed from a childhood-then-womanhood of trying to please the mother who didn’t love her enough, who never made her feel that she WAS enough, whose best praise was “pretty good” — and it led into a string of self-sacrificing decisions that would steer the many-times unhappy course of her personal and professional lives. It can be hard to reconcile this side of Jeanette’s nature with the clever, far-sighted woman who sat out of work for months waiting for Gable to do San Francisco, who conducted herself around the country on tours, who was notoriously money-savvy. The fact is, Jeanette was excellent at giving the impression of control, of having a plan, and many times this could not have been further from the truth. Also present here is the adult woman who was afraid of the dark, who had to call secretary Emily into her bedroom at night to read to her and rub her neck (apparently Husband of the Century Gene is not capable of satisfactorily putting the Mac down for night-night) to help her fall asleep, and when Emily would start to creep out, a voice from the darkness would say, “I’m not asleep.”
God. She was such a baby on some levels. It’s the most heartbreaking/endearing thing ever. That’s the dichotomy that is Jeanette. That’s what Nelson Eddy termed the “girl-woman” — and he loved that in her. His nurturing nature (he’s literally SUCH a Cancer and she is SUCH a Gemini) made him a perfect person to handle the MacFreakouts. I am not downplaying his faults, but by God he was good at that, with her. He petted, he reassured, he was guardian to the girl and lover to the woman. Indeed, Nelson got his first kiss from her because he had listened to her cry her eyes out in his car after opera people snubbed her at a party that was their first “real” date. On the subject of Jeanette and sleep, Nelson said once, “There’s nowhere she gets it better than in my arms.” Indeed, she “slept like a baby” without her customary night-light, with Nelson in bed with her. By day, she was a businesswoman, a professional, sharp and astute. By night, she wanted to be held; she wanted to be somebody’s baby, to belong to someone. She never got over that desperate need for emotional intimacy, denied her by Anna at the beginning and by others in her life at the end. Our girl was not a loner. The days and days of interminable solitary waiting for the Inevitable at the end of her life are the cruelest form of torture that could possibly have been conceived. Her tears and insecurities frustrated the hell out of comparatively cold and awkward Gene Raymond. “I had to learn not to make an issue of anything, not to argue…I had to learn early that tears would get me nowhere,” “If I had to weep, I wept alone,” she wrote in her autobiography, continuing, “He accused me once, early in our marriage: You’re putting on an act, just like my mother used to. How could I forget words like those?”
My point in illustrating these sides of the person that was Jeanette MacDonald is that these insecurities followed her throughout her life, causing her to regress surprisingly from the professional adult to the child practically begging to be accepted and loved. As a digression, I believe this is related to why she never REALLY bucked the system, told Mayer to go fuck himself and married the man she loved, warts and all, instead of the store-brand version approved of by Anna B. MacMayer. It wasn’t really in her to break the rules, to disobey. She was too much of a pleaser for that, which is why she was wracked with a lifetime of guilt over the fact that she couldn’t stop herself loving Nelson, that she couldn’t stop participating in his love for her. Her greatest personal source of happiness, shrouded in the feeling that it was “wrong”. When asked, in an interview with Sharon Rich in the early 1980s, about how she felt about the relationship, Sunny Griffin’s instantaneous response was, “Very guilty. Very guilty.” Conversely, there were times when she would say, “The hell with the world, I’m having a good time. I’m in love and I’m being loved, why should I worry?” Those were the good times, the fun and easy times, the times when they would be daring and bold and do things like canceling or postponing professional engagements (yes, dears, they both did it) to be together. Of the thirty-two years they had, the tragedy is that they didn’t/couldn’t spend MORE time putting their love first.
“I want to be a grand opera star and buy a gold bed and a pink limousine for Mother,” the juvenile MacDonald is supposed to have said, according to her eldest sister, Elsie, and, indeed, in the 1940s, at the end of her tenure at MGM, Grand Opera was at the forefront of her mind. Jeanette decried her serious opera goals in later-life interviews, saying (I’m paraphrasing) that the public believes that opera is the ultimate goal for a singer, when it reality the recital (the singer + a piano, as opposed to a concert, which is the singer + orchestra) is the realest realization of a singer’s talent. I mean this gently, but we have a tendency, in life, when we have not met a goal or reached the highest level of our aspirations, to sort of re-arrange our telling of a thing to protect ourselves. All one has to do is look at Jeanette’s face on What’s My Line when she is asked if she ever appeared at the Metropolitan to know that this is a sore subject.
But…she performed in opera! Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Faust! In the forties! And got good-or-mostly-good reviews! So what am I talking about?
The Metropolitan and its snobby, political ways…and our Jeanette, whose staunch principles AND desperation to achieve a dream at whatever price absolutely highlight the paradox about which I’ve been going on.
In December, 1942, Jeanette had a meeting with Edward Johnson, the general manager of the Met. According to Jeanette, he “couldn’t have been more delighted” at the prospect of her singing at the Met. He suggested that she prepare Romeo et Juliette, because he had heard her sing parts of it in Rose Marie and thought she’d handled it well. She said she didn’t want to appear to be doing this as a stunt; she wanted to get into the Met on her own merits as a singer. He countered that one way to do that would be for her to enroll in Julliard, that they contribute $25,000.00 to the Met every year and so the Met sees fit to present one of their outstanding singers, every year. Jeanette said she couldn’t abide the idea of being so disloyal to her vocal teacher, Grace Newell, and while I believe that, I think that coaching privately as she did with Grace and Lotte Lehmann was one thing, but formally enrolling in school was not something she was all about—for a myriad of reasons. But I mean really, school??? For Jeanette, in the forties? They left it at a temporary draw, with Johnson’s assurances that he would “work on an angle with the Board of Directors”. So Jeanette left “on a cloud” (This hurts me, she was so freakin’ excited about the Met. I would like this post to not take a dark turn. Alas…) and set about learning the role of Juliet. By February, 1943, she writes Charles Wagner, her manager of some years, who in a few months would be unceremoniously fired, that she can now “sing ‘Juliet’ standing on my head, though I trust this will not be necessary” and goes on to say that she’s very anxious to get going with other aspects of putting the opera together, she’s about to head East and wants to devote March and April to rigorous preparation, so she’s not really feeling the idea of other concert dates unless they’re close by and handled easily and the money is better than what had previously been submitted to her for consideration.
Shortly after that, she attended a luncheon with several Met stars and Johnson, who held her arm and started some smooth French conversation in her ear while cameras went off. Jeanette says in her autobiography that it had “a rather disillusioning effect, and since I couldn’t encourage him, I replied in English.”
So. He makes a pass and she rebuffs it. Remember that. Her principles, and everything. [She also describes him as “handsome tenor / white hair / beautiful features” — a quick Google will bear her out on all counts.]
Meanwhile, as this is going on, she’s busy LAYING THE SMACKDOWN on Charles Wagner, her concert manager. We have a pile of correspondence between the two of them and one thing is abundantly clear: HE was working for HER, not the other way around. (So, anyone who thinks that he had her in some sort of imprisonment on the road where she couldn’t say eff the police and go meet Nelson if she wanted to is not understanding the nature of their relationship. Jeanette, with this man, does what she damn pleases and tells him about it maybe. He is not a Mayer in her life…nor is he an Edward Johnson. In the final analysis with Wagner, he pissed her off one time too many and she got rid of him, something she never did with Mayer, with Anna or with Gene. She loved her mother. She always wanted her mother’s approval and never seemed to totally get it. With Mayer and Gene, she was flat out up against a wall, and with Gene, it’s interesting because SHE was the main breadwinner and CFO. On paper, they are something of a disaster, but she was stuck. Angela is working on a guest blog with boatloads of MacRaymond financial information that is going to pin your ears back. Hate to say we told you so, but we have original paper proof that Jeanette was financing everything and giving Worthless an allowance and Worthless was overdrawing the checking account and “losing” and “accidentally burning” the bankbook.)
Here is a primo example of savvy business Jeanette at her icy, outraged, bossy best, to Wagner:
SHE is the boss and he just better get his act together.
But the other side of that coin is the woman who fiercely wants to perform at the Met, to matter as an important Artist and not just a movie star. She needs validation. She needs approval. The little girl needs to be reassured that she’s loved and valuable and wanted and in her mind, the Met can provide all of that.
So she opens Romeo et Juliette in Montreal on May 8, 1943. She played to a sold out three-week Canadian run, but the houses were such that they couldn’t make more than $9,000.00/night and the show cost $12,000.00/night to produce. Thus, though she and the opera itself (she was surrounded by a supporting cast of Met regulars, having no wish to be a standout among second-raters) were a critical success and a financial failure. Jeanette herself not only went without pay, but ended up digging into her own pockets to the tune of $25,000.00, which, spent more shrewdly, would have gotten her on the Met stage, achieving her dream.
All summer long, rumors are flying thick and fast about Jeanette singing at the Met. Louella says that Jeanette’s Metropolitan debut is “set for fall” but then Hedda Hopper writes on July 3, 1943: It cost Jeanette MacDonald plenty of her own cash to sing Romeo et Juliette in Canada. She hasn’t yet been signed to sing it at the Met. It would be smart of Jeanette and Nelson Eddy to team up for another picture, but quick.
She’s in, she’s out, she’s definitely in. The Met can’t wait to have her. The Met doesn’t want her. Edward Johnson promised her he was coming to Canada to hear her sing, then he doesn’t. This freaks her out not a little, because damn, she’s been spending all this time and now all this money trying to create for him “a Juliet of whom he might well be proud” and he doesn’t even come see it.
Then someone sends her this darling little item:
Not only is that horribly bitchy and unfair of Ms. Hecht, but it also is press that sounds very definite about Jeanette’s signing with the Met, and Edward Johnson’s name is given as the party responsible for signing her, which had not happened. Wagner lets Jeanette know that Johnson is pissed about the press releases and that’s why he didn’t attend her R&J in Canada – he was “put on the spot”. Jeanette takes that to mean that Johnson is somehow accusing HER of planting them to try and force the Met’s hand, things are just not looking so good.
Finally, on October 10th, she writes just about the saddest letter I’ve ever seen. It’s intelligently written (and LONG), but she’s floundering, she’s confused, she’s out a lot of time and money and nobody is talking to her. She doesn’t take to the silent treatment very well, our Jeanette. She spends three pages begging him to explain, apologizing all over herself for stuff she didn’t do, practically doing cartwheels to get him to please please please talk to her. This is totally abnormal behavior for a star of her magnitude. Can you imagine Katharine Hepburn doing this? Of course you can’t.
Here is the letter in its entirety, of which only part has been quoted in the various Jeanette books (including her own). The “enclosure” she mentions is the above item from August 29th.
And Johnson takes that PLEA for an explanation, and this is the response she gets. I kind of want to punch him.
He totally blew her off.
The Met didn’t want her. And he didn’t have the balls to tell her that.
And he let her go through ALL THAT. She said she would have preferred his “cold, brutal no” to all the “shadowboxing” — and you cannot blame her.
#boycottMetOpera (okay I’m mostly kidding but JESUS H. ROOSEVELT CHRIST YOU MAKE MY GIRL CRY IMMA MAKE YOU CRY.)
And the tragic thing is, this is STILL ON JEANETTE’S MIND in February of the next year. Where a Kate Hepburn or a Bette Davis might have thrown that middle finger in the air and pranced away, Jeanette still wants the Met to love her.
To the point where she’ll do anything. Remember how she got all high and mighty before about Johnson making a pass at her?
Well, pipe this letter, which to my knowledge, has never before seen the light of day:
Honey, darling, love of my life……….did you just gently proposition the manager of the Met?
I–I kind of think you did.
Just let that sink in a minute. Yes, it’s delicately phrased. But this is 1944 and she’s married AND has a hot and heavy on the side who would be none-too-effing-amused by this. This dude Johnson blew her off last fall and now she’s trying AGAIN, this time with the etchings routine!!! Jeanette Anna!!
I’m NOT judging her. It’s pretty common knowledge that this was how you got deals done back in the day. It’s seedy and sexist and super gross, but if you don’t believe that was reality for MANY MANY MANY women, you’re delusional. They did what they felt they had to do and that’s all there is to it. But this is what I meant, earlier, when I said she regressed from professional adult to the child wanting to be validated…at any cost.
Jeanette may have been ready, willing and able to go balls to the wall with small fry like Wagner, her manager. She was a smart girl. And she had so MUCH talent and brilliance that it breaks my heart that she couldn’t just be like, “You don’t want me? The hell with you!” …instead, she keeps going back and back and back, seeking acceptance, and finally, at forty-one years of age, seemingly ready to go back to the early days and debase herself to see if that helps her cause. That is rooted in a deep-seated insecurity. When you have the confidence to believe that you are ENOUGH, you don’t beg someone to want you.
I use Katharine Hepburn as an example because I know her story very well. What did she do in 1938, when she was labeled Box Office Poison? She took her ass back to Connecticut. And then along came the Broadway version of The Philadelphia Story, and when Hollywood called her back, she owned the movie rights and she marched up to Mayer and demanded an UNHEARD OF amount of money for the script and herself as the lead. And we see where that got her. But like, when that happened, when she thought she was done in movies, she didn’t let people see that she was stressed out about it, she just said adios, mofos and bounced.
Jeanette was not equipped to do that. And for all of her acumen, ability and smarts, these people hurt her tender little feelings and I want to cut them. Recognizing and acknowledging that side of her is critical if you’re going to begin to get a real handle on who this woman was. She clung to her principles admirably as long as she could get her way with them, but when the chips were down, she was not above trying an alternate course of action. Long years in New York and Hollywood taught her about that. Sex was a tool, a business move, for a lot of these women. For Jeanette, it wasn’t until Nelson came along that sex got all tangled up with feelings and emotional weight and being in love, and the start of the Nelson Era is, in fact, the end of the Promiscuous Era. He made it good, he made it special, he woke her up and taught her about herself, got her to look through his eyes and understand herself. It’s erotic and amazing, what he did. She learned to value herself and her body no longer wanted to be a tool in the toolbox. Look at the difference in her between Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie. Girl —> Woman. That’s Nelson.
I say this to underscore how crucially, imperatively important this Metropolitan business was to Jeanette, in terms of identity and self-worth, if she was willing to regress to that sort of tired old trick—and even if she didn’t go through with it (this letter seems to be unanswered, so it appears that she didn’t, thank God), it crossed her mind to at least put out the feelers that could lead to her, in effect, selling herself for this ambition.
I’d love to go back in time to find Jeanette as a child and give her a good shake and say YOU. ARE. ENOUGH. You are brilliant and talented and beautiful and you. are. enough. You are not defined by your mother’s lack of approval or the Met’s lack of interest. So many people will admire and respect and love you because you’re awesome, and you don’t have to depreciate yourself for the rest of the world. You’re enough.
She never thought she was. And the ramifications of that are present everywhere in her life.
Many, many thanks to Angela for allowing me to borrow this priceless material for this blog.