Dr. Jeanette A. MacDonald

Why hello, yes I’m still here and breathing, much to the chagrin of a few of you, I’m sure. Bite me. 😀 A lot going on behind the scenes here at the ol’ Case for Jeanette and Nelson Blog, and I know I keep SAYING that, and time slips by, but, well, it’s true, what can I say? There are going to be a few important roll-outs in the next few months, there has been a major game-changing move in recent weeks and it won’t be long now before I’ll be able to talk about what has been going on, instead of just being obnoxiously vague. If you think you’re waiting a long time, just think how long Jeanette has been waiting to be free of the most bullshit nonsense fighting ever known to man. It’s coming, J-Mac, keep holding on. #helpisontheway

You know, recently, a very wise friend of mine who is of the Classic Film Circle (though not of the Jeanette Circle) told me that my blog was great but the part that lost her was my rage towards a group of people that “nobody knows”—well, they do if they know the Jeanette story, but they were unfamiliar to her— but her point was that I was wasting a lot of energy being angry at a group of people that I know to be …misguided… to put it kindly. She found that distracting from the research and reporting that has been the crux of my blog, and I can admit that she has a valid point. “You know you’re right, so why spend time putting focus on them?” Her astute observation has stayed with me since she made it. For half my lifetime now, I’ve “grown up” with this in-fighting, so stepping away from it is hard. But, having the absolute certainty that the convictions I hold about these beautiful people are true does fill me with more ability than I’ve ever had to not give a damn.

….That’s an exaggeration, I’m scrappy as hell and if you want to go a few rounds, meet me on Arch Street at sunup.

Anyway, what I wanted to do with this post was share a few sweet photos of that time in 1953 when Jeanette was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Ithaca. It was the first time the college had ever conferred this honor upon a “movie star” and it pleased Jeanette more than perhaps she thought it would. See, Jeanette was not a good student, and this is a topic about which it is extremely easy for me to get all riled up. This woman was fricking brilliant, guys. She was brilliant. For her to have had such a miserable time in school is inexcusable. The problem was, she was essentially a professional child and as such there were necessary school absences. I used to miss school all the time for horse shows and nobody ever made a big deal about it, but back then, this was frowned upon–and far worse if the reason for the absence was the dreadful, awful THEATRE. Nowadays there are so many options for kids like Jeanette, mostly thanks to the internet, but back then her choices were to either attend regular school or have a private tutor. Her family’s income bracket made that decision. About the time Jeanette was in eighth grade, her principal was a real pain in the ass who was in cahoots with Jeanette’s teacher–these grown women apparently really wanted to bring this child down and teach her an Important Life Lesson about how the theatre is a terrible horrible no good very bad place. So teacher puts a hard math problem on the board, using a concept that had been covered when Jeanette had been absent, calls Jeanette up in front of everyone and proceeds to humiliate her when she can’t do it. She is then bundled off to the principal, who was such a small human being that she was actually lying in wait for this golden opportunity to ruin an adolescent kid’s life, and the bitch proceeds to demote Jeanette a full grade level. “To a proud and sensitive child, this was a devastating blow,” Jeanette wrote many years later, and that really sums it up, huh? Also, she had by this time very nearly reached her full height of 5’5″ (or 5’5 1/2″, depending on which time she’s telling it), so when she was sent back to seventh grade, she was head and shoulders taller than the other kids, which just mortified her more. And thus ended any hope of her having a good relationship with her education. She attended three high schools: West Philadelphia, Washington Irving and Julia Richman. She did not graduate. Looking at her high school records (I’m not sure what I’m holding is complete; I have more digging to do), and remembering that she was a grade below where her age suggests she should be, it looks like she didn’t complete tenth grade. School held no allure for her; she’d missed a lot and nobody seemed interested in helping her, only in making her feel like a dummy. She got A’s in physical education, as well as A’s and B’s in typing and stenography, but most of her grades were in the sixties and seventies. Her Julia Richman report card reflects that she had twenty-five absences in one marking period. There is no way she could learn anything, like that. More importantly, she was working, and the education she felt (possibly correctly, who am I to argue with someone who became a superstar?) she needed was in the theatre: singing, dancing, doing shows, negotiating contracts. She was quickly shifting into her role as the main breadwinner in the family, passing sister Blossom’s pay grade pretty swiftly. A kid that age with that much responsibility on them–well–something has to give. And for her, as for so many many people like her in various trades in this period of history, the sacrifice was school.

Jeanette always had a little bit of a snap in her on this subject. She reported that she never regretted missing college, she “never wanted to go to one” — and I certainly believe that, given her school experience. But I also think that it mattered more to her than she let on. I think that’s the case with a number of Hollywood people from that era. Jeanette loved to read, she was gifted at languages, she was a prodigiously talented musician–and I don’t just mean singer. She was excellent with money; wise about investing it and saving it. I’ve seen letters, now, where she’s telling her lawyer how to lawyer. I’ve seen her back and forth contract negotiations with MGM and she is something else again in terms of knowing her monetary value and making a plan with her attorney to see that she’s paid accordingly. When her manager pissed her off in the forties, she fired him and managed her own damn self. One of my favorite assessments of her is Nelson’s understated, “She’s a smart girl.” He knows. (Also he’s calling her a girl in 1965 can we all just take a moment ’cause that’s cute.)

All that to say that when Ithaca College conferred this degree upon our girl, I think she was really thrilled. Below are some photos and clippings of the occasion–judge for yourself. ❤

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The day before graduation, Jeanette is photographed between President Job of Ithaca College and Theodore McKeldin, Governor of Maryland, who was also being honored.

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Awwwwww.

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Being given a huge bouquet of roses in the middle of the ceremony is not standard operating procedure, as you’ll learn in a minute, but they did it for her. ❤

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Above is a brief write-up of the event, which you should be able to make out through my unfortunate-but-necessary watermarking. Below is a mighty complimentary letter from the VP of Ithaca, adorably addressed to Dr. MacDonald. The letter accompanied the photos in this post when they were mailed to Jeanette.

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And then, finally, is my favorite picture from the entire thing. There has never been a more totally adorable human being than this one. She is just as pleased as she can possibly be—she probably never thought she’d wear a cap and gown, and while she got to do a lot of other things most of us can only dream about, one can also see how this sort of thing would thrill her. Part of her fully embraced where she came from, but I believe, based on what I have read, that she was, somewhere on the inside, very sensitive about the things she felt she lacked in terms of background. What I know about Jeanette is that she took it deeply to heart when she was given tokens of her worth. It’s a dichotomy; the woman who knew damned well what MGM should be paying her also needed -deeply- affirmations like this one. Words of affirmation is her love language. Thank Anna MacDonald for that. Sigh. That’s a whole other blog. At any rate, I can see her really loving this occasion and that’s why I love this photo:

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And if you don’t think this was meaningful to her, consider this point with which I will conclude. Jeanette downsized considerably when she moved from Twin Gables to the Comstock apartment. Many things were given away or put into storage. Yet, after a career of the most amazing kinds of fame and success that no doubt garnered many display-able plaques and photos, prominently displayed on her living room wall is her diploma from Ithaca. She was proud of this.

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