Surely it encompasses more than what I’m about to talk about – and surely I’m not an expert on all its aspects. But what has stuck in my craw lately is the question: where is the end of responsibility of a famous person to their fan base?
I’m speaking, of course, of Jeanette, but I’m positive that this question can/will/should be asked about millions of other stars – perhaps especially those whose image is “wholesome” – are they responsible to you, the fan, the nameless face in the crowd, the ticket-buying member of the public, the backstage idolater, the writer of the fan letter, the requester of the autograph – are they responsible to you every moment of their off-camera, off-stage lives?
Do you think they should be?
Do they think they should be?
In Jeanette’s case, I feel that at least one or two of those questions could be answered in the affirmative, and I think that’s grossly, damningly unfair.
When Jeanette was young, on Broadway in the Roaring Twenties, she was in a series of not-too-successful musicals (though her personal notices were almost always great), lots of them silly/bawdy/slightly naughty in the style of the day. When she was tapped by Lubitsch for The Love Parade, 1929, right on up through her move to MGM which yielded The Cat and the Fiddle, and SO famously, The Merry Widow, in 1934, before she was teamed with a baritone we know and love and the rest was history, she developed her screen persona as the sexy singing girl who spent a lot of time in her underwear or taking elaborate baths on camera. She was known as the Lingerie Queen of the Talkies, and said, as most of you reading this will know already, “I’m sure people must say about me, on the screen, ‘Good Gracious, is Jeanette MacDonald going to take off her clothes – again?’”
But something happened at MGM, the way it so often did at the biggest and best of the grand old studios; Jeanette was given a type. She had a highbrow voice, an exquisite, well-bred face, and a talent for combining the fairy tale damsel in distress with a sassy raised eyebrow. She was a Disney Princess before they were a thing. In her movies with Nelson, she’s nearly always elevated in stature over him – the princess, the opera star, the opera star, the saloon-owning-non-bandit, the rich girl, the—you get the idea. Nelson is the soldier, the Mountie, the music teacher. She’s always a little high above us all, virginal, pure, and, as a magazine of the time commented, one of the best figures in Hollywood suddenly became swathed so deep in ruffles and crinolines that whenever Charles did get Marianne into that wedding night cabin it probably took him 3 hours just to get her undressed…! (The magazine didn’t say that last part, I did. The magazine talked about one of the best figures in Hollywood being hidden in all the period clothes.)
And hey, who am I to argue? (Well, I’m about to argue.) Her movies were phenomenally successful. She was given the class treatment all the way – Adrian, Stothart, C.S. Bull – all the top guys worked on her projects, and she and Nelson made the studio a crapload of money. They had a formula that worked, and so they worked it. Can’t really blame them, but one has only to watch her in Firefly, in Three Daring Daughters and The Sun Comes Up to just weep with bitterness over how horrendously she was limited by that formula. Her Nina Maria is hands down, far and away the smartest character she ever played; politically important, toe to toe with the men, diabolically sneaky, impossibly charming, layered, absolutely brilliant work. We are not distracted by Nelson and her chemistry with him (I mean that in the nicest way, Nels, but you two DO tend to go on…) and she really rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. She got a rare opportunity to be smart. Really smart, not just coyly clever. Her Louise Morgan and Helen Winter could have been the most compelling characters of her career, had their stories been treated as important woman’s stories, instead of “family” fluff. I love both of those movies dearly, but my point is – she had so, so, so, so much more to give as an actress, and in limiting her to the immediately lucrative, MGM stifled her talent such that we’ll never know what she could actually have done.
That’s a small digression, but it works back around to my point that the generation of people who grew up going to her movies, and the generation after them that fell in love with her when her films were re-issued for television – these people got an idea of what she must be like, watching her and hearing her sing.
The fact is, they weren’t all wrong.
And then, in 1939, she started going on concert tour, all over the country. She went a number of times. Over the next two decades, she put hundreds of concerts and recitals and two grand operas under her belt. Anyone bearing a membership card to either of her two fan clubs had a personal invitation from her to come backstage after the show and say hello. She always arranged it with the theatre security, and I cannot tell you how many hundreds of “meeting Jeanette” stories I’ve had the joy of reading. I haven’t read a single negative one. Ever. She took an enormous job upon herself and did it magnificently. When she was tired, when she wasn’t feeling well, when she had already given of herself for hours, she made herself available to these people and gave them amazing memories.
This generous woman also wrote a letter to the membership of each of her two fan clubs, faithfully, for more than twenty-five years, for their three-or-four journals per year. Musical Echoes and the Golden Comet always begin with a letter from Jeanette, as long as she lived. Added to that, she kept up a ridiculous mountain of personal correspondence with these folks, many of whom traveled great distances to her concerts and developed a real and lasting, if distant, friendship with her. She was included in their Christmas card-sending; put on prayer lists at their churches, she heard about jobs and marriages and babies and school grades and everything else. She was absolutely a part of people’s lives. When she dispersed her Bel Air home in 1963 and moved to an apartment at the Wilshire Comstock, she carefully packaged up possessions too numerous to make the downsizing move and sent them out to these people, all across America, little pieces of herself lovingly scattered among these loyal friends of long-standing, these people who had hustled backstage to meet their favorite star some twenty years before, written her their adoration and somehow the conversation had never ceased since.
There is no doubt, especially as her world grew smaller and quieter in the last few years of her life, that these people were a tremendous source of love for her. They made her feel adored, important. They remembered her when she wasn’t professionally active, they cheered her up when she was progressively sicker and sicker. Giving to them was something she could still do, even when she couldn’t perform.
(It may also be prudent to point out here that I’ve taken her heart x-rays to one of the prominent cardiac surgeons in my state, and his professional opinion is that her 1960 films are absolutely damning. She was sicker than most anyone knew, for longer than most anyone knew, and it breaks my heart to type that, when my office is literally filled with her attempts to keep going, even knowing she was a ticking bomb. She wrote(!) the most brilliant TV treatment in 1961 and filed it with the Writer’s Guild. She had so many ideas and wanted so badly to go back to work, but having discussed her case with this completely objective medical professional, her 1959 retirement makes horrifyingly perfect sense. It had nothing to do with her voice. She couldn’t get breath support to sustain the notes. She couldn’t get enough oxygen to her brain to carry a show. Perhaps she had that sort of live-like-you-are-dying approach with the fans, giving of herself as hard and long as she could, with everything she had to give them, because she knew she wouldn’t be here much longer.)
All this to say that Jeanette for sure, completely, absolutely contributed to the public’s perception of her. She knew she had a particular kind of image, and she lived up to it. She never let them know she suffered, that she was unhappy, that things weren’t all they were cracked up to be at home. She got, in her lifetime, thousands and thousands of letters shoving her higher and higher onto a pedestal. As one of her friends accurately commented, she deserved to be on a pedestal. But nobody should have to live up there. It’s unfair and it’s unhealthy. While it’s wonderful that she gave so generously of her time and talent, it’s dead wrong to expect her to conduct her life to the bullshit standards you’ve decided to apply to her – and during the course of her life and really in the half-century since it ended, that’s what has happened.
Jeanette had a truly outrageous sense of personal responsibility. Perhaps it stemmed from becoming the family breadwinner when most kids are busy worrying about ninth or tenth grade; perhaps it was simply in her personal makeup the same way her innate goodness was. She also had – to a fault – a teeming compunction to please. Easily guilted, easy to manipulate into acting against her own personal happiness or best interest in the name of doing what’s best for someone else. So…she was the perfect candidate for what she became: a woman trying with all her might to keep up the image, lest she shatter someone’s illusions.
It’s gut-wrenching, the way she writes a personal letter to club president Clara Rhoades detailing how bad she feels, how she can’t gain weight, how she isn’t getting better, but telling Clara to please not share that with the members, and in the same envelope, enclosing a letter for the Comet, chattering gaily away about this and that. It’s awful to read Happy Birthday Alone and then the details of a brutal fight with Gene in her desk diary on June 18, 1963 – her 60th birthday – and then to see her lie through her teeth to the fans about how she spent her day. It’s not a malicious lie. She’s not a liar. It’s the necessity of her state, it’s the making the best of her status because she knows she’ll never get out of it.
Private Jeanette and Public Jeanette had vastly different realities. Public Jeanette covered for Private Jeanette as dictated by what Public Jeanette had become: an ideal, a safe, conservative, churchy, ladylike Princess Maytime, always with a kind word and benevolent gesture for a lowly commoner. There was enough of that in her, really in her, to make it completely believable. She WAS so many of these things, it’s easy to think that’s the whole story. Charming, kind, deeply principled, warm, loving, friendly, generous, funny, ladylike – all words that can be used to describe the real woman. No doubt.
Private Jeanette was also lonely, scared, frustrated, self-deprecating, unhappy – sometimes individually, sometimes all at once. I certainly don’t mean to say she was these things all the time, but her circumstances were such that she could not help herself, eventually. It only takes a few hundred happy marriage magazine spreads before the public really gets attached to that idea, and to admit you’re unhappy, tremendously unhappy, have been for years, how the thing is a fricking mess – well it’s tantamount to lying and Princess Maytime can’t do that, because to do that would be to shatter the illusions of the public, and then to be tried and hung in the Court of Public Opinion, especially in the era in which she lived. In so many of her choices, especially in the latter part of her life, she chose NOT to do so many things that might have bettered her state, because she didn’t want to disappoint anyone, she didn’t want to let them down. She believed in the power of one’s illusions. She believed in the power of sentiment, of old-fashioned decency, of make believe and pretty things. Anyone who is familiar with her comments regarding the entertainment industry in the fifties and sixties knows what I mean. She stood in staunch defense of the kind of movie she made, and while I wish she’d gotten to branch out and really test herself and all her prodigious talent, I understand what she means. We live in a world of precious little sentiment. I don’t know what on earth she’d do in 2018.
She tried her best to give her people a life example that lived up to her body of work. Because of that, she missed opportunities for happiness, for love, for improved health, for a potentially longer life, and for simple honesty that would have ultimately saved her so much time and trouble.
Surely she’s responsible for a good bit of that, either deliberately (when she did things like hand-edit articles about her to strike any references to her social drinking, so that people really believed she didn’t), or because of the way she was wired, to be responsible and to please people so they’d love her. Thank Anna MacDonald for that last part. Don’t get me started.
But how much of that is the fan responsible for? Why is it okay for someone to put that kind of responsibility on another human, to make someone else your example for living in such a way that it becomes an unforgivable crime for their foot to slip?
I get where Jeanette was coming from, albeit on a much smaller scale. I teach horseback riding, and have a whole flock of girls ages 9-17, some of whom I’ve had for many years. I feel keenly the responsibility to these girls to model good things for them. Good things with regard to our sport and good things with regard to life. I watch my mouth, in front of them. I watch my language on the social media to which they have access. I watch my behavior. I know they are watching, I know they are listening, and that matters to me. I have the complete trust of their parents, to be a positive presence in the lives of their kids, to be a trusted adult to whom they can turn, to have an environment here in my home and at my farm where they are safe, learning, having fun. I promise there are parts of my life these kids don’t know about, and that’s fine and as it should be. Where I differ from Jeanette (hahahahahahahahahahaha where shall I start?) is that I’m allowed to authentically live my life without apology, in an era that expects me to apologize less.
The demographic of MacDonald fan I have patience for less than any other is the people who “can’t bear to think about it” or “prefer to live in their own fantasy world” – I’ve seen both of those things in print within the last week. My suggestion, then, is to limit yourselves to the movies only, and don’t get involved in biographical discussions, because nobody’s real life is the way Photoplay spins it, and nobody’s real life is smooth sailing from beginning to end, even if that is comfortable for you.
Without allowing this to become political, I saw a cartoon the other day that had two identical illustrations, one labeled RIGHT and one labeled WRONG. “Right” said, I can’t, because of my religion. “Wrong” said, You can’t, because of my religion.
That’s how I feel about this. The inability or unwillingness to process the documentable underbelly of what this woman lived through (with or without Nelson Eddy) does not negate the fact that it happened, even if someone doesn’t want to participate. Just because someone has intimacy issues and/or a very strange relationship with sex does not mean SHE didn’t have it, and like it, with someone she loved. Or multiple partners. In short, and on whatever topic, the fan’s personal shit does not verify or negate her story, and I don’t know what it is about Jeanette that seems to attract the notion that it does. Your inability to process the fact that you spent X number of years buying into a façade, hook, line and sinker really has nothing to do with her life, and you’re really selfish to put that on her and demand that she live up to it. Someone once said that if it was true that Jeanette loved Nelson, that she would burn her entire collection. Like oh my God, really? Do you love the person or do you love what the person represents to you? Do you love the person or do you love the image? Do you love Public Jeanette or do you care about a whole gorgeously flawed being? I’m not sure some of you know.
Jeanette felt so accountable to this nonsense, to upholding people’s ideals, that she ultimately died in a rotten awful way because she did not feel that she could be honest about what was going on, about her health or her home life, because she was not being valued as a whole person, she was being valued as a beautiful beacon of something that doesn’t even really exist. If I knew absolutely nothing else about the relationship between Jeanette and Gene Raymond, Jeanette’s 1963 desk diary would make me ask questions about abuse in her home. True, she lived in an era where people let it all hang out a lot less, and also true, she had her pride. But when an incredibly straightforward and honest woman is doing these sorts of calisthenics to put the “correct” foot forward, it’s about more than that. Her mother didn’t love her enough, no matter what she did, how hard she worked, how high she sang, how much money she made. Her mother loved her conditionally. She lived with that reality until 1947. She knew damn well what conditional love was, and how easily it could be turned off. By the 1960s, the love from her fans was one of the biggest forces in her life. Would she risk turning it off by saying, “Look, I know I’ve made things look good for a long time, but here’s what’s actually going on…” – of course she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. She needed what they were giving her. If she’d had a really secure home, I’d wager that would have been considerably less important.
Yeah, it’s sad. Yeah, it’s hard. Yes, it will make you feel deeply. It will make you intensely sad, if you allow it to, and I think you should. It’s depressing as hell to uncover the truth of just how hard some of this stuff was for her. But she lived it, and at some point, it feels incredibly disrespectful to her to simply opt out of dealing with it. Be here or don’t. Don’t dismiss her life because it makes you uncomfortable. If you’re going to get into this story, be open to all of it and recognize that it’s not about you. It’s not and never was Jeanette’s job to be one way or the other FOR YOU. She was hired to sing and make pretty movies. Her extreme generosity after hours and for all those years does not mean it’s okay to continue the tradition of demanding that her story only be written one way.