It’s been fifty-three years today since Jeanette Anna MacDonald has been in the world, and this year, like all the others since she departed, people who love her pause on this day to remember her, to reflect on her life and death and, depending on how they feel — depending on which Jeanette they believe in, for there are several, and the people who claim to love her have this very frustratingly human tendency to be enamored of the facet of this woman that is most convenient for them — maybe they get a little angry. Angry at how she was treated, at how she died, at the secrecy and lies and horseshit that surrounded her before death and after death and in all the years since. Angry at how she’s been exploited, at how she’s paid the bills for so many people during her life and after, and wondering where it got her.
And maybe the people who get a little angry get a little sad, too. Sad that someone so wonderful and gifted and good had such a struggle with her health. Sad that she didn’t live even a few more years, into the era of medical advances that could have saved her. The last half of the 1960s was groundbreaking for heart surgery and cardiac care, and she just missed it. Sad that she’s so pigeonholed and misunderstood and tug-o-warred in the name of fandom. Sad that she put herself last, that, while often very savvy and forthright professionally; personally, she let guilt, responsibility and her overwhelmingly decent nature keep her from making choices that would have found her happier, less wracked with stress and probably alive longer.
It’s a day that just doesn’t feel great, for a lot of reasons.
Jeanette, I have to tell you, was one of the very finest people who has ever lived. Reading this, you may already believe that about her — but let me reiterate for you that it is true. She was the genuine article. Beyond the obvious and overstated cliche that nobody’s perfect — for me, she comes pretty close. But I feel guilty saying that, because that’s been the opinion of so many, back when she was alive, and I’ve seen evidence of the enormous and crippling pressure that put on her. Angela said, the other day, upon reading a sweet anecdote of Jeanette’s usual graciousness written by someone who encountered her at the Starlight Theatre in 1956, that, “She never disappoints you. Never.” And — really — that’s so true. So. True. I have never once felt disappointed in her. I have spent, over the last year, hundreds of hours trawling through boxes and boxes and boxes and multiple filing cabinets crammed full of artifacts of her life. I’ve researched and written about her for years now, but the holdings of The JAM Project are an entirely different species of MacAnimal. I’ve read her letters to people who owed her money — sometimes large sums. I’ve read her letters to a fanatical fan who was on some kind of psycho bent and was writing angrily and aggressively to her, whom she took the time to personally deal with; to dress down for sure, but also to soothe and try to help. (And when I read her treatment of this person who had treated her badly, it broke my heart for the 700th time that she didn’t have children to raise and discipline and teach to do right. She’d have been so good at it.) I’ve read reams of correspondence between her and her lawyer, negotiating her 1939 MGM contract in particular. I’ve seen her hurt and confused when Edward Johnson of the Metropolitan Opera says one thing and does another with regard to her being asked to appear there. I’ve read more fan accounts of meeting her than I ever thought possible. I’ve read a letter from someone who recalled talking to her about Misty, her Skye Terrier, near the end of her life, and that she began to cry, talking about him. I’ve interviewed several new sources, and made a new and very well-respected contact who has turned over several of HIS old interviews to me, including one with George Cukor in the seventies (who spoke on the record in this interview about his firsthand-at-MGM-knowledge of Jeanette and Nelson’s relationship BY. THE. WAY.), because Jeanette was discussed. The Jeanette material has never been published, because she was not his subject, but he is graciously allowing me to publish it, in due course.
But, getting back to my point before I go down too much of a bunny trail, here: I have read more by and about this woman in the past year than any human should; way, way more than has ever been published or released, stuff that never was intended to see the light of day, and I have never been more impressed by her than I am right now. Who you are when nobody is looking is who you really are, and she was solid gold. She’s funny, she’s bossy, she’s saltier than most people would probably expect, she’s absolutely smart as a whip. Observing her memos about percentages and cuts and taxes and which move is the most professionally and financially advantageous is a sight to behold. She’s sweet and kind and considerate and, though she’s not given to extravagant spending, she’s amazingly generous with her time, with her personal attention, and that’s a much bigger deal than throwing money at something (though she did that, too, when the occasion warranted). There have been times when I wish she hadn’t done something, or I cringe because I know how the story ends — but never, never has she disappointed me. Angela’s sentiment is not a new one. We’ve said it over and over.
But I’m back to my thought about feeling guilty. It’s not Jeanette’s job to keep our illusions about her intact.
Louder, for the back row: It is not Jeanette’s job to keep our illusions about her intact.
So, basically, it’s nice and all, that she hasn’t ever disappointed me, but the thing that I constantly feel the need to express is it’s NOT ABOUT ME. OR YOU. OR YOUR CLUB. OR YOUR BELIEF SYSTEMS. OR YOUR HANGUPS ABOUT SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS. OR YOUR RELIGION. OR YOUR CRUSH ON HER. OR YOUR FANTASY ABOUT THE OLD DAYS AND HOW COTTON CANDY EVERYTHING WAS.
I wish to God she’d been less perfect, less responsible. I wish to God she hadn’t felt like she owed her fans/the public her life, her happiness and ultimately her health. I almost wish she’d been meaner and more selfish. I wish she’d been as sure of herself privately as she was publicly. I wish she hadn’t written “alone” so horribly many times in the eleven months she kept up her 1963 desk diary. I wish she hadn’t felt like she’d made her bed so she’d better lie in it. I wish the fortune she worked her ass off to build had given her some real happiness, instead of setting her husband up nicely for his next life and paying life salaries of the two people whose loyalty he bought, literally, with money and attention and hoards of her stuff.
I can’t change what happened, and neither can you. But neither can we pretend her authentic life didn’t exist — which means that people who think they know or have predetermined suppositions of who and what she is…are going to be made uncomfortable. That’s not her problem. Don’t make it her problem. Either get on board with her, accept her for who she was – not who you want her to be – or find somewhere else to play. Jeanette was a good person. An honest, moral, principled person (and because of that, was also quite tortured). She loved her country and gave tremendously of herself in the service of it. She was uniquely and gorgeously gifted and she shared her gifts generously with the world at just the right time. She was beloved by millions and she appreciated and respected. the. hell. out. of. that. She was, with deadly certainty, worthy of being loved and admired. She certainly isn’t disappointing. But I want people to quit worshiping an image, and start understanding that it is her actual humanity that is admirable and lovable, and that it isn’t up to her to uphold your fantasies. Let her be a person. Let her life be complicated – it was. Let her not always have made your personal favorite choice – she did, no matter who you are. Love her, still, but get her off the pedestal. It’s unhealthy for you and it’s unfair to her authentic story.
People who think she couldn’t be pushed around in private because of who she was in business are especially missing the layers and levels of nuance that make up a whole person. The same woman who actively told her lawyer how to lawyer and wrote “I beg of you to quote me” on a particularly snarky point about MGM negotiations allowed Gene Raymond to waltz his way through so much of HER money it’s absolutely unconscionable and outrageous. That paperwork exists. It’s not up for argument. Bank statements and correspondence, all the nonsense about Mr. Raymond not being able to account for the checks that overdrew the joint account which Jeanette had to cover with her income account because he said the bank book “accidentally got burned” — what the hell. Were you having a cookout in the study? How does that even happen? Business Jeanette would have cut that supply off, but quick! She was not about the reckless spending of the dollar! Personal Life Jeanette felt, I think, super guilty about How Things Were and took it on the chin. Gene got away with murder (…) because she felt it was her fault that his life went the way it did. He was paid well for his pains, that is absolutely certain. That’s but one example of the dichotomy. One example of her sucking it up and dealing with it because she figured she had contributed to the mess she was in. Maybe that was correct thinking, but maybe she shouldn’t have been so stoic. She was so, so responsible. She wasn’t given to having other people deal with her problems. She didn’t want people to know that she suffered, and that is a broad brush that paints a wide stroke. She wanted people to enjoy her, to admire her. She had a real need to be petted and praised. She took being looked up to terribly seriously. She didn’t want people to know the gory or unpleasant details, not because they weren’t true or didn’t happen, but because she didn’t want others to be burdened. She was a master at putting a good face on it. How punishingly unfair is that?
Please, if you want to do something to honor Jeanette’s memory in 2018, set her free from the cage of your own inhibited opinions about what she was allowed to be, who she was allowed to love and how she was allowed to conduct her life. Allow her to have been a luminous, exquisite presence on this earth, appreciated for her contributions and her own truth. If you care enough about it, work to find out what that truth is… and be open to it when you find it. Understand that not everything is face value. Some things are black and white. Some are gray. Loving Nelson does not make her some kind of crazed harlot, nor does it nullify her many virtues and principles. Staying married to Gene doesn’t make her weak, nor does it automatically mean her marriage was good. Her marriage existed. Period. She had a husband. She had a lover. Her life was complicated. Understand that people connected with her story have done twisted and dishonest and manipulative things. If you care, work to get past that. Work to put the pieces together. Stop taking her up on her offer to be this beacon of untroubled ladylike perfection and get a little more on the level of, “No, stop. I know your life was stressful and you weren’t feeling well and you need to know you’re really damned remarkable for handling everything you did with such crazy amounts of grace.” She didn’t just suddenly die one day, guys. She was sick for a long, long time. Years. What she was, was incredibly brave and ridiculously strong. It’s time to allow her to stop carrying so much of that by herself and start understanding her as a human being.
I’m pretty fed up with the fan groups, at this point. I am sad to say that because I have many wonderful friends of long standing that were made because of them, and because there are some awfully nice folks out there that I really love and enjoy. Many, many good times have been had, but by and large, they have devolved into the bitchiest, nastiest, mismanaged cesspools of drama-mongering imaginable and 99% of this unnecessary stupidity has absolutely nothing to do with Jeanette or Nelson or Gene, but rather with a bunch of people who need something better to do, who never seem to make contributions of discussion or research, but definitely can always be counted on to make trouble. When the headache of dealing with that outweighs the importance of the work being done, something has to change. When the leadership doesn’t step up and protect the integrity of the organization and its contributors and call people out on their shit, the organization falls apart and the contributors’ contributions dry up, which benefits nobody. When this is such a drain on one’s brainpower that one doesn’t even want to deal with the topic of Jeanette at all, that’s a problem. Jeanette does not deserve that. I am absolutely blessed that Jeanette is not responsible for feeding me. She does not and will not pay my bills, which I hope is somewhat refreshing for her, wherever she is. I have a career that has nothing to do with her, thank God. She does not keep the lights on in my house (though occasionally she has been accused of turning one off!). I go out and fill my day, every day, with hours of productive activity that are in no way connected to Old Hollywood, and I am fulfilled and inspired by my work. I am not rich, but I can recognize my own privilege. Freedom is absolutely wealth. I think desperation does terrible things to otherwise good people. The work I do, the stuff I write, the time I spend on this project, for this great, great woman who so fiercely and richly deserves to be loved and admired and understood, I do because I want to, because, still and all, I love her and find her fascinating. I choose to be here, and that active choosing is something I have to protect. If I can’t choose freely to work on this because I want to, then it’s time for me to bow out, because I will undoubtedly begin producing work that sucks. Jeanette will never be a have-to for me. That’s the biggest and most obvious way that I can think of to respect her life.
If you are on Jeanette’s side, honestly, on some level, we are on the same team. Perhaps we should try acting like it. She deserves so much better.
On an unrelated note, here are the arrangements that were placed for her for the holidays:
We Will Remember ❤