His Madonna

Recently, interesting new documentation has come to light in the form of an unpublished manuscript that Nelson Eddy wrote and titled A Will of Evil. The manuscript was entrusted to a woman named Linda, who knew Nelson in his last years. It is not outstanding prose (and certainly not Nelson’s best writing, by a country mile) but it provides interesting insight into where his head was in his last years, with compelling parallels drawn to many things that occurred in his real life relationship with Jeanette. The book is available on maceddy.com as well as Amazon. Angela and I helped Sharon edit her introductory comments — and that, for the time being, anyway, is where my remarks end.

Most compellingly for the ongoing story of Jeanette and Nelson, however, is a colored pencil drawing that Nelson did of Jeanette that also ended up in Linda’s possession. It has been published inside the book as well as a smaller version the back cover, so it could be seen in color, and very recently, Sharon published it on maceddy.com as well. Her post is available at this link.

The drawing is exquisite. It’s intimate, it’s serene; it’s absolutely beautiful. He’s not just drawing a picture of someone, he’s lovingly rendering this woman who is dearly known to him.  And it’s not a posed “draw me like one of your French girls” situation, either; her hair is wet and water droplets are dripping down her back, as though she has just stepped out of the shower. More intimacy. This is not glamorous, this is everyday real life. Her body is accurate to the last detail; the tiny wrists, the tall expanse of chest, the way her face looks without makeup…I mean, wow. The love that went into this work is leaping off the page. And look at the knowing, secretive serenity on her face, and the way he highlighted her abdomen. Nelson titled this work My Madonna…is she, perhaps, newly pregnant here? Was that the reason for the drawing? You can see his title on the left edge, along with his NE signature.

For those of you who still “need to see concrete proof” that these people were involved…….welp. Here ya go.

For those of you who still contend that this story is made up, just screw off, really. Get some new lines.

Thanks to those involved in getting this published. It’s important.

I elected, as Sharon did, to put the drawing behind a link rather than pasting it into the body of a blog post. The historical significance of this piece of ironclad, “smoking gun” evidence cannot be denied and the reverence with which this gorgeous work of art was created is totally obvious, but even so, it’s a nude.

Nelson’s drawing of his Madonna can be viewed by clicking right here.

 

 

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From The Golden Comet…

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From the Golden Comet, Spring Issue, 1945, when Marie Waddy (later Gerdes) was President. The good ol’ days, as it were.

Amazing.

They used to put Nelson on the cover of the Comets with her, too.

Gasp.

They sure did kiss each other a lot, is all.  Not that that means anything, of course. Totally normal to have a married man friend walk your married self to your car, chat a while, put his arms around you and kiss you before you leave. Yep.

Love them!

Sweetheart, Sweetheart, Sweetheart…

Where do I begin?

Do I start by saying this is one of the Big Things that I so often mention on this blog as going on behind the scenes? Because that’s true; this is one of those things. One of those things that months of stress and organization and strategizing with three fabulous partners accomplished. The JAM Project was formed, by us—that’s Angela and me and our dear friends Mary Lynn and Lynda, to take care of what’s left of Jeanette’s estate, plus the remaining holdings of the JMIFC. We have it. There. Secret’s out. Now you know, officially.

There is so much to say; so many, many directions in which to go. There are falsehoods to correct and new truths to bring to the fore. There will be time for all of it, eventually. These months have been heartbreaking and euphoric at once; the victories have been outstanding but the fresh devastation of just how complicated and difficult this good woman’s life was has been incredibly painful. We’ve only just scratched the surface of the material in our possession and already our minds are blown.

Today, though, I want to focus on one of the victories.

On September 25, 1957, Jeanette and Nelson teamed up for what would be their second and final television appearance together. The show was The Big Record, hosted by Patti Page. This show has long been considered MacEddy Holy Grail. It’s been lost for decades, squirreled away by the Co-Presidents of the JMIFC. Reports from people who saw it, long ago, are consistent in that they all indicate the obvious closeness between the two stars. Our assumption has been that that’s why the JMIFC hid it; Jeanette and Nelson just looked too damned cozy. They used to show it at the ClanClave meetings, but that friendly trend came to a screeching halt when a young Sharon Rich started writing about Jeanette and Nelson’s real-life relationship. And people who had known them started talking to her – and these previously-embraced-club-members were quickly disavowed and labeled pathological liars. We have those letters, too. Life’s grand. Anyway, the JMIFC war on Nelson Eddy was on. The censorship and “editing” done by Clara Rhoades to strip Nelson of any virtue at all and remove him as much as possible from Jeanette’s professional and personal lives is alive and well to this day in the club’s filing cabinets. It was as though suddenly Nelson was Voldemort – and to complete this imagery and bring it back to the topic at hand, The Big Record is a Horcrux. (For you non-Harry Potter folks, a Horcrux is an object in which a Dark Wizard has hidden a portion of his soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. “This is actually a perfect analogy,” she says, self-congratulating.)

[Weeellll…Clara and Tessa obviously didn’t read the books because they never did destroy the Horcrux; they just hid it. So now…mwahahahahaha, WE RISE.]

So for years, long before I came on the scene, far longer than I’ve been alive, The Big Record was unavailable to be seen. I know Sharon had looked for it. Angela and I have combed universities and other important libraries to no avail. We’ve tried the CBS archive and got nothing. There were, by our reckoning, two copies left in the world – Jeanette’s, and the one Patti Page herself had.

Welp.

The very moment I was turned loose among the trunks and trunks of cans of film in this collection, I had only one title in mind – and then, there it was. But it wasn’t Jeanette’s. This was in a green plastic film can and it was labeled, “Good Condition, 5/71,” and there wasn’t a ton of film in it. So the piece we have as of this writing was made from Jeanette’s copy—and God only knows where that is. We don’t have the whole show. We don’t even have most of it. Sharon released the audio track on a CD on maceddy.com that is their big segment: Jeanette sings Italian Street Song, Nelson sings Out of the Night, and they chat with Patti Page and then do a duet of Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life as well as a small medley of other tunes from Naughty Marietta. We don’t have any of that.

Jeanette did a portion of the show in her white and lavender concert dress that she wore a lot in this time period. Here, she and Nelson are talking to Patti Page:

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This is what the dress looked like in color:

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Anyway, it seems that after this segment, she went offstage and changed gowns, because there are photographs of her with Nelson that are supposed to be from the same show, but she’s wearing the pink strapless dress and pearls that everyone will recognize from the cover of their Favorites in Hi-Fi album.

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This, friends, is what we’ve got. Jeanette in her pink strapless, singing Will You Remember with her Nelson. Two minutes of these incandescently beautiful people making magic together as only they can. We found a guy in Arizona to transfer the film to digital media. He cleaned and restored and color-corrected it. He removed as much of the graininess as possible while keeping the integrity of the film intact and he stabilized the jumpiness. Due to the age and questionable storage practices for all these years, the sound is a little warped in spots—trust and believe it’s not Jeanette and Nelson hitting bad notes! While unfortunate, we assume everyone will have no problem overlooking it.

Physically they have aged, but somehow they are utterly, gorgeously unchanged since the 1930s. Their radiant joy in performing together is palpable. They are doing what they love to do, with the person with whom they love to do it. Nelson’s enormous, boyish pride in the woman he loves is leaping off the screen. Jeanette’s energy and ecstasy at being in his arms is unmatched in what we’ve seen of her other work from this decade. (Also, I have to feel like this is the end of the show, because the MacDonald Nerves are absolutely nowhere to be found.) They are two halves of a whole, blissfully united and we get to watch. They are on national television, but you get the sense that their audience has nothing to do with it; these people are performing to and for each other and that’s it. We are watching something very private happen very publicly, just as we did for eight films. This quality that is theirs alone is what drew people to them and kept them begging for more. They have incredible voices, but the truly mesmerizing thing about them is that they are every bit as emotionally effective with no sound.

It is with enormous delight that we share this with all of you. So many of us on the Jeanette and Nelson story spend hundreds of tireless hours researching and digging and discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of their lives, but in moments like these, we can all just step back, secure in the knowledge that these people tell their own story so much better than we ever could. All they need is a platform. I know I can speak for the four of us of The JAM Project when I say that it is an honor and privilege to be able to give them that very thing, sixty years after the fact.

…Aren’t you glad I didn’t spoil that really great surprise at the end???????

I think it’s pretty clear why this hasn’t been made available before now. 😀 😀 😀

What follows is a blow-by-blow of everything that has killed me about this two minutes of wonder in the six hundred times I’ve watched it so far. Don’t read this until you watch the video.

Okay, we can start with the first twelve seconds. Nelson, with purposeful stride, crossing the stage to get his girl and leading her back into position for their song. His face is just absolutely more than I can handle. He is beaming, he’s into it, he’s excited, he’s happy. Nelson’s performance in this two-minute clip completely annihilates his entire career with Gale Sherwood. What I mean by that is that, in all of the available material of him performing with Gale, I personally have never seen this level of sincerity, of realness, with her. Or with anyone else, for that matter. This is his girl. Has been his girl for twenty-some years, now. Will always be his girl. He’s being allowed to adore her in public and he’s enjoying that to the full. Jeanette, in observance of his intent, gives him the first of many humongous grins as she reaches her hand into his, her eyes on his as they move back across the stage. His face when he’s walking backwards is precious. The man is in heaven. He breaks their eye contact to look her up and down, as if he’s never seen her before. Is he, perhaps, admiring the wardrobe change? Cause that’s real cute, if he is. Jeanette will, always and forever, be his favorite dish. “I know her,” he said once, “And what she is to me can never be marred by age.” He makes that very clear and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet. Jeanette, for her part, has the first of many self-conscious moments in this segment, looking down after staring into Nelson’s face for a few seconds. I imagine that’s like looking directly into the sun. He’s so intense that it’s overwhelming for her and she’s the first one to break contact—this is a pattern we see over and over again with these people. Is she afraid she’ll give too much away if she keeps looking? Does she know too well the effect he has on her? She always did have a sense of reserve, that way. That’s why her tears on This is Your Life are so compelling. You expect her to be in control.

Jeanette takes the first line of the song. As she’s singing, her free hand comes out, slowly and naturally. And Nelson looks down at it before clasping it in his. These people are adorable. (This is one of the places where the sound is warped, I assure you homegirl knows her notes.) During the “Will you love me ever?” line, Nelson’s face moves very slightly – this is at about second 23 or 24. Something about his face, which we can’t see, makes Jeanette hand over the second humongous grin as she sings the word “ever”. I wonder if he didn’t wink at her, or something. She’s looking into his eyes and her face reacts. Good Lord.

Nelson takes the second line, and now we’re looking at his face and Jeanette’s back. He draws both of her hands up between their chests, covering them with his for just a moment, then seems to have a change of heart and wraps his arm around her instead. What I didn’t notice until I’d reviewed this several times, is if you watch her arm, her arm wraps around him in response to his arm wrapping around her. We catch Jeanette being very Hollywood for a moment, gazing off into the distance, but when they sing “my dearest one” together, his eyes seek hers and hers snap back to them. At the end of “one”, Nelson starts to smile at her but has to draw breath for the next line. Jeanette continues gazing up at him on the first “Sweetheart, Sweetheart,” really drinking him in, standing there looking like an open vessel into which he is pouring this well-worn song. She’s receptive, she somehow still, all these years later, isn’t the least bit tired of this. Not even a little. (Well okay Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ look how the man is looking at her I don’t think I’d be tired of that either.) On the third “Sweetheart,” we get the third big smile, which is immediately followed by her opening her hand and laying it on his chest, another signature MacEddy move.

“Though our paths may sever” contains some abject tenderness. Nelson once again wants to put his arm around her, so he does, and she responds with her arm in the same way. He pulls her in close and his chin finds its way into her hair. There’s a tiny moment where his eyes close as they settle into that position (albeit briefly). However, the best part about this is when Nelson’s chin goes into her hair, her chin makes a tiny snuggling motion. These people love to be close to each other. They love to be touching. We’ve known that for so long from the way they are on film and in candid shots on the radio and at parties and things through the years, but it’s so much more fun to get to watch it in action. Nelson is at his nurturing, tender best with her and she loves it. She always was like that, thriving on affection. However, they can’t stay that way for long, because there’s another couple of lines to sing.

On “to life’s last faint ember” we see their hands – her right and his left – rejoining and getting back into position between them. I’d really love to know what’s so delightful about “faint ember” because these two find something on those words about which they exchange a really darling mutual smile. And I love what happens next. Right as they start the “will you remember” line, Nelson gives their joined hands a little shake, it’s kind of like he gets a better grip on hers. It’s like a little jolt of underscoring.

As they sing “springtime,” they share another little mutual smile. Nelson almost seems to be the one to push them to their next positions, pulled back from each other, still holding hands. These two wrote the book on how to sing in duet. He’s still looking at her like he’d enjoy having her for lunch, and on “lovetime” we see him give her the up and down once over for the second time in two minutes, looking extremely pleased with what he’s seeing. They break apart with one hand to fan out to the audience on “May” and Jeanette almost loses her scarf on one arm, but a quick flip of her hand fixes that. At the end of their long note, you see Nelson do a little cutoff jerk on her hand, as if he’s feeling the end of their song.

Then comes the good part. (What? This is ALL ‘the good part’!!!) Nelson immediately pushes her scarf up off of her hand so he can kiss it – and it’s not a wee little peck, either. His intensity and courtliness makes her laugh a sweet, self-conscious, grinning laugh, from which she dissolves into her ever-graceful curtsy. She curtsies just great. So pretty. She murmurs a ‘thank you’ to the audience and Nelson jiggles her hand like we’ve seen him do before. He does that with her. When she stands up, he passes the hand he’s holding to his other hand (he ain’t about to let go of her!) and puts his arm around her waist, and they swoop in facing each other and the first time I watched this my heart leapt into my throat because I was thinking, “Holy crap, he’s gonna kiss her!” But nah, they apparently remembered themselves at the last minute and settle for beaming at the still-applauding audience, with Nelson giving her another little jiggle, during which her two little hands come up and wrap around his big one.

And then it happens. It’s as natural as breathing. Jeanette MacDonald looks at Nelson Eddy and puckers her lips. It doesn’t look the least bit pre-meditated. It looks like something she’s used to doing. A reflex. A habit. I don’t know what on earth she was thinking, except maybe in the moment, she wasn’t thinking. It seriously kind of looks like she didn’t mean to do it, like she forgot herself in this private-public moment. That’s much rarer for her than it is for him, which makes this five million times more valuable. She wants a kiss. She wants this man to kiss her. She tells him – and us – very clearly. Right there in front of God and everybody. And then, Nelson, bless him—you give the boy an inch and he takes a mile—Nelson loses NO TIME in taking her up on her offer and zooming his mouth into hers, right onto his very favorite bottom lip, which appears to both delight her and scare her to death and she manages to play it off by shaking her finger at him and making some flustered gesture which we must assume is meant to tell him that he’ll mess up her makeup if he kisses her. Too bad he already did. And then she dissolves into schoolgirl-esque giggles and we see the textbook flustered MacDonald Hand to Throat while Nelson exuberantly pats her back, looking really pleased with himself. I MEAN, DAMN. G’HEAD, GUYS. YOU DO IT. YOU JUST DO IT.

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Excitement aside, this kiss is a very interesting look at the same dynamics that have been in play here for twenty years. So often, Jeanette has to assume the role of the “adult” in the relationship because Nelson won’t. We’ve read of Nelson, on a radio show with a studio audience, wanting to kiss her in front of the curtain. That was in the 40s and this is identical behavior in the next decade. Jeanette simply has more reserve than Nelson, especially where ‘going public’ with their relationship is concerned. That’s why it’s so utterly, fabulously compelling that she is the one who initiates the kiss. It would have been exciting but not surprising if it had been Nelson. To have it be her is something else again. Still and all, you can see her go on immediate retreat when his mouth touches hers. Jeanette, as I’ve written about before, was a rule-follower by nature. She was not deceitful, she was not dishonest, she was not a cheat. That’s why she cared so much what Mayer thought, folks. Whether she could or could not do what she wanted in the face of her boss is totally beside the point. To say that Mayer wouldn’t “let” her do something is over-simplifying the situation. Jeanette’s conscience dictated that she toe the line. It is not in her nature to have an affair. It just isn’t. That’s why this is so complicated. Twenty-some years into her relationship with Nelson and marriage to Gene Raymond, she still isn’t the affair type. The situation is hopelessly compounded by the fact that there is no earthly way she can quit Nelson. Their bodies and eyes and betray them with regularity, but this kiss comes dangerously close to crossing a line in this public space. Jeanette cares what people think and what they say. Nelson doesn’t. Kissing him in an unscripted way on this national stage is outside the limits of her personal propriety. It’s one thing to do it, it’s a whole other thing to do it and have everybody know. This situation is, yet again, a dichotomy. Her playful, affectionate nature would love a kiss (she initiated it, can I just repeat that here?!) but her sense of guilt will not allow her to go with it.

Another thing it’s important to note here is that this television appearance happened shortly before the meeting Jeanette orchestrated in a New York attorney’s office with all four spouses present. The topic of this pow-wow was two divorces. Gene and Ann were agreeable, but when Nelson was struck by how severely he’d be taken to the cleaners, he balked and that was the end of that, causing another serious rift between them in 1958. But what you’re seeing here is two people who, yet again, have marriage on their minds. Sunny Griffin said, in his videotaped interview with Sharon Rich, that they discussed getting married all the time (this was in the fifties); marriage was something in which they were both interested. The mid-fifties were a really good period for them as a couple, with a lot of time spent together in New York. By the time they did The Big Record they were in such a good place personally that Jeanette was working behind the scenes to arrange for Ann and Gene to come to New York and talk turkey. While the outcome of the meeting was not good, what we are seeing is the happiness that prompted the meeting in the first place. It makes sense, when considering this part of the story, that Jeanette’s reserve would be in evidence when Nelson kisses her—why would she want to screw something up in the home stretch? Nelson never did care about that kind of thing, not where she was concerned.

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This is their story. This is the story. These two people and how much they loved each other and the hard-fought reality of that love is the story. The pride on Nelson’s face as he shares the stage with the love of his life has struck me perhaps more deeply than anything else about this longed-for footage. I have yet to see film or photograph that shows Nelson this happy in the last decade of his life. Losing her killed him. He lost everything. Here, he has everything; his girl and his music. His entire world is in his arms. To borrow a phrase coined by Isabel Eddy upon watching her son with Jeanette, he is “beaming like a headlight.” She is there and she is his in front of everyone in these moments. We might as well be back in the café in Maytime, looking at him and his beautiful adorable glamorous glorious radiant indescribable vision of perfected loveliness (shake). It is staggering to consider how strong they were, how they were able to hold onto each other and keep going, somehow. These people buried their child. They lost seven other pregnancies. They’d had a multiple-year breakup and had been unable to survive without each other. They’d made life-ruining decisions and had to live with the torture of the consequences. Life has chewed them up and spit them out and yet, still, they stand on this stage and find tremendous, powerful ecstasy in each other. That’s the story. That’s why we’re here.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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EDIT: Though the film strip and film can in JAM Project possession are BOTH LABELED “Big Record”, hence why anyone would assume that this was, in fact, from The Big Record, the footage we have had digitized is, in fact, from Lux Video Theatre, which was done in December of 1956. Obviously we want to be correct in what we put out there, though in fact it matters little which show this is from; neither has been available in decades, either is a MOST delightful and RARE surprise and we’ll digitize any film like this that we get our hands on, anyway — what matters is watching the way they are together. People of the Internet still have their panties in a bunch over the fact that we called it what it was labeled as, even though repeated acknowledgement has been made that, yes, it’s from Lux, it was labeled wrong, not our fault, nobody has footage of either show for comparison, please take a breath.

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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Guest Blog: The Misused Finances of Mrs. Gene Raymond

Friends, my partner-in-crime Angela has put together a hell of a good blog for you, using some papers from her holdings, and I’m happy to ‘host’ her in this space to share it. Anyone who attended the Mac/Eddy Club Meeting in Sturbridge on May first saw some of this material, but this was really the forum she needed to expand on it more fully. This information will not be shocking news to anyone with half a grain of sense, but you don’t have to take our word for it, as Angela is going to show you. Without further ado, here’s her post:

Pull up a chair folks, I’ve got a little story to tell and Katie, my collaborator in research and various other shenanigans, is kindly letting me use her blog to do it.

You know, sometimes it feels like we are conducting a search and rescue mission, and at other times it feels more like an archaeological dig – a long hard slog through layers of library dust and box upon box of moldering papers. But more times than can be attributed to mere coincidence, chunks of information drop into our laps like manna from heaven.   For example, this fragrant, yellowed folder with the typewritten pink label containing the redhead’s financial papers spanning the years 1954 – 1956 many of which are annotated in Miss MacDonald’s own hand. Actually, the documents in this folder and her “notations” do much of the story-telling. I just had to do a lot of math homework (which I hate) and much pondering (which I love) to whip it into a format I could present at the May 1st Mac/Eddy meeting in Sturbridge. Alas, there was far too much material to cover in the allotted meeting time so here I am with the rest of the story.

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I’ve been responsible for compiling enough financial reports in my over twenty-five-year corporate career to know what I was looking for/at. Jeanette, always astute in matters of business, was clearly in charge of the money according to the documentation in this folder. Emily West’s role as Jeanette’s secretary, was limited to administrative tasks such as organizing financial papers, reconciling bank statements against the check book and corresponding with the MacRaymonds’ various banks as well as with their business manager, Paul Jones. Jones worked for the LA firm of A. Morgan Maree Jr & Associates and the documentation indicates he managed the financial affairs for both Jeanette and Gene. Though one memo bears a signature block specifying the company as Bus. Mgrs. for Gene Raymond so it’s not clear if he was Gene’s business manager and they shared him or if something changed at some point. Of course, this was just a few months after an arrest warrant was issued for Jeanette for being a slumlord. So it was a pretty sensitive time for her and that may have had something to do with the wording. But more about that later.

The papers in this folder don’t account for each and every bank statement. Only records about significant events or circumstances in the couple’s fiscal history during this period were saved. Such records are typically purged every 7 years in line with tax requirements. These were kept because somebody thought it was important to document what happened. That same somebody’s hands were all over them as attested to by her scrawled notations and the lingering scent of her fancy French perfume. Luckily, it also gives us a glimpse at how they managed their money and precisely who was in charge of managing it.

The MacRaymonds’ monthly banking activities centered primarily around the co-signature account in the name of Gene and Jeanette A. Raymond. Household bills were paid from this account, and both Jeanette and Gene wrote checks on it for their day-to-day expenses: food, laundry, liquor, travel, household maintenance, charitable contributions, etc.  Paul Jones, the business manager, arranged to have monies regularly transferred to Gene’s private account or Jeanette’s concert account for their individual, discretionary use.

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Like the well trained numbers geekette I’ve become, I put all the account transactions into an Excel spreadsheet, then sorted and summed up the results. The findings were eye-opening but not surprising. Unlike people, numbers don’t lie; they are constants – two plus two always equals four. Which is why a certain lying presidential candidate is balking at making his tax return public. But that’s a hop down a different bunny trail.

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As you see above, over a 16-month period of time (February 1955 – June 1956) $8,400 was transferred to Jeanette’s concert account for her use while $13,050 was transferred into the Gene’s account for his. Remember, all the household bills, food, utilities, maintenance as well as travel and other expenses were paid from the co-sig account. Gene Raymond was drawing 1.5 times more money from their joint account for his sole benefit then his wife was for hers. In 1955, the average yearly income for an entire family was $5,000 so Gene was receiving a very generous allowance for what essentially amounted to walking-around money.

So who was funding the co-sig account? Not surprisingly, it was none other than Jeanette Anna MacDonald. Shocking! According to bank correspondence, Mrs. Raymond was the sole approver of fund transfers into the co-sig account from her various bank accounts. Below is a copy of a memo dated June 3, 1954 where Emily is notifying the bank that Mr. Raymond will be using checks on an account. The handwriting at the bottom of the memo is Jeanette’s. She is noting a $1,000 check was deposited to the account that Gene would be writing checks on it when he was traveling.

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On the following day, June 4, 1954, Jeanette issues another memo to the business manager alerting Jones of 20k sitting in a non-interest bearing account as well as some mortgage shares that needed attention. Seeking to optimize these assets she gives him the explicit direction, “This, of course is under the Jeanette MacDonald set-up and I shall naturally wish to keep it so.”

Note, she was keeping Gene from getting his hands on her funds a whole year before the Slumlord scandal hit the newspapers in May of 1955. Katie has briefly addressed this embarrassing incident in an earlier blog as follows:

On May 25th, 1955, an arrest warrant was put out for our girl because an apartment house which was titled in her name was not being kept in good repair and she was accused of being a “slumlord” — in actual fact there were property managers involved who may or may not have been doing their jobs, but Gene was the only one of them who had anything to do with the property. (He just probably lacked the funds to make the investment, hence why it was in her name).

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Flash-forward a year and a half. Jones addresses Jeanette directly in a memo dated December 15, 1955 informing her that if the business office releases all the checks written, the co-sig account will be overdrawn by $1,200. He suggests a transfer of $5,000.00 from the Jeanette A. MacDonald Property Account to cover everything, which she authorizes the next day, signing and returning the check almost immediately. One can almost sense her embarrassment.  So who do you think overspent the joint account? I am betting it wasn’t the economically cautious MacDonald!

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In Hollywood Diva, Edward Baron Turk’s biography of Jeanette MacDonald, when discussing Jeanette’s motivation in marrying Gene Raymond over her former fiancé, Bob Richie, Turk writes” Unlike Richie, Gene had amassed substantial personal wealth. To Jeanette’s mind there was little risk that he would ever descend to the fate of his beloved father and become dependent on her for support.” Well, that’s exactly what Jeanette ended up doing, supporting Gene in a style in which, by 1954, he’d become very accustomed to. He worked in theatre and television when he wanted, played golf, traveled and did Lord knows what else at his leisure all while having the respectability of being a “happily” married man and an air force reservist of rank. Gene, no doubt, had some income from his acting work, but a quick look at IMDB is not terribly impressive. Mr. Raymond’s “substantial personal wealth” is much like the Loch Ness Monster, you hear tell of it often enough, but sightings are rare and specious. The money and subsequent investments amassed by his wife during her heyday as a Hollywood mega-star was the engine that powered the MacRaymonds’ finances. Jeanette, from her earliest days on Broadway, was always the family money-maker. Nothing changed when she married Gene Raymond, she was still a heavy-hitter who, as these documents indicate, was consistently reaching into the deep pockets of her stylishly cut trousers to pay the freight for their comfortable life-style.

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The MacRaymonds – Christmas 1949

Speaking of life-styles of famous old-time Hollywood couples and their finances, let’s mosey on over to Pickfair for a glimpse at the MacRaymond’s good chums and fellow honeymooners, Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers.

And here they are in June of 1937, seated from left to right, newlyweds Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers and newlyweds Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond.

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If you’ve read Sharon Rich’s book Sweethearts, you know all about the strange honeymoon cruise the couples took together to Hawaii. Seems the two grooms had a love on the high seas thing going on – with each other. If you haven’t read the book, get it and read it.

You just never know where this cast of characters are going to show up. For instance, this summer, I read the memoir of an ex-CIA operative/mob accountant/artist/Beverly Hills theatrical manager/money launderer extraordinaire ­­­­named Chauncey Holt. The book’s title, Portrait of a Scoundrel: A Memoir of Spooks, Hoods and The Hidden Elite, is a good indication of why it was published posthumously. Chauncey has been described as “a man of flexible morals, yet with a conscience.”  Yeah, this guy was crooked as a corkscrew but he knew where the bodies were buried (literally) and was definitely connected.

It was while working as an accountant (under one of his aliases) in Beverly Hills, that he was referred for employment by a high powered client to a CPA firm owned by Edward George Stotsenberg. Turns out this firm handled all of Mary Pickford and Buddy Roger’s accounting work including the Mary Pickford Trust. Holt, who got his start as a mob accountant for the likes of no less than Meyer Lansky, and had helped establish money laundering schemes used by mob joints as well as for legitimate businessmen ­­­(namely Joe Kennedy and Mosses Anenberg), recognized the Trust as a perfect vehicle for laundering money.

Holt, in his role as auditor lost no time in laying the groundwork for channeling dirty monies via the trust thus washing them squeaky clean. He apparently had a knack for making most people like him but more importantly, they trusted him. Holt liked Pickford, he said, “Mary had a very dominate personality, and was an outstanding business woman, the equal of any man before woman’s lib became popular.” In addition to a communal honeymoon, that was another thing she shared in common with Jeanette. Unfortunately, the parallels didn’t stop there. Regretting her haste in divorcing Douglas Fairbanks, Mary went on to confide in Holt, “I should have known I couldn’t dominate Douglas.” She also told him that she’d “been married to two men and a spoiled child.” Chauncey Holt believed her meaning was clear, the two men were Fairbanks and her first husband, Owen Moore. The spoiled child, according to Holt, was Buddy Rogers who he referred to as a closeted homosexual. The Mary/Buddy financial situation was almost an identical set-up to the MacRaymonds. Buddy maintained his separate bank account and their assets were segregated, but his were nothing compared to hers, and she found it necessary to support him according to Holt who was responsible for auditing their finances.

I wonder if Jeanette and Mary every had a good sit-down together to talk this through. Would have probably done them a world of good. Each had long and overly idealized marriages that were more or less shams. Two strong business women married to weak men, the toll that exacted couldn’t be calculated in dollars and cents. These two sweethearts of the silver screen kept their heartbreak concealed from their public. Each, in her own manner, turned away the true love of her life and suffered mightily as a result. Pickford hid from the world, drowning her sorrows in booze. Jeanette, who believed she could use her legendary iron will to make herself fall in love with Gene and out of love with Nelson Eddy had learned a bitter lesson – her heart simply refused to yield.  She worked frantically to keep it all going, the marriage, her career, the secret rendezvous with Eddy. But below the surface, all the guilt, hurt, and disappointment, quietly simmering inside a delicate body, was slowly killing her.

As much as Chauncey Holt liked Mary, he despised Buddy Rogers, calling him “a fading playboy who fell in love the first time he looked in a mirror.” In addition to his accounting wizardry, Holt was a legitimately talented artist making a large portion of his money from the serious illustration of medical and anthropology books –crook or no crook, the guy was brilliant. He painted a portrait of Mary to be used in connection with a retrospective of her films at the LA County Museum. He also did the art work for their Christmas card, a scene for the 1927 film, Poor Little Rich Girl.

Rogers, said Holt, was jealous and commissioned him to paint his portrait as well. He was given a photograph to work from of Rogers holding a golf club. He painted him as if he were outdoors with the Thunderbird Golf Course in Palm Springs, where Mary owned a cottage in the background. Rogers, who was 68 years old at the time objected on two grounds. First, that he looked too old and second, he complained to the artist, “You’ve given me the hand of a working man; I never worked a day in my life.” Hmmm, I guess that’s considered a bragging point in some circles! Holt was forced to paint a second portrait which Rogers again rejected because “I look too old.” I think this is a rather flattering portrait, the artist did an excellent job. At this point, I would have opted for horns and a Snidely Whiplash mustache if I were rendering it.

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Portrait of Buddy Rogers at age 68. Artist: Chauncey Marvin Holt

Chauncey exacted his revenge by rationalizing the diversion of funds from the Trust which would in his words, “eventually have ended up with that arrogant parasite, Buddy Rogers, who would probably only lavish the money on one of the handsome, young homosexual prostitutes, that he often took to Palm Springs, or invited to Pickfair, where Mary Pickford was a recluse, who never left her second floor bedroom.”  I bet the photographer from Life Magazine never captured THAT party! Below is a photo of a guests attending a dinner party at Pickfair which the magazine did cover.

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Clockwise from Mary Pickford in the foreground are Clifton Webb, Mrs. Harold Lloyd, Gene Raymond, Norma Shearer, Buddy Rogers, Mabel Webb, Marty Arrouge, Jeanette MacDonald and Harold Lloyd.

Back at the Bel Air home of the MacRaymonds’, a series of bank memos beginning early in the year 1954, tell their own story of irresponsible money management by Mr. Raymond resulting in a swift and decisive response by his fiscally meticulous wife who was most assuredly not amused.

On February 23, 1954, Emily sent a request to the bank for a copy of the January co-sig statement, cancelled checks and bank book advising them that by mistake these items were “burned”. Yes, that’s right, burned. Apparently someone was toasting marshmallows in the fireplace and decided to throw a handful of bank documents in to get a really good conflagration going. Yeah. Right. That’s it. One wonders exactly what story the culprit came up with. I bet it was a whopper.

Well, however they came to be burned, they were ashes and Emily was in the proverbial pickle as it was her duty to balance the checkbook, reconciling it with the bank statement and providing it to the business manager for examination. Below is Emily’s request and the bank’s response which was sent airmail special delivery.

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Here’s the duplicate statement the bank sent which included dates and amounts but as they didn’t keep Photostats, there was no way from their end to identify what the checks were for. This is the way things were done in the dark ages, kids. Way, way before online banking.

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Note the handwritten “It could be – Paradise Inn.”

 

Emily used this information, along with the check registry/stubs, to reconstruct a “record of checks” to submit to Paul Jones in the business office. She was able to account for all but two checks which (surprise) Gene had written but had failed to fill in the check stub. This was assumed to be for his stay at the Paradise Inn in Phoenix where he was appearing in a stage play, Design for Living.­­­

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He’d already written one check to the Inn for $96.33 and had entered that on the registry. That obviously didn’t account for his entire stay there. Jeanette was already giving him an allowance and paying his living expenses. Was he now skimming money from the co-sig account to fund his extra-marital activities? Raise your hand if you think this guy was a lying sack of shit who was trying to hide what he was doing and how he was spending his wife’s money.

Then, in a memo to the business manager dated March 19, 1954, Emily sends Jones the reconstruction of the January statement advising, “I told you about the checks and the bank book stubs being burned, and the list attached will account for most of the checks. Perhaps the few left will turn up on the receipted bills. Will you please follow-up for me?” Thus, Emily washes her hands of the matter and no doubt, Mr. Jones will have a discreet talk with his client, Mr. Raymond. As if to leave no doubt of her meaning, Emily adds the following P.S. – “Mr. Raymond arrived late last night from Miami Beach. Mrs. R. is staying for a while as she caught a cold and is going to try to bake it out of her system.”

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No doubt Mr. R. beat it out of town due to the extreme drop in temperature when Mrs. R caught wind of his clumsy maneuverings.

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Fire and ice, indeed. Brrrr. Chilly enough for his wife to catch a cold. Funny, she didn’t return to the warmth of the California sun with him, preferring instead to remain in Miami to “bake it out”. With assistance, no doubt, from a former co-star of the baritone variety who was more than happy to light a roaring fire in her oven. He was always very helpful that way!

But wait, there’s more. The story takes another interesting twist after this debacle. By June of 1954, Emily is asking Jones for a listing of all the bank accounts and in November this year, Jeanette receives a response from a Bank VP to her inquiry on how to change the name on a specific account from Jeanette A. Raymond to Jeanette A. MacDonald.

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By the mid- December, she has issued a series of memos to all the banks listed requesting the same name change be made.

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The cracks in the MacRaymond union, which had been patched just a few short years before, were splitting wide open once more. By mid-1954, her relationship with Nelson, though not without problems, was back on track and heating up. Meanwhile, Jeanette is circling her wagons to protect her assets from a husband she no longer trusted. This is just the kind of thing one does in advance of seeking a divorce. The first step on an ill-fated journey that would end in heartbreak for her in 1957 when Nelson storms out of the lawyer’s office after learning his wife would clean him out in a negotiated divorce settlement. Too bad Nelson didn’t have the same foresight as Jeanette, he should have taken similar actions to protect his wealth from Ann!

It seems the shit hit the fan by September of 1954. On the second, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen writes of a MacRaymond divorce a follows: “Friends are shrieking ‘Nonsense!’ and ‘Impossible!’ to the rumors that Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond are writing an unhappy ending to all those happy years.” When, on the 17th, Jeanette, suffering from a high fever, collapses and is rushed to the hospital, it is later revealed that in addition to a viral infection, the collapse was brought on by nerves and exhaustion. Whatever marital fracas was happening between Jeanette and Gene, it wasn’t a secret. Friends knew and they were talking.

Alas, I wish the story these documents told was a happier one, but tell a story they do. Both Katie and I feel this information has fallen into our hands for a reason and we both feel a tremendous responsibility to Jeanette and Nelson to get it right. Sometimes it feels like a lot of heavy lifting, so much was covered up for so long by people who conspired to hide the facts for their own profit. We have a commitment, a moral obligation to work just a little harder to find out more of the truth – they deserve to have their say. So that’s why we keep researching, digging, wading through boxes of “stuff” long forgotten in dusty storage rooms. Because the devil is in the details, and sometimes he has a name and a face – but he does NOT have the last word.

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Wish You Were Here

On another note, the third installment in my MacEddy Alternate History (fiction) series, Wish You Were Here, was published a week or so ago, and is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Wish You Were Here takes place in 1949 and follows Smilin’ Through and The Message of the Violet. As this is a series, you need to have read those two before you read this one! Several people have finished it already and have been kind enough to respond favorably.

My next fiction project is an as-yet untitled Novella that I hope to have out before Christmas. It will follow in this same timeline, a year after the conclusion of Wish You Were Here.

Here is the link for the new book! https://www.amazon.com/Wish-Were-Here-Kathleen-OHara/dp/1537029630

Happy Reading! ❤

 

On Opera and Insecurity

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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And Johnson takes that PLEA for an explanation, and this is the response she gets. I kind of want to punch him.

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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:

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J—-Jeanette. Um.

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.