Check this out, two posts in one day!
(Trying to get this stuff done while it’s still fresh in my mind from the trip.)
I cannot stress enough how important I think Jeanette’s autobiography manuscript is. Obviously, Sweethearts is the sort of “mother ship” book, but if you are seriously interested in MacDonald reading beyond that, her autobiography manuscript should absolutely, 100% be your next stop.
Get it here. After that, your next move should be to devour The Irving Stone Letters, but that’s a subject for another post.
Jeanette talked on and off, many times, about working on/finishing her autobiography. It never did get published. One of the most basic problems was that it was not “juicy” enough to be considered an exciting read—well, that falls in line perfectly with the MacDonald publicity machine, public image and fan club offerings, right? Square, square, square. Boring, fuddy-duddy, churchy, Republican, suburban-type has-been movie star.
(…who liked to do the wild thing with Nelson Eddy in the sweet, sweet night.)
(…and said bad words.)
(…and actually consumed alcohol.)
She worked on her book a lot, and revised it a lot, and submitted it and was told to cut some of the early childhood, that people were more interested in after she got on the stage, so she did that. She hired people to help her and ultimately, it didn’t matter. She was not in good health and browbeating herself over what to include or not include in her book was too taxing. Fredda Dudley Balling, a well-known magazine writer, worked extensively on this project with Jeanette and noted that Jeanette could really only work a few hours a day, but the two of them soldiered on until they had this 350 page manuscript. When they submitted it, it came back all cut up with 50 pages of material deleted and that was the last straw. According to a letter from Fredda Balling dated March 6, 1965, Jeanette (in 1960, when this was happening) called her in frustrated tears and explained what had happened with the publishers basically pulverizing her manuscript. That was it. At great expense, Jeanette sold bonds, returned the sizable advance against presumed royalties and abrogated her contract.
The autobiography was done for.
That is, until it was discovered and put into the hands of Sharon Rich, who annotated it and got it out there for us to enjoy and study.
Study being the right word. Some of the things Jeanette has to tell us in this book are charming and amusing and wonderful. But the very BEST part is the handwritten notes literally all over the manuscript. She adds stuff, changes stuff, crosses things out, makes notes in margins, does [incorrect] math in margins…..it is a total field day for the person interested in studying this fascinating human being.
Here’s a sample page.
I mean, the whole book is like that. There are VERY few pages that she hasn’t marked up in some way. Fascinating stuff.
In and of itself, that’s plenty of reason to own this book.
While we were in Washington, I was thumbing through this thing for the 923842738429384236275347534953th time (why do I have to always lug such huge books with me everywhere I go?), and Angela and I got to talking about it. I did something with the pages of this book, the visual of which absolutely struck her and she insisted that I demonstrate the same thing on the blog. I agree, it’s pretty damn compelling.
Okay, so we’ve already said that this manuscript is 350 pages long, right? And that it was summer of 1960 that she was busy trying to get it finished.
So, as an experiment, let us open the book to its exact middle.
Oh. It’s 1930-31, she’s in Europe proving that her eye didn’t get shot out by an outraged royal. (True story. Buy the book.)
Well, okay, so she’s covered her childhood, her Broadway days and the very, very earliest part of her film career (up through 1930’s Oh, For a Man!). You get the sense that she’s a little behind schedule. You’re halfway through the book and she hasn’t even sung the Indian Love Call one freakin’ time! She hasn’t even met either of the two most significant men in her life, Nelson Eddy and Gene Raymond. She hasn’t discussed her marriage, she hasn’t confessed to a red hot love affair, she hasn’t talked about grand opera or WWII or MGM or ANY of that! Kinda funny.
Now, she discusses meeting Nelson, dating Nelson, the “attraction” they “might” have had for each other, meeting Gene and dating Gene. And this, dear readers, is the time in Jeanette’s life when the shit started really really hitting the fan and it never actually stopped. Here’s a crazy visual:
The gap where my fingers are? Yeah, on that page she has just gotten engaged to Gene. She has recently finished making Rose Marie. So we’re in, like, 1936. And look how LITTLE of her book is remaining. (Please note that I’ve pulled up only her manuscript pages. Sharon’s writings before and after have been left down with the covers on either side to get an accurate “measurement” of the manuscript.)
Why is it that she is so verbose about her early life, first boyfriend, stage work, traveling, European tour, Paramount movies………and then she gets to the mid-1930s—-the biggest, brightest, most meteoric time in her WHOLE LIFE—-and she can suddenly get from there to 1960 in NINETY-TWO PAGES???????? In a 350 page book, the last 92 pages take us from 1936 to 1960. That seems seriously, seriously off. (PS, I’m using the page numbers on the typewritten manuscript, not the page numbers that include all the annotations, etc. So yes, this number is real Jeanette pages.)
Why, then, is it like that? Why is she so tight-lipped (fingered?) about 1936-1960?
Here’s a list of what she was up to in that time period:
Girl of the Golden West
I Married an Angel
Follow the Boys
Three Daring Daughters
The Sun Comes Up
Television Work: Numerous guest spots, two with Nelson, game shows, plus Prima Donna and Charley’s Aunt
Scores and scores of radio performances (many with Nelson) and recordings. National concert tours nearly too numerous to mention, beginning in 1939. One tour entirely for the War effort. TONS of war work, volunteer work, boards and causes and political involvements by the dozen. Two grand operas. A skirmish with the Met. An album of “Favorites” with Nelson that went gold almost immediately. Summer stock runs in The King and I and Bitter Sweet.
That darling “marriage” to Gene Raymond, Grandest Useless Rat Fink of All Time. That happened, too.
……………….Ninety-two pages, Jeanette? Really? Of course, she does cover many of those things I mentioned, but she does so in a cursory sort of way, for the most part. If you’re looking for fantastic anecdotes about the Nelson movies or Nelson in general or, really, any other fun stories about most of her professional life, look elsewhere. She doesn’t have a lot to say.
Really, really weird. Until you stop and think that maybe she’s so cursory and tight-lipped about her life, starting in 1936, because she can’t talk about a solid 70% of it. Why?
Because it’s wrapped up around Nelson Eddy, that’s why. Because she was in love and she chose a hellishly complicated, stressful existence because she couldn’t kill that love. She doesn’t trust herself to talk in depth about working with Nelson, that much is obvious. And Nelson is so involved in nearly every other part of her life and his influence colored many of her decisions. So she just can’t talk about it. The readers would have loved to hear her thoughts about getting together with him in 1957 for TV and to record an album! But she doesn’t even mention it! Odd. I don’t care if you like Nelson or not. I don’t care if you like him better than Jeanette. The simple fact is that these two people, both incredible on their own, were BEST KNOWN, BEST LOVED and BEST REMEMBERED TOGETHER. It is with EACH OTHER that they were their best. It is because of their involvement with EACH OTHER that we are still talking about them at all. So a book about either one of them, written by them or not, must, by definition, include a lot of data about the other one. Except this one really doesn’t. And that’s just fricking strange. That should be an immediate red flag.
Because this woman, in 1960, was afraid to come clean about her life to the VERY PEOPLE who, in 1937, flooded MGM with heartbroken letters when she DIDN’T marry Nelson. Her frickin’ fan club had spewed so much Perfect Marriage bullshit for so long that these people have been totally convinced that her life was actually like that. She had a club President STEP DOWN (Marie Waddy Gerdes) from being President because she got to know and love Jeanette (named her kid Jeanette, too), and knew the real story, and chose Jeanette’s confidence and friendship over continuing to row the Golden Comet boat. If you really want to make yourself hurl, read the way these people wrote about her. I mean, yeah, it’s nice and all, but it is so totally saccharine that nobody could POSSIBLY, EVER live up to the ridiculous standard to which Jeanette was held. The hypocrisy is really stunning, when you consider the behavior of these people at club meetings and online since her death. They worship at the shrine of her imagined angelic, pure perfection, and act like total asses to anyone who might suggest that she was —-WHOA—- a real and fallible human being.
We are our own brand of batshit crazy, no doubt, but at least we know she puts on her pants one leg at a time like everyone else. At least we don’t freak the eff out when someone mentions that she enjoyed a Tom Collins or liked sex. I mean, good grief, those things are part of the person, just as much as her strong faith and red hair.
And yet, in 1960, her career had left her, her health was quickly leaving her, and the people who wrote her letters and sent her cards and paid attention to her and made her feel like a Big Fat Movie Star were those fans. Those fans with their totally outrageous pedestal. Imperfect and horribly flawed though they and their viewpoint were/are, they showered her with love and affection and in the final analysis, she couldn’t bear to disillusion them. She chose to put them first, to repay their love in kind, to let them keep their illusions. Jeanette put herself last many times in life. Too many. If she had delivered the shattering truth that they had been misled all these years, they would have crucified her and she couldn’t possibly have withstood their desertion. Not at that stage of the game. Those fans kept her going when little else was around to distract her from a rapidly declining existence.
She had toyed with telling the truth, but in the end, she didn’t. She didn’t outright lie (much)….she just avoided telling the whole story. And thus, the biggest and most important part of her prolific life can be treated in 92 pages.
And what about that marriage? Wasn’t that supposed to be the most glorious thing that ever happened? Why aren’t there endless tales of happiness and wonder and romance? That’s what the fan club printed ad nauseum all those years.
In actual fact, of the personal things she does talk about in those 92 pages, quite a bit of it at the end is devoted to how unhappy she was, many times. Gene was cold. Gene accused her of using her tears as a weapon, so she never felt like she could cry around him. That’s ridiculous. Gene’s mother was an unholy bitch. Gene came home from the war a changed man, and not for the better. Gene won’t answer her when she asks if he loves her. Gene doesn’t tour with her because he just ends up being Mr. MacDonald and she can’t handle the whining, so it’s better for everyone that he doesn’t go. You wonder how on earth he’s compatible with this sweet, warm, funny, sensitive woman. Gene didn’t want children. She did, badly. Desperately. But upon returning from her honeymoon, she notes that, “There was one subject I didn’t allow myself to pursue, except in my private daydreaming. The MacRaymonds had no children.” She never says anything about infertility. She just says the subject is off the table. Several other times, she writes of her longing to be a mother. Every single time, without fail, those passages are crossed out. Too painful. And she did have multiple failed pregnancies, just not with Gene. So it’s painful and it touches on the part of her life she’s not discussing, so it has to go. She also hides the truth about her health and her heart. She glosses over things that were tough.
In conclusion, I really would urge you all to buy the autobiography. Study it. Listen to the things she says, but maybe listen even harder to everything that she doesn’t say. It will astound you.