This post has been in the making for some time–I just hadn’t gotten around to doing it until now. I figured I’d better, because a week from today, Angela and I will be back at the Library of Congress doing more research, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are things waiting for us that we set in motion in June…things that you will NOT want to miss! So get excited, you’ll read it here first!
In the meantime, I figured it was the best time to go ahead and get this other post written and done.
Yearly (sometimes not every consecutive year, but commonly in the 40s), Jeanette and Nelson made concert tours. Usually, these tours overlapped, and by that I mean that usually there was an overlap of time during the tours that they were both out on the road. Occasionally, their tours took them within a few hours of each other by train or car. Sometimes, they even snuck along with each other on tour. Jeanette (in her first trimester of pregnancy) traveled with Nelson in April, 1938, on the Eastern leg of his concert tour, prior to them making Sweethearts. This has been thoroughly confirmed and sourced in Sharon Rich’s book, Sweethearts, new edition (print version), page 245.
A few years ago, I had occasion to speak with a resident of a retirement home (I occasionally tour retirement/nursing homes within the general 100 mile radius to talk about movies and movie stars and Hollywood and WWII. Those are my favorite audiences. We are simpatico.) who gave me an interesting tidbit on this subject. A woman at Westminster Canterbury, one of the classiest retirement communities in the area (where I have been asked to lecture more than once!) told me about growing up in and around Philadelphia. She was an avid Nelson fan and saw him in concert every time he was remotely local. As I was mingling with the group after my presentation, she approached me and asked if I had any idea if Jeanette MacDonald ever accompanied Nelson on his tours. I said yes, that we have had people come forward and say that she was there some of the time, on the road with Nelson or meeting up with him at a particular stop. A look of sly vindication crossed her features and she said, “Oh, I thought so!” When I asked her why, she said she had seen Nelson give a concert in Philadelphia “back in the Forties” and the weather was cold and miserable. Because of this, only a few people went to the stage door that night, and actually, when Nelson emerged, he told them all to go home before they caught cold! She remembers a woman, whom she described as “very willowy and slender” wearing slacks and a trench coat, with a scarf over her…wait for it….bright red hair. This woman, with her head down, walked purposefully from the stage door to the waiting car. Before she had reached the car, a voice from back inside yelled, “Jenny! Your purse!” upon which the redhead wheeled around, exclaiming, “Where have I parked my brain tonight?” and trotted back after her purse. She got into the car, and when Nelson came out, he got into the same car. The woman I talked to pointed out that she must have been backstage the whole time because, “She wasn’t dressed up enough to have been out front.” She said, “My friend and I always felt sure that was Jeanette MacDonald. There were rumors that they loved each other.”
I LOVE STUFF LIKE THAT. Let me point out, too, that this woman had never read Sweethearts. She had no bias, she was just going on rumors that circulated at the time, as well as her own instincts.
Anyway, it was not unheard of for them to “meet up” on tour. The last time Angela and I were at the LOC (in June), I was working my fingers to the bone in the Newspaper Reading Room, trying to export as many articles as I could get my hands on. Many of them I didn’t even stop and read: if it looked interesting, I grabbed it while the grabbing was good and worried about reading it later. But something that caught my eye mentioned Jeanette making a tour stop in Roanoke, VA, in January of 1941. Roanoke is less than a 40 minute drive from my house, so that was cool, and I made a mental note to look into that, reflecting that Nelson sang for FDR’s inauguration in 1941, and wondering if the dates were similar and if, by chance, the paths (and perhaps, you know, bodies) of our twosome had crossed.
Later on, as I had time, I snooped around the internet trying to figure out where I could access the archives of the Roanoke Times, which surely would have covered La MacDonald coming to town. Finding the library that I needed, I composed an email and sent it off, only to get an automated response that the “Virginia Room” section of the library (where the newspaper archives are) was closed for renovations, and that research requests would be handled on a very limited basis. There might be a long turnaround time so don’t hold your breath, basically. Oh. Well, okay. So I moved on with my life. Fast forward a couple of months and I was teaching a riding lesson one afternoon when my phone heralded the arrival of a most excellent email. Not only did the Roanoke Times cover the event, but some kind librarian had gone through the microfilm and copied a couple of articles and a picture and attached them to the email. JOY! I love librarians.
And then I read what I read and I nearly died. I smelled smoke in a big big way and I called poor Sharon screeching in her ear. I just know she loves it when I do that…..
Nelson and Jeanette were super local to each other between January 19 and 25, is the gist of it. And while that might be enough to get us excited, that also leaves plenty of room for that to be totally coincidental and not a big deal.
It gets better.
Okay, I’m about to impart a whole LOT of data, so try to stay afloat. I’ll present it in the most organized way possible, but there’s a lot of material here. I’ve spent a bunch of hours trawling through newspapers and calling libraries in various cities, trying (and sometimes succeeding) to get scans of newspaper articles from their towns about this tour. I originally only cared about January of 1941, but I ended up researching the entire tour. For each month, I printed out a calendar and penciled in information on each day for which I found data. I also made a map of their tour locations! I succeeded in nailing down every single date of every concert that either of them gave on this tour, and in many occasions, got the name of the theatre or venue where they sang. I’d like to thank Sharon and Maria for helping come up with a few dates that I was missing. Sharon also provided me with her list of tour stops against which to check my newspaper digging work–I’d transposed one date, but by and large, they were right on! 🙂
First thing you need to know is that Jeanette started touring in November, 1940, and her tour wrapped up on February 28th of 1941, in Asheville, NC. It was supposed to end on the 16th, but she had to make up two concerts that she missed earlier. That’s crucial information, but just hold on. She scrammed back to LA in early March, presumably took a long nap and started shooting Smilin’ Through on March 26th. Nelson’s tour kicked off officially February 11, 1941, in Tucson, AZ, and went until April 17th. He had a radio engagement April 20th back in Hollywood. So, all told, we’re talking about six months of total time that one or both of these guys was on the road. That’s a long time to be 99% apart from someone you love—and these people did this almost every year for a while there. When Nelson got home, Jeanette was working on Smilin’ Through and he went to work on The Chocolate Solider in June.
So here’s the fun stuff:
January 18: Jeanette concert, Memorial Hall, Columbus, OH
January 19: Nelson sings for FDR inauguration. Ann Eddy is present for this, BUT SHE GOES BACK TO LA RIGHT AFTERWARD. We don’t have any mention of Nelson leaving the East Coast until mention of him singing in San Diego on February 4th. (However, an item ran on January 25th with Nelson’s nominations for the “Ten Best” songs for shower singing and general pleasure. In addition to The Road to Mandalay and The Star Spangled Banner, he lists Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life and I’ll See You Again….and….wait for it……Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Right, Nels, because that was such a peppy, upbeat, awesome song… Has NOTHING to do with the fact that girlfriend is about to sing it in her next picture, I’ll bet!)
January 20: Jeanette sings at City Auditorium in Huntington, WV. So she’s about 5-6 hours away from Nelson by train at that point. She hops the train to Pittsburgh, where she is scheduled at Syria Mosque on the 23rd. Now she’s 3.5-4 hours by train from Washington. And, having already arrived in Pittsburgh, after singing to rave success in Huntington, she gets “sick”.
Let me pause right here to point out that Jamannamac here is a total pro and very much the show must go on. To illustrate my point….remember that time she LITERALLY HAD A HEART ATTACK during The King and I in 1956? In the middle of the show? AND FINISHED THE SHOW? Or how about that time she was puking her guts up during The Guardsman in 1951—actually leaving the stage to yak in the wings and coming back onstage and staying with it and doing the show.
Newspapers all pointed out that canceling this Pittsburgh concert on the 23rd was the first time in all her national tours that she had not kept a scheduled date. So either she was really, really, really dying OR she was willing to do it to spend a day or so with Nelson under the radar. Since she sang in Roanoke TWO DAYS LATER to rave reviews (a two hour show and over an hour of encores), was in exceptional voice and generally brought down the house…..I’m basically forced to think that she was not, in fact, dying.
As of January 22nd, her concert had not yet been canceled, but our girl was already on the train to Washington. She was in DC on the 23rd, the day of her canceled Pittsburgh concert, and was supposed to go on to Roanoke, where she was scheduled on the 25th. But, FUNNY STORY, she MISSES HER TRAIN in DC on the 23rd!!
She misses her train.
Well, I mean, it’s hard to catch a train when you’re all, like, trapped under a baritone, am I right?
And she’s “forced” to spend “another” (a word that indicates MORE THAN ONE. So she was there on the 22nd, too.) night in Washington. You know, with Nelson in town and nary a spouse for thousands of miles.
The article is badly faded and hard to read, but after detailing that she had to spend “another” night in Washington, it goes on to say that she didn’t receive the press in Roanoke, that she walked straight to the waiting car and was taken to the Hotel Roanoke (less than a mile from the train station, I’ve been there MANY times, it’s classy and gorgeous and old and wonderful and it also is less than a mile from the venue where she performed, which has been torn down and replaced with the Roanoke Civic Center).
Here’s how she looked getting off the train in Roanoke:
After bringing down the proverbial house in Roanoke, she cancels Asheville, NC, where she was scheduled on the 28th. (Magic! Sick again!!!) This time, her “doctor” orders her to go to Florida to recover from her “cold”. Okay, I don’t care how famous you are, when was the last time ANY of you reading this were sent to Florida to get over a cold? I just really wonder if that doctor’s last name wasn’t Eddy. I just really do.
She did go to Florida, alright, but we don’t see or hear from her again until she sings at Municipal Auditorium in Orlando on the 31st. From there, she zipped down to Havana on the 3rd of February and sang at Sociedad Pro-Arte. There was an uncomfortable political scene with President Batista being directly involved only a short distance from where the concert was. This frightened her and she left right after the show to come back to the US, preferring not to spend the night in Havana. All this time, not only is Gene Raymond well-documented in Los Angeles, as is Ann Eddy, there is not one SMELL of where Nelson is or what he’s doing–the only thing that seems certain is that he was NOT in California. No mention of his homecoming from Washington, which would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere. No blurb about him being on a train or plane or anything. We only start hearing about him again in preparation for his concert in San Diego on February 4th.
I started out only caring about January, but I found that, as always, knowing all of the background data enhanced the story significantly. You have to figure, if you are that close to your significant other (4 hours by train, instead of on the opposite coast), after that much time apart, and knowing you won’t have the chance to see them again for months—it might well be worth it to you to postpone a couple of engagements to spend time with them, even if that is terribly out of character. ESPECIALLY when you can do it this sneakily. I just can’t see her legit canceling for a cold under these circumstances. Maybe I’m wrong, but this woman had a LIFETIME of colds, allergies and hay fever. If she canceled an engagement every time she had ear/nose/throat problems, she’d hardly ever work. In her autobiography manuscript, she notes her frequent colds and her ability to sing “over, under and around them”…so, again, it must have been pretty damned important for her to postpone two shows. Her outstanding performance in Roanoke between bouts of being sick also belies any condition as serious as what the papers claimed. Incidentally, she added Pittsburgh and Asheville on to the end of her tour, singing there on the 24th and 28th of February, respectively.
And, ya know, this candid shot that everyone loves of them on the set of Smilin’ Through? Yeah, that was taken after he got home from his tour. If they hadn’t seen each other much since their rendezvous in late January, that might explain the ridiculous grins and happy arms.
Nelson’s all like I could eat you with a spoon.
Jeanette’s all like Why on earth do you need a spoon?
Just some food for thought, all this business. I thought it was interesting, and I think it seems highly likely.
Stay tuned for Library of Congress Treasures, Round Two!!