Jeanette Anna MacSqueak (EXCLUSIVE)

I’m about to bring something totally adorable to your lives. Prepare yourselves for your day to be vastly improved.

Our Jeanette was many things, and the word “perfect” sometimes comes to mind…….a description she hated, by the way, along with “angelic” and all its synonyms……..but she’s so gorgeous and talented and funny and smart that the word is tempting. She was a shrewd businesswoman, loyal, kind, patriotic and cagey. She’s also a smart ass, sarcastic (we were in fits over some of the stuff we were reading that she said to newspaper reporters), insecure, a worrier by nature, and emotionally, a late bloomer. She had a bratty streak a mile wide. Of course, we love her, so we just nod along with all of these things and conclude with, “Yep, she’s perfect.” Oh well.

A quality that I find MOST endearing is how nervous she got before an audience. She once wistfully said, “Every audience I’ve ever had: concert, radio, opera or television, has always heard something less than my best.” (And considering how very very magnificently she sang on so MANY of those occasions, that’s saying something!) In the recording booth, she was at ease, as she was on the motion picture soundstage. But her live audiences always got the Nervous Nellie side of her personality. She pinpoints her first attack of nerves (she was a ballsy, fearless kid at one point) in her autobiography manuscript as an occasion when she was allowed to sing at school, before the principal who disliked her and was constantly railing against a kid her age doing theatre work. The woman looked such daggers at her that she totally dried up and was unable to perform, much to her shame and embarrassment. (I have an aunt who used to do that shit to me, it’s legit. And it’s no good.) For the rest of her life, that feeling of terror lingered, which is something she bitterly regretted.

For anyone who has not seen it, I recommend The Voice of Firestone TV appearance (available on DVD) for a very real look at what I’m talking about. The typical pattern for Jeanette is that when she gets nervous, she sings too fast, pushing the orchestra, and her gaze goes directly to the ceiling instead of out to the audience. The shrewd listener who knows her voice well can detect her getting very “breathy” when she’s nervous, as well as sliding a few notes together here and there instead of stepping gently onto the center of each one. The Voice of Firestone was Jeanette’s first TV appearance, and between the quite laughable production values and Jeanette’s nervousness, it’s quite an experience. I don’t mean she’s in bad voice, she isn’t, but………well, just get the dvd and you’ll know what I mean.

One of the things Angela and I had digitized at the Library of Congress was Jeanette’s appearance on the Ford Symphony Presents program. This clip is dated November 4, 1945 and she sings two numbers, the first being Juliette’s Waltz Aria that was one of her (and my) favorite showcase pieces. Considering that she was doing opera around this time period, and Romeo et Juliette was one of the operas she was doing (Faust was the other), you’d think she’d be well-rehearsed, confident and have all the bugs worked out. But here are the MacDonald nerves in bold array, complete with slipping and sliding and the most delightful SQUEAK on a top note towards the end. She never does that!!!! Her high notes are her stock in trade! It’s 500% adorable and I can’t tell you how many times we played it back. We joked that it sounds like Nelson pinched her bottom at that exact moment. 😉

Here is Ford Symphony Presents Jeanette MacDonald:

Lest anyone think that we’re giving her a hard time by posting this, we’re not. She still sings it 33948723427384236 times better than you or I or anyone reading this blog possibly could. But her nervousness makes her human. As I said before, it’s terribly endearing.

And speaking of the MacNerves, I’d like to share a real treasure–this has not been available outside of the “vault” that owns it since it originially aired on August 5th, 1951. Here is Jeanette singing (and dancing!! GORGEOUSLY!!!!) selections from The Merry Widow. This is another thing that we found in June and we are very pleased to share it with you, here.

Several things to look for:

She’s gorgeous and brilliant and sublime and amazing and fantastic and looks awesome I love her costume and AHHHHHHHHHHH NEW JEANETTE THAT WE’VE NEVER SEEN OH MAHH GAHHHHHH!!!!!

But, for real:

She’s very nervous. In addition to exhibiting the “symptoms” I wrote about above, she nearly trips on her first entrance. (Anyone else want to hug her a little?) Also, notice that when she walks down the stairs, she has carefully coordinated someone there to hold her hand. She was deathly afraid of stairs, a fact that was documented way back in 1931 or so and never subsided. And check out how much of her choreography (which I’d bet you $900 she arranged herself—maybe not the other dancers, but judging by what she did on other TV projects, I bet she just sort of told her partner how it was going to be and that was that.) is identical to the Merry Widow Waltz in the movie! Nearly 20 years later and she still knows it. Adorable. Also, I always thought, in Vilia, it was the “spell” of her beauty…….not the “thrill” of her beauty, and a quick Google search verified this……so………uh, Jeanette?

BUT LOOK AT HER BEAUTIFUL DANCING I CANNOT HANDLE IT.

She looks fabulous. And I like her big stagey bows and dramatic pseudo-kiss blowing at Gene, who was replacing Ed Sullivan as the MC for the week.

That’s all. Admire the soprano. Adore the soprano. That’s an order. 😀

Enjoy!

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One Kiss

I am currently sitting in the dining room of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Washington, D.C. This is our last morning here in the city, and we’re taking this time to review our research of the past two days and start to get it organized for sharing. I want to start out by thanking Sharon Rich for her complete support of Angela’s and my research. Just as in June, the last time we did this, Sharon has been only a text away the entire time and her excitement about what we are doing has only fueled ours.

The thrilling thing for both of us is that every time we have taken special interest in a detail of this story (the devil is in the details!) and tried to hunt it down, it has supported Sharon’s research and claims. The example that immediately springs to mind is that Sharon wrote in Sweethearts about what she had been told about Nelson’s involvement in Jeanette’s funeral and how he was the last one of the honorary pallbearers to come out of the church because he paused an extra moment with the casket before it was closed. In June, as you remember, we unearthed raw, unedited funeral footage of both Jeanette’s and Nelson’s funerals. This footage had never been seen and, guess what, Sharon didn’t even know that it existed, folks. It literally was unused footage in the bowels of the ABC archives….and guess who the last guy out of the church is, before the casket comes out? Nelson. A small thing, but a vitally important thing, one that validates what Sharon was told by a source, one of those sources that you delightful creatures out in Saint Land like to claim are not real or truthful. And those tiny, important things happen all the time.

That was really the nature of this trip. It would be a bit much for us to expect the same total windfall that we experienced in June, with a half-hour’s worth of never before seen television footage, as well as priceless radio recordings that tell their own story and were considered lost. This trip was more about the details. The stack of articles we found and printed is two inches thick. Countless others were saved to flash drives or made note of. Several rare recordings were obtained, as well as some never-released press pictures that we had to handle with white linen gloves. I love that stuff. There were a few other things, too. All in good time, dear readers.

The subject I’m going to discuss today concerns early production on New Moon and one of Jeanette’s many radio appearances around this time. As we know, relations were quite strained between Jeanette and Nelson as they went into production in the fall of 1939. Nelson had made the unfortunate, irrevocable mistake of marrying Ann Franklin in January, Jeanette subsequently tried to off herself, it was just general bad times for a good while. They hadn’t spent any time together. I seem to remember some ass telling Jeanette that Nelson was at a party she was at, and her blanching and being like, “Nelson, here?” and making excuses to get the heck home. Woody Van Dyke, their dear and trusted friend, was the original director on New Moon, with Robert Z. Leonard producing, but early on, Woody got pulled off the project to go expedite matters on I Take This Woman. Pop Leonard took over directorial duties as well (hence the camera making rampant love to Jeanette’s eyes in a few close-up shots. Watch Pop Leonard’s other Jeanette movies, namely Maytime and The Firefly, and you see a love affair between his lens and Jeanette’s big, gorgeous eyes).

Variety notes that pre-recording the score of New Moon began on October 23, 1939. That’s a Monday. In Sweethearts, Sharon notes that New Moon began on November 6, 1939–also a Monday, two weeks later. Given these two dates, I think it’s safe to assume that the November 6th date means principle photography—the start of shooting, in other words. Two weeks for pre-recording is a legit window. In the manuscript of her doomed autobiography, Jeanette notes October 28, 1939, as the start of New Moon. That was a Saturday, for those keeping score here, and seems less likely than the other two dates, which work together. Maybe she meant 23? Who knows. Anyway, that’s all the data—someone is likely slightly mistaken, but the ballpark remains the same.

new moon note

In the early moments of production, Jeanette was very professionally cool towards Nelson, not making a fuss but not doing one iota more than she had to, either. Nelson, desperate to make things right between them and reconcile with her, was trying all manner of things to break down her walls. He fouled up majorly, and knew it, and needed her to acknowledge his profound remorse. The thing I love about these two is it is never, EVER about “I don’t love you” or “I’m not in love with you” or “I’ve stopped loving you”…….loving each other was never their problem. It was everything else. Even at their lowest lows (and they had some appallingly low ones), the acknowledged that they loved each other. It wasn’t a question. It never seemed to be a threat or ammunition between them in a fight…they both knew the score.

As she was preparing to work on One Kiss, one of her solo numbers in the film, and one of the most erotically lyric-ed songs she ever recorded, in my opinion (yeah it’s a pretty tune but LISTEN TO THE WORDS, yo!) Nelson sent her the following note, which I copied from Sweethearts, but it is sourced from the Isabel Eddy memoirs:

Sing even if you don’t mean it – sing it just for me. You can take all the time you want, but you are coming back to me, you have to. Meanwhile, remember this, my love for you is indestructible. No matter what happens, nothing and no one in all the universe can change or hurt it. Remember that.

Oh, Nels.

So, here’s my thing. I’m preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty sure (no way to be 100% positive, I guess), but I’m pretty sure they weren’t hanging around for each other’s solo recording sessions on this movie. Maybe on other ones when they were using any excuse to be together, but the atmosphere being what it was, I would bet that our little Ice Queen either outright insisted on recording alone or just….worked it out that way.

Variety states on October 24, 1939, that she had recorded One Kiss “yesterday” — so Monday, the 23rd. That’s a solo. I’m guessing that Nelson hadn’t heard it yet because he wasn’t on hand for her solo sessions. But she would have gotten his note.

Variety10.24.39

However, on October 29th, 1939 (a Sunday), Jeanette made an appearance on a radio show called Community Chest. And……guess what she pulls from her repertoire to sing.

🙂

This recording has never been made available before. We found it in the Library of Congress’s collection back in June and submitted a request for it to be digitized. We heard it for the first time on Monday, recorded a copy and here we are.

Now, could she have chosen to sing this because she was rehearsed for it, having just recorded it that prior week? Yeah, sure she could. BUT, what sticks out to me about this is the fact that New Moon wasn’t released until June 28th, 1940, a full eight months after this. Additionally, though the Romberg operetta is called New Moon, the film version starring MacDonald and Eddy was originally titled Lover, Come Back to Me. So, first of all, I think it’s too early for her to be doing publicity for the movie that had JUST started pre-recording (how many other projects get to the pre-recording stage and then get shelved or discarded? Many.)—-the fact is, according to the practices of the time, it was way too early in the game for her to be singing songs from the movie to publicize it. And, since Lover, Come Back to Me was the original working title, if she WAS doing this for publicity, why didn’t she sing that? It would have been the title song. Fred MacMurray even points this out in the sort of faded out sounding post-script to her performance. Or she could have easily have sung any number of the songs she had already made uber famous. One Kiss is, indeed, an interesting choice.

We know Nelson and Jeanette used this kind of thing to communicate with each other. To me, it seems highly, highly likely that this choice was in response to his note. Think about it. Think how safe this is–he isn’t around, isn’t physically there, so she doesn’t have to talk it out with him afterwards, or look him in the eye, or get grabbed up in his arms when she knows she doesn’t have the power to resist him. It’s an olive branch. A safe olive branch, from a distance. Yes, I got your note. Yes, I still love you. Yes, I’m singing this for you. Consider how she looks in the film, during Wanting You. She is all Professional Actress Face for the beginning of the number, then we see her resistance crumble, we see her breathing like she’s just sprinted a mile. Then we see that tentative, cautious hand reach out towards him and with that, his entire performance changes and sweeps her along with it. This choice of song is like that hand. She wants him, wants what they have, but she’s scared of the avalanche.

WantingYouTakeMeNow

The Happy Bridegroom – January 22, 1939

Get excited, kids, this is a humdinger.

Last weekend at the Library of Congress, Angela and I were able to listen to Nelson’s most elusive Chase and Sanborn radio broadcast from January 22, 1939—three days after his misguided and heavily intoxicated elopement with Ann Franklin.

Before I go into those details, Angela has written up a little piece about her experience at the LOC, so I’m enclosing it here. Thanks, Angela! 😀

June 13, 2014, Washington DC – Library of Congress – My social media status reflects my current location as I add a photo of my research tools: a pen, a Library of Congress reader card, a pink work request slip and a black and white composition book.

“What are you researching and for what reason?”

Somehow that comment from a friend of long gone High School days annoyed me. I had to think a bit on how to answer. Just how did I end up here and why had I cancelled a planned spa day to wake up at the crack of stupid and take a jostling commuter bus from Herndon, VA into Washington, DC?

“Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.” I answered.

“Should have known – since they are your faves.”

My faves? Really? Does that even begin to describe it? And do you really care? Most of my friends and family certainly don’t. Their eyes glaze over whenever I mention the dreaded names. Except Chris, she understands. She recently told me of the time she took a 12 hour bus ride from her college in Boston to meet up with a fellow Judy Garland fan somewhere in Minnesota. Speaking as her mom, I’m glad I didn’t know it then, speaking as a fellow fan girl, all I can say now is, I raised her right.

So here I am, awaiting my fellow MacEddy obsessive and comrade in arms, Katie, a young girl with an old soul. We’ve been plotting this for weeks but are not nearly prepared enough and we know it. We are frantically texting as she approaches the city by train and each can sense the others nervousness over how it will go. I know my job and set about culling information and targeting available research opportunities as I await her arrival.

Phyllis, the research volunteer de jour, gives me the lay of the land and recommends the reading room providing detailed directions. The Madison building is a large rectangle and color coded she explains, I nod. “What are you researching?” Phyllis asks. I tell her and guess what? She actually knows who they are and even a bit about them. This is promising. I love retiree volunteers.

“Go to Reading Room 113,” she tells me. “Performing Arts, that’s where you’ll find the radio programs.”

So I scamper off. There I meet and befriend Jan M, maybe a few years older than me, hard to tell. Jan is the archetypal librarian, frumpy skirt, support hose, no nonsense shoes; her steel grey hair is pulled back into a low pony tail. Only the kohl rimmed eyes bespeak of the girl she once was. I glance at her younger self staring at me from the name badge she wore clipped to her neat sweater. Yes, I knew that girl, I could picture her walking my High School halls. She wore jeans and Birkenstocks, her long hair parted in the middle, no makeup except for black lined eyes. She spoke very precisely, was serious, focused and knew what she wanted to do with her life, unlike the rest of us.

Jan helps me find what I’m looking for and it’s just dumb luck that the January 22, 1939 Chase and Sanborn program is already digitized and available for listening. Oh, I had to spell Sanborn for her; Jan must not be a coffee drinker but she is very anxious to help. I set up an appointment for later that morning and text my co-conspirator to alert her of our rendezvous location. I love research librarians.

Katie arrived overheated from her three block hike (Blogger’s Note: “Sweaty and disgusting” is more like it! The cab let me out too early and I had a huge purse and super heavy backpack and I found out which building I was supposed to be in and ran the 3 blocks in 95 degree heat. Yuck.) but anxious to get to work. We queued up our recording in Booth 15 and began. All I can say is I was gob smacked (thank you my British friends for that lovely word) as I listened with St. Anthony and the Blessed Mother jangling away on my wrist as I furiously wrote in my composition book, Katie scribbling out a bit of mumbled dialogue I’d missed. I love bright young researchers.

Two days later, I am back in Connecticut, at my real job. “Did you have a nice vacation?” My colleague asks me. I whip out my Library of Congress official reader card and show her. A fellow bibliophile and longtime book club member, she looks at it longingly and sighs.

“Yes, I had a wonderful time.”

 

So that takes us up to where we were in Booth 15, getting ready to listen to newlywed Nelson on Chase and Sanborn. Sharon had told us that it was going to really mess us up, and boy, she wasn’t kidding. Right from the beginning, you sense that something is “up” with Nelson—anyone familiar with his radio work (and he did a TON of it) knows that his style is easy and affable, interspersed with the great singing that made him famous. Only, on this day, he doesn’t want to come to the microphone. You hear the other people trying to improvise to make up for the fact that he didn’t jump in when he should have, and then, finally, he mutters, completely audibly, “I must have the wrong script.” What, in real life? You sure do, brother. To me, that sounds like a sideways way of saying he doesn’t want to participate in any of this wedding talk. The playing of the wedding march, in this context, sounds brash and horrible. The idea that they’re all having a good laugh and talking about throwing rice (and maybe they did, the studio audience is laughing)—while he is totally silent—is just a great big helping of awkward sauce. And then the normally yakkity-yak Nelson doesn’t say ONE WORD. Just goes into his first song. Weird, weird, weird.

Is this a good time to point out that absolutely nobody likes Ann Eddy? Because…absolutely nobody likes Ann Eddy.

Then he sings the lament from the opera Boris Gudounov, usually sung by a basso; a favorite role of Nelson’s idol, Feodor Chaliapin, so on a normal day in normal context, it is understandable that he’d be interested in singing it. Sort of the same reason why I can only ever make Baked Beans using Jeanette’s recipe. Boris was done in English at the Met in 1963, sung by Jerome Hines. This particular selection can be heard at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UGIy-wdAqI for anyone wishing to compare the legit Metropolitan translation with what Nelson sings.

I have, to the best of my ability, transcribed Nelson’s lyrics. One wonders where they came from. Did he do this translation himself? It is entirely possible; he spoke Russian. He frequently did this sort of work with his songs. To say this is a dark-as-hell piece is putting it mildly. Let us remember that Nelson, while a great singer, was no actor and never claimed to be (check him out in his movies without Jeanette sometime. Oy. I love the guy to the ends of the earth, but….oy.). What he was, was a seriously professional musician. Dramatic interpretation of a piece is one thing—singing off key is something else. Nelson would never have done it on purpose, and the fact that he does–repeatedly in this selection—really speaks to his highly heightened emotional state.

And why is he so emotional? Well, for starters, he’d basically been blackmailed into this marriage with Ann. Trustingly naive Nelson had unburdened to this older woman, whom he thought was merely a friend of his mother’s, during the many nights she was a guest in their home when Nelson was having trouble in his relationship with Jeanette. He talked way, way, way too much. Ann got him into a compromising position and essentially forced his hand with everything she knew about Jeanette and their relationship—the depths of exactly what she knew that was so very, very damning may never be fully realized. The bottom line is, she had him just where she wanted him: emotionally broken, beaten down and blackmailed over a barrel. According to Isabel Eddy, his mom, after he passed out from whatever substance he was on for the very brief, very clinical ceremony, he asked what they were doing on a train. Well, shit. Ann Eddy won that round and she would have him painted into a corner for the rest of his life.

Here is my best transcription of Nelson’s lyrics of the sad tzar’s lament. Please note how vastly different they are from the English translation used at the Met. The meaning is essentially the same, but some of the word choice is very, very interesting (and yes, this is very dramatic, very flowery language. This is opera, people.):

I stand supreme in power

Five years and more my reign has not been troubled

Yet happiness eludes my sad and tortured soul

In vain I hear astrologists foretell long years of life in power

Peace and glory

No life, no power, no promises of glory

No praise from the crowd

Can soothe my aching heart

I look among my children to find comfort

And soon to see a brilliant marriage feast prepared

For my Kseniya, my dearest daughter

But cruel death has struck the one she loved

How heavy is the hand of God in His wrath

How merciless a doom awaits the sinner

In gloom I walk, grim darkness surrounds me

No single ray of light bring solace

My heart is torn with anguish, it’s hopeless and weary

Naught avails me

A secret terror haunts me

I wait, I tremble

With all my heart I implore saints above

And a God I beseech to grant me mercy

And I with all my power; all of Russia I feared and envied

In tears have vainly begged for pardon

[Cannot make out this line]

Pestilence, disloyalty, starvation!

Like a beast of prey the hungry peasants are prowling

The land is bare, Russia weeps

[Nelson’s voice is breaking on this next line and I can’t understand it, maybe something about a flood?]

And groaning under the weight of the burden

And awful and great pain inflicted

I’ll throw the flame on me

They who loved me, they hate my very name

Openly curse me

And now my sleep has fled, at night I see visions

A blood be-spattered child appears to me

Sobbing in anguish, writhing, lamenting

Praying for mercy and mercy was not granted

Blood from his wounds is falling, loudly he cries

With death he struggles…oh God in Heaven….oh my God.

Let’s not forget that July 26th of the previous year, Jeanette had lost their son at about six months of gestation (newspapers reported her hospitalization, and the subsequent one in September, but cited ear problems as the reason). She was, by her own admission, a “bleeder”—very thin blood. She had difficulty with bleeding after several surgical procedures, including her somewhat botched tonsillectomy. On that occasion, Nelson had “never seen so much blood in his life” …sad, yeah, but it had to have been on his mind. The man is crying at the end of this selection.

 

Some wise-ass decided, the day after Nelson’s elopement, to run onto the set at MGM where Jeanette was winding up filming on Broadway Serenade, and loudly announce that Nelson had eloped in the night. Jeanette screamed, ran off the set, locked herself in her dressing room and downed a bottle of sleeping pills. Woody Van Dyke, beloved pal and frequent director of our Sweethearts, got wind of what had happened and, finding Jeanette’s dressing room door locked, kicked it in and found her on the floor. L.B. Mayer himself arrived on the scene and carried Jeanette to the car, cursing Nelson the entire time, saying he [Nelson] had killed his beautiful star. Jeanette’s stomach was pumped and she recovered, only to attempt suicide again a week later. The source for this information? Woody Van Dyke’s wife, Ruth. This story was verified by Eddy associate Marie Collick, two people who worked in wardrobe, Ken Hollywood (studio guard) and Isabel Eddy, whose letters of that time indicate that she was spending time with Jeanette, whom she adored, basically keeping suicide watch.

News of this had to have gotten back to Nelson. Having an easier time understanding his mental state now? Damn, the poor man.

For his final selection, Nelson changed gears completely and will effing tear your heart out and step on it with his rendition of Little Grey Home in the West. Angela and I played this for Di on Skype Sunday afternoon and all three of us were in tears. It’s just so sad, and so unfair. Here, have a sad graphic:

Image

He wasn’t talking about Ann, kids. He just….wasn’t. There’s no way. And of all the songs he could have picked to end this hour of despair, this choice is one of the most poignant he could have made. There are dozens of songs he could have sung and we would have been all “OH EM GEE He’s singing to Jeanette!” but seriously….this sweet little song they had sung together in happier times just aches with romantic simplicity and longs for domestic bliss….two things that nobody has EVER accused him of having with Ann.

Here it is, guys—all of Nelson’s parts of the radio broadcast from January 22, 1939. Please listen for yourselves. Angela put the video together.

People are so quick to over-simplify their situation. The truth of the matter is that Ann held all the cards that Mayer didn’t. After their tenure at Metro was over, Jeanette COULD HAVE divorced Gene. Nobody has ever said Gene wouldn’t let her out. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t—what was the point of her getting a divorce when Nelson couldn’t? Nelson could not/would not stand for Jeanette getting tarred and feathered in the public with the dirt Ann had on her. For someone as willful as Nelson to be that gun-shy about Ann…well, she must have had a hell of a hand of cards to play. We only know some of that data. For Jeanette’s part, at least, at minimum, being married to Gene gave her the “protection” of being Mrs. SOMEBODY—I can’t think of her wanting to deal with being gorgeous, unmarried and in love with a married man. I can’t think that she was in any mood to deal with the eligible bachelors of Hollywood. On some level, it worked. Some of the time, anyway, at this point in their lives.

 

Sigh. :-/