Q: Why did they split up professionally after SWEETHEARTS?
A: Mayer was determined to keep them apart and had his hands full trying to convince Jeanette to stay with Gene. He made threats against Nelson’s life, which Jeanette ignored until Nelson’s car was shoved off the road as “warning.” Nelson wasn’t hurt but Jeanette got the message. Recently new data has surfaced to indicate that when Jeanette and Nelson took a trip to Northern California in September, Nelson’s intention was to take her to Reno to establish a 6-week residency, so she could then obtain a quickie divorce. Mayer went to nearby Sacramento shortly after on other business, but apparently dropped in on Jeanette and convinced her to return home to her marriage.
By late October, 1938, they were resigned to no divorce at this time. Jeanette was hospitalized again, presumably from complications from her pregnancy, and felt she did not have the strength to fight Mayer… The press, by the way, had gotten wind of all the goings on and Hedda Hopper went so far as to “sort of” spill the beans in the magazine photo shown below.
Nelson, of course, went into a heavy depression. He was angry at Jeanette for giving in to Mayer’s threats. Professionally, he kept busy filming LET FREEDOM RING, which they were supposed to make together. But Mayer didn’t want Nelson anywhere near Jeanette and now he did that film solo while Jeanette starred in BROADWAY SERENADE.
Q: Why did Nelson marry Ann Franklin?
A: We don’t know all the reasons. According to Nelson, she was a friend of his mother’s; he knew her from the opera crowd and her good friend Doris Kenyon (with whom Nelson had sung). Apparently in a low moment, and after a few drinks, Nelson confided everything about his relationship with Jeanette, including such sensitive data that Ann threatened to go to Jeanette with the revelations (and to the press) if Nelson didn’t marry her. Added to this, Nelson woke up on Ann’s couch with a terrible hangover, minus his clothes, and was told by a weeping Ann that he’d become “violent in my lovemaking” with her. Nelson had no recollection of what he’d done, if anything, and later decided he must have been drugged. But at that time he felt Ann was “sincere” and blamed himself for what happened; he was also terrified of what Ann might tell Jeanette and that he had “fallen so low.” It appears that he managed to stall for a few weeks, telling Ann he would marry her, then saying her he didn’t feel he needed to — wavering back and forth. It’s at this time he wrote a few friends telling them he WAS going to marry Ann, that he intended to give up love forever and devote his life to music. Jeanette apparently knew nothing of the situation with Ann, still assuming that she and Nelson would continue as they had until such time that she could convince Mayer to let her divorce Gene.
In mid January, 1939, matters came to a head. Nelson barged in on Jeanette one night, demanding she come away with him immediately; he would take her to Reno and he would make a public statement the next morning, saying that he was going to marry her as soon as her divorce was final. This way there was nothing Mayer could do to stop it after the fact.
Nelson had finished LET FREEDOM RING; Jeanette still had another week or so on BROADWAY SERENADE. She was still unaware of the urgency behind his request and saw no reason why she shouldn’t finish the film first. But her answer wasn’t good enough for Nelson. He decided she really didn’t love him enough to stand up to Mayer and go through the divorce. He left in a rage, went home and got drunk, then informed his mother he was eloping to Las Vegas with Ann. If she wanted to come, she was invited. Isabel tried in vain to talk her son out of what she felt was a terrible mistake. He refused to listen. On January 19, 1939, they tied the knot before a justice of the peace.
Below is a shot of Nelson and Ann the day they married. Nelson looks anything but happy.
Q: Was Nelson drunk when he married?
A: He always claimed that he was. And a newspaper clipping pointed out that the quickie wedding ceremony was half over before Nelson realized Doris Kenyon was at his side, not Ann!
Q: What was Jeanette’s reaction to Nelson’s marriage?
A: She swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Woody Van Dyke’s quick thinking saved her life. Here is a photo of her propped up in bed, soon after that incident. On the back of this photo, the studio PR office printed their version of why Jeanette looked so miserable in bed: “When Jeanette MacDonald was sudden stricken with a severe cold, and was unable to attend rehearsals for the finale of her new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring picture, Broadway Serenade,” Producer-director Robert Z. Leonard had a great idea. He decided to send the rehearsal to Miss MacDonald.” Click here to see the blurb.
Q: What was Nelson’s marriage like?
A: At first he tried to make it work. She was a good hostess, wasn’t a “career gal” and he thought she might be a good “companion.” But it didn’t last long. As Nelson wrote to Jeanette: “By keeping me half-drunk most of the time she managed to arouse all the worst that was in me — but she surely aroused nothing else. She knew I still loved you…in fact, I never let her forget it.”
In time they came to an understanding. Nelson stayed married to Ann all his life but their marriage was not conventional, by any means. In fact, the last fourteen years of his life Nelson was on the road most months of the year… and NOT with his wife.
Here’s an early shot of them together, Nelson holding her wrist.
And one of them out together.
And the saddest, most telling of all, taken around the early fifties, probably one of Nelson’s last concert tours. Here he is getting off the train…
…and being met by his wife.
Q: Why did they make NEW MOON?
A: For awhile it didn’t look like they would ever be teamed again, as neither one wanted it. Jeanette needed a break from Hollywood and went on her first American concert tour. When she returned she refused to sign a new MGM contract. Two things changed her mind. 1) Woody Van Dyke appealed to her, as he was slated to direct NEW MOON and 2) Nelson had his mother bring Jeanette a long written explanation, apologizing for marrying Ann and explaining the circumstances. He had tried to see Jeanette or speak to her several times since his marriage, but she always refused. She still stayed in touch with Isabel, though.
Even with Woody directing, filming was tense on NEW MOON. Mid-production, Woody was called away to boot camp for the Marines, and Leonard finished the film. It wasn’t until the filming of “Wanting You” and the kiss afterwards, that Jeanette and Nelson reconciled. And even then, any happiness was bittersweet because both knew they could never get divorces now as long as they were movie stars. The situation was now beyond repair for the foreseeable future.
Q: What happened during the filming of BITTERSWEET?
A: Nelson had about one month together with Jeanette in January, 1940, before going out on tour again. The separation from her and the weight of his situation resulted in him falling ill again. He cancelled a few concerts, tried to pull himself together, cancelled some more and ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown. His mother flew to Milwaukee to bring him home, where he was hospitalized for two weeks. He had an adenoid operation but didn’t recover because “mentally he cared for nothing,” according to his mother. Isabel was unable to “smuggle” Jeanette into the hospital to visit him, for fear the press would find out, but once he was released Jeanette helped nurse him back to health. First they reported to the studio to shoot some retakes on NEW MOON and then went into BITTERSWEET. Nelson looks thin and strained in the early scenes of the film, which was rushed through production despite the added expense of Technicolor.
There are very few candid shots of them together on BITTERSWEET. They were trying NOT to be seen together, not to arouse the wrath of Mayer, Nelson’s wife, Jeanette’s mother, who heartily disapproved of the latest developments, or the press — who was always snooping for a scoop.
Q: Why did the team split again in 1941?
A: We don’t know all the reasons, but we do know that originally Robert Taylor and Jimmy Stewart were scheduled to do SMILIN’ THROUGH with Jeanette. Both stars pulled out; Taylor got married and Stewart joined the Army. Gene Raymond was added to the cast a week after filming began. Nelson, meanwhile, made THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER with Rise Stevens. Here they all are… with Jeanette holding onto Nelson, not Gene.
But Nelson also visited Jeanette’s set several times to keep an eye on her. Here’s a shot of them together, their happiness apparent.
And another birthday party, June, 1941.
Q: What happened during I MARRIED AN ANGEL?
A: No one seemed to know what to make of ANGEL. Fans were still expecting “Son of Naughty Marietta.” Seen today, it’s a better film than it appeared back in 1942, when it was released. And the chemistry between them is great.
Director Woody Van Dyke had no interest in trying to make it a better film. He had terminal cancer and a bad heart and was crushed that he couldn’t fight for the country he loved, now that the US was involved in the war. Also, Jeanette and Nelson were wrapped up with their personal lives and didn’t seem to care whether the film turned out to be “their best or their worst.”
Happily for us, Woody left “mistakes” in the film. In the photo below, Jeanette is supposed to give a birthday kiss to Nelson. She plays a shy gal who can’t quite get up the courage to do so. She leans forward, can’t do it, tries again, and as she looks into Nelson’s eyes he impishly crosses his. Her eyes start to cross and she bursts into laughter, totally breaking character. Watch for it early in the film, as it’s a delightful moment!
It was at the end of the filming of I MARRIED AN ANGEL that Louie B. Mayer and Nelson had a final falling out. Nelson decided to buy out his contract, even though he and Jeanette both had only one film to do. In 1942, Nelson was finally glad to be away the man he blamed for ruining his life. In the photo below you can see the “eternal triangle” … and the animosity between Mayer and Nelson is plain.
(c) 1999, 2000, 2005 by Sharon Rich. All rights reserved. All quotes were originally published (with their sources documented) in the book “Sweethearts,” (c) 1994, 2001 by Sharon Rich. All photos are from the author’s collection and have been reproduced either in “Sweethearts” or issues of the magazine “Mac/Eddy Today” and are under appropriate copyright.