“Broadway Serenade”, pregnancy and other stresses in late 1938

In the photo above we see a candid shot of Jeanette on set with her Broadway Serenade co-star, Lew Ayres, and her older sister Blossom. And of course we know that Lew Ayres was also friends with Blossom because of working with her just a few months earlier in the first of their Dr. Kildare movie series! Just to understand the time period, Young Dr. Kildare was released on October 14, 1938.

To further understand the events, note that Jeanette looks a bit wan and strained in that photo, a pinched look to her face. No radiance – and in fact, with candid shots from this movie there aren’t many really happy, energetic candids to be found, perhaps on Lew Ayres’ birthday, but not much else.

Compare that to a similar somewhat frail look that Jeanette also demonstrated a few months earlier in this photo below (recently posted and discussed at length by Katie) of her returning to the Sweethearts set after a heartbreaking hospital visit.

The reasons for events that occurred in the Fall of 1938 into December remain puzzling, to say the least. Whereas at other times we have sometimes even a day-to-day accounting, for this time period there are definitely unanswered questions. To read in sequence the overall events I refer you to my book Sweethearts. In the meantime, here is more photographic evidence to back up my statements made there.

In short, after the movie Sweethearts was completed, Nelson took Jeanette on a short road trip as they re-examined their lives going forward. He was all for her setting up a 6-week residency in Reno and getting a quickie divorce. While she did attempt that, there was interference from Louis B. Mayer.  And as we know, the two stars were subsequently thrown into separate films. Nelson made Let Freedom Ring with Virginia Bruce and Jeanette launched into Broadway Serenade with two non-threatening, non-macho co-stars, Lew Ayres and Ian Hunter.

Nelson reacted very badly – as expected – to Mayer’s interference yet again in his life.  This seems to be the point where he begins to seriously question the depth of Jeanette’s love for him when she refuses to deal with a divorce at this time. We can say in hindsight that she should have been honest with him about what was happening. Still, it is pretty clear that there is another possibly short pregnancy in the fall, it ends with her back in the hospital (probably not a miscarriage but terminated out of necessity) and that Nelson blames himself for something about her having a “bad ovary.”

There is mention of three hospitalizations, one in September that seems to be a follow-up to the July pregnancy. And then again in October and November. I state that one of them was lengthy – and here you have Louella Parsons perhaps tattling about this one on October 23rd, saying that Jeanette was hospitalized FOR THREE WEEKS!

Forgive me…but that excuse that she had some inner ear problem again that required “minor surgery” just doesn’t fly. Yes, that was the line given to her fan club and her cheerful quotes to the press. But… three weeks in the hospital?

Furthermore, Louella makes another interesting comment after stating that Jeanette is “getting her strength back” and that “she and her favorite boy friend, Gene Raymond, leave for Palm Springs in a few days for her complete recuperation.” Um…. her BOY FRIEND? Not BOYFRIEND (as in romantically involved) or HUSBAND.  What is Louella hinting at here? Gene is really only a friend of Jeanette’s who happens to be a male? As differentiated by someone she is romantically involved with?  Or legally married to? Is Louella hinting to the fact that Jeanette is trying to DIVORCE Gene…and therefore not a husband? Or they never legally married due to the Bob Ritchie issue?

And is Louella suggesting that there is maybe someone else who had something to do with this mysterious hospitalization if you connect the dots? (And don’t kid yourself, most everyone in town knew or had heard about the Sweethearts pregnancy and who the father of that baby was!) Don’t forget that Hedda Hopper scooped Louella in the summer about that pregnancy!

Jeanette returned to the hospital again in November, presumably before both she and Nelson started on their new films, the third week of that month. So what do we know about Nelson? That during October and November he is freaking out over issues with Jeanette’s health and her seemingly not putting him first in her life. (She did not enlighten him on all the issues coming from Mayer.) And from all accounts, Nelson refused to use birth control with her…which would inevitably lead to a repeat pregnancy. In fact, who knows, maybe Nelson thought another pregnancy that hopefully ended well would be a blessing, help raise her spirits and also force her to push a divorce through with Gene.

October is around the first time we start hearing about Nelson’s despair, wanting to give up love for music, he apparently starts talking too much to sympathetic Ann Franklin in some weak moments, he is worried that he has caused Jeanette’s bad ovary, etc. His friends are worried about him.

I find it very probable that Mayer would embrace Nelson marrying anyone – Ann Franklin or whoever, at this time, just to get him away from Jeanette. Nelson caused problems that had Jeanette repeatedly in the hospital in 1938. I have heard snide rumors from one or two people that the studio insisted Nelson marry to show that he liked women but what seems to be more realistic is that Nelson was viewed as a threat and a loose cannon. Mayer could not trust that the roller-coaster events of 1938 would not happen again in 1939 when inevitably, Jeanette and Nelson had to work together. Movie audiences would demand a team film and the press was quick to announce that after these solo projects, MGM was buying “The Desert Song” for them as their next project.

In short, Mayer could not allow his most popular female star, shortly to be awarded the upcoming “Queen of the Screen”, to be spending weeks in hospitals or otherwise indisposed with unwanted pregnancies or complications. Or thinking about divorce and/or rampant gossip about an affair with Nelson who refused to be reined in about his private life.

What do we know about Jeanette? Well, look at the photos below which according to the dates, were released to the press in the first half of December. That would mean they were shot in the early days of filming Broadway Serenade. Remember in Sweethearts how I write that Jeanette looked paunchy around the middle? These photos demonstrate that her figure has not returned to what seemed to be normal for her…or is once more (if very slightly) showing a baby bump.

Maria Escano shared the photo below which also vividly shows Jeanette’s rounded figure:

And here’s a closeup. Look closely at the darkened area where they noticeably touched up the photo to reduce the belly:

Maria, who is a medical doctor, also addresses the question of the “bad ovary”:

The only thing I can think of why Nelson would blame himself is the possibility of a STD. I hate to even think about it but what else could it be, if we are honest to ourselves. Also we don’t know what the concept of a “bad ovary” was at that time among lay people, I mean, non-medical.

As a physician, those things come to mind naturally no matter how much we try to think that our stars would never ever go through things like that. There is always that niggling question in the back of one’s mind and I would not be true to my profession if something like that didn’t become part of my differential diagnosis.

An ectopic pregnancy, depending on whether it was diagnosed early or not can be problematic and dangerous…The Fallopian tubes are so narrow that a growing embryo will not be sustainable there and will lead to rupture, an acute abdomen scenario, if undetected.

Whatever the facts about that long hospitalization, there is something else to consider. Toward the end of 1938, the press began getting a little outrageous in their hints about movie stars whose lives didn’t follow the generally accepted ideas of morality. We see an interesting blurb noting that Allan Jones’ movie career had declined for some reason – and that Gene Raymond also wasn’t working. Both being mentioned in the same article cannot help but show us that the activities of Jeanette and Nelson were being closely watched – because Sweethearts reveals the answers to both of these “Hollywood mysteries”:


And then came Photoplay‘s January 1939 issue that was released in late 1938, “outing” the unmarried stars who were living together:

Photoplay was forced to do some damage control the following month with this apology of sorts:

Note the very last sentence of their “apology”:

This article was intended merely to portray some of the finest friendships we have ever known.

Finest friendships – a code name for shacking up together without benefit of marriage….

Now recall a statement made by Woody Van Dyke and quoted in the press during the filming of Sweethearts just a few months earlier…when some were squawking about a “feud” between the stars. Here’s exactly what Woody said: “Believe me, there are no finer friends in all Hollywood than Nelson and Jeanette – and I know.”

Do you think that Louie B. Mayer was going to stand for Jeanette and Nelson continuing to shack up in hideway houses, for her to get pregnant and Nelson to make such a fuss that the paternity of that baby was obvious? In this tenuous climate in Hollywood at that time?

There is one thing to note about those couples mentioned above in Photoplay, they were not viewed by the public as dedicated onscreen teams. The exception was Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (with Modern Times released and The Great Dictator in the works)…but remember Chaplin was his own boss. And still, this nebulous marital state was said to have cost Paulette Goddard the role of Scarlett O’Hara.

But as evidenced by box office receipts, the movie-going public ONLY wanted to see Jeanette and Nelson together, as a team.

Note that two of the couples mentioned above: Gable and Lombard, and Taylor and Stanwyck, stopped living “in sin” and were married in 1939. Such was the power of that Photoplay article.

All these issues and influences noted above came into play in the final months of 1938…with disastrous results for our people in the beginning of 1939.

One has to wonder whether Nelson’s marriage, while a PR disaster that the studio had to spin, secretly pleased Mayer because it meant – or so he thought – the end of headaches dealing with Nelson and Jeanette and their personal drama.

Thanks to Alisa for forwarding some of the articles reproduced here.