Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy: Saints or Sinners?
Updated February 2013
Pardon me while I get on my soapbox for a moment…
This is a long letter, but important, so you might want to print it out and really study it. We’ll have a quiz on it later! (smile)
Many of you have found our website from surfing the Internet and finding several choices of sites regarding Jeanette MacDonald and/or Nelson Eddy. Occasionally I receive e-mails from people who have visited two sites in particular, enthusiastically contacting the people who run those sites only to be curtly told “none of it is true,” Jeanette and Nelson never even dated, you can’t believe butlers and bellhops, etc.
Welcome to the controversy!
The political viewpoint represented by these people is that both stars were happily married to their spouses. That’s their choice if they want to believe it. However, you should know that one of these sites represents a Jeanette MacDonald fan club. One can understand their position since Jeanette MacDonald’s husband Gene Raymond attended their yearly gathering and so it was in their best interests to keep on his good side. As for the other person, I don’t know her motives. She was a good researcher and for years claimed to be “on the fence” regarding the personal relationship. Yet she really wasn’t and only in recent years has the true degree of her vendetta has come to light. Again, she’s entitled to her opinion. But it puzzles me that she had access to many of the people I interviewed. Many of them were celebrities who appeared at guest speakers at Mac/Eddy Club meetings over the years, meetings that were often audio or video taped by attendees. I have published transcripts of many of these interviews in our magazine; it was not difficult to follow up with these sources if there was really a desire to do so.
As for myself, here is my background: I was close friends with Jeanette’s older sister Blossom Rock for eight years (till her death in 1978). Blossom was also an actress, best known for her role as “grandmama” in the TV series, The Addams Family. I grew up in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley (an original Valley Girl!). I met Blossom while volunteering at the Motion Picture Home where she was living in retirement, after suffering a stroke. I was a child when Jeanette and Nelson died so I never knew them, but through Blossom I met many of Jeanette MacDonald’s friends who gave me more contacts to speak with and thus my interest and research developed. When I first met Blossom Rock I was all of sixteen years old and didn’t even really know who Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were, much less care anything about their personal lives.
Blossom herself was the first to verify that her sister was in love with Nelson Eddy. This is how it came about: One day Blossom’s neighbor from Beverly Hills came to visit. At some point she mentioned to me that Blossom was Jeanette MacDonald’s older sister. I had already heard that from others. Then, the woman said, “Jeanette and Nelson Eddy were once very much in love. Ask Blossom about it, I’m sure she’ll tell you about it.” So I did. Blossom said yes, it was true. I thought nothing more of it for the moment; after all, don’t many movie co-stars have an on-set fling?
I didn’t think it was any big deal or secret – until I told Blossom I wanted to be an auth0r and write about Old Hollywood. She suggested I write a book about her sister. Why not, I thought, Jeanette MacDonald was as good a subject as any. So I started looking through movie history books and found that none of them mentioned any such relationship with Nelson Eddy. In fact, many thought they hated each other! I thought maybe I’d misunderstood Blossom so asked her again. No, she insisted, they were in love with each other. It was a long story….which she didn’t give much detail about at first.
Knowing that I had never seen their films, she arranged for the Motion Picture Home to screen the 1938 movie Sweethearts. I watched it with her in the Louis B. Mayer theater. At the end – I was hooked. A new Mac/Eddy fan was born. But the first thing I said to her was: Were they really like that in real life? Yes, she answered, only more high-strung. I said: They look like they were really in love in this movie, not just acting. Yes, she told me, and it was really sad because Jeanette was pregnant during this film…
It took me a minute to get her point. “You mean, Nelson’s child?” She nodded. I repeated: “Nelson’s child? Not Gene’s”
That’s how it began. I couldn’t understand why or how Jeanette MacDonald could be pregnant with Nelson Eddy’s child in 1938 when I now knew from the film history books that in 1937 she had married Gene Raymond in a lavish Hollywood marriage. “A marriage made in heaven,” they called it.
Right here I want to set the record straight. Detractors on one website argue that there was no way that Blossom Rock could have told me anything, being a stroke victim with aphasia.
This is a lie. Blossom was perfectly competent despite serious problems with her speech. Like her sister, Blossom was a strong-minded woman and refused to give in to any handicap, not did she spend days wallowing in self-pity. The stroke had also left her with a weakened right leg and arm. Yet she sang and tap-danced at a show when I first met her, and she did her own banking at the Security Pacific Bank across the street from the Motion Picture Home. How do I know this? Because I accompanied her across the street as she deposited checks that periodically came to her in the mail. She endorsed them and handed her checkbook to the tellers – who knew her and completed the transactions for her. Blossom also wrote checks and shopped at various stores in the area, or at Topanga Plaza mall. When she paid with cash I noticed she was very careful to count her change.
As to her speech, we learned to compensate for the problems. No, she couldn’t originate long-winded sentences. She could answer yes or no or speak shorter phrases. If that didn’t work, she wrote answers out on paper or acted out a point she was trying to make. People were still sending her photographs to autograph and guess what? She signed them all and sent them back to the fans. There were also a very few instances, in the years I knew her, that her speech suddenly recovered for a short time – usually 1-2 days. She would call me on the phone, and other friends as well. We would rush over to visit and sit for hours as she talked about everything and anything, until her speech regressed again.
Once Blossom got me started on the research, she introduced me to several of her friends or Jeanette’s friends that visited her. Blossom also went through her well-worn phone book and pointed out people I should call. I began to interview folks and then report back to Blossom for verification/corroboration of their stories. My conversations with Blossom were always informal; after all, we were friends first. Sometimes we talked when we were out shopping, or driving through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, so she could point out landmarks, or eating lunch at her favorite restaurant in Malibu (The Sandcastle in Paradise Cove). Our talks went something like this:
Me: I talked to Fred Phillips [makeup artist on Rose Marie] and he told me Jeanette was pregnant at Tahoe. A couple of others said the same thing. Is this true?
Me: Was this also Nelson’s child?
Me: Not Gene Raymond’s? They were also dating during this time.
Me: Fred Phillips said that Mayer ordered Jeanette to get an abortion. (Blossom nods) He seemed to think she did that. (Blossom shakes her head) Was it a miscarriage?
Me: Are you sure?
Blossom: She called me. (picks up the phone, mimics a sobbing Jeanette, holds her stomach) Blossie, I need you! Come now!
Me: You went to Tahoe?
Me: Were you in Los Angeles?
Blossom: New York. With mama. [I later verified this through a magazine article] Look…(goes to a stack of scrapbooks and pulls out a small black one. Inside are small Kodak shots from the 1930s. Blossom shows me a page of photos from Lake Tahoe)
Me: You took those? (Blossom nods. I notice a picture of Jeanette playing checkers with Jimmy Stewart) She hung out with Jimmy Stewart? Why no pictures with Nelson?
Blossom: Broke up.
Me: You mean, he broke up with her? He didn’t believe it was a miscarriage, right? (Blossom nods) Did he ever believe her?
Me: You mean, Woody Van Dyke told him? (Blossom nods) So, Woody knew what really happened?
You get the idea. I would write up thorough notes of the conversations, then take the information that Blossom had provided and go back to my sources to try to fill in the pieces. In retrospect, there are many questions I wish I had known to ask her. But at least it was a launching point.
I attended my first Jeanette MacDonald fan club meeting with Blossom, at her suggestion, because she told me there would be several out-of-towners who had known Jeanette. I went to the opening reception without Blossom, eager to find these wonderful people and discuss all I’d learned. To my amazement, I was pulled aside by that club president and told that maybe I shouldn’t blab it because it might upset some people. I may have been a dumb teenager but it didn’t take me long to decide this was hogwash. Many of the fans I met always thought the two stars cared for each other but were afraid to say so. Some even pulled me aside and whispered that they knew it was true but were frightened to be the first person to “go public.” One woman told me she knew the facts directly from Nelson Eddy himself; she handed me her business card and told me to call her after the fan club convention was over.
Ironically, many of my best sources eventually came from that very club!
The conspiracy of fear and web of deceit surrounding this story was inconceivable – yet true. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy had been dead for years but the cover-up continued – and woe to anyone who dared to seek the truth!
I should add that every author who attempted to write a comprehensive biography of either Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy in those years was immediately threatened with a lawsuit by their surviving spouses – even with the proposed manuscript sight unseen. The first unfortunate author was Fredda Dudley Balling, with whom Jeanette had collaborated on her unpublished autobiography in 1960. Balling, not willing to have all her hard work go to waste, turned the unfinished autobiography into a biography – and was promptly stopped from publishing it by Gene Raymond. (I reproduced and quoted Balling’s bitter letters about the situation in the introduction to Jeanette’s autobiography, which was finally published in its manuscript form in 2004.)
Within a few years of meeting Blossom I co-founded this club with the woman mentioned above who also knew the real facts. Her father had been good friends with Nelson since the late 1920s and she herself had a short relationship with him during a time when he was broken up with Jeanette. Nelson told her his side of the story, and I knew Jeanette’s side from Blossom, so it seemed a good idea for us to work together on the research. The Mac/Eddy Club was her idea and born of necessity, to finally have a forum where folks could speak openly about what they knew, help with research, and love either Jeanette or Nelson (or both) – as long respect was shown for both. This was never the case in the separate Jeanette and Nelson fan clubs. The philosophy of the Jeanette MacDonald club was to praise Gene Raymond as the hero of her life and to badmouth Nelson Eddy as a wooden, sexless no-talent who would have been nowhere without her. Many members of the Nelson club equally hated Jeanette, sneering that she couldn’t sing and any other co-star was better. The sometimes barely hidden viciousness – which still continues even today – was not to be believed.
The bottom line was, whatever their strengths or weaknesses, or whichever star you preferred – it was as a team that Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made their fame. Nastiness from their fans never served them well; in 1945 Nelson almost disbanded his fan clubs because they were so vocal about their dislike of Jeanette. He could never tolerate anyone speaking badly of her. Imagine if these people really knew how they felt about each other! How hurt he must have been, and Jeanette too.
Is it any wonder that they never felt safe coming forward with the truth? In Nelson’s own words-”The fans will crucify us!”
I shall never forget the longtime Jeanette fan – Roberta Reynolds – who said haughtily, in my presence, “If it’s true that Jeanette loved Nelson I’ll burn my entire collection!” She meant it, too.
I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.
The idea of starting a club to honor both stars was run by Blossom and she gave it two thumbs up. She had also become friends with the others who helped get the Mac/Eddy Club off the ground and wanted to add her input as the club’s first celebrity member. We read aloud to her the entire first issue of the magazine before it went to press, for her approval.
From the beginning, this was not your typical “fan club.” Research and gathering testimonials was what was needed, as well as a public forum where the truth could be discussed without fear of repercussion. It was like we had a mini-army of people who – if they had no first-hand data, they sought it out by finding other fans who did know something. Or they contacted local newspapers or searched other avenues for leads. In between, we occasionally held recitals to showcase young singers and to award singing scholarships – as Jeanette and Nelson had (sometimes anonymously) done during their lifetimes.
I have been researching this story for over thirty-five years now. Yes, I have worked on other writing projects over the years but always am drawn back to Jeanette and Nelson. There are still people coming forward, wanting to go on record before it is too late to tell their stories. Even when I am certain there is nothing more to be learned, I am amazed to receive an email or a letter that sends me off on another avenue of research. Of the hundreds of people I have interviewed, a good number of them were celebrities, most of them were willing to go on record, to be audio or video taped, or to appear at meetings of the Mac/Eddy Club and speak publicly before dozens of people. I documented my book Sweethearts to death dropping these names and quoting as many sources as I could (obviously some insisted on anonymity). As I stated before, our club members shared in the research, oft times giving me important leads of new people to interview. I still remember a meeting in Los Angeles in which I brought a few of the letters from the Isabel Eddy correspondence [Nelson Eddy's mother], waved them in the air, read aloud from them then announced, “You’re the very first to know about these letters. I’m going through hundreds of them and will edit them and put them into a book. (Sweethearts) When the book comes out the other side will yell Fake! All lies! She made it up! But you saw them and heard them here first.”
The goal was always to know the truth, whatever it was. Most of their fans feel the same way, I’ve found.
Who were some of my celebrity sources? Well, let’s drop some names. Jeanette’s first cousin Esther Shipp explained at a Las Vegas meeting that her aunt (Jeanette’s mother) did not want Jeanette to marry Nelson; movie star Ida Lupino angrily called Louis B. Mayer “an S.O.B.” at a Los Angeles meeting because he ruined their lives by not letting them marry; movie star Irene Dunne told me “Yes, dear, it’s true,” but didn’t think the public needed to know the particulars; movie star Miliza Korjus attended two Los Angeles Mac/Eddy meetings and stunned the group by describing a 1950s dinner party she attended where an inebriated Gene Raymond belittled Jeanette (who was sitting next to him) until one of the embarrassed guests told Gene to shut up. MGM make-up man Bill Tuttle was interviewed on tape and verified that Jeanette was pregnant during the filming of Sweethearts, that Nelson was the father and “he didn’t do right by her” (the same Tuttle who attended meetings of the Jeanette club); Metropolitan Opera singer Theodor Uppman was also taped; he knew Nelson in the late 1940s and was aware of Jeanette’s later pregnancy – also by Nelson – as well as Nelson’s futile attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. Oh-and by the way, the “butler” mentioned above was Richard Halverson, who worked for Jeanette MacDonald before and after her marriage to Gene Raymond as a butler and chauffeur. This is the same Richard Halverson who left Jeanette’s employ to pursue religious studies and and went on to become the United States Senate Chaplain until his death in 1995. Again – most of these people were audio-taped or video-taped.
Why did I decide to write such a candid book of my findings? Well, it didn’t take a genius to observe that Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were surprisingly forgotten in comparison to other sometimes lesser MGM stars. And the general public’s opinion of the two wasn’t too flattering either. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that Jeanette was a snooty, prudish prima donna and Nelson was gay, asexual, sterile, or a complete wimp. Oh yes – and their movies are camp, corny and laughable. Don’t you get tired of hearing that? I do.
In view of the above, I felt that setting the record straight was better than continuing the fiction that these other clubs (and web sites) promoted. Jeanette and Nelson were human beings with wonderful qualities as well as failings. In the end, their lives turned out much like their movie Maytime. No one faulted Jeanette’s character in that film for remaining in love with Nelson’s character even though she married John Barrymore. In real life, though, some were incensed to learn the same thing had happened.
Which is why I “outed” Gene Raymond (it wasn’t a secret anyway among Hollywood circles) so that one could understand that Jeanette MacDonald had an unusual marriage to begin with. In Nelson Eddy ‘s case, during the last fourteen years of his life he spent most of each year on the road doing supper clubs so his fans tended to know that his marriage was a farce. They accepted that he found solace elsewhere – but should one suggest it was from – gasp – Jeanette MacDonald, all hell broke loose!
I began writing about the relationship while both Ann Eddy (Nelson’s wife) and Gene Raymond (Jeanette’s husband) were still alive. This was deliberate because I had already cleared my material and sources with lawyers and knew they would never sue. My book Sweethearts was also published while Gene Raymond was still alive. He was contacted by several newspaper reporters who reviewed the book for a statement but he always refused to give one. He did give one interview to a screenwriter (both parties audiotaped it) in which he did not really deny the Jeanette-Nelson angle but was far more interested in knowing what had been found out about him and how he might be portrayed – very nervous as to whether the screenwriter thought he was gay. He got even more nervous when she replied, “It’s not what I think, it’s what the research shows.”
Certainly – as my detractors on these other web pages will point out – there were celebrities who denied any relationship between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. There are many reasons. First, some were friends with Gene – enough said.
Others were afraid to get involved in a controversy.
Still others knew the Raymonds socially and weren’t privy to the personal conflicts. They simply didn’t know! So of course they denied it! You can’t blame them.
One example of this was screenwriter Richard Sale (Northwest Outpost) who socialized with the Raymonds in the ’40s and ’50s. When I interviewed him he stated firmly that Jeanette’s marriage was happy. Later in the (taped) conversation he said he’d heard that Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond had separated in the 1950s for a time and that Nelson Eddy also separated a few times from his wife. I then pointed out to Sale that he had made contradictory statements about Jeanette’s marriage. He thought for a minute and said that since they had never divorced, he figured they’d worked through their differences as many married couples do. Whenever he saw them together they always seemed fine.
This was a point I heard repeatedly from other celebrities who weren’t in the know. If Jeanette was so in love with Nelson – why didn’t she just leave Gene and marry him? They had been ready to believe there was something there but as the years passed and nothing changed, they no longer believed it.
Most people never knew the intimate details of why. That was my job as biographer – to pull together all the pieces of the story. In many cases I found that someone who knew the skinny in the ’30s never saw them in the ’50s and knew nothing about that period – and vice versa! There were very few lifelong friends who had the full overview. They knew their little bit and that was it.
Along with the interviews I literally spent months in libraries, reading every Hollywood Reporter and Variety from 1933 on, or any clipping about them, copying any mention of either star into a database on my laptop computer. I spent weeks at the USC Doheny library with my computer, making over 100 pages of written notes and excerpts from Nelson’s personal scrapbooks, as well as xeroxing dozens of the actual pages. Then I studied nearly all the fan club magazines from 1935 to the present. Everything went into the database. In some cases there were errors, such as concerts that were announced but a local newspaper might reveal that the concert was cancelled or postponed due to illness. A 1940s letter might tell me that during a certain month Jeanette was on tour in one city – but snuck away for two days to meet Nelson. Where could she have fit that in? Contradictory data had to be explored and sorted out. Then there were the contemporary letters – hundreds and hundreds of them. From fans who followed their concerts. From groupies who trailed them in cars and put to paper the minute details (“He turned right on Sunset, left on Vine…”) From “spies” who were checking this story out as early as the 1940s. From friends of Nelson’s mother, Isabel Eddy, who thankfully was nosy and knew many intimate details of her son’s life – even copying private entries out of his diary. There were instances when letters reported important events that had happened months earlier; I had to take clues from these letters and try to place the incident as accurately as I could in the database.
After Sweethearts was published in hardback in 1994, several people came forward to verify what was in the book. Reporter May Mann, who once dated Nelson Eddy and also knew about Jeanette and Gene’s honeymoon fiasco, verified those facts to an interviewer who subsequently sponsored a book-signing luncheon for me in Palm Springs. Charles Blackwell wrote me in 1995 that the part about Jeanette making private recordings for Nelson with intimate spoken introductions was indeed true. He had seen those recordings at a private Hollywood party around 1946 when Jeanette and Nelson showed up as a couple…and Jeanette had the recordings with her, in a special case. She gave them to their host (apparently their doctor) to borrow. Despite the presence of Judy Garland and other Hollywood luminaries at this party, Blackwell was most surprised to see Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – supposedly happily married to others. “They looked very much in love. I remember his hands on her waist the whole time. She was dazzling and everyone commented how happy they looked…They couldn’t keep their hands off each other.” For nearly fifty years Charles Blackwell had wondered why those home recordings they were talking about were so important. Now he knew.
Someone else came forward to verify the Nelson – Jeanette hideaway home known as “Mists”…she accompanied her father who drive there to meet Nelson on a business matter.
Still other women came forward, after decades of vowing never to talk about their intimate friendship with Nelson Eddy. But after reading all the slander about him and his sexuality, and the lie still being perpetuated that he and Jeanette MacDonald did not get along off-screen – well, they decided it was better to set the record straight. One of these women is known as K.T. Ernshaw, you can read an excerpt from her published article here on the website.
I updated Sweethearts in a revised 2001 edition. I also wrote a companion to Sweethearts, an Interactive Biography filled with candid pictures that proved parts of the story, such as the fact that Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald knew each other before Naughty Marietta began production in the fall of 1934. And I have annotated two books, one is Jeanette’s unpublished autobiography (a manuscript filled with her penciled notes all over the pages), the other a collection of love letters she wrote boyfriend Irving Stone during her Broadway years. These original letters were photographed and reproduced in the book. I ruffled some feathers by claiming that Jeanette had a bad heart for years (probably one of the reasons she could not have a child). Certain people took offense at this but Jeanette herself verified my claim in a letter from August 1929 in which she wrote Irving Stone that she was recovering from a heart attack.
Another sore point with some folks was that I had the audacity to first publish Jeanette MacDonald’s accurate birthdate: 1903. How did I know it was 1903? Simple, I asked her sister Blossom. Their first cousin Esther Shipp later verified it by showing me the family Bible that that Jeanette had signed (giving the year as 1903). Some years later I was able to get a photocopy of Jeanette’s baptismal record – finally an official record that clinched it. You can imagine this didn’t sit well with certain people – who had produced a copy of Jeanette’s driver’s license as “proof” that she was really born in 1907. Big deal, so she lied about her age – as many movie stars have done over the years. I might add that Gene Raymond, her widower, continued the deception by having the false 1907 date placed on her crypt.
We live in a free country where everyone is entitled to their opinion. So, enjoy those other web sites but understand what the real intentions are there. Some folks only want to see Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy as saints and are terrified to hear that they might have been real human beings. I invite you to read and observe for yourself and make your own decision. Jeanette and Nelson never even dated? Excuse me, but check out all the photos and clippings reproduced in the club magazine from 1930s newspapers and fan magazines, in which Jeanette and Nelson were seen or photographed together – on dates.
I have received so many letters and emails from people who read my book and then went back and watched all of the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy films – sometimes in order; then wrote me that they noticed exactly what I had pointed out in the book. Yes, Nelson was bleary-eyed in The Girl of Golden West, was much happier and touchy-feely with Jeanette in Sweethearts, had tears in his eyes while singing to her under the tree in Maytime, etc., etc. Some time ago, Paul Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward shocked some at a MacDonald-Eddy movie retrospective in New York City by defending their off-screen romance and asserting that “In love scenes, there is a difference between acting and being. And these two were being.” In particular, Joanne Woodward (a team fan since childhood who told Nelson after she won her Oscar that she’d seen Naughty Marietta 17 times) felt their off-screen romantic chemistry seemed most evident to her in the film I Married an Angel.
Others watch Nelson’s TV interviews in the last years of his life and can’t help but see the deep sadness etched in his face.
But the very best visual proof of all is to watch Jeanette’s This is Your Life. Anyone with half a brain can see the blatant difference in the way Jeanette greets her husband, with a brotherly hug, and her reaction when Nelson walks in – tears, a look of ecstasy, an adoring, melting hug – the body language tells all. The only way a person can fail to notice this is-he or she just doesn’t want to see it.
I love both Jeanette and Nelson. I have worked tirelessly to keep their names and their accomplishments alive and to make available their large body of work. No other club has ever done that. And if you live near a city where we’re holding a club meeting, show up! Check it out! Get your questions answered! I can promise that you’ll learn a lot-and make new friends.
Many movie stars live a wild, shallow life. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were hardworking, good, caring people who suffered for their mistakes and died early deaths. There is nothing shameful about their story. One only wishes we could have helped them in some way. And that is probably the main reason I carry on year after year with this club – to let people know what they sacrificed in personal happiness to bring us the music and the movies we still treasure today.