Nelson Eddy: Why “rape”?

This is going to be a very frank discussion of  a very uncomfortable subject. It deals with the first sexual encounter between Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald so those who find the subject abhorrent, please be warned in advance.

The photo above is on the set of Maytime, showing an unusual shot of hostility between them. And yes, they sometimes fought bitterly. Another shot of them glaring at each other:

The text from my book Sweethearts that seems to offend some goes as follows: “He…described in graphic detail what he was going to do to her to make sure she never forgot she was his. Then he threw her down on the bed and raped her.”

To put this into context, the time period we’re talking about is during the filming of their first movie together, Naughty Marietta. I do not know the exact date of this incident but the film went into production in late 1934 and was released in March of 1935. Most likely this occurred in December 1934 or January 1935.

First off, I quoted the events exactly as described to me. The version you read in the book is precisely how I and my then-research partner, Diane Goodrich, were told about this episode. The setting, the dialogue, the quarrel that preceded this episode, Nelson completely losing his temper and acting out so that Jeanette was for the first time exposed to his “Jekyll and Hyde personality” as she termed it – all this was described to us.

Diane and I were duly horrified at hearing this. Diane, who had known Nelson, angrily told me, “Nelson would never do that!” We discussed it and had pressed our sources for all the details they knew. (Marie Collick was the first source but we subsequently asked a few other people about it.) And then I said, “Let’s see what Blossom says.”

As you can read in Sweethearts, Blossom  not only confirmed the story but added the aftermath, in which the second round was definitely consensual and Jeanette happily commented upon it to her sister some time afterwards.

To this day I remember exactly where we were when we finally asked Blossom about it; we had eaten lunch in Paradise Cove, Diane was driving us through Beverly Hills, on Sunset Blvd and then we ended up on Doheny Drive. Blossom was in the front passenger seat giving Diane directions by pointing to the right or left. I was in the back seat. We brought it up tentatively, apologetically, um…we had heard something and didn’t know whether to believe it or not…please don’t be angry or offended by this question…but…

And Blossom laughed as she set the record straight on this episode.

Let me also clarify something. In the context of that time period, the definition of “rape” was – per 1927 law – “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” According to a CNN article on the revision of this law, “That meant it was only an act of rape if a man forcibly penetrated a woman through her vagina. It excluded oral and anal penetration.”

It appears that normally easygoing, lovesick “puppy dog” Nelson finally was pushed beyond his own endurance by Jeanette’s behavior and finally just pounced without warning or self-control.

Tonight I discussed this subject with a grandmother who said, “Then they might have called what Nelson did rape but today we would call it rough sex.”

Others point out that there were a few incidents noted during their early dates together where Nelson “got carried away” but he managed to remain a gentleman and not go too far.  Jeanette no doubt had to wonder at his courtship of her, so unusual in their world, she told her sister “He’s so strange.” One wouldn’t put it past her to goad him to that last step – as it happened, if only to see what was up with this guy. For Nelson, it must have been tough on her to watch her daily on the Naughty Marietta set as makeup man Fred Phillips noted that Nelson was always scoping her out.

Another question arises; even if Jeanette had discussed the incident in detail with her older sister and others had heard about it as well…Why would I even want to discuss such a lurid incident in a biography about the two? Good question. There are four reasons that make it vital, no matter how one views the act.

1. It happened.  And it was, as noted above, Jeanette’s first introduction to Nelson’s temper and his jealous rages. By this time they had known each other about a year; he had proposed marriage to her a week after their first date, she turned him down so he backed off and exhibited very gentlemanly manners all through 1934. But working with her on the film and being near her and seeing her in ever-changing lovely costumes was very hard on him…as noted in this un-retouched photo of them below on the set.

2. It showed that Nelson had interest in sex, wasn’t “The Singing Capon” as some snide people termed him, and that he was indeed sexually attracted to and in fact obsessed with Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson once made this crude but obviously accurate statement: “I get within a mile of her and I’ve got a hard-on.” Below is another shot of him with Jeanette on the Maytime set in which demonstrates his arousal. And here’s a link to an article with some screenshots from The Girl of the Golden West, in which Jeanette’s nearness was again a huge problem for Nelson.

All puns aside, the next two reasons are the most important:

3. This was not an isolated incident, there is a vague mention of another angry attack by Nelson in August 1936 that resulted in Jeanette breaking up with him and accepting the marriage proposal of Gene Raymond.  It should be noted that Nelson was terribly frustrated with Jeanette and he was fed up with her acting “like a yo-yo”. He wanted to marry her, he wanted her by his side and instead she put her career first. Something triggered him off again but we have no real detail on the incident, just its outcome.

4. Based on his past behavior, Nelson believed himself capable of this kind of boorish behavior – forcing himself on a woman – so when Ann Franklin “told me a nightmare of a story about my becoming violent in my lovemaking” while Nelson asserted he was both drunk and drugged and had no memory of it – HE BELIEVED HER! And according to what Nelson wrote to Jeanette, this is the reason he married Ann. (Whether it was the self shame of what he purportedly did to Ann or the fear that Ann would provide a full detailed report to Jeanette – which would no doubt result in Jeanette breaking up with him – Nelson could find no way out of his predicament.)

This is why it was necessary, I felt, to show the irrational pattern of behavior Nelson demonstrated on rare occasions, usually a mild-mannered gentleman but also capable of being pushed to his limit and finally blowing up and acting out.  As his mother Isabel once wrote, “Living with Nelson is like living with World War II in your house.”

Finally, for those of you wondering how or why we would learn such detailed descriptions of their intimate moments, I direct you to read Sweethearts where Nelson mostly (but sometimes Jeanette) can be quoted from letters discussing such matters endlessly, sometimes in vivid and graphic detail. This is who these people were, this is what made them tick and how and why they kept their love going for decades. My job was simply to share the story which – for the most part – they were happy to tell themselves, in their own words.

By the way, it should also be noted that there is never any mention after that August 1936 incident of Nelson acting out toward Jeanette in such a manner again. Ever.

This isn’t to say that they didn’t have their issues in the coming years, namely Nelson’s stamina vs. Jeanette’s frailty, her pregnancies, her heart problem, their many separations due to work and travel, his infidelities and the muddled scene with their spouses. But somehow they managed to work it out for themselves, having learned the hard way that they needed to be together.

To end this article on a more cheerful note, the photo below shows them when personally they were happy in their personal lives together…what a difference!