Jeanette MacDonald | Nelson Eddy Biography – Part 3

Q: What happened on GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST?

A: Neither star wanted to work together again after her marriage and Nelson was willing to go on pay suspension NOT to work with her, but was finally convinced to do it. GIRL was supposed to be in color, by the way. Mayer had promised Jeanette MGM’s first color film. The color on ROSE MARIE was scrapped because of Mayer’s failed attempt to ruin Nelson, the color on MAYTIME was scapped with the 1st MAYTIME’s footage — Mayer felt he had lost enough money on the Thalberg version.

But the color was ultimately scrapped on GIRL because it was quickly evident that the stars were having a rough time. Nelson was drinking through most of the film. In the scene where he sings “Soldier of Fortune” he slipped off his horse and would have been trampled if not for the quick thinking of his “sidekick,” actor Leo Carrillo (pictured below). You can see how bleary-eyed Nelson is and how awful his makeup is — two sets of eyebrows!

There are very few candid shots of Nelson and Jeanette together on this set. In the picture below, with director Leonard, they are in two different universes and doesn’t Nelson look glum.

In an effort to “straighten Nelson out,” Mayer flew his father, Bill Eddy, to visit from the East coast. Nelson smiles and shows his teeth for this posed shot with Dad. Although Nelson had re-established some contact with his father and his new family, his reaction to this was, “What’s he going to next, spank me?”

This time, it was Jeanette who was unable to get through the main duet, “Obey Your Heart.” They recorded it, with Jeanette singing it through the first time and Nelson joining in. But when filming, Jeanette broke down repeatedly. Eventually the duet was scrapped — unheard of in a Mac/Eddy film — and Nelson sang it solo. Click here to listen to the duet.

Jeanette was able to film — but got teary-eyed — in another scene. Toward the end of the movie, she is forced to marry Walter Pigeon out of duty but runs into Nelson, admits to him that she still loves him and they kiss. Nelson told his mother: “When I kissed her, believe me, it was no make believe, my heart was torn with despair. When it was over, she turned her head quickly away from the camera and I saw tears on her face. Somehow they maddened me.” He then nastily said to Jeanette, “Weep not, my dear. It was only acting.” Jeanette ran to her dressing room and according to Nelson, refused to open the door for over two hours.

When you watch GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST you’ll notice that the two stars are in very few scenes together. You will also notice that Nelson is “feeling no pain” in a few scenes. This film was in production till the end of January, 1938. Just a week or two before it finished circumstances changed once again for them. You can notice the difference especially in the final scene where they ride off into the sunset — the old magic is back!

Q: But what about all those rumors that Nelson was gay, sterile, impotent, “The Singing Capon?”

A: Most blond male stars were rumored to be gay in the 1930s, especially if they were unmarried. It just went with the territory. Plus, Noel Coward fueled the rumor which has been repeated by other gay authors in mostly gay-themed Hollywood books. Coward disliked both Nelson and Jeanette and hated how BITTERSWEET turned out as a film. He quoted Nelson as supposedly making a crack about “marriage is the tax on stardom.” Whether Nelson made the comment or not we don’t know, but he certainly made a lot of negative comments about his marriage and some were nasty indeed. But that statement can be interpreted in another way. Since Nelson was so eager to marry other women and talked often in interviews about marriage and raising a family, he was obviously not adverse to marriage in general. But he said repeatedly that he was “tricked” into his marriage to Ann Franklin. Because he was a movie star, he ran scared when she threatened to go public with what he’d told her about his relationship with Jeanette. And one of the major reasons he felt he couldn’t get a divorce around the time Coward knew him, in 1940, was again because of the scandal factor.

As for Nelson being sterile, whatever the “official” family viewpoint is from Nelson’s father’s side of the family, all we say is that Nelson was not that close to his father. Once he became a star he visited perhaps once a year. And remember, both Nelson’s and Jeanette’s families outside of the inner circle were mostly in the dark about their relationship. From Isabel Eddy’s own correspondence in the 1940s we learn about two pregnancies that Nelson was responsible for in that time period. This data was verified from other contemporary sources. From Jeanette’s sister Blossom and co-workers on their film sets, people such as William Tuttle, we learn about two earlier pregnancies in the 1930s.

As to Nelson’s virility? Well, on page 202 of my book, “Sweethearts,” I describe a certain candid photo taken of Nelson, from GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, in which he’s a very lively corpse. Actually, he’s not dead; he’s just lying there supposedly bleeding to death. He’s discovered by Walter Pidgeon, the Sheriff, and protected and fussed over by Jeanette. Here is that famous photo. Of course, there are those who would argue that Nelson’s all excited about Walter Pigeon but we don’t really think that’s the case…

The women interviewed who had relationships with Nelson were NOT under the impression that he had any flaws in the equipment department. Here’s an unretouched wardrobe photo from SWEETHEARTS, which might prove them out.

Q: Why would Nelson tell everything to his mother? Some of those letters seem awfully mushy. And did he, a grown man, really call his mother “mommie?”

A: I too was flabbergasted when I first saw the letters. But you must remember that when Isabel Eddy passed along events she wrote about them in her own somewhat Victorian style. Her unpublished “memoirs” attest to that. And other items which she copied out of Nelson’s journal, or from letters, well… all I can say is that those things were personal and Nelson would have probably been furious with his mother had he known what she was doing. For us, though, in hindsight, it shows another side to these people, answers questions and shows how little the public knew about what was really going on behind the scenes. I have left the wording and dialogue exactly as it was written in the letters, no matter how corny. Remember, in those days you didn’t just blab all this stuff over the phone — telephone operators could listen in. Letters were considered safer. They wrote two, three times a week — kind of the same way we are today when we frequently email people we’re close to!

How close was Nelson to his mother? She was his chief confident from childhood until the late ’40s. By then she’d become disgusted with how his personal life had turned out and they were never as close in the ’50s, the last decade of her life. Also, once Nelson began touring with his nightclub act he was rarely in Los Angeles and didn’t see much of his mother. (Jeanette’s chief confidant was her sister Blossom, since her mother disapproved of Nelson.)

And yes, Nelson did indeed call Isabel “mommie.” Here’s a sound clip from his radio show in 1945, a Mother’s Day program in which Isabel was his guest. At the end, he interrupts the applause to happily announce, “That’s my mommie!” Click here to listen.

Q: How do you know Gene Raymond was bisexual?

A: We learned it from a variety of sources, including old Hollywood cops who’d been involved with various arrests, other contemporaries of the time, Gene’s friends, detectives both in Los Angeles and London, and other friends who frequented some of the same gay bars both in L.A. and Palm Springs and saw Gene there. Here is a copy of the L.A. Municipal Court Log when Gene was arrested in mid January, 1938. According to Sandy Reiss ( a friend and journalist who was the first sports reporter allowed in Red China in 1968), Jeanette paid $1000 to have the arrest taken off the books. But it wasn’t removed from the log although the case number has clearly been tampered with. It was this arrest that made Jeanette decide her marriage was over.

Jeanette returned to Nelson and GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST was finished on a happy note. Jeanette secretly traveled with Nelson for part of his 1938 concert tour, a fact verified by one of his bodyguards. Needless to say, Nelson was in fine voice and good spirits that entire tour! One reporter commented how Nelson “smiled his good humor at New Orleans” and how he was “completely relaxed.”

Q: What happened during the filming of SWEETHEARTS?

A: They were happy and their radiance showed. After two days of production Mayer agreed that SWEETHEARTS would be done — in COLOR! This became MGM’s first Technicolor feature. Nelson was more relaxed than ever onscreen and just beams at her. Watch in the “Pretty as a Picture” number as he blows on her neck and really carries on — hot stuff for 1938!

Of course, there was a minor problem… and they had to take director Woody Van Dyke into their confidence. Jeanette was pregnant again, almost four months when the filming began in June. Their plan was to finish the film and then Jeanette would drop out of sight to have the baby. According to sources, she had also filed for a California divorce but that would take a year to finalize. How it was all supposed to work out without Mayer objecting is not fully known.

Jeanette normally was pretty flat-chested, as you can see below…

…but as SWEETHEARTS progressed, her pregnancy was apparent if you knew to look for it. Suddenly she was busty.

And she was photographed frequently in candids eating, which was unusual.

Her costumes were designed so that many of them were flowing, and with one of them she held a fur muff to her middle as an “accessory.” Careful camera angles hid her condition, except in this scene.

Even candid photos were airbrushed and touched up around her middle.

One reporter on the set watched them filming a scene in which they quarreled and decided that Jeanette and Nelson hated each other off-screen. He wrote about it and the studio retaliated by posing Jeanette and Nelson in boxing gloves, showing off the supposed “feud.”

But other reporters knew the truth, and by July the trades were running blurbs about how Jeanette’s marriage was on the rocks. To counteract this, Gene made an appearance on the set with his wife. Gene was not having a great year. Mayer had blacklisted him from working at ANY studio, due to his being arrested. Previously Gene had made about five films a year. He would not work again in films until 1940 — such was Mayer’s power and influence in Hollywood!

Nelson, an accomplished artist, did the painting of Jeanette used in the film. And no, we don’t know what happened to it!

It was inevitable that Mayer would learn everything that was going on. Pictures of Nelson REALLY kissing Jeanette at her studio birthday party didn’t help matters.

Nor did the photos at Nelson’s party, like the one below. The toy sax is a gag gift from Jeanette, but note the champagne bottle topped by a baby bottle nipple for the expectant father!

All hell broke loose as Mayer demanded Jeanette get an abortion, even at that late date, and return to her husband. Jeanette refused. Mayer made threats, which Jeanette ignored. Mayer and Nelson almost came to blows over the situation and there was talk that both stars would leave MGM and go to Warner Brothers.

Meanwhile, there had been some accidents on the SWEETHEARTS set. During the scene below, Jeanette stumbled a couple of times coming down the ramp and Nelson steadied her. If you look carefully in the film you’ll see it.

He wasn’t at her side when she filmed the shot of running up this staircase. She fell hard on her stomach and slid down a few steps. The cameras were still rolling… the supporting actors called out at her to watch out. “Why, am I going to fall again?” she yelled, face beet red, and continued up to the top of the staircase. Woody left this shot in the film.

Jeanette began to look ill and in pain, especially in the “Angelus” number. There is an unretouched photo from it below. This number was cut AFTER the initial release of the film; the fans who remember seeing it say that Jeanette didn’t look well in the scene. There is only a short snippet of it left in the version we know today.

On July 25, Jeanette collapsed at the studio and was rushed to the hospital. She suffered a miscarriage. Of course, the press was given another story. The newspapers reported that she was operated on for “an abscess in her right ear.” Woody filmed around Jeanette but by the time she came back to work, he had started another picture and Robert Z. Leonard was called in to film the remaining scenes — the “montage” near the end of the film.

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(c) 1999 by Sharon Rich. All rights reserved. All quotes were originally published (with their sources documented) in the book “Sweethearts,” (c) 1994 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.