Below is a fascinating article that provides insight into one of Nelson’s early romances. Who exactly was Catherine Littlefield?
Well, as the photo above shows, she was a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque blonde beauty who had a dance troupe in Philadelphia. Her ballet studio provided the dancers for the Philadelphia Civic Opera productions when Nelson sang with them in the later 1920s. If her name sounds familiar it’s because her parents, James and Caroline Littlefield, earlier ran the dance studio from around the turn of the century. [I am not certain and will research more but am assuming that in the later 1920s Catherine took over the dance studio from her parents or at the very least, had her own ballet group.]
Fun fact: Little Elsie and Blossom MacDonald were students at the Littlefield Dance Studio for several years. And – on February 19, 1909, their 5-year-old sister Jeanette joined them in a Littlefield dance production entitled “Charity” at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The Littlefields had staged this juvenile “opera” as a fundraiser for crippled children at Philadelphia’s Samaritan Hospital. Foreshadowing the future, both Elsie and Blossom were relegated to the chorus line while tiny diva Jeanette – aged 5 – hogged the limelight in her professional debut. She sang 3 solos, “A Real Scotch Song by a Real Scotch Lassie,” “The Plight of Old Mother Hubbard” and “Maybe It’s a Bear.” (Those readers who have seen Jeanette’s “This is Your Life” segment will recall Elsie mentioning “Maybe It’s a Bear” and Jeanette talk-singing a line from that number.)
The first mentions we have of Nelson Eddy working with the Littlefield dance troupe are excerpted from Nelson Eddy: The Opera Years:
June 3, 1925: The Philadelphia Music League produced the second act of Aida. Nelson sang Amonasro for an audience of 35,000 people. At the end of concert, John Philip Sousa mounted the stage and led a number of bands win “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Evening Bulletin: “ The excerpt from the Verdi opera was on an extensive and elaborate scale, and while there is little solo work in this scene, such as there is was admirably done by the all-Philadelphia cast, including Bianca Saroya, prima donna of the San Carlo Opera Company (formerly Miss Alma Weisshaar) as Aida; Marie Stone Langston, as Amneris; Royal P. MacLellan, as Radames, Nelson Eddy, as Amonasro… the elaborate ballet in this scene being arranged and directed by Caroline Littlefield.”
November 5, 1925: The Philadelphia Civic Opera season opened with Aida, at the Met. The stars were Bianca Saroya, Thomas Muir, and Nelson. Public Ledger, November 6, 1925: “The Civic Opera Company of Philadelphia opened its third season at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening with a generally excellent performance of Aida. The house was filled almost to the doors and the enthusiasm of the immense audience increased as the opera progressed, reaching its first climax at the close of the second act, the scene before the gates of Thebes. This was beautifully staged, an exceptionally large and well-trained ballet directed by Caroline Littlefield adding much to the vivid picture..”
And from a June 1927 clipping: “The Fifth Annual Spring Music Festival will be presented by the Philadelphia Music League in the Arena, June 4-7, the biggest municipal music event of the year. Over 1000 trained choristers (sic) will take part. Nelson Eddy will be soloist. Caroline Littlefield will feature her Littlefield Ballet.”It was further explained that Littlefield had trained 300 dancer…”
May 26, 1929: “Nelson Eddy will be heard this week at the Stanley Theater as a special stage artist. Nelson sings ‘Toreador Song,’ Helen Jepson, Micaela’s aria, and the Littlefield Ballet will appear. [Note: Soprano Ethel Righter Wilson was mentioned in the reviews of Nelson’s only “vaudeville act” rather than Helen Jepson.] Nelson sang prior to the screening of the movie A Man’s Man starring William Haines and Josephine Dunn.
Below is the article that details more about Nelson’s relationship with Catherine Littlefield. Note there are a couple of inaccuracies, ie, Jeanette MacDonald died in 1965 not 1964, her pregnancies documented in Sweethearts ended in miscarriage not abortion…but Steve Cohen’s personal remembrances and Nelson quotes are fascinating.
Nelson Eddy, the serious opera singer by Steve Cohen
Nelson Eddy is remembered as one of the motion picture box office stars of the 1930s. He became famous singing romantic duets with Jeanette MacDonald in sentimental operetta stories and they were known as “the Singing Sweethearts.”
But, before that, Eddy was a respected opera singer. Speaking with me a few days before his death from a stroke in March, 1967, at the age of 65, Eddy said:
“I’d like to be remembered for my serious work instead of just that silly June moon spoon stuff. I was a serious singer and I did oratorios. I had a good serious career before I hit the movies. Then things changed and I had to sing songs like ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life’ and ‘Rose Marie, I Love You,’ and this, that and the other. And now these songs have been forced on me since then and they are the ones that are most requested. I hope that, after I’m gone, people will remember me for more than that.”
He spoke almost as if he had a premonition of death, but his actual end came unexpectedly. In the middle of his nightclub act at the Sans Souci Hotel in Florida, he froze. Then he said to the audience, “Would you bear with me a moment? I can’t seem to get the words out. My face is getting numb. Is there a doctor here?” He was helped off stage and was pronounced dead at a hospital a few hours later.
Eddy sang Amonosro in Aida, Escamillo in Carmen and two dozen other roles. Women liked him for his blonde good looks – and not just the ladies in the audience, either. Female singers who worked with him adored him too. Irra Petina spoke of how Eddy was “a sweetheart” and a pleasure to work with. And Rose Bampton said: “He was the ideal of all of us. We were very much in love with him. He was the handsomest person and he was a very dear person.”
My father met Eddy in the early 1930s when he opened an optician’s office in downtown Philadelphia (three blocks from the Academy of Music) and it became a sort of salon for musicians, artists and architects of that era. Architect Louis Kahn was a friend of my dad’s – they were both in their early 30s — along with many artists and players in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eddy used to drop into my father’s place, partly because it was near the Catherine Littlefield Dance Studio and Eddy was in the middle of a romance with Miss Littlefield.
She was an attractive blonde dancer, a native Philadelphian four years younger than Eddy who made her Broadway debut in Jerome Kern’s Sally in 1923 and then in the Ziegfield Follies. She returned to Philadelphia to choreograph and stage a balletic pageant at the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926, honoring the 150th anniversary of America’s independence. Then she opened a dance studio and organized her own ballet company, which performed in Philadelphia Civic Opera productions. It was there that she met Nelson. Catherine later choreographed ballet versions of barn dances which were a precursor of Agnes DeMille’s work in this same genre. She died of cancer at age 47 in 1951.
One of the intriguing aspects of the Littlefield-Eddy romance is that it continued until at least 1935 according to my father and a woman who worked with my father, despite the fact that Littlefield married Philadelphia lawyer Philip Leidy in 1933. (They divorced in 1946.) Nelson would come to my dad’s office supposedly to shop for a telescope or a pair of glasses, but actually so he could casually meet Catherine without attracting attention. The relationship ended only when Eddy moved to California and became involved with Jeanette MacDonald, a former Philadelphian who was two years younger than Eddy. They first appeared together in Naughty Marietta in 1935. The dimension of that relationship is the subject of debate, as we will see later.
Nelson Eddy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 29, 1901. He moved to Philadelphia in his teens and became a journalist, writing for the Public Ledger and the Evening Bulletin for five years. He took singing lessons and gave his first concert recital in Philadelphia in 1928 when he was 26 years old. Then he became a frequent performer with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. Eddy told me how he made his debut with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1932.
“I met Stokowski socially once or twice when he was a hero to all Philadelphia music lovers – this; white-haired god who just seemed to rule the town and we just all bowed before him. One time he called me up to his home and asked me if I would make an audition for Schoenberg’s Gurre-Leider. And I did. I quick ran out and bought a copy of the Gurre-Lieder – I didn’t know what it was. I learned it and went up there and his pianist played and it was Sylvan Levin who has since become quite a conductor. And Stokowski signed me up and as I was going out the door, he said, “By the way, you don’t know Wozzeck do you?” and I said, ‘Yes.’ And he was surprised and he said, ‘Why do you know it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I heard you were going to do it so I learned it. I learn everything that I hear you’re going to do just in case I’m asked to do it.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘this I must hear.’ So we came back and we went through Wozzeck and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got that job too.’ Wozzeck by Alban Berg, the Drum Major in that was my break-in role and after we did it in Philadelphia I had my first and only performance of opera in New York.”
Stokowski conducted the American premiere of Berg’s opera in Philadelphia in 1931. Eddy sang the Drum Major, a part normally done by a tenor. Conductor Sylvan Levin, who led the early rehearsals for these performances, explained:
“The Drum Major is a high baritone. It’s not really a tenor. It’s the same distinction that happens between the German roles with the heldentenors who really were baritones before some teacher came along and squeezed a few extra notes out of them on top. No, this was not really a tenor role as such, and Nelson had all the notes. Nelson had them all and he was a very conscientious person, musically, and worked very hard. I worked with him and he was not unintelligent. He was very quick and very alert.”
Eddy was supposed to also be in the American premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder but when the Philadelphia Orchestra had to reschedule that, Nelson ran into a conflict of dates and could not be in those performances.
When Stokowski decided to do an uncut Parsifal in 1933 he again turned to Nelson Eddy. “He asked me to do the role of Gurnemanz,” Eddy told me. “And there were three long acts and he did not want to make any cuts so he took three days to do it. Stokowski dared to do off-casting. I wasn’t a typical Gurnemanz. I was a baritone. Gurnemanz is a heavy Wagnerian bass but he put me in it because he thought I had something in my voice that fitted the nature of the part and for the soprano part, he put a mezzo-soprano in there – Rose Bampton – because he believed that she could do it and so forth and so on. And I’ve heard many stories about the temperamental Stokowski. My relationship with him was as quiet and cordial and nice as it possibly could be. I saw no temperament and I saw no sparks flying. He only wanted one thing – that the singers who worked with him know their lesson and if they knew their lesson, you got along with him just fine.”
Eddy went to Hollywood in 1933 and had a small singing appearance in a Rodgers & Hart film. He commuted between Philadelphia and Los Angeles for two years until he co-starred with Jeanette MacDonald in Naughty Marietta, which made him a star. The two paired up in Rose Marie a year later. During the shooting of that film, in Lake Tahoe, the two started a passionate romance, according to author Sharon Rich. She quotes from Nelson’s diary to prove her thesis. She also says that Jeanette became pregnant and studio boss Louis B. Mayer forced her to have an abortion.
But some MacDonald-Eddy fans dispute this. They say it couldn’t be true, and in fact the two disliked each other. In 1937, MacDonald married actor Gene Raymond. Perhaps on the rebound, Eddy married Ann Franklin, a woman older than he who had a teenaged son. Rich and others allege that Jeanette and Nelson continued a sexual relationship after both were married, and she had additional pregnancies and abortions.
Those who debunk this say that it is disrespectful to suggest that two fine people could have been unfaithful to their spouses and arrange illegal abortions. On the other hand, if such a long-term and passionate affair happened, it seems to make Eddy and MacDonald more human and sympathetic.
The song-writing team of Robert Wright and George Forrest met Eddy when they moved to Hollywood in 1935. “Nelson Eddy was a very good-looking man,” Wright told me. “He had what we called ‘Nelson Eddy grey,’ a unique hair color – I never saw anyone else whose hair was quite that color – .sort of blondish golden grey, almost like platinum. He was a very intelligent man with a good sense of humor. Nelson was one of the most professional men we ever worked with. Couldn’t have been nicer. All-earnest, always trying.”
Wright and Forrest were hired to write for the third Eddy-MacDonald movie, “Maytime,” in 1937. It was based on an old Sigmund Romberg show, but Hunt Stromberg, the producer, threw out everything, said “I hate Romberg’s music. I know we’re paying him but I want something fresh and new and different.” Stothart asked Wright and Forrest to arrange public domain material and write original music, but without credit. They were young (ages 20 and 21), getting a weekly salary from MGM, so they agreed.
“We screened the first two Nelson-Jeanette movies and we saw that Nelson sang very well but moved like a stick. It was because no director gave him anything sensible to do. He just turned to the left then turned to the right and then they cut to a shot of a little dog or something like that. In real life, he wasn’t wooden. So we came up with business for him to do, using his hands, using a sketch pad and so on.”
Wright and Forrest also wrote an opera scene to allow Eddy and MacDonald to utilize their talents in that area. “We said we can’t write our own opera; we’re not trained for that, but we can adapt some famous composer’s music, and the executives said ‘Fine; pick anyone you like.’ The costume designer said he wanted to dress Jeanette in a Cossack outfit because it would be flattering to her rather wide face, so we said alright, let’s pick a Russian composer. We’ll take Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and adapt it for voice and write English words for it.” Wright and Forrest also worked on most of the remaining Eddy-MacDonald movies.
MacDonald died in 1964 at the age of 61 of heart ailments. Eddy remained married to Ann but spent most of the last decade of his life performing on tour with Gale Sherwood, an attractive blonde singer. She was on stage with him when he suffered the stroke that killed him.