Here’s an excerpt from a book I wrote in which I mention the fascinating but sad adventure of trying to interview Susanna Foster for my book Sweethearts, about the Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy off-screen love affair.
In 1983, I ran a two-part interview with Nelson’s Phantom of the Opera co-star Susanna Foster. The story behind the interview is an amazing one, but sad. Whether you like Foster or not as an actress or singer, she was a child prodigy and had an amazing vocal range. She should have had a lengthy and lucrative musical career, but as I was soon to discover, she had serious mental problems….
[I] asked around and learned that Foster had most recently been on the East Coast, kicked off Welfare and was living in her car. Then she returned to Hollywood, taken in by a gay fan. This kindly person was not wealthy, in fact he lived in a tiny one-room apartment on Cherokee off of Hollywood Blvd. The building was known as “Murderer’s Row” because there were so many incidents that occurred there, mostly drug-related.
I don’t remember where I first met Susanna; it was probably at some Hollywood-related event. I asked if I could interview her; she said yes. We set a day and time and I told her I’d pick her up in my car.
I have to say that she looked fabulous and young for her years. She was perky and well-dressed. At the designated time, I picked her up only to learn that she had gotten a new job as a telephone switchboard operator, and could I drop her off at her job? As I recall, it was a building just off Hollywood Blvd…
I have to admit, I wondered why she had a minimum-wage job as a switchboard operator. I pictured a row of girls answering phones together, like they did in the classic movies, and imagined what the other gals would think if this new employee revealed that she’d once been a movie star.
Well, I’m sure none of them had a chance to ask her since Susanna was fired that day; she’d only worked there about one or two days. I asked her why they’d let her go and she rambled on without giving me a clear answer. I didn’t press her, as it sounded like she was glad the job was over. We set up a luncheon date. Again, I wondered at her inability to hold down a job. I mean, how difficult could it be to answer phones for a woman of her talent and brains?
I let her pick the restaurant. she wanted to go to Musso and Frank’s, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. She hadn’t eaten there in years. So that’s where we ended up. Now, Musso and Frank’s is a pricey restaurant. But somehow, Susanna got the idea that Paramount Studios was picking up the tab for this meal and she kept telling me to order the most expensive item on the menu!…. She ordered an expensive dish and had several drinks, reminding me that we were spending the studio’s money, so live it up!
We spent a few hours at the restaurant [I taped the interview]…. I [published] excerpts of our conversation, with questions that Susanna actually answered in a lucid manner. In between that, there were some incomprehensible remarks….
In shuttling her back and forth to her apartment, there were more shockers in store. As I’ve said, the apartment was very small, like the size of a cruise cabin. It had two single beds, set up in an L-shape. There was a table with two chairs for eating. Susanna had a framed photo from Rose Marie and another one of just Jeanette. There were no photos of her anywhere in the place. There wasn’t much of anything in the place at all, except for the furniture. She offered me a drink but the refrigerator was bare, except for a bottle of wine. While I was there, one of her sons [Philip] arrived. She told me he was a drug addict….
I offered to give her money; she refused to take it. I offered to buy her some groceries; she said they didn’t need it. She said she was planning a comeback and she sang for me, to prove she still had her voice. She did sound great, her voice was a little deeper but otherwise pretty much untouched by time. I offered to help set up a small recital and to even get some press for her. She turned down all help but kept talking about her big comeback. Believe me, folks, it took some careful listening and observation to see that she wasn’t operating on all circuits. She was a good actress and could get through an entire social event without people seeing this side of her.
You may quote from this interview as long as you provide a backlink to this interview.
You can read more of my comments on the late Susanna Foster as well as the lengthy two-part interview I did with her in my book Mac/Eddy Today, Volume 6. The excerpt above is © 2005 by Sharon Rich, all rights reserved.