Dr. Michael DeBakey, 99, could he really have saved Jeanette MacDonald’s life?

Dr. Michael DeBakey on the cover of Time Magazine

Noted heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, who died on July 11, 2008, became famous to the general public in the mid 1960s after performing early arterial transplants on two high-profile celebrities, England’s Duke of Windsor (aka King Edward VIII) and 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald. But while the Duke of Windsor lived another decade, Jeanette MacDonald survived little more than a year.

While there are several reasons that MacDonald’s life was cut short, none of them have to do with Dr. DeBakey’s medical skill. I have not thoroughly checked to see whether any of his other celebrity clients failed so quickly after treatment – but, then again, it is unlikely that any of these other folks lived under such lonely and trying circumstances as did Jeanette MacDonald.

It is certain, though, that Jeanette MacDonald had a long history of heart problems. Her older sister Blossom Rock told me that MacDonald had a rheumatic heart from childhood. Their father died young due to a bad heart. MacDonald herself mentions having a heart attack as early as 1929; she had just turned 26. In a letter dated August 23, 1929 MacDonald wrote to her ex-boyfriend Irving Stone: “My heart attack is still palpitating so that also accounts, perhaps, for my disinterest in the big he men out here!” This handwritten letter was photographed and reproduced in the book Jeanette MacDonald: The Irving Stone Letters (page 145).

Heart problems were also mentioned in several contemporary accounts as contributing to her inability to sustain a pregnancy. I have been able to document four pregnancies by MacDonald’s co-star and off-screen lover Nelson Eddy during the 1930s and ‘40s (even though it is duly noted that she was married to Gene Raymond during three of them). There may have been other pregnancies, one in particular that I have seen mention of around 1942. This one even made the gossip columns – just a quick note to the effect that Jeanette MacDonald was hoping to have good news for hubby Gene Raymond when he returned from war, but alas it was not to be… or some such flowery statement. What might give this blurb credence is MacDonald’s documented response to Nelson Eddy telling her, during the filming of I Married an Angel, that his wife, Ann Franklin, was claiming to be pregnant. (And if she was, he told her he was not the father.) Her rival’s pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but MacDonald collapsed at this news and was so distraught that her sister Blossom had to stay the night to help console her.

I am also suspicious of MacDonald’s April 14, 1944 hospitalization in Santa Fe for “food poisoning.” In those days, celebrity “food poisoning” usually meant an alcohol or drug overdose (still does!) but this would not been the case for MacDonald, who was on a concert tour. Nelson Eddy’s over-reaction to her hospitalization was also suspicious (unless her life was in danger from actual food poisoning). He too was on tour, and became so distraught that he nearly canceled his New York Carnegie Hall appearance on April 15. Eddy agreed to go on but was not in good voice, as noted by the New York Herald-Tribune critic. During the intermission, Eddy received word that MacDonald was better. He then went back out to the audience, held up his hand to quiet them and announced: “If you don’t mind I am going to sing a song that is very dear to me.” Then he sang their famous duet “Indian Love Call.” (The same newspaper reporter noted that Eddy’s singing was much improved after the intermission.)

Despite heart problems, Jeanette MacDonald tried repeatedly to get pregnant during the WWII years, either to force Nelson Eddy to divorce his wife, or as a last resort – to raise the child within her current marriage. Certainly she pulled this maneuver in 1946 and 1947, even though now in her mid ‘40s. Documentation from contemporary letters reveal that her inner circle was concerned about such pregnancies and her weak heart, and Nelson Eddy was warned by her doctor that “another pregnancy could kill her.” This medical threat resulted in a seemingly final breakup of their physical relationship, at least throughout her remaining potential childbearing years.

In 1956, Jeanette MacDonald suffered a heart attack during a performance of The King and I at Kansas City’s Starlight Theater. According to cast member Peggy Seo, one number was cut from the show to lighten MacDonald’s work load.

In 1960, Jeanette MacDonald was attempting to write her autobiography with the help of noted author Fredda Dudley Balling. Balling later wrote that MacDonald was seriously ill and there were doubts that she would live to finish the book. (The manuscript remained unpublished until 2004, when it was released under the title Jeanette MacDonald Autobiography: The Lost Manuscript.)

In her final trip to New York City, Jeanette MacDonald consulted with psychic Phyllis Woodbury, revealing that she and Nelson Eddy had been in love all their lives and had married the wrong people. “The suffering got to her and she didn’t want to live anymore,” Woodbury told me in a phone interview.

Being forced into early retirement had also proved difficult for MacDonald, who was a singer/actress since childhood. In 1964, recuperating from Dr. Michael DeBakey’s arterial transplant, Jeanette MacDonald wrote: “I have simply been trying to get well, and this isn’t as easy as one would think. I suppose patience plays a large part in any recuperation – something which I ain’t got!”

Also working against her was the harsh truth of physical neglect in her final days. I spent over four hours interviewing Susan Nelson, the private duty nurse who attended Jeanette MacDonald during her last hospitalization at UCLA Medical Center, a scant two weeks before her death. On December 21, 1964, MacDonald was accompanied to the hospital by Nelson Eddy, while her husband Gene Raymond was prowling gay bars on Santa Monica Blvd. MacDonald had surgery for abdominal adhesions and was released on New Year’s Eve.

Susan Nelson and I carefully studied a calendar to gauge the sequence of events as accurately as possible. It seemed that after MacDonald’s release from UCLA, Gene Raymond requested that Susan Nelson continue to make house calls to check on MacDonald until January 4, 1965. After that, there was no private duty nurse in attendance. Susan Nelson told me, “She could have looked 105, 110 pounds to me when I first saw her in the hospital, but after two weeks of not eating much – I don’t know, I’m just guessing….She was too sick to be on a commercial plane. I know I told you she was getting out of bed but…to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I didn’t take her to the bathroom in the hospital. But I think I did in her home. She was very, very weak.” (Sweethearts, page 450)

Susan Nelson recalled that Gene Raymond asked on her last visit whether she might be willing to accompany them, should he decide to take Jeanette MacDonald back to Houston and Dr. DeBakey. But he never asked her. Additionally, Susan Nelson verified what I had previously learned, that Jeanette’s telephone was removed from her bedroom. This cut off her lifeline to the outside world. Her sister Blossom Rock, who was acting in the TV hit “The Addams Family,” came to visit usually early in the morning or at night after leaving work. Blossom’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Cameron, remembered that Blossom was terribly concerned, as Jeanette was usually asleep when she did visit. Nelson Eddy, who was on the road singing, angrily reported that he could not get Jeanette on the phone and that the calls were being diverted to Gene Raymond’s apartment. Blossom told a chilling account of how, during one of her final visits, Jeanette was awake and dragged herself into the living room, weakly handed the phone to her sister and insisted that Blossom dial Nelson Eddy’s number.

Susan Nelson had last attended Jeanette MacDonald on January 4th; on the 12th, the then-doorman at the Wilshire Comstock said he was recruited to carry MacDonald down from the apartment to the car, when Gene Raymond finally took her to the airport and onto a commercial plane back to Michael DeBakey.

It is not surprising that both Blossom Rock and Nelson Eddy blamed themselves, in part, for Jeanette’s death on January 14, 1965 at age 61. Perhaps Dr. DeBakey could have given her a few more years of quality life had she returned to Houston immediately after leaving UCLA, when she still had some physical strength and was in good spirits. But by the time her husband, Gene Raymond, deigned to take her back via commercial airline to Houston and Dr. DeBakey, she was emaciated and it was too late to save her. “She was in very bad heart failure,” DeBakey told the press at her arrival, and he tried in vain to stabilize her for surgery. Justify Raymond’s actions as you will; there are many who will never forgive him for denying her round-the-clock care in her final days.

For more detailed description of Jeanette MacDonald’s final days, please consult my book Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Story Onscreen and Off Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Sharon Rich