In 1973, Jeanette MacDonald: A Pictorial Treasury was published. I was 19 years old. I dedicated the book to Jeanette’s older sister and my good friend, Blossom Rock. I had met Blossom two years earlier while volunteering at the Motion Picture Home which was close by to where I lived in Woodland Hills.
The Home was putting on a variety show as a fundraiser using their own residents – either from “The Lodge” (assisted living section) or the “cottages” which was like your own little home but with a group dining room for meals if one preferred. It turned out Blossom was doing a song-and-dance number with her brother-in-law, Gene Raymond. All of the performers, ambulatory or not, sat in wheelchairs in a half-circle on the stage, wheeled out by their helpers (that was us, the gals from the high school honor society doing our “good deed” for the month). And then each performer did their number – again, some sang from their wheelchairs and others not. Blossom got up, and she and Gene did a tap dance. Blossom’s dancing was nimble still – even just walking she still had that dancer’s walk – very similar to Jeanette’s – but as for the song…well, you could tell she had a sweet singing voice, on pitch and she could hum the melody but her attempt to sing the words was garbled, the results of her stroke.
Below is a picture taken that day of us. Note Caesar Romero as MC. Sitting next to Blossom, by the way, on her left is Sally Benson who wrote Meet Me in St. Louis. What a sharp wit that woman had!
In Sweethearts, I explain in more detail about my friendship with Blossom. How I came to know that Blossom was Jeanette MacDonald’s older sister, which frankly meant nothing to me as I was not familiar with the Mac/Eddy films. Only after I watched a theater screening of the movie Sweethearts with Blossom did I “get it”. And after that screening when Blossom affirmed that yes, Nelson and Jeanette were in love while making that film and that Jeanette was pregnant – with Nelson’s child – I suddenly realized there was an untold story here. And Blossom was annoyed that her sister’s life had faded into the shadows and was not included among the handful of universally worshiped Hollywood “greats.” Blossom wanted that remedied. And she made me understand that because I was of a younger generation, the freewheeling culture of the 1970s, maybe I could see this with a more objective eye. None of this was particularly shocking or scandalous except when considered by the secrecy and morals of those days.
Hollywood still has, to this day, many secrets that still have not come out and probably never will. Jeanette and Nelson’s adulterous love affair (as it was viewed then) is pretty tame in comparison to other stories. It only SEEMS shocking because Jeanette in particular played up her blissful marriage and overall prim and proper life to her fan base. She was not, as she said to interviewer Tony Thomas, “the angelic creature I seemingly represent to a certain – uh, group of people.”
Once I agreed to write a book about Jeanette, I was hit head-on by the early sources who were still afraid to talk freely or go public. The climate of fear was very strong. Blossom handed me her phone book, I made calls, met the first round of people. She also encouraged me to attend the annual meeting of the Jeanette fan club which I did. Made the mistake of blabbing to everyone I met at the initial hotel room reception how sad it was that Jeanette was pregnant by Nelson during the filming of Sweethearts and how Mayer wouldn’t let them marry. You can imagine how well that went over! Only because I was known to be Blossom’s good friend is why they didn’t toss me out immediately – as I was a loose cannon. The disapproving glares and stares finally shut me up. And Clara Rhoades attempted diplomacy, not trying to tell me that Blossom’s information was untrue (as she knew I’d never buy that, it had already been confirmed elsewhere) but cautioning me that this was upsetting, the fans didn’t want to hear it so maybe I’d better not discuss it here. Stupid me, I agreed and shut my mouth going forward…for the next few years actually, except in private.
In the meantime, Gene Raymond had been cautiously friendly with me. And as I wrote in a 1979 article:
Blossom had long ago given up on speech therapists and refused to see them. It amazed me that for several days at a time, her speech could be perfect. I consulted a therapist myself and was instructed on how to help Blossom, which I did. For a few months we spent part of each day working. The hospital staff was astonished that Blossom was tolerating my help when she had refused others. Even Gene Raymond…commented to me on how much good my presence was doing Blossom.
But I ultimately freaked out Gene Raymond (who was visiting Blossom) by asking him too many questions about a photo, he suddenly tried to stop both the book project and my contact with Blossom. More from that 1979 article:
I tried to visit Blossom but the nurses told me they had orders not to let me see her…. Finally I called Blossom and asked her if this was her wish too. She was furious and agreed to let me in the back door of the Lodge where she lived. Thus I continued to see her almost daily; either she would sneak me in or I’d take her out for a drive and ice cream. Finally one day I got brave and put on a disguise, and waltzed past the nurses with no recognition on their part! [I had prearranged this with Blossom, by the way.] Blossom was watching, a huge grin on her face, and once we got out of the nurses’ view, we burst out laughing and howled the rest of the afternoon!
I have so many treasured recollections of Blossom…the time the head nurse suddenly made an appearance at Blossom’s door, knocking impatiently. Knowing I’d be thrown out if caught, Blossom grabbed my arm and pulled me into the bathroom, shoving me in the shower. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she sweetly greeted the nurse, chatted aimlessly then finally ushered the woman out. Afterwards, we laughed at her quick thinking till we were weak.
For a time, I came and left through Blossom’s sliding glass door but finally, no one seemed to care anymore about me so I resumed visiting Blossom normally…and I continued to visit her openly throughout the rest of her life without any issues. In fact, one night when Blossom had the flu I stayed overnight to sit with her since the new nurse on the floor complained that “it was a real pain” to have the added work of keeping an eye on Blossom. I wrote: “In the morning she was amazingly better, much to the frazzled nurse’s astonishment.”
I did speak face-to-face with Gene Raymond about this whole scene, he was very nervous when confronted and tried to deny his involvement but I detailed all the specifics I had been told. No telling though whether that’s why the “ban” was lifted. (The full version of this article can be found in this book.)
Perhaps you can understand why, when the pictorial book was published, I decided to look like I was towing the party line – so as not to be sued and also not to scare off those who might come forward and speak to me as a result of this book being published.
So I only hinted that there was more than met the eye.
This book filled with innocuous text still had two shockers in it – for which I was attacked anyway!
First, I had the nerve to publish Jeanette’s accurate birthdate. Sure, you may notice that other authors wrote in pre-1973 Hollywood books that Jeanette was possibly born in 1901, 1903, 1907, etc. But the difference was that MY information came RIGHT FROM JEANETTE’S SISTER! I was not using the nonsense 1907 birthdate that the fan club claimed and that even Gene Raymond used on Jeanette’s crypt. And I was stating 1903 as FACT not rumor or assumption.
Eek!!! Horrors!!!!! The shock of it!!!! I was called a liar and received hate letters from several of those fan club people. See below for evidence of my awful transgression:
To not alienate Gene Raymond, the fan club or anyone else, I wimped out and presented the happy Jeanette-Gene marriage. How else to learn more from this camp without being a double agent? And yet I couldn’t stomach not having the truth in there somewhere…and so I shouted as loudly as I could on the final pages of this book…because in the case of Jeanette and Nelson the pictures tell it all, do they not?
And Nelson’s pain close up:
And in case you can’t read the text, here are the very last words of this book:
Later that day when television reporters interviewed him reality sank in and Nelson grieved, “I didn’t know she was dying. I’ll never get over it.”
Friends claim he never did.
Another round of attacks and hate letters and threats…I made many enemies for writing those carefully chosen words. Laughable, isn’t it?
When I did press for the pictorial book, I had to continue to be very careful. As revealed in Sweethearts, Ann Eddy asked Emily West to show up at my radio interview with Thomas Cassidy. To make sure that I – quote – “didn’t spill the beans”. Which Emily did. Sat across from me and stared me down, daring me to open my mouth. Well, folks, I was still a wimpy coward and my voice quaked in that interview as I said nothing of importance.
But even in a newspaper interview, I tried to hint again at the truth, saying that the marriage between Jeanette and Gene ENDURED all their lives.
As I had hoped, post publication, new people came forward with information, several who knew that I knew…and so felt freer to speak openly.
I met Diane Goodrich at my first Jeanette fan club and to my surprise, she was NOT afraid to talk. She had known Nelson through her father and she had several lengthy conversations with Nelson alone during a period of time when his life was at a low point. He and Jeanette were broken up and he was re-examining how it had all gone south, what he did to contribute to the scene but mostly how he had loved Jeanette despite everything, stuck with her through thick and thin but finally she dumped him. She was through with him and now much time had passed and he was finally coming to terms with it and trying to move on with his life. This was August 1951, by the way.
Over the next few years Diane and I worked together researching, me generally dealing with the pro-Jeanette folks and Diane meeting up with the pro-Nelson ones. Due to the climate of the times, there was no way I could keep my promise to Blossom in a timely way to get the full story out – even if I fully understood it – which of course I didn’t. But we also had no support from our sources…no one would go public, they assured us they would disavow and threaten to sue if they were quoted. Actually, Marie Gerdes (formerly Waddy) who once ran Jeanette’s fan club, was a gentle, sweet lady and she was perhaps the lone person who offered support but warned me of the heartache I faced if I was foolish enough to try and buck the establishment.
So bottom line, Diane and I would gather up the latest information from our sources and then go over with Blossom for her take on it. We made the rounds, seeking out older Hollywood folk and others who would talk. In June 1977, there was a huge dust-up at a screening of New Moon with the Jeanette fan club. The Nelson fans were defiant enough to clap after Nelson’s singing solo. At which point the movie projector was shut off and Clara Rhoades – a schoolteacher by profession – stood up and gave the Nelson supporters a stern lecture. Which resulted in several of them walking right out of the room. Including Diane Goodrich. I hesitated – still a wimp by nature, sadly! and then decided enough was enough. I walked out too.
At the end of that week was the grand finale dinner, MC’d by Gene Raymond. This was the event at which Sunny Griffin was a featured guest speaker, the flavor of the week. He was introduced as Jeanette’s friend and he related funny anecdotes about his days hanging out with her in New York. Gene greeted him warmly by the way. And early into the reception I took the opportunity to take Sunny over to greet Blossom, to observe her reaction at seeing him. Between Blossom indeed knowing him and Gene’s endorsement – and Emily West’s as well, by the way, I verified Sunny as a valid source.
After the New Moon fiasco, Diane Goodrich decided to start a fan club for both Jeanette and Nelson, to reach out to folks with the truth and to hopefully have more people feel free to come forward with information. She asked me to be Vice-President and I agreed. While visiting Blossom during that summer, we discussed these plans with her and asked her if she would be willing to be the first honorary member. She agreed. The first issue of the magazine was published in late September of 1977 – and guess what? During that summer we had READ ALOUD TO BLOSSOM EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE IN THAT FIRST ISSUE!!!
And she approved it all, even the cover layout I designed which by today’s standards was my poor attempt at colorizing a photo!
This included Diane’s first letter to folks about why a team club was needed:
Here’s what was on “Their Page”:
The main article was about both stars’ early years up through their meeting and their first disastrous date where Jeanette walked out in tears:
Notice Nelson’s quote: “I think it was that moment that I really started loving her. She needed me and I was forever hooked.” This is what he told Diane Goodrich in 1951. She wrote this in 1977. Please note that it wasn’t until 1990 that I ever saw what Isabel Eddy wrote about this time or what Nelson himself wrote in a letter from the 1940s stating “I wanted to crush her to me and kiss away her tears.”
And here is more – all of which was read to Blossom – about their early attempts at a relationship, Jeanette having to deal with Nelson’s temper and stubborn ideas about what he wanted in a wife…and why a marriage between them seemed incompatible and unworkable in the months before Naughty Marietta was begun:
In short, the beginnings of the story was to some degree all there and was read out loud to Blossom. As I recall, she corrected a few things or had some comments…which I had to retype on my typewriter.
When this magazine was published, Blossom was immediately given a copy and it went right on her night table to browse through along with my pictorial book and the Eiffel Tower nightlight I had brought her from Paris and a few other things. Actually, while I gave her the Paris nightlight in the summer of 1972, by some point in the year 1977 (as shown below), it seems it now had a place of honor on her dresser!
The point is, folks, that Blossom was fully aware of what was being written and how we intended to unfold the full story of the Jeanette-Nelson romance in the upcoming magazines.
PS: In answer to questions I am asked as to whether Blossom was bitter? Was she angry at Gene? I have to say overall – no. Blossom was practical, with a wry sense of humor, she shrugged off any dramatics. It was over, it had happened. Part of it was that she couldn’t express herself well verbally. Both more it was that, from her responses to our questions, she accepted at face value the way Jeanette’s life turned out and the scrapes that Jeanette got herself into. I’m not sure Blossom knew the totality of what we now know about Gene’s neglect of Jeanette in those last years. As I wrote in Sweethearts, she only expressed doubts about Gene one time to me. Otherwise, she was angrier at Nelson.
She was FURIOUS, however, when I learned that Gene was selling her house in Beverly Hills without telling her. But I was not there to hear that argument.
I did see Blossom angry with Gene two other times. Once over me, he was scolding her about how much she was telling me. The other incident, I don’t know what it was about.
Gene dutifully showed up on a weekend day pretty regularly (at least in the early ’70s) to take Blossom out for a drink and a smoke. He was friendly and affectionate with her from what I could see. He didn’t show up every week but he was around. Gene was on the Board there so he had business that brought him to the Motion Picture Home anyway. (He also invited Blossom to his wedding to Nelson Ada Hees, his second wife.)
By the way, there were non-publicized problems at the Motion Picture Home while Gene was involved. Reports of neglect and abuse of residents, in fact, Jane Withers asked me if I would testify as to what I had seen there as there were complaints and this was all being investigated. I had helpful information and I agreed but I’m not sure any legal actions were pursued.
In summation, the admittance of a Jeanette-Nelson romance was published during Blossom’s lifetime, with Blossom’s support. The opposing side was silent at that time, at least in public. How could they argue against her? To do so would have meant them calling Blossom a liar. They couldn’t call her senile as she certainly still had her wits about her – as evidenced by her presence and interaction at the June 1977 fan club dinner, so it was going to be very difficult to explain away her cooperation a mere 6 weeks later. By then Diane and I had announced and sent out a letter to all the Mac/Eddy fans that we knew to alert them that a new team club was being formed, what it was about, that fans who had information should come forward, and that the first magazine was currently being written with the full support of Blossom and would be published in September.
We are all lucky, folks, that Blossom was the plucky and forthcoming person that she was. No wonder Jeanette looked up to her.