Here is a photo of Nelson Eddy taken in Canada in February, 1965, about a month after the death of Jeanette MacDonald. I’ve had a small photo of this for many years but now seeing it larger, it has even more impact.
Despite the evident socializing going on – notice Gale Sherwood watching and gently smiling – Nelson is in his own world. His face looks vacant and terribly sad. He’s very thin. He looks lost.
I don’t know about you but I find it difficult to look at this picture. And yet it shows us visually what many fans and acquaintances commented about in the days or months after Jeanette’s death when they met or spoke with Nelson – when he wasn’t on show.
My screenwriter friend Judy Burns met Nelson around this time, she knocked on his door at the Ashdale house, he answered and invited her inside. Her observation on that short meeting: “Nelson Eddy was the saddest man I ever met. He had miles on him and you could see it in his face. Jeanette said he wouldn’t outlive her by long and he didn’t. He went down fast once she was gone and you could see his loss and his pain.”
Another account related by Angela Messino: “I was talking with an older gentleman who saw him in one of the famous and elegant Hollywood bars in the 1960s. Nelson was seated at a round table, all by himself with a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne in front of him and a single glass. He said he was the saddest man he’d ever seen.”
Another fascinating piece of detective work by Katie and Angela.
We know that during the 1940s, when Jeanette and Nelson were both touring the country doing concerts, they tried to coordinate their schedules so that they could meet occasionally for a quick rendezvous. A favorite city for this was Kansas City, in the middle of the country. They also met in Philadelphia at times, where technically Jeanette would stay with her sister Elsie…which made it all look very legitimate to the fans…but then Jeanette and Nelson were seen staying together in local hotels. (Ie, getting off the elevator together and going to Nelson’s room, Jeanette in minimal disguise leaving Nelson’s concert with him in the same car, etc.)
Since Katie lives in Virginia, she took particular interest in Nelson’s being in that area and singing at FDR’s inauguration ceremonies in 1941. We know that Nelson’s wife Ann accompanied him, as there are photos attesting to that fact.
It is a huge honor for a celebrity to sing at such an event. Both Nelson and Jeanette were friendly with FDR, Harry Truman and Eisenhower. Nelson was also said to have sung at an event for then-Senator JFK and Jacqueline. Politics aside, they were welcomed at the White House from “Naughty Marietta” onward. And in the case of Margaret Truman, she was openly a fan of both – politics be damned!
Nelson not only was the featured male singer on the program but he gave an entire mini-concert! A total of 4 songs (only 3 of them were broadcast on radio). Compare this to the featured woman singer, Rise Stevens, who sang one aria from “Carmen.” The written program noted that no encores would be allowed.
While it would have pleased Nelson to have Jeanette share in his honor singing for FDR in 1941, it was not to be. His wife of record had to be with him. But…as Katie noted on her blog, here is the sequence of very interesting events that Jeanette met up with Nelson to have their own private celebration:
January 18: Jeanette concert, Memorial Hall, Columbus, OHJanuary 19: Nelson sings for FDR inauguration. Ann Eddy is present for this, BUT SHE GOES BACK TO LA RIGHT AFTERWARD. We don’t have any mention of Nelson leaving the East Coast …January 20: Jeanette sings at City Auditorium in Huntington, WV. So she’s about 5-6 hours away from Nelson by train at that point. She hops the train to Pittsburgh, where she is scheduled at Syria Mosque on the 23rd. Now she’s 3.5-4 hours by train from Washington. And, having already arrived in Pittsburgh, after singing to rave success in Huntington, she gets “sick”.Newspapers all pointed out that canceling this Pittsburgh concert on the 23rd was the first time in all her national tours that she had not kept a scheduled date. So either she was really, really, really dying OR she was willing to do it to spend a day or so with Nelson under the radar. Since she sang in Roanoke TWO DAYS LATER to rave reviews (a two hour show and over an hour of encores), was in exceptional voice and generally brought down the house…..I’m basically forced to think that she was not, in fact, dying.
As of January 22nd, her concert had not yet been canceled, but our girl was already on the train to Washington. She was in DC on the 23rd, the day of her canceled Pittsburgh concert, and was supposed to go on to Roanoke, where she was scheduled on the 25th. But, FUNNY STORY, she MISSES HER TRAIN in DC on the 23rd!!
She misses her train.
And she’s “forced” to spend “another” (a word that indicates MORE THAN ONE. So she was there on the 22nd, too.) night in Washington. You know, with Nelson in town and nary a spouse for thousands of miles.
After bringing down the proverbial house in Roanoke, she cancels Asheville, NC, where she was scheduled on the 28th. (Magic! Sick again!!!) This time, her “doctor” orders her to go to Florida to recover from her “cold”. Okay, I don’t care how famous you are, when was the last time ANY of you reading this were sent to Florida to get over a cold?
…All this time, not only is Gene Raymond well-documented in Los Angeles, as is Ann Eddy, there is not one SMELL of where Nelson is or what he’s doing–the only thing that seems certain is that he was NOT in California. No mention of his homecoming from Washington, which would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere.
Wonderful research, Katie, and thanks for adding further proof that Jeanette and Nelson were pros at making their relationship work – even if right under the public’s nose. One wonders how minutely they scheduled their lives to make that precious time for themselves that they so needed. According to the writings of Isabel Eddy, had they not been able to do that, Nelson would have given up singing altogether in the 1940s…there is mention again and again that he would call Jeanette from the road, not certain he could go on that night, ready to chuck it all and give up. Her pep talks kept him going…and he likewise inspired her to continue as well.
Question: Did they visit the White House together or even spend a night there?
My subsequent research has added to what we know about the final days of January 1941. The press can often be wrong about events but in this case provides a timeline of the comings and goings. Here’s more on the cancelled Pittsburgh concert:
Meanwhile, fans speculated on why Nelson chose for his last number at the Inaugural Gala, “How Do I Love Thee?” The date was January 19, 1941; the press noted this was also Nelson and Ann Eddy’s 2nd wedding anniversary. Most fans never truly believed theirs was a love match. But back then they had no way to logistically connect the dots.
Here’s corroboration showing Nelson did remain in the DC area through the end of the month at least. January 30th was FDR’s birthday and Nelson attended the Washington Birthday Ball.
Jeanette did not arrive in Roanoke until the afternoon of her concert there on January 25th. She sang for over two hours, with many encores concluding with “Indian Love Call.”
It’s not known whether Nelson made the 5 hour train trip to be there, before returning to DC. As detailed in “Sweethearts”, they often attended each other’s concerts if they could coordinate in the same city, sometimes spotted by the public, sometimes not.
Again, as noted by Katie, Jeanette cancelled her next January 28 concert in Ashville, NC, again with a new “sore throat” and was ordered by her doctor to go to Florida to rest.
She supposedly stayed the entire time at a private residence in an Orlando suburb, detailed in the press with her hosts’ names and street name as well. It seems a bit strange that such a potential lack of privacy as to her lodging was allowed.
If she indeed remained in Orlando the entire time in Florida, it again seems strange that she had no brief press interview or any photos of her, to refute the incorrect cancellation rumors.
Did Nelson come to Florida? Or did Jeanette leave Orlando for perhaps an overnight to make a 2-hour trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, a Tampa suburb? Her childhood friend lived there and was one of the few who knew about and accepted Jeanette’s relationship with Nelson Eddy. A confidante who, according to the woman’s granddaughter, welcomed Jeanette and Nelson together – as a couple – in their home. Or… if Jeanette traveled alone, she was known to stay in her friend’s home, sleeping in the extra bedroom.
While some of the Florida trip still begs questions, specifically Jeanette’s activities while in Florida, her Orlando concert was a huge hit. “There must have been a flock of fairy godmothers hovering round when Jeanette MacDonald was born, for in addition to charm and exceptional beauty she has a voice of limpid lyric quality and a personality that endears an audience,” noted the Orlando Sentinel review. “‘She’s Not What You Think She Is’ was another encore done in French and with the most delicate archness and coquetry, telling the light little story of an actress piqued by criticism.”
This story is ever-amazing, as is their crafty skill in living a life that others never knew of. If only they had realized that their fans (most of them) would have stood up and cheered to know the truth!
In December, our friends (and sleuths) Angela and Katie returned to the Library of Congress to continue searching for documentation regarding the Jeanette MacDonald – Nelson Eddy love affair. What continues to be amazing is that more and more information and proof is surfacing and/or newly made available. And happily – they pounced on it!
I don’t know about you but it gives me goosebumps to have some new piece of information fall into our lap that verifies something I read in a letter (in a postmarked envelope) written in the 1940s – we’re talking like 70 years ago! To have these puzzle pieces fall into place in the 21st century is very rewarding on all levels.
Here’s the first interesting fact they discovered. Katie describes it in great detail on her blog. The setting is this: The movie “New Moon” went into production in late October 1939. This was their first film together after Nelson married Ann Franklin in January 1939. (We are talking about 9 months that they did not work together as a team…something that had never happened in the past.) It was a terrible year for Jeanette in particular, his marriage such a devastating blow that she refused to re-sign her MGM contract for many months. By mid-year she was no longer suicidal (thanks to her first national concert tour which kept her mind off her personal problems) but she wrote to Margaret Ritchie (Bob’s mother) that for the summertime she was still planning to try and get back her health and well-being.
During the late summer of 1939, both Nelson and Jeanette wavered back and forth on whether they could or would work together again. In the end, for a variety of reasons discussed in Sweethearts, they agreed to make the film. And once that decision was made, there seemed the inevitability (at least to Nelson) that they would have a personal reconciliation. We know from Isabel Eddy’s memoirs that her son wrote Jeanette the following note regarding the song “One Kiss” as they began the project:
Sing even if you don’t mean it – sing it just for me. You can take all the time you want, but you are coming back to me, you have to. Meanwhile, remember this, my love for you is indestructible. No matter what happens, nothing and no one in all the universe can change or hurt it. Remember that.
What I was unaware of was how Jeanette responded to that note. Katie notes that on October 23, 1939, Jeanette pre-recorded the song at the studio for the film (which had not yet begun shooting). From another report that I quote in the book, it is likely that Nelson was not present while Jeanette did her solo recording, as Jeanette avoided him. But – now it gets interesting. The following week, on October 29, Jeanette made her next appearance on a radio show and guess what she chose to sing? Yes indeed – “One Kiss.”
Note that it would make sense for her to sing this song on a show to promote the film – when it was released the following year. But to sing it now, when it had little apparent significance to radio audiences – that’s a totally different story.
This particular radio show has never available before…but you can now listen (at the link above on Katie’s blog). This would appear to be Jeanette’s first olive branch toward Nelson – an acknowledgement that she understood the circumstances of his marrying Ann, that she was still very hurt – as she described it, she could forgive but not forget – and that she still loved him despite herself.
It is an amazing fact that Nelson and Jeanette carried out their romance on a sub-level of their music – we have learned more and more that this was their “code” and way to send messages to each other and to re-affirm their feelings at that particular moment in time.
You now have the opportunity to hear Jeanette sing “One Kiss” in response to Nelson’s letter above…and to understand what radio audiences of that time missed.
Thanks to Angela and Katie for finding this treasure, and Katie for spelling it out in such great detail.
UPDATE: I suddenly realized that exactly one week prior to this event, Nelson hosted the Chase and Sanborn show on October 22 as well as sang as normal host Don Ameche was away. Nelson chose for his program three songs of great interest to us. Two numbers from the film Sweethearts, “Every Lover Must Meet His Fate” and “Sweethearts.” Remember that the summer of 1938 was when Jeanette and Nelson last sang those songs together and were last happy together. And the other number was “Danny Boy” which was a song that that meant a lot to him and Jeanette…note that Nelson was already trying to break down the “wall of icy pride” that Jeanette had toward him. Remind her of the love they had for each other…Amazing…