Today marks the 50th anniversary of that day and it is appropriate to re-visit the event that marked the end of an era…and the beginning of a fast decline for Nelson Eddy, who followed Jeanette in death a scant two years later.
If there was one thing to know about Nelson Eddy, it was that the man had tremendous energy. He was known for his stamina in many areas. He was an Energizer type of guy who – up till literally the moment that he dropped while singing onstage – seemed indestructible.
This was a guy who sang 14 encores at a concert – no biggie.
In his last years, he would sing 2 shows a night and sometimes perform during the daytime at a charity or promotional event – no biggie.
There were times in Jeanette MacDonald’s last years, when she was upset or ill or he was worried about her, and he’d hop a plane in the morning and fly to her for a few hours, then fly back to wherever he was supposed to perform and go on that evening as though nothing unusual had happened that day.
He painted and sculpted and wrote songs and re-wrote lyrics…and penned who-knows-how-many pages of writings…so well-written and stylish that he could have had a fifth career after opera – films – concerts – radio – nightclubs – as an erotic romance writer. The man was a prolific artist. Plus he wrote his nightclub act, several movie treatments and scripts…there was no stifling the guy.
There are women who can attest to the stamina he had in other ways…well into his later years.
Despite his usually gentle nature and boyish enthusiasm which remained with him till his final day, he suddenly and rapidly began to age. This was after the death of Jeanette MacDonald. In two years, he went from hanging onto “middle age” into looking like an old, beaten man. He had always been so robust, the one person everyone could count on; he would have to practically be on his deathbed to cancel a performance, he was that much a consummate professional.
Which makes it all the more poignant to see this photo – a casket with his body in it being carried away from his funeral.
It seems so out of context and so wrong to imagine that Nelson Eddy could have finally fallen.
Jeanette MacDonald’s death was a long time coming; she had a bad heart and had a slow decline. Her sister Blossom said that the last 20 years of her life was borrowed time. But Nelson Eddy? His own father outlived him, his mother lived a long life too…for him to age almost overnight and to literally drop dead 2 years after Jeanette, he had to drive himself into a early grave. Which he did.
“He drank himself to death,” was Blossom’s take on it but it was more than that. Nelson drank… but his unhappiness, suffering and tragedy and a loveless, toxic marriage beat down his soul.
“He won’t outlive me by long, ” predicted Jeanette…and she was correct.
In this video footage you will see Gene Raymond speaking about Nelson’s great energy and the shock to realize that this life force is gone. Pallbearer Lloyd Nolan tried to put some truth there (and expressed genuine grief) by mentioning Jeanette and the magic that she and Nelson had together in their films. (Gene Raymond is pictured below.)
It is interesting to see a somewhat emotionless Ann Eddy and more emotional Gale Sherwood walking together to the car after the service, considering that Ann resented her husband’s “mistress. ”
By the way, some folks have asked me whether Jeanette’s sister Blossom was at the funeral. I checked with someone who was there and she said no. Obviously Blossom was still recovering from her stroke and probably would not have been able to attend.
In this final chapter of Nelson’s story, we once again owe a huge thank you to Katie and Angela who arranged to get this archive video footage and make it available for your viewing pleasure. Unless you have worked hard on finding and procuring research of this type, it may difficult to understand how much time, money, effort, sweat and tears go into a project like this. Angela took on the task of preparing the videos and also adding one of their songs to each of them to top off sad footage on a high note, you might say. And once again Katie has done a great job voicing the outrage that any decent human being would feel when presented with facts such as we have in the Jeanette/Nelson story. Katie’s blog link is here and the video is below.
Above is a screenshot of some video footage showing Nelson Eddy arriving to the funeral of Jeanette MacDonald, January 18, 1965.
Looking wan and grief-stricken, he walks ahead and catches up to his current singing co-star Gale Sherwood and his spouse Ann Franklin. One other quick shot shows him biting his quivering lip. Among the various film clips of this funeral or from other sad moments captured of him on film, one notices that he bites his lip when trying to keep his emotions in control.
An amazing, lengthy clip of raw TV footage from Jeanette’s funeral was discovered and made available for viewing by our friends Katie and Angela. Once again, we are grateful to them for presenting this footage as it has not been seen since 1965. Katie has written a perceptive analysis of the funeral and its footage on her blog. More details and the before and after preparations can be found in the book Sweethearts. However, after watching the video clip below several times, there are many things to watch for.
The pallbearers shown above carry Jeanette MacDonald’s casket from the chapel to the car. To the side behind them are recognizable honorary pallbearers Lauritz Melchior and Jack Oakie.
At the very end of the group is Nelson, who comes out last after Lloyd Nolan, Lauritz Melchior and Jack Oakie. You can see him way in the back. The fact that Nelson lingered and was the last one to come out of the chapel and the reasons why is discussed in great detail in Sweethearts.
The chapel doors are closed by the man behind Nelson and Jack Oakie, who comes from near Melchior to walk around to Nelson’s other side.
Lauritz Melchior is the first to go directly to Nelson and offer condolences. Nelson even smiles a bit…. and then the others close ranks around Nelson and do the same. One man not only shakes Nelson’s hand but puts his other hand over Nelson’s…a compassionate gesture. Another one who we don’t see clearly must say something kind to Nelson because he nods his head in response. This gesture of caring to Nelson’s feelings is just amazing…if one didn’t know the circumstances, one would look at this video and be certain that Nelson Eddy was the widower!
Here are thousands of fans watching and listening to the funeral service piped through loudpeakers with Jeanette’s records singing…Nelson called it “a circus.”
Jeanette’s beloved sister Blossom is the first to exit from the side with Nanette, the granddaughter of the oldest MacDonald sister Elsie. Note Blossom is walking with, talking to and comforting the young grief-stricken girl rather than Elsie – the girl’s grandmother! Elsie and her husband Bernard walk behind Blossom and Nanette. Behind Elsie and Bernard is Emily West and what appears to be her sister.
While Elsie in personality was more the cold, heartless type (like their mother Anna MacDonald), Blossom was always the comforting sister, the strong one emotionally who was always there for her baby sister Jeanette. Blossom and Jeanette were similar in their nurturing, compassionate yet wickedly fun natures. No wonder the two sisters were so close.
Now Gene Raymond is seen leaving…he’s got dark glasses on toward the bottom left of the photo. It’s interesting to note that none of the honorary pallbearers, several of them who were “in the know”, approach Gene or offer comfort.
Such strange goings on at Jeanette’s funeral but this footage is very telling in unexpected ways. Thanks to Katie and Angela for making it available. You can watch the video below…and find more commentary about it on Katie’s blog.
The title of this post, by the way, was Nelson’s quote from the Boston Sunday Herald dated Jan 17, 1965: “I shall be at the funeral on Monday. It will be the most miserable day of my life.”
That statement alone tells you volumes. When you think of the many other tragic losses this man had in his life and too many “miserable” days…that he considered the funeral of Jeanette MacDonald the most miserable day he would ever know in all his lifetime…well, there is simply nothing more to say.
Update: there is a different, short clip of Nelson arriving at the funeral at this link.