The Hollywood actress Virginia Bruce has always been of interest to Nelson Eddy fans, if only because she co-starred with him in the 1939 film Let Freedom Ring.
Not many people know that Let Freedom Ring was originally supposed to co-star Jeanette MacDonald, and that it was planned as a follow-up film for Nelson with Jeanette in 1935 right after Naughty Marietta!
Of course there’s an added interest in Virginia Bruce because we know that she and Nelson dated for a time – not in late 1938 when they were filming Let Freedom Ring, but back in 1934 in Nelson’s early days at MGM!
Don’t forget that Jeanette MacDonald and Virginia Bruce also worked together in Jeanette’s first Hollywood film, The Love Parade. Virginia was one of Jeanette’s ladies-in-waiting.
But it is obviously Virginia’s connection to Nelson Eddy that most interests us, and what would have interested him beyond the obvious physical beauty. He went for young blonds, true, but not airheads. Virginia obviously had a keen mind; the biography reveals that at one time she thought to run for California legislature.
Scott O’Brien has done an excellent job in putting together Virginia Bruce‘s life story, and his book features several interviews with close friends and family. They provide a more personal view of the woman although sadly, she seems to have kept very much to herself. Her daughter with John Gilbert also did not share much of the intimate details with the next generation. It was up to them to rediscover Virginia through memorabilia and their somewhat limited personal interaction with her. O’Brien quotes one of her nephews: “She was very independent. She was in charge…like Hillary Clinton…a woman in charge. She wasn’t subservient. Maybe she was subservient to her husbands, but she was headstrong, especially for women in those days. ”
O’Brien also quotes Virginia Bruce: “Perhaps part of my tragedy will be that I do spoil men. I seem to be the type to attract men that are much stronger and more forceful than I am….Most of my theories about the relationships between men and women spring, naturally, from my marriage to John [Gilbert].” Of course, her short marriage to him was doomed due to his drinking. But it’s interesting that along with Nelson Eddy, she also dated Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and other major Hollywood players.
Obviously Virginia Bruce had her personal demons. They are mentioned candidly in the book, because Scott O’Brien’s sources did open up to him. I wish they had even been more candid but I know from researching Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, there is often a tendency for sources to want to make these people look as good as possible, playing down the negatives. They don’t want to blurt out the bad stuff. They think they are protecting the person…and perhaps they are. But for posterity’s sake, we can lie to ourselves but we really do have inquiring minds…and we want to know all we can about how this lovely, gentle young actress became a lonely alcoholic in later years, despite having children and grandchildren.
Scott O’Brien’s picture of Virginia’s later life rings true to my own experience. Virginia Bruce was in and out of the Motion Picture Home during the same years that I knew Jeanette’s sister Blossom Rock, who also lived there. I was always interested in meeting and speaking with residents that had known or worked with Jeanette or Nelson. Yet I never interviewed Virginia Bruce. I visited her a couple of times but she was not particularly sociable or chatty. She was there once because she broke her hip; I don’t remember all the details but we heard that she was an alcoholic. (Of course, you couldn’t drink when you were there in hospital area, although some who lived in the Lodge or bungalows bought their own liquor across the street, or had friends smuggle it in to them.) The book notes that she was also treated there for cancer and cirrhosis. And yes, what I really remember about that is that here was a very ill woman but – she still smoked!
That never ceased to amaze me, because many in the Motion Picture Home were chain smokers – as was Jeanette’s sister Blossom.
I did not immediately recognize Virginia Bruce when I met her; she was heavy and much changed. She seemed pretty much a loner and regretted that she ended up her life cooped up in a small hospital room. Some actors, like Blossom Rock, made the best of life there and kept a busy schedule. Larry Fine of The Three Stooges was another optimist; despite a stroke that debilitated him even more than Blossom’s stroke, he’d set up a daily card game with his cronies and they’d play and smoke together for hours at a time. Sometimes Moe Howard would join them and they’d laugh about the good ol’ days and welcome any other old-timer who wanted to hang out.
But Virginia Bruce wasn’t like that, she seemed more bitter. And it’s borne out by a poignant quote from the book made by her: “Do you think when I’m gone anyone will remember that I had awfully dreamy eyes?” And another: ” Do you know Norma Shearer is just down the hall? She was the biggest of them all and here she is, blind and dying, after all that, all that fame and riches and now this. Maybe I haven’t had it so tough.”
I highly recommend reading Virginia Bruce – Under My Skin by Scott O’Brien. And I applaud him for writing about a lesser Hollywood star that others might not have bothered with. Her story is compelling. There are lots of pictures -including some with Nelson Eddy (take another look at the cover!) and some discussion of Nelson’s relationship with Virginia Bruce. After I finished reading it, I put Let Freedom Ring on my DVD player to watch, since I had a new understanding of what Virginia Bruce was all about. For once – I watched her throughout the movie instead of Nelson Eddy.
And maybe that’s my highest praise to a fellow movie star biographer – if after reading it you want to revisit that star’s films again – you’ve done your job.