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The Whys and Wherefores

June 18, 2014 | by

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Jeanette MacDonald in an Argentinean Magazine, February 1934

I remember the moment clearly: it was a late winter afternoon, and I was sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, reading Michelle Phillips’s memoir California Dreamin instead of doing my ninth-grade English homework. The author described moving into the mansion where the 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald had once lived. The Mamas and the Papas—then at the height of their fame—gutted the place, in the process ripping out the built-in wardrobes, whose enormous drawers had been designed to hold entire gowns, laid flat. And I made the conscious decision not to tell my grandmother about it. I thought it would distress her.

Back when the world was simpler and videotapes were physical objects, my grandmother and I used to set aside an afternoon when we’d settle ourselves on the couch with the milk shakes she made from homemade ice cream and gorge on Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy films. Why my grandparents had them all on cassette I don’t know; maybe my grandpa had picked up the lot at a tag sale. Those operettas became the soundtrack to my summers; to this day, I can’t hear the “Indian Love Call” without a Proustian rush of nostalgia. Of course, since one never hears the “Indian Love Call,” said rush has yet to happen.

There was a time when everyone knew MacDonald and Eddy. Films like Rose-Marie and Maytime made the handsome singers household names, and made hits of their scores. The films were corny and soapy, and even eighty years ago the music was nostalgic. Eddy’s acting—especially in their early collaborations—was wooden. (Check out the clinch in Naughty Marietta for proof.) But my grandmother loved them when she was a little girl, and at the same age, I adored them. A few plot synopses will illustrate why.

Rose-Marie (1936):

Opera singer (Marie de Flor) seeks out fugitive brother in the Canadian wilderness. During her trek, she meets a Canadian mountie (Sgt. Bruce) who is also searching for her brother. Romance ensues, resulting in several love duets between the two.

Sweethearts (1938):

A musical comedy duo in their sixth year on Broadway receive an offer to perform in Hollywood making films. The change of lifestyle is inviting to the Sweethearts as the move will take them away from relatives and friends who want to engage them in countless performances. However, when it comes to signing their Hollywood contract, they do not sign, as Gwen has been deceived into believing her sweetheart and husband is engaged in an affair with their personal assistant. The Sweethearts split up and carry on performing their musical production around America with their understudies as their costars. Eventually they are united in a Broadway show.

Naughty Marietta (1935):

In order to avoid a prearranged marriage, a rebellious French princess sheds her identity and escapes to colonial New Orleans, where she finds an unlikely true love.

Naughty Marietta is by far the best, I think, and Maytime the worst. To me, these films exemplified all things idyllic and wholesome. But childhood dreams are made to be shattered! Only a few years ago, I ran across a book at a library sale that ripped the scales from my eyes. I refer to Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair Onscreen and Off Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, by Sharon Rich. From the flap copy:

Sweethearts is the true story of one of Hollywood’s greatest cover-ups: the love affair between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Known as “America’s Singing Sweethearts” of the 1930s and forties, they made eight box office hits together for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and became the most popular singing team in movie history. Rumor had it that they hated each other off-screen but the truth was that they were in love. Interference by MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer triggered a series of tragic events that caused them to self-destruct their film careers, health and ultimately their lives. Discussed candidly in the book are Jeanette’s four pregnancies by Nelson, her affair with studio boss Louis B. Mayer and her marriage to bisexual Gene Raymond. Nelson married a mentally unstable woman, Ann Franklin, who blackmailed him into marriage, threatened to disfigure Jeanette, and vowed to go to the press with the scandal if Nelson tried to divorce her. Despite all, Nelson and Jeanette had a fierce, spiritual bond and loved each other to the end. The author was a close friend of Jeanette’s older sister, actress Blossom Rock, interviewed over 200 people, including celebrities, plus had access to a wealth of unpublished letters and memoirs.

Obviously, I devoured it. Not only that, I spent a good long while on the author’s excellent and comprehensive Web site. (“Forget the bare-bones dates and facts and the sanitized versions that can be found elsewhere. If you’re visiting this website you no doubt want to know more—the whys and wherefores of the lives of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.” Did I ever!) But even as I adjusted to this new world, I reassured myself that my grandmother had never run across the book. She, at least, retained her innocence.

Or did she? For all I know, she was wise to the truth the whole time. Maybe she found the lurid stories fascinating. Maybe she didn’t believe them. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she just enjoyed the ritual of sharing a piece of her childhood with a granddaughter. She, after all, was not a child.

That said, I’m glad I never told her about those closets. I really think it would have made her sad. At least, I’d have been sad to tell her.

Happy birthday, Jeanette.

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