Snapshot in Prose: Jeanette MacDonald

Jeanette MacDonald is best remembered today for the old-fashioned (even then) musicals she made with Nelson Eddy, but you’d be hard-pressed to get us to watch one of those. We greatly prefer the movies she made in the early Thirties—most notably with director Ernst Lubitsch—when she was allowed to show a little spark and sass on screen.

This profile originally saw the light of day in September 1940. Her professional pairing with Eddy was already well established, and she had been married to actor Gene Raymond for three years. She and Raymond remained married until MacDonald’s death in 1965.

The Private Letters of Jeanette MacDonald

The correspondence of a
movie star covers dozens
of different matters. Here
is your chance to spend a
day at Jeanette’s desk and
see how she deals with
this important problem.

By SONIA LEE

Jeanette MacDonald is a living proof of the saying, “The more you have to do, the more you can accomplish.”
Even in the midst of picture production, when there seem to be a dozen different demands on every minute of the day, her desk remains reasonably clear, her correspondence is never neglected, even though her letters frequently number hundreds a week. Jeanette is an inveterate letter writer because she is a firm believer in putting things on paper. Once in a while things “carried in the head” are forgotten and produce hurt feelings or embarrassments, so a flurry of little notes about dozens of different matters leaves her studio dressing-room every day. Her calendar pad is crowded with jotted notes of reminders to herself and her secretary.
When she is busy at the studio, letters are dictated on the set between scenes, in her own quarters at noontime, and at any other moment she may find herself free. When she has the day at home, part of each morning, frequently a good part of the whole day, is spent at the dainty writing table in her sitting room.
The first half hour always is devoted to letters to intimate friends . . . bread-and-butter notes, acceptances of invitations, thank-you notes and her own invitations. These she usually writes on double cards, the size of a calling card. “Mr. and Mrs. Gene Raymond” is engraved on the front, and her note, in long hand, of course, is jotted on the inside.
Notes to her associates at the studio regarding matters incident to work are dictated to her secretary who later types them.
Today there is a matter of wardrobe Adrian had submitted sketches and samples. Jeanette writes:
Dear Adrian: The sketches are divine! And I agree with you on the coloring. The blue bodice should be a trifle deeper than the skirt, blending the two shades of blue at the waistline.
“The sample of the gray tulle is lovely. When will you need me for a fitting? Will Wednesday be convenient for you?” She signs it—Sincerely, Jeanette—the signature which goes on all her letters to coworkers at the studio, from executive to wardrobe girl.
The greatest letter-writing chore Jeanette MacDonald has is answering the numerous fan letters which come to her desk for personal attention and reply. These are letters segregated from the thousands she receives each week, by her secretaries. They include letters from fan correspondents of long standing; letters which definitely ask advice on a personal or career problem; letters which ask for the intangible gift of courage.
If Jeanette is working, she reads these letters between scenes, makes memos in pencil which are the basis of a reply by her secretary, or later on for her dictated answer. Frequently, when there is long leisure between scenes, she dictates on the set.
On this day, as we sit at Jeanette’s desk—a small battalion of human problems faces her.
There is the letter from Arva: “Dear Jeanette,” she writes, “I’m twelve years old. At eleven my voice matured, but now something’s happening. I can’t hit those high notes at all. I’m sort of hoarse or something. Is my voice gone? Were you that way? Is there anything I can do? Anything I can gargle? I’m almost desperate . . . please help me. My voice is my whole life.”
Jeanette makes a note on the back of the letter. She writes: “Answer this kid and tell her I lost my voice around the same age and had to stop singing for a year and a half. Tell her that frequently happens. By continuing to sing she may ruin her voice. She’ll just have to be patient and trusting. Meanwhile she can study French and Italian.”
From Helen: “I’m studying voice seriously, but I’m having teacher trouble. I have recently changed teachers and find myself singing flat and straining a great deal. You sing so easily. What should I do?”

Jeanette quiets Helen’s fears. “All singers hit occasional snags. Don’t try to rush,” she writes.
Enclosed with this reply will be a little leaflet entitled, “No Royal Road to Song,” which was written by Jeanette to serve more or less as a standard reply to aspiring young singers. It answers many of the usual questions asked her.
These young singers write her not only regarding training and the problems of a singer, but frequently ask advice on debut programs.
Recently a young singer was to have her first radio audition.
“What should I sing—an operatic aria? It is for a children’s program.
“No,” Jeanette had replied, “sing something simple—perhaps an American folk-song. A Stephen Collins Foster ballad would be advisable.”
Today there is a letter from the young aspirant, telling Jeanette of success and a radio contract.
Jeanette had close contact with the fans who have written her for years. In their letter they tell her much of their intimate lives, advise her of important events and the important things which have happened to them.
This morning there is such a note from Ethel. “I had hoped to have a daughter to name for the two women I admire most—my mother and you,” she writes. “But it was a boy, so I named him for the person you love best—Gene. He’s a handsome baby, perfect in every way. He weighed eight pounds, one ounce at birth. He has curly blond hair and blue eyes.”
Jeanette sends thanks and congratulations—and in a day or so a small gift will go to Gene’s namesake. (Jeanette makes a note on her pad.)
From England Charles writes: “There is a war now, but I saw one of your pictures last night. You don’t know what it did for me. It was like a tonic—a visit to another, happier world . . . a letter from you would mean so much. Would you write?”
From an ambulance driver in England—a girl who has written to Miss MacDonald for years, there is also a letter. “I’m so glad you were pleased with my little present. I have been on duty for forty-eight hours without a break . . . we are all tense, but calm and ready for any emergency . . . if anything happens to me, I want you to know how much all your kindnesses have meant to me.” There is no return address. Jeanette’s lips are held steady by effort as she finishes readying.
From a very old lady, eighty-four, there is a brief letter. “Thank you for the kind of pictures you make. There is tenderness in all the love scenes you play. I think that you make young people, no matter how modern and sophisticated they may be, feel that true and sincere love is the finest thing in life after all, and you help old people re-live their lost youth once again.”
“Letters such these,” Jeanette comments,” make an actress feel her responsibility.” She thanks her correspondent for her gratifying letter.
From fourteen-year-old Marie there is a letter:
“My father wrote you while I was in the hospital and you sent me a picture of yourself and wrote on it, ‘Get well in a hurry,’ and signed your name. I was in an awful accident and came out of it with only one arm. I’ve been singing since I was a baby and ever since I can remember I went to see your pictures and tried to sing like you do. Do you think I can be happy without an arm?”
“A lot of famous people have been physically handicapped,” Jeanette writes. (Aside to her secretary: “Find something about the life of Helen Keller and send it to Marie.”)
Among Jeanette’s regular correspondents is a bed-ridden old lady. To Jeanette come pages of the philosophy she has acquired in the many years of enforced inactivity. She is a gentle and a patient person. While she has only seen one of Jeanette’s pictures, her music library contains all the records the star has made.
Today’s letter says: “I always feel so grand when I receive a letter from you. I hold it and think about it before opening it. If I could only hear you speak—just once.”
(Jeanette to her secretary: “Let’s telephone her long-distance next Sunday afternoon.”
A young girl writes: “Since 1931 you have been my firm friend . . . You were responsible for my scholastic triumphs, and often the thought of you saved me from slacking. I always did my very best for you. Every time I made a grade, I felt you were proud of me, and when I failed you did your best to sympathize. It was your inspiration which has prompted me to success . . . I have just won a musical scholarship . . .”
“Your success has made me very happy,” Jeanette replies. “And I’m humbly grateful for the part you feel I’ve played in it.”
A mother wrote some months ago: “My little girl is a cripple . . . completely helpless . . . she has been talking about your scheduled concert in our city, and is heartbroken because she can’t go. But she tires so quickly . . . I’d give anything in the world if we could bring her to your concert, but the doctor forbids it. I know this is presumptious . . . but would you say ‘hello’ to her, if we brought her to see you at your hotel? . . . her pleasures are so limited.”
Jeanette had invited the child for tea. There was more than tea and Jeanette’s presence waiting for Rhona when she had arrived—telegrams from Hollywood celebrities.
And the letter now on Jeanette’s desk is the aftermath. “Rhona started mending from that day on . . . we pray for you every night.”
From the time Gertrude A.’s children were in pinafores, she has written to Jeanette MacDonald her hopes and her ambitions for her two small daughters. Later, when neither one actively displayed the musical talent which the mother fondly suspected at first, she brought her disappointment to the singing star. “I had hoped,” she wrote, “that they would realize the ambitions that I, myself, always had, but wasn’t able to do anything about . . . I feel so let down.”
“Isn’t there a youngster in your community with real talent who needs a little help? Why don’t you interest yourself in the welfare of such a child? . . . It will give you immeasurable personal satisfaction . . .” Jeanette had written.
Gertude A. did find a worthy, ambitious, talented girl and transferred her to interest in music to her. She arranged for scholarships. She encouraged and helped financially. Through all this process of selection and progress, Gertrude A. reported regularly to Jeanette. When the girl won her first scholarship. When she had her first audition. When she made her concert debut.
“Marcia has a radio contract,” Gertrude A.’s letter tells Jeanette this morning. “She owes it all to you.”
“Not to me,” Jeanette replies. “But to you who stood at her side all these years.”
Jeanette frequently finds herself in the role of a guide to young girls.
This letter from Celeste is an example: “Boys are attracted to me, but I can’t keep them as friends . . . When they find I have high ideals and won’t pet, they drop me. I met a boy . . . I liked him . . . but he doesn’t call me up any more . . . his grievance was that Mama made him bring me home at twelve. I’ve lost faith in men . . . It seems as if the modern generation has a scheme which I cannot fit.”
Jeanette replies: “Don’t lose faith. The things your parents have taught you are wise. As you get older you’ll know it to be true. You’ll find happiness . . . but be willing to wait for it.”
Give me courage . . . give me hope . . . give me strength . . . give me faith . . . this is a never-ending refrain in the letters from the weak and the meek and the sick.
There is a little girl in a hospital near New York City. A picture of Jeanette MacDonald is on her bedside table. Periodically a new one arrives—one in the costume of her latest picture.
Months ago her guardian had written to Jeanette: “You are one person who has been the inspiration for all her courage . . . You have created in her the desire to walk and to dance, the one thing which has been declared impossible for her by all the doctors who ever examined her. But the miracle is happening . . . she is sitting up alone . . . she says she is going to walk soon . . . She keeps a scrap book about you . . . she has read over and over again the story about the time you were advised to forget your desire to sing, how you refused to give up. This has inspired her to accomplish the seemingly impossible.”
And another letter about this child: “She is a lonely little soul . . . She has been cast aside by her parents because of her handicap, and you have helped fill that breach . . . When other children talk about home and parents she says she thinks of you and pretends that she has some one also who really cares for her . . . Often when I come home, I find she has her many scrap books about your spread out on her bed, your pictures and letters standing up around her, and she is living in a little make-believe world of her own . . .”
Letters from Jeanette arrive for this little with regularity. When steel braces are to be fitted, when painful treatments are in progress, the letters are timed to arrive at the psychological moment. “I’ll be expecting to see you when I come East . . . You’ll surely be walking by then,” the letters will repeat.
For almost three years now, Jeanette has been writing this invalid. For three years she has been pouring courage into a child.
Today Jeanette writes an answer to a report of definite progress. “Hooray—for those first steps. I knew you could do it.”
No wonder Jeanette MacDonald takes a day at her desk seriously!


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