MacDonald-Eddy: Stoking the Passions of New Fans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two facts conspired to land Mark Fletcher at the Sportsman's Lodge not long ago:

Fact No. 1 was that he loves old movies.

Fact No. 2 was that his car broke down just minutes in time and space from the meeting place of the Mac/Eddy International Fan Club, keeper of the flame for America's erstwhile singing sweethearts, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Never mind that Fletcher is a mere 37, nowheresville on the Mac/Eddy timeline. Fletcher still wanted the skinny on their private lives, which Mac/Eddy fan club head Sharon Rich had scrutinized in her new book, "Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair--On Screen and Off--Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" (Donald I. Fine).

"I have a morbid fascination with the dirt in famous people's lives," said the scruffy Fletcher, peering into the fan-filled function room in Studio City. "The difference with me is, it's usually dead famous people, not living famous people."

In some quarters, death is not a downer. Indeed, among MacDonald and Eddy folk, you'd never know their heyday was more moons ago than any reasonable person would care to count--the pair spiffed up the Depression with their virginal MGM romances wreathed in tragedy and ball gowns, opera and innocence, and, lest we forget, material excess in a time of drought.

But no one could accuse MacDonald and Eddy of being stuck in time. The passions they selectively evoke still simmer, lo these many generations later. Witness a recent petition drive organized by Mac/Eddy-ites to immortalize them on a stamp.

"People have been writing for years trying to get a MacDonald/Eddy stamp," said Rich, a 41-year-old New Yorker. "Their contribution to film is so great, and they've been so neglected."

Rich and her ilk collected 20,000 signatures. And last Friday, she led a band of 20 Mac/Eddy-ites to Washington, D.C., to lay the petitions at the feet of the U.S. Postal Service, serenading the mail folk with the stars' signature duet, "Indian Love Call." An Elvis impersonator came by to lend moral support: "Hey, I got my stamp. Now it's time for them to get theirs."

Betty and Harold Monroe of Azusa, Calif., spent a nice chunk of winter rounding up 4,000 of those names.

"I feel they should have this stamp, and I don't want to give up on it," said Betty, who won an oil portrait of MacDonald/Eddy from the club for her efforts.

It's too soon to tell whether that's all they'll get. The U.S. Postal Service receives 50,000 letters a year nominating stamp stars, "so the competition is real stiff," said Robin Minard, Postal Service representative. "Out of 50,000, they pick 25 to 30."

But that's not all ruffling the afterworld of MacDonald and Eddy. The four clubs around the country dedicated to one, the other, or both don't necessarily see eye to eye on whether the pair's romance was a celluloid dream or the stuff of real extramarital fervor.

And apparently, it really matters.

Rich's book argues that MacDonald and Eddy were lovers off and on for 30 years, even while each was married to another. She became curious about their private lives in the early '70s as a high schooler volunteering at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home. There she met MacDonald's older sister Blossom Rock, a.k.a. the grandmother on "The Addams Family" TV show.

"I had never heard of Jeanette MacDonald, so I felt like an idiot," said Rich, whose fan club now numbers 3,300 members around the world, more than 400 in Southern California.

She smartened up. Rock arranged a screening of the late pair's 1938 romance "Sweethearts" at the motion picture old folks' home, and Rock and her friends would reminisce about the couple's alleged secret affair, Rich said.

"Their films were laughed at. Nobody remembered them. It was as if they didn't exist. They put MGM musicals on the map. Nelson was the highest-paid singer in the world for 14 years.

"I had to ask, why has this thing been covered up?"

Rich said she interviewed their contemporaries and came to a conclusion that had all the pathos of, well, a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie. Their true romance never led to the altar, she said, because Eddy wanted MacDonald to retire from show business if she became his wife. And so each married another.

"He figured the two of them were so temperamental, it wouldn't last if they were both fighting to be the best. But she didn't want to do that because she was at the peak of her career."

But some sectors of MacDonald and Eddy-land say there was nothing more than dust and magic between the screen sweeties. Clara Rhoades, president of the 58-year-old Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club in Topeka, Kan., called Rich's contention "utter nonsense," and said that the actress's husband and honorary club president, Gene Raymond, declined to comment on it.

And an MIT film scholar who's working on a biography of MacDonald dismisses Rich's contention as "pure fantasy." "The claims in that book, 'Sweethearts,' are absolutely false and preposterous," said Edward Baron Turk, professor of film studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Jeanette MacDonald never had an affair with Nelson Eddy."

Did they or didn't they? Only their biographers know for sure, it would seem. Turk said some people have been asking the question for 60 years.

"In the mid-1930s, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy created on-screen a unique and intensely powerful brand of romance through song, and they had millions of fans, many of whom were among the most devoted in movie history," Turk said.

"Among these fans there was a small fraction who were absolutely convinced that such intense screen romance could only be produced by actors who loved each other in real life. These were the lunatics. These were the fanatics. These were the people who wrote hate mail to Gene Raymond when he got engaged to Jeanette. Sharon Rich's book must be seen in this context."

Rich defends her book against Turk's critique. "That has nothing to do with any of the research that I did. The research I did was interviews with people who worked with them, their friends, a few lovers, relatives. And from authenticated letters from the period. It had nothing to do with fanatic fans."

Then there's the Jon Eddy question.

Rich sniffed out the burly Bloomington, Ill., singer in the course of researching her book. He said he is the son of Eddy and Maybelle Marston, a Philadelphia contralto, although Jon's adoptive parents' names appear on his birth certificate. When Jon was 14, the couple who raised him arranged a meeting with Eddy at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and a few other meetings followed, Jon said.

"You're not asking what most people ask," he told the Mac/Eddy gathering. "Was (the meeting) warm? Two of the five times, it was warm and nice."

How about, was it real? Jon Eddy, who dropped his adoptive parents' name, has his doubters. Among them is Eleanor Knowles, author of "The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" (A.S. Barnes, 1976), who doesn't believe Jon is Eddy's son.

"He's given so many different versions, and so many different birth dates," Knowles said. "He bore some resemblance to Nelson and he was a singer, and I could only assume so many people said, 'You look like Nelson Eddy,' that he thought it would be a plus professionally to call himself Eddy."

Jon Eddy acknowledges he can't document his parentage. But he says true believers know all they need to know by looking at him.

"A woman said, 'Oh my God, he has Nelson's ears.' Unbelievable. I look at myself, and I don't see a resemblance. But these people are fantastic. There aren't too many stars out there that can say they have had avid fans for 50, 60 years."

MIT's Turk agrees that MacDonald and Eddy left a legacy of intense admirers, including Turk.

"These were not only movie stars, but they were movie stars who sang gloriously in a way people don't sing today," he said. "They hit a kind of emotion that is not triggered so often today, and I think those who are attracted to Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy are looking for something that popular culture doesn't give us."

It takes people like Lourdes Blee, 55, an office manager in Colton, to stoke the eternal fires. Her nocturnal pleasures are intertwined with MacDonald and Eddy. She and her husband can't sleep without cranking up "Naughty Marietta" or "Bittersweet" all night.

"It's so addicting," she said, brandishing a self-designed tie emblazoned with pictures of duets from those films and "Golden West" at the recent Mac/Eddy-fest.

The bottom line, of course, is amour.

For Clearwater, Fla., fan Julie Johnson, 27, and her friends, MacDonald and Eddy videos elicit tender thoughts.

"It's easy to get someone to gush about one of them: 'She's a babe' or 'He's a hunk,' 'Yeah, wish she was alive now.' "

Despite her relative youth, Johnson prefers their brand of romance to the kind dished up by living movie guys who would seem to be a step ahead, in that they're still stepping.

"Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, what do you say to them? You're cool? They're all yummy-looking. Nelson's the same way. He was a solid citizen. You knew he really wanted her.

"You stick them in any stupid scenario you want and it's love with the undertone of lust, where (today) it's love equals lust. . . . The sexual tension in movies nowadays, by the time they're done with it, it's like, do it already and get it over with. You know it's coming. It's the obligatory sex scenes."

Not so, Johnson says, with Jeanette the babe and Nelson the hunk. And she should know--she watches their films 20 times a pop.

"With them, it's not chaste but pure. They're both good-looking. It doesn't have to be explicit."

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