Susanna Foster and Kathryn Grayson idolized Jeanette; they were two of many thousands with operatic voices who chose singing careers because of Jeanette.
Deanna Durbin was a solo star and never wanted to be compared to Jeanette. As for Judy Garland, what she really thought of Jeanette MacDonald is unknown as in later years she made fun of Jeanette singing “San Francisco” in her own show. Was it an affectionate tribute or a mockery of the woman who, with Nelson Eddy, put MGM musicals on the map and opened the door for the next era of MGM musicals in the 1940s?
I’ve always found this photo fascinating. Two of the younger singers I knew; the other two I was told fascinating stories about, details that were rumored but never gone mainstream, to my knowledge. My sources were established and deemed trustworthy or else I would not even mention it. In old Hollywood, secrets were kept. Many are still kept.
The Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy affair has been long documented and verified by letters, documents, video and audio footage, and testimonies from those close to them. As for the others, I can share the following:
Susanna Foster suffered for most of her adult life from mental illness. I interviewed her in 1983, as she had ultimately played “Christine” in the 1943 Phantom of the Opera starring Nelson and Claude Rains. I also met both her sons. Of course, many women who were stars fell into hard times, became waitresses like Veronica Lake or ended up in mental asylums like Frances Farmer. Susanna’s story, some of which I witnessed, was one of the worst. Here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote about my meetings with her in Los Angeles.
[I] asked around and learned that Foster had most recently been on the East Coast, kicked off Welfare and was living in her car. Then she returned to Hollywood, taken in by a gay fan. This kindly person was not wealthy, in fact he lived in a tiny one-room apartment on Cherokee off of Hollywood Blvd. The building was known as “Murderer’s Row” because there were so many incidents that occurred there, mostly drug-related.
I don’t remember where I first met Susanna; it was probably at some Hollywood-related event. I asked if I could interview her; she said yes. We set a day and time and I told her I’d pick her up in my car.
I have to say that she looked fabulous and young for her years. She was perky and well-dressed. At the designated time, I picked her up only to learn that she had gotten a new job as a telephone switchboard operator, and could I drop her off at her job? As I recall, it was a building just off Hollywood Blvd…
I have to admit, I wondered why she had a minimum-wage job as a switchboard operator. I pictured a row of girls answering phones together, like they did in the classic movies, and imagined what the other gals would think if this new employee revealed that she’d once been a movie star.
Well, I’m sure none of them had a chance to ask her since Susanna was fired that day; she’d only worked there about one or two days. I asked her why they’d let her go and she rambled on without giving me a clear answer. I didn’t press her, as it sounded like she was glad the job was over. We set up a luncheon date. Again, I wondered at her inability to hold down a job. I mean, how difficult could it be to answer phones for a woman of her talent and brains?
I let her pick the restaurant. she wanted to go to Musso and Frank’s, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. She hadn’t eaten there in years. So that’s where we ended up. Now, Musso and Frank’s is a pricey restaurant. But somehow, Susanna got the idea that Paramount Studios was picking up the tab for this meal and she kept telling me to order the most expensive item on the menu!…. She ordered an expensive dish and had several drinks, reminding me that we were spending the studio’s money, so live it up!
We spent a few hours at the restaurant [I taped the interview]…. I [published] excerpts of our conversation, with questions that Susanna actually answered in a lucid manner. In between that, there were some incomprehensible remarks….
In shuttling her back and forth to her apartment, there were more shockers in store. As I’ve said, the apartment was very small, like the size of a cruise cabin. It had two single beds, set up in an L-shape. There was a table with two chairs for eating. Susanna had a framed photo from Rose Marie and another one of just Jeanette. There were no photos of her anywhere in the place. There wasn’t much of anything in the place at all, except for the furniture. She offered me a drink but the refrigerator was bare, except for a bottle of wine. While I was there, one of her sons [Phillip] arrived. She told me he was a drug addict….
I offered to give her money; she refused to take it. I offered to buy her some groceries; she said they didn’t need it. She said she was planning a comeback and she sang for me, to prove she still had her voice. She did sound great, her voice was a little deeper but otherwise pretty much untouched by time. I offered to help set up a small recital and to even get some press for her. She turned down all help but kept talking about her big comeback. Believe me, folks, it took some careful listening and observation to see that she wasn’t operating on all circuits. She was a good actress and could get through an entire social event without people seeing this side of her.
Susanna had married and divorced the famous baritone Wilbur Evans, best known for starring in several of the famous operettas on Broadway, and in the original London opening of “South Pacific” with Mary Martin. Their older son Michael later advised me that while his parents had sung together for a time, his father did not realize Susanna’s mental issues. After their marriage broke up, Susanna could not effectively take care of their two sons who were raised as “latchkey” children. Some years later, I moved to New York and met Michael Evans in person..
In the meantime, Susanna’s younger son Philip had died young after collapsing in front of her. Michael finally moved her back East and put Susanna into the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in New Jersey, where she died in 2009. Some time before that, I had encouraged Michael to write about his mother and family if it would help his emotional wellbeing, and then invited him to speak at New York event of MacDonald/Eddy fans. To my surprise, Mike not only wrote many prolific and tragic posts about his family on his blog, Susanna Foster Chronicles, but he showed up at the event having made a video of his family’s story. He spoke candidly to the group about Susanna’s horrific childhood, with a mentally ill mother and grandmother. One of the bullet points that most shocked the audience was this: “Susanna coming home from school to find the apartment wrecked, human feces on the kitchen walls with Adie [her mother] slumped over the kitchen table, drunk and puking.” Susanna was made to join in and help smear more feces around the walls.
Michael was comforted and encouraged by the emotional support he received at that event. We had several phone calls after that where he expressed to me that he was the only one in his family who wasn’t mentally ill or an alcoholic, and he lived in fear that the family curse of insanity would claim him. After Susanna’s death, we spoke by phone for hours; actually he spoke and I mostly listened. He was upset that Turner Classic Movies would not play any of his mother’s films and couldn’t we do something about that. I immediately contacted Robert Osborne and asked him to reach out to Michael, which he did, and Bob emailed me that TCM didn’t have Susanna’s films and hence couldn’t screen them. But Michael was heartened by Osborne’s kindness to him.
Some time later, Michael indeed began failing emotionally and physically. Some of us pitched in funds to help get him moved back to the West Coast, where he lived with friends until his death in 2017.
©2021 by Sharon Rich. All rights reserved.