January 13, 1965. On this date, Jeanette MacDonald was one day away from death in a Houston hospital. The previous day, her husband Gene Raymond, took her on a commercial flight to Houston, as her heart doctor was there. She was to have open heart surgery but was too weak; Dr. Michael DeBakey’s description to the press of her condition when she arrived at the hospital would indicate she was severely dehydrated. She was put on intravenous fluids to stabilize her.
This opens a myriad of questions. It’s very common for those suffering from dehydration to suddenly be mentally confused and somewhat delirious. When one is seriously ill, dehydration can occur even if one is eating and drinking liquids. This would seem to be the case with Jeanette, as on January 12th, the doorman at their residence, the Wilshire Comstock, helped carry Jeanette down to the car. He stated that she was clearly out of it, since she called him Nelson. Ray was a tall man of color and looked nothing like Nelson Eddy.
Jeanette had last been hospitalized at UCLA Medical Center, a mere 10 minutes away from their residence. If she was in such crisis, why was she not taken there instead, to stabilize her? No doctor in his right mind would immediately operate on a person in her condition without first ensuring she had a decent chance of surviving major surgery.
Let’s look at the timeline. Jeanette was released from UCLA on New Year’s Eve, 1964. Nelson Eddy made a lengthy last visit to her at home on January 3rd. The very next day was the last one that Susan Nelson, a private duty nurse, visited Jeanette. Gene informed her that her services were no longer needed. When I interviewed Susan Nelson, I asked her how Jeanette would have fared without a private nurse checking on her daily. She was unaware that no nurse replaced her. “She was too sick to be on a commercial plane,” Susan told me. “I know I told you she was getting out of bed but…to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I didn’t take her to the bathroom in the hospital. But I think I did in her home. She was very, very weak.”
Susan Nelson also verified that Jeanette’s phone was removed from her bedroom, because she was so weak. In today’s world, of course, everyone has a cell phone practically glued to them and this wouldn’t occur. Those were different times. From Nelson Eddy, he voiced concerned that his calls to Jeanette were diverted to Gene’s phone in Gene’s apartment. (Jeanette and Gene each had their own apartment, with a connecting door.) Nelson later told the press he last spoke to Jeanette about a week before she died. This would be presumably around January 7th? This phone call was verified by Jeanette’s sister Blossom, who was there when Jeanette dragged herself into the living room to call Nelson. Because Nelson always got so hysterical when Jeanette was desperately ill (and she had a slow decline for years with basically congestive heart failure), Jeanette reassured Nelson she was fine and “just wanted to hear his voice.” Blossom wanted to call Nelson back and tell him to come immediately but Jeanette stopped her. Note that on two occasions when Jeanette was hospitalized, once at UCLA and once at Houston Methodist, Nelson visited her then left the room and collapsed. In November 1963, when Jeanette was hospitalized and Nelson was touring in Australia, he abruptly cancelled the tour citing throat problems and flew back back to the States.
Nelson would later voice outrage over the fact that he was not told about Jeanette’s “sudden” decline and the Houston trip, which prevented him from being there when Jeanette died. He noted this with confusion to the press upon first learning she had passed. And later, his anger was such that he channeled it into writing and discussions with people in his inner circle. For Nelson, there was a certain helplessness and resignation that he was constantly thwarted in his efforts to help Jeanette. The irony is that, after her death, unpaid funeral-related expenses documented in legal papers were finally paid by Nelson, not by her estate.
I was not told directly about Nelson’s reaction to Jeanette’s supposed loving death scene as told to the press. What I do know is that William Tuttle, Jeanette’s makeup man at MGM and for her open casket funeral, told us in his interview that Jeanette’s final minutes could not have been easy. She was, he said, “very blue” and he had to apply the makeup twice to try and cover it.
I’m posting this a day early because of the time zones across the planet, such as Australia where it is already January 14.
The Susan Nelson quote and data above are excerpted from the final chapters of “Sweethearts”, (c) 2014 by Sharon Rich, all rights reserved. Free to read today with Kindle Unlimited or to purchase from any worldwide Amazon sites; the US link is here.