October 17-22, 1943
As the sun was setting, Jeanette and Nelson went to their favorite spot overlooking Lake Tahoe. There they performed a sentimental wedding ceremony. Jeanette sang “Indian Love Call”, a song they’d made famous, then they knelt together and promised to love, honor, and cherish each other forever. Their vows were performed without witnesses, and without a clergyman. They were renewing the pledge of love they’d exchanged eight summers before in 1935, at this very place, while filming their second movie together, Rose Marie.
But now it had to be done in secret because legally and in the public eye, each was happily married to someone else. A series of incredible events had prevented their wedding from ever taking place and had hurtled them into lifestyles from which they now could not extricate themselves. By necessity they lived double lives-a rollercoaster ride with moments of great passion countered by even longer stretches of agonizing separation. Sometimes the burden was too difficult to bear; they’d battled back from numerous breakdowns and suicide attempts during their years together.
That was why now in the final days of 1943, they needed to get away from the world and reaffirm their love and their faith in a God they trusted to somehow, someday, make things right for them.
Jeanette took a ring off her finger and handed it to Nelson. It was a stunner — an emerald surrounded by diamonds that had cost him $40,000 in 1935. Sometimes she wore it in public on her wedding finger, more often on a chain around her neck. “Your dear life is bound to me forever,” Nelson said as he slipped the ring back onto her finger and kissed her.
They returned to their “honeymoon” cabin, Nelson tenderly calling Jeanette “my wife.” After dinner, they discussed several topics, including the state of their careers, then retired to their separate rooms. Recently, they had been keeping things on a “spiritual” level, because intimacy brought with it such a devastating letdown when they were forced to part. “The physical has always been the least important for us,” Jeanette claimed. But their willpower would not hold out much longer.
Nelson kept a diary in which his impassioned writings reveal a man quite different than his public ever knew. He told Jeanette that the diary was her “insurance,”something she could always treasure in case anything ever happened to him. The following entry, dated December 3, 1943, chronicles their trip to Tahoe. The writing style is typical of Nelson’s personality, alternately Victorian and sexually graphic.
Three whole days and nights we had been together, satisfied with our kisses, happy just being in love, but with our goodnight kisses, little sweetheart, did you know how desperately I was longing to keep you with me? Your bedroom became a symbol, and I knew that one night soon I must step across the threshold and reclaim my wife….But there was no hurry, I loved your delicacy, your sensitivity about it all…content just to be with me. And then one evening I came and found you looking at an album of stills of our work and suddenly you were facing me, speaking my name, so gently, so sweetly, I almost wept. And it was at that moment that I knew I would never have the strength to leave you alone this night.
I dreamed it would be like this. But this night you were intoxicating beyond my fondest dreams so wonderful how I wanted to forever keep your lips to mine….And then you said, ‘You’re making me dizzy’ But dearest, that is just what I wanted you to say…did you know I understand all your secrets so well?…I loved the hard way you were trying to keep repressed your rising emotions. We had been together three whole days and nights without allowing this to happen it was all the sweeter for the waiting. I crossed with you to your bedroom door, do you remember? And suddenly I knew that I had to make you give me an invitation. Not by one word had you given me any sign that you wanted me in that bedroom with you — no, your delicate lady-like manner never would — so that’s why I wanted to make you. I stooped to kiss you and found you powerless to utter a word you were at the breaking point. And then I said goodnight, hoping, oh how I was hoping, you wouldn’t disappoint me. I felt your numb little fingers cling to mine, and you whispered my name … with joy in my heart I lifted my darling in my arms and carried her to my own bedroom and gathered you in heaven’s own earthly bliss. And dearest, did you know you were a very intoxicated little girl?…The curve of your white little breast … that intimate glorious part of you … that magic evening … I remember telling you that you belonged to me that I would never let you go.
Oh my darling, what a mistress for a man’s home. I closed my eyes and imagined you presiding at my table when we entertain our friends. How proud I shall be. In all the world there never will have been a man so proud.
At the end of the self-styled honeymoon Nelson and Jeanette went their separate ways. With renewed urgency they tackled the matter at hand: how could they finally free themselves from the disaster they’d made of their lives?
The following is an excerpt from Chapter One. © 1994, 2001 by Sharon Rich. ISBN: 0-9711998-1-7. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.