Jeannette Anna McDonald was born on June 18, 1903, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Daniel and Anna McDonald. She was the youngest of three daughters and grew up in a house that always encouraged her musical gifts. At some point, her father changed the spelling of her last name and while Jeanette was working on Broadway in the 1920s she changed the spelling of her first name, becoming Jeanette MacDonald.
Jeanette made her public debut at the age of three, singing the hymn “O’ That Will Be Glory” at Tennent Memorial Presbyterian Church. Unaware that applause wasn’t proper in church, little Jeanette clapped and told the audience to clap with her. When she was five years old, Jeanette appeared in a juvenile opera to raise money for Philadelphia’s Samaritan Hospital and landed three solo parts. While grooming her talents, Jeanette took dancing lessons and even played in vaudeville in the child revue “Al White’s Six Sunny Songbirds” when she was nine-years-old. Her Vaudeville career lasted for six years and the time she spent on stage gave her plenty of experience in front of a crowd.
In 1919 middle sister Blossom was working on stage in New York when she helped arrange an audition for Jeanette while she was in town visiting. Producer Ned Wayburn hired Jeanette for a chorus role in his Demi Tasse Revue at the newly opened Capitol Theater. While Jeanette was working, she continued to attend high school, as well as study dance and voice. She appeared in supporting roles on Broadway and on tour in the early 1920s. After a botched tonsilectomy nearly cost Jeanette her voice, she began training with Ferdinand Torriani. After his death in 1926, she was coached by Torriani’s assistant, Grace Adele Newell, who continued as Jeanette’s voice teacher until Grace retired in the 1950s. As time passed, Jeanette’s roles on stage became bigger and more important and she was put under contract by the Shubert brothers. She usually received wonderful reviews, but most of the shows flopped.
Hollywood ushered in the sound age in 1928 with The Jazz Singer. Many Broadway stars were enticed to make the trek to Hollywood as studio heads realized that their silent stars did not have the stage experience and voices to carry into sound films. Jeanette made several screen tests, but the Shuberts would not release her from her contract. In 1929, director Ernst Lubitsch saw her Paramount test and hired her to star opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade. At Paramount and Fox, she was known as the Lingerie Queen, appearing in a series of slightly naughty pre-code musicals and comedies. In 1933 she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and it was there that she achieved her greatest fame. Although MacDonald co-starred with Chevalier in four of her early films, her name would forever be linked with that of Nelson Eddy after they starred together in Naughty Marietta for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in 1935. It was the first of eight films that they made together, introducing a generation of moviegoers to classical music. Many fans thought their romantic onscreen relationship continued off screen, but both were happily married to other people.
Around 1935 Jeanette met actor Gene Raymond on Dolly Sister Rosie Dolly’s doorstep. After two more accidental meetings, Jeanette and Gene began dating. They married in 1937 in a star-studded ceremony with a guest list that read like Who’s Who in Hollywood. The MacRaymonds (as they nicknamed themselves) settled in a Bel-Air English Tudor home that they called Twin Gables. The duo later made one film together, Smilin’ Through, which was filmed in Technicolor and showed Jeanette at her most stunning.
During World War II, Gene was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Force. In 1942 he was sent to England, serving with the 97th Bomb Group as an Intelligance Officer. Jeanette supported the war effort by entertaining the troops and appearing at bond rallies. In the fall of 1942 she donated the proceeds from her concert tour to the Army Emergency Relief Fund, auctioning off encores and selling her autograph. She raised nearly $100,000, the largest contribution by a single entertainer.
After Jeanette left MGM in 1942, she continued giving recitals and appearing on the radio. In 1943 she made her Canadian opera debut in Romeo et Juliette with hopes of appearing at the Metropolitan Opera. Although the opera was a critical success, it was not a financial one. She sang Romeo et Juliette and Faust in several U.S. cities in the 1940s and ’50s, but never fulfilled her dream of singing with the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s Jeanette made many appearances in concert, on the radio, in summer stock, and eventually television. In the late 1940s she returned briefly to the screen.
Jeanette received many awards and accolades throughout her career. In 1939, she was crowned Queen of the Screen to Tyrone Power’s King by the New York Daily News which surveyed readers of 50 newspapers about their favorite film stars. She received a Doctorate of Music degree from New York’s Ithaca College on May 30, 1953. Jeanette received two gold records with Nelson Eddy, the first for their 1936 recording of Indian Love Call in 1958 and the second for their 1958 LP Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy Favorites in Hi-Fi/Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy Favorites in Stereo in 1967. In 2008, their recording of “Indian Love Call” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Jeanette died of heart failure on January 14, 1965, in Houston, Texas. She may have had a weak heart, but she gave so much of herself to so many. Her motto was “If you want to be something, do something!” I think you could say she definitely lived up to her own standards. From entertaining on the silver screen and the Broadway stage to donating money and her services during World War II, Jeanette was a beautiful woman inside and out.
Jeanette MacDonald Raymond is remembered by fans of all ages for her beauty and her voice which will forever echo through the hearts of those who love her as The Indian Love Call echos in the hills in Rose-Marie.
Hollywood Diva: a biography of Jeanette MacDonald, Edward Baron Turk – U. California P. – 2000
Dugan, Eleanor Knowles. “Jeanette MacDonald.” Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy: A Tribute.