Lovely Jeanette MacDonald Tells Her True Story

by Bernard MacFadden
True Story
May 1939

Her fascination and charm are no mere matters of chance. She cultivated and developed them. And she frankly revealed how to the publisher of True Story…

The enticement of a movie career is a magnet that is difficult to resist, many are called, but few are chosen. Thousands of fans seek fane and fortune offered by the movies, but the percentage of applicants who are finally able to climb the ladder of success is small indeed. Where one succeeds, hundreds fall by the wayside, and nearly every star in the movie firmament eagerly sought a film career.

With Jeanette MacDonaId the situation was different. She was enjoying a successful stage career. Instead of her seeking the movies, their officials were attracted by her performance, and their offers were so liberal she could not afford to reject them.

Miss MacDonald’s stage career was a training, for the “flicker lights” that was invaluable. She is peculiarly fitted for the movies. She has beauty and charm that is unusual in nature, a splendid symmetrical figure, and the suppleness and grace acquired through her dancing make her indeed an alluring personality on the screen.

There is a certain aliveness and animation in her presentation of the various characters which she has assumed that add greatly to her attractions.

She does indeed make an ideal heroine for the numerous plays and pictures in which she has taken the leading part.

When I interviewed her she was dressed in slacks a comfortable costume indeed. And she has the happy faculty of being just as charming in private life as she is on the screen.

I learned on this visit that she has a mind of her own. She talks intelligently on economics and politics and other abstruse subjects that would be Greek to many movie stars. And in reply to my queries she unfolded many details of her unusually interesting career.

She was never especially ambitious to be in the movies; her one desire was to be a singer. She started vocalizing when she was three.

When she was eight she appeared in a funny little revue. At nine she sang numerous songs. Had movies been talkies at that time, she undoubtedly would have been a prodigy, like Judy Garland or Deanna Durbin of today.

She has always been intrigued by dancing, more especially because it is frequently associated with the singing required in the various parts that she has assumed on the stage and in the movies. She has learned, also, that dancing is an invaluable exercise as pleasurable as it is beneficial. Two of her sisters took dancing lessons when she was a child, and contact with them doubtless helped to arouse her interest.

Miss MacDonald was born in Philadelphia, although in reply to my inquiry she maintained there was nothing slow about that city. She attended grammar school there, and had just started in high school when her family decided to move to New York City. Her father was a builder and a contractor, and he built many houses in Philadelphia. But he did not make a great deal of money as a contractor; largely, Miss MacDonald says, because he went into politics and failed to be successful as a politician. His diplomacy was at fault, and he did not last long in politics.

Jeanette admitted she did not graduate. She was so much allured by a stage career in New York that high school became very unimportant, Her career came first, and her activities on the stage required nearly all of her time, and she discontinued the school routine.

She was paid twenty-five dollars a week for singing when she was between seven and eight years of age, although her mother put the money in the bank at the time, and Jeanette used it later for her singing lessons. Strange as it may seem, her mother was not interested in singing. Jeanette had two sisters, both older than she. One of her sisters was a talented pianist, but she married young and gave up her musical career. Another sister was a dancer in New York and it was through her that Jeanette began her stage career in the great metropolis.

She was only thirteen years of age when she appeared in the Capitol Theater in New York in a show similar to that presented by the Rockettes. Following that she took part in a show at the Greenwich Tillage Theater. At that time she was only fifteen years of age. The theater accommodated only two hundred people, but she played to capacity houses every night.

Jeanette was only ten years of age when she began to take singing lessons, although she admits it did her more harm than good. Even at that early age she learned arias from the operas, and all the songs from “Faust”.

She probably overworked her voice at this time, for she says it seemed to grow stale. She believed it had been injured by singing too much as a child.

However, the dancing lessons she had taken now proved quite valuable. She received sixty dollars a week for dancing at the Greenwich Village Theatre, which, at that time, was considered a very good salary. Following that she signed up with Mr. Savage to dance at the Magic Ring, where her salary was raised to one hundred dollars a week, which at her age only sixteen years was really munificence.

Girls frequently attain their full growth between twelve and fourteen years of age. Whether or not overmuch training at such an early age influenced her growth, Jeanette states that she continued to grow even after she was twenty-one, physically and mentally as well as vocally. Her vocal teacher told her her voice would continue to develop as long as her body was in good health that there is no such thing as a broken voice and as long as one is vitally vigorous one should be able to sing, regardless of age.

She admits, however, that singing as a profession often becomes hard work, although it is a very restraining influence. One can not have a good voice unless the importance of maintaining vigorous health is continuously recognized. Every possible effort must be made to keep the body in splendid physical condition.

She was very busy with her stage career in New York City when the movies first entered her life. She was appearing at the Longacre Theatre in light opera when a screen test was made at the request of the officials of the Paramount organization. Her first appearance, on the screen apparently made a very pleasant impression and she was offered a leading role opposite Richard Dix in a movie. She could not get a release from the Shuberts, for whom she was playing at the time, so she had to abandon the idea. Her disappointment was keen at the time, but she had no choice. She was under contract and could not break it. She learned later, however, that the picture was a failure and to have appeared in it might have injured her reputation as an actress.

Later, however, Ernst Lubitseh saw her test, when he was looking for some one to play the Queen in “The Love Parade”, and decided she was the girl to play the part. Later she played in “The Vagabond King”, “Monte Carlo”, “One Hour With You”, and “Love Me Tonight.”

Following these pictures she went to Europe and secured engagements in London and Paris, and her appearances there were very successful. The demand for her pictures throughout Europe has been especially pleasing.

She is apparently very studious. She has learned the lessons which are essential to guide her own life profitably and successfully. It is not at all difficult to account for her successful career.

“In recent years I have been my own business manager,” she said, “After my second European tour I signed a contract with MGM, and made “The Cat and the Fiddle, playing opposite Ramon Novarro. I next appeared in “The Merry Widow”, with Maurice Chevalier. Then followed “Naughty Marietta” and “Rose Marie” with Nelson Eddy as co-star in both. Next came “San Francisco” in which I co-starred with Clark Gable; “Maytime” with Nelson Eddy. I starred in “The Firefly” with Allan Jones, and in “The Girl of the Golden West” in which I again co-starred with Nelson Eddy. I recently completed the picture “Sweethearts” with Nelson Eddy.

“My actual academic education,” said Jeanette, “started when I was six-teen. I really started to study seriously at that age. I took up French and began dancing and singing in real earnest. I studied Italian a few years after that. I have always been a prolific reader, although I have had less time recently for that diversion.”

Jeanette loves to study biographies. She is especially fond of reading about Melba and Jenny Lind, and other great singers of bygone days. Jenny Lind’s biography, she maintains, was very dull, and her life was very peculiar.

The biographies of modern women especially interest her. The dramatic figure of Mary Garden was unusually intriguing. Geraldine Farrar’s life was also very dramatic, and exceedingly worth while, so she maintained. She has even found interest in the biographies of Wagner and Beethoven, and other great musicians of bygone days.

Ordinarily in reading biographies, she says, she does not compare them with her own career, although the experiences of some of the women singers would make an interesting comparison. She believes that their experience would to a certain extent parallet that of her own life. She found it interesting and profitable to learn how these great singers and musicians lived and struggled and how they solved the many difficulties and met the emergencies of their lives.

But Jeanette’s hobby is her work. She calls it work, but, in reality, is should not be termed as such. That word gives one the idea of a monotonous routine, and singing to Jeanette is a playful game. She enjoys it intensely. It is her life, ner very soul is embedded in the emotions that are automatically aroused through dramatic vocalizing.

I asked Jeanette if she was interested in polities. ‘I think every one has to be interested in politics these days,” she replied. “Especially business men. I was a youngster when my father failed in politics. There were many phases of his activities of which I did not approve, and naturally I would like to avoid these mistakes in my own life. But nearly every great business enterprise is full of politics at this time, and the same may be said of every profession.”

Jeanette admits she has read all kinds of philosophical books, but she has adhered to a policy that is followed by every real student. She does not accept the reasoning of every author shemay read, but out of her own reading she evolves her own philosophy. “I cannot”, she said, “read Freud or Plato, and swallow them whole, or understand their works and theories as a matter of fact.”

One of her favorites is a little book written by a Hindu, which is not Christian, yet the teachings are quite Christian-like. The book is called “The Prophet”.

One of her favorite authors is Victor Hugo, the dramatic Frenchman, whose reputation will last as long as the English language is spoken.

Like all professional vocalists, Miss MacDonald has learned the unusual importance of vigorous health. She tries to secure plenty of sleep, although she states she is not a sound sleeper. In fact, sleeping has been one of her problems. She tries to sleep eight hours every day, but on work days she rarely obtains more than five or six. To remedy this defect, she has tried eating early, eating lightly, and exercising, but she admits the problem has never been entirely solved. She has tried to content herself with five or six hours’ sleep during the night and to make up for the deficiency she sleeps during lunch hour, when working on a picture.

In her health regimen she has been wise enough to learn the value of sunshine. She tries to get as much as possible. In a recent picture she said she had to keep out of the sun to avoid a tan complexion as the picture was being made in technicolor. The picture she referred to is ‘”Sweethearts”, and the makeup is very exacting. A brown skin in this picture would be fatal, as that color photographs black on the screen. Because of this she had to stay out of the sun for three months.

She is, however, very fond of that vitality building exercise which I recommend so heartily, and that is walking. She walks a mile every night before goi.ng to bed. During my recent visit to Hollywood, after enjoying a delectable dinner by the way I was greatly surprised to find I could enjoy my usual diet, which was indeed an enjoyable experience I took one of those mile walks with her and her handsome athletic husband, Gene Raymond. The last part of that walk was an uphill climb. Jeanette appeared greatly to enjoy the exercise.

Their beautiful home, which is like a private estate, is on a hill from which there is a beautiful view of the surrounding country. It is almost like being out in the country, although within a few miles of the studios.

Jeanette is fond of cycling and frequently rides to the studios in the morning.

In the various-roles she has played, dancing has frequently been required. Then other exercises were not especially necessary, when they were taking “The Firefly”, a Spanish dance was a part of the play. In her recent picture, “Sweethearts” she had to learn a Dutch dance. She stated it took her three weeks to learn the Spanish dance, but only three days for the Dutch dance.

Jeanette rides horseback frequently, which she thoroughly enjoys. Swimming is also one of her favorite exercises. Swimming. and dancing can hardly be improved upon for giving one a supple and symmetrical figure, and these exercises no doubt largely account for her slim, slyph-like figure, which the movie fans find so charming.

When I inquired about meals, she described a very frugal breakfast consisting of a bowl of fruit; whatever may be seasonable peaches, figs or nectarines to which she sometimes adds cream, although a cup of warm milk usually completes the meal. When she is working she has a cup of hot soup about eleven o’clock in the morning. She usually eats her breakfast about seven, and at about eleven takes a cup of vegetable broth.

She eats luncheon usually at twelve-thirty, and her average lunch is string beans, baked or boiled potatoes and some squash no meat, eggs or fish at this meal. At noon she usually eats a slice or two of whole wheat bread, and takes a glass of sweet milk. She does not like buttermilk.

Her average dinner begins with a hard-boiled egg, or an avocado pear with pineapple, for the first course. She never eats pork, but she likes beef, lamb kidneys and chicken livers, to which she usually adds two green vegetables.

She is very fond of apple pie which is her favorite dessert; When I asked her if she liked it covered with whipped cream, her reply was evasive, “I do not eat the crust,” she said, “I like only the apples in the center of the pie. The crust is too heavy. I just seem to like the flavor of the apples in the apple pie. Other aessets I like are fruit jello, prune whip, cup custard, sometimes junket. I just love junket.

She never drinks coffee or postum, although she acknowledged that occasionally she likes a cup of tea. When about seven-teen years of age she had a fall, and suffered from backache. The doctor told her to stop drinking coffee and it raight help to remedy the trouble.

“I followed his directions, she said, and have never indulged in coffee since then, although I will have to admit it did not stop my backaches.”

Then she discussed religion. She stated she thought religion was good for everybody mainly the belief in a higher power. “I even think,” she said, “that religion is necessary whether you feel the need of it or not. There are times when my profession lets me down mentally, when I am disappointed, or things do not go the way they should. Then I realize there is something far more important than my work. I believe religion is a mental and moral stimulant of unusual value. It undoubtedly, is an uplifting force for those who believe in its precepts. I am a member of the Presbyterian Church, although I was married in the Methodist Episcopal Church. I have often attended the Catholic Church and also the ChristianScience Church.”

When.I asked Jeanette if she had any idiosyncrasies, she replied, “I guess I am just as crazy as the average human being, although I cannot think of anything about myself that is particularly unusual,” I think I raight have remarked at that time that her exquisitely beautiful voice that has charmed millions could certainly be termed unusual.

“Without my music and singing, I am quite sure I would stagnate,” said Jeanette. “Life would be indeed monotonous, an uninteresting routine. I might have developed other talents. I know I have latent talents, although too many people get enthusiastic about side-issues and do not concentrate their energies sufficiently to make an outstanding success. I think we are all lazy to a certain extent. Yes, the whole world. You, me and everybody else in it.”

She acknowledges that she is too energetic at times. “I am on the go constantly.” She admitted it would be greatly to her benefit if she could relax more, but she should not indulge in this luxury too often. “For then this innate laziness might get me,” she admitted.

She did not think there way any special secret about her extraordinary success. Her only formula is that which is behind every outstanding achievement. That is hard work, which is certainly the main requirement in the evolvement of genius.

She believes that people should take a personal inventory frequently that self-analysis is often desirable. “Figure out just where you want to go, and then keep on the main track. We cannot definitely direct our destinies, but we can greatly influence them.”

In trying to ascertain just how much time she gave to training her voice previous to her great success she stated that she vocalized an hour and a half or two hours every day. When working on the various pictures she rarely takes time to practice, although there are certain vocal exercises which she uses every day. “I sing certain songs, or learn an opera or a certain score. My exercises are not written out. They consist of a routine that my teacher taught me and I still use it. My range is from about low Ato high E flat.”

Miss MacDonald is indeed a remarkable example of what can be accomplished when one starts in life with a liberal share of enthusiasm backed up by unusual ambitions and the energies that accompany the vitality associated with a vigorous inheritance.

She started out as a child prodigy. Fortunately for her, she continued to improve with added years. Her dancing, together with her ability to fathom the problems of life, enabled her to keep her balance and advance mentally year by year.

Along with the development of her voice she has had a mental growth that automatically appears when one becomes a student of life as it is lived day by day.

How to meet our daily problems, combat emergencies that cannot be avoided and maintain the mental balance essential to the enjoyment of life represents difficulties that but few people can combat successfully.