Jeannette Anna McDonald was born on June 18, 1903 in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Anna (née Wright) and Daniel McDonald. Coming ahead of schedule and faster than the doctor could arrive, she was delivered by her father in the upstairs of her family's home at 5123 Arch St. The youngest of three daughters, following Elsie and Edith “Blossom”, Jeannette was a tomboy bit by the performance bug early on. Her childhood days alternated between performing for neighbors on the family porch and taking lessons in dance and music.
At the age of three, Jeannette took her fondness for entertaining public for the first time singing O That Will Be Glory in her local church. Confused by the congregation’s respectful silence, and used to the acclaim she received from fellow Arch Street residents, she followed her proud performance with a round of applause for herself, and encouraged her ‘audience’ to do the same, saying "Now, everybody's got to clap!" This Sunday proved fateful in forever shaping the toddler’s life and career, for once put they Jeannette before an audience, they could never again take her away from one.
At five years old, Jeannette would compete against adults in a talent competition, winning first place and taking home a cash prize worth more than a man’s average weekly salary for the time. In 1912, at age nine, Jeannette joined such kiddie revues as Six Sunny Song Birds and Seven Merry Youngsters. Though she had to be careful to keep her young age a secret from the authorities, these shows allowed Jeannette to dance and sing after school and on weekends. Eventually, her natural gift and passion for performing would be the reason her parents agree to let Jeannette drop out of school in the tenth grade to focus on a career in the arts.
Jeanette at age 5
Six Sunny Songbirds
(Jeanette on the left)
Jeanette at age 11
The MacDonald Sisters
(L-R: Elsie, Blossom, Jeanette)
In the fall of 1919, while accompanying her father on a trip to New York City, Jeannette visited her older sister, Blossom, who had been working as a dancer and living in the city for some time. While there Jeannette convinced Blossom to take her along to work, so that Jeannette might audition for a place in the show. Despite dancing off the stage into the orchestra pit during her audition, famed choreographer Ned Wayburn still hired Jeannette for the chorus of his newest and grandest show to date, The Demi-Tasse Revue at the Capitol Theater.
With Jeannette’s new place in a Broadway chorus, the McDonald family moved to New York City permanently for the sake of the teen’s budding career. Jeannette continued studying dance and eventually began voice lessons with the woman who would become her lifelong coach and, by her own account, her adopted mother, Grace Adele Newell. From The Demi-Tasse Revue, Jeannette consistently worked the theater circuit but years of giving good performances in a string of mostly unsuccessful musicals left Jeannette longing for more. Her smash success finally came with 1927's Yes, Yes, Yvette. Though the show only remained on Broadway for 40 performances, Yes, Yes, Yvette brought Jeannette some of the acclaim she had been searching for but most all, the show lent itself to another milestone in the young actress’ life — seeing her name in the marquee lights for the first time, reading JEANETTE MACDONALD.
Just days after Yes, Yes, Yvette closed in November 1927, Jeanette signed a lengthy contract with theater moguls, the Shubert Bros. Later, her inability to exit this contract, despite a ferocious battle to do so, proved a blessing. German film director, Ernst Lubitsch was on the hunt for a fresh new talent to play the female lead in his highly anticipated musical film, 1929’s The Love Parade. After viewing, and enthusiastically loving, an old screen test that Jeanette had recorded, Lubitsch attended one of her stage performances with the Shuberts in order to hear her sing. The pair shared a meeting after the show during which Lubitsch promptly cast Jeanette as his queen, starring opposite Maurice Chevalier.
Following their immediate success together in The Love Parade at Paramount Pictures, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier went on to make three more promiscuous musicals together. With Lubitsch directing three of their four successful collaborations, the trio were given the moniker 'The Dream Team'. However, the success at Paramount did not keep Jeanette from moving onward and upward. While touring Europe in 1933, Jeanette signed a new, highly coveted, contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Quickly, she became known as Hollywood's most glamorous songbird and one of MGM’s brightest stars. Among the 18 films Jeanette made with the studio between 1934 and 1949 were some of the biggest blockbusters of the era, forever cementing her place in film history. Many of Jeanette's greatest screen successes were found in the eight films she made with baritone, Nelson Eddy. Known as America's Singing Sweethearts, they captivated audiences and would share a number of professional triumphs, such as starring together in the studio's first color musical, Sweethearts (1938).
Jeanette with Maurice Chevalier
The Love Parade (1929)
Jeanette for The Merry Widow (1934)
Jeanette and Nelson Eddy
On June 16, 1937 Hollywood saw one of its most lavish weddings as Jeanette married actor Gene Raymond at Wilshire Methodist Church. Fans flooded outside, while inside stars and roses were piled to the rafters. Ginger Rogers, Fay Wray and Jeanette’s sister, Blossom Rock, were among her bridesmaids. The couple remained married for nearly 28 years, until Jeanette's untimely passing in 1965. They had no children, but inside Twin Gables, the beloved tudor-style Bel Air home that Jeanette adored so, the MacRaymond's raised dogs and horses and entertained regularly.
Throughout her career, one of Jeanette's greatest joys was going on concert tours. For nearly two decades, from 1931 through the 1950s, Jeanette would tour across America or Europe during her down time between films. Though it meant being on the road for months on end, she thrilled at meeting and interacting with the fans who clamored to recital halls to experience her live. Since her youth, Jeanette battled a crippling case of stage fright that left her with the belief that no live audience had ever witnessed the best of her abilities. However, not even this tormenting anxiety could prevent her from achieving her earliest childhood dream of singing grand opera. After studying with famed opera star, Lotte Lehmann, Jeanette debuted as Juliette in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette in May 1943 at His Majesty’s Theater in Montreal. The following year she debuted in the U.S. and continued singing Juliette and Marguerite, in Gounod's Faust, in various opera productions until 1951.
Jeanette and Gene Raymond
With her husband in the Air Force overseas, Jeanette worked heartily for the war effort. She was one of the founders of the Women's Voluntary Services. She also performed with the USO, entertained troops at the Hollywood Canteen and opened her home to service men on weekends as her numerous health conditions prevented her from being cleared to entertain troops overseas. A patriot proud to do her part, Jeanette would auction off encores at her recitals to donate to the Army Emergency Relief Fund, agreeing to stay singing and raising donations for upwards of a dozen encores until her voice could withstand no more. At one time she donated her entire personal proceeds from a twelve concert tour, a sum that came to an unprecedented $96,462.89 (more than $1.5 million dollars when adjusted for inflation).
Following her film work, Jeanette returned to theater in productions of The King & I and The Guardsman, in which she starred opposite her husband, Gene Raymond. Though her familiar struggle with stage fright prevented television from being a medium Jeanette enjoyed, she made her TV debut on The Voice of Firestone in 1950 and continued to make guest appearances and participate on game shows throughout the decade.
In the late 1950s, Jeanette set out to write an autobiography that covered her personal and professional lives that she hoped would be insightful to ambitious young singers. A number of drafts were written but rejected by her publishers. Ultimately and at a great personal loss, Jeanette cashed in bonds and returned the advance she had been given, refusing to write the scandalous Hollywood tell-all they wanted to see from her.
Jeanette performing opera
Jeanette in uniform
Jeanette in the 1950's
Following several heart attacks throughout her life, Jeanette underwent an arterial transplant at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. The surgery resulted in a number of complications and fourteen months later, Jeanette returned to Houston to undergo emergency heart surgery at the hands of well-known surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey. Tragically, two days later Jeanette MacDonald suffered a myocardial infarction and succumbed to her heart condition on the afternoon of January 14, 1965. She was 61 years old.
Her funeral was held on January 18, 1965. Crowds of fans gathered outside the chapel, listening as Lloyd Nolan's eulogy and Jeanette’s singing were piped through the speakers. Jeanette is interred in the Sanctuary of Heritage mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.