Sunday, May 10, 2009

Farewell To Dreams by Diane Goodrich and Sharon Rich

"Farewell To Dreams" is a fictionalized account of the secret off-screen romance between one of the movies' great screen couples from the golden age of Hollywood--Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, fondly known as "America's Singing Sweethearts."

The story begins in 1934 when handsome, blonde baritone Nelson Eddy, already a star on the concert stage, mobbed and adored by legions of female fans, arrives at MGM, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Hollywood studio that boasts it has "more stars than there are in heaven," including Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.

Nelson is a serious singer, an intense, sincere, determined man, whom many mistake for being old-fashioned and naive. He has little patience or use for the shallow and phony Hollywood way of life. He has already reached a point in his career where he can take Hollywood or leave it, he sees the movies as merely a means to increase attendance at his already phenomenally popular concerts. After a few bits parts, acting lessons, the glamour treatment, and exposure to the Hollywood publicity machine where columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper rule the roost, he is ready to kiss Hollywood goodbye when a beautiful soprano voice draws him to the soundstage where Ernst Lubitsch is filming "The Merry Widow."

The moment Nelson Eddy lays eyes on Jeanette MacDonald it is love at first sight. Even though they have never spoken a word, he knows beyond all doubt that he has found the love of his life, the girl of his dreams, the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with.

With her sea green eyes, flaming Titian red curls, porcelain-pale complexion, vivacious charm, sparkling personality, and a beautiful soprano voice Jeanette MacDonald is already well along the road of success, but her true personality belies her angelic appearance and pure public image. Although she is already a star, Jeanette has but one burning, all-consuming ambition--to be the biggest star in Hollywood. She is an adept and dedicated player of the Hollywood game who fully understands and lives the rules 24/7 and even sleeps with ruthless martinet studio boss Louis B. Mayer to better her chances. Yet she finds herself strangely drawn to Nelson and bewildered by the feelings he rouses in her; she has never been in love before and one look at him leaves her feeling as flustered and confused as a schoolgirl with her first crush. She is alternately driven to push him away and pull him close to her. Jeanette keeps telling herself that her career is everything, that sex is merely a stepping stone to be doled out accordingly to the men who can do the most for her career, love and romance have no place in her life; fame and stardom are all that matter, nothing else must interfere, distract, or come between her and her ambitions.

So begins a tense and tempestuous relationship where quarrels often outnumber kisses. The drama escalates when the two are chosen to star together in "Naughty Marietta," a fun, frothy operetta about an 18th century French princess who flees in disguise to colonial New Orleans and finds romance with a handsome mercenary soldier. When the couple gaze longingly at one another and their voices rise and blend together, like lovers embracing, in the haunting duet "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," they are absolute magic. Critics may deplore Nelson's performance as "wooden," but moviegoers, seeking relief from their hum-drum lives and the grim realities of the Great Depression, fall instantly in love with "America's Singing Sweethearts." Audiences thrill to the love that is such a palpable presence between the duo, the way they make love in song, the way they look at each other, and the tantalizing hints of an off-screen romance that sometimes grace the gossip columns. They become number one box office draws, and the studio is swamped with mail begging for more MacDonald-Eddy films; thus one of the great screen teams is born. Nelson and Jeanette become to singing what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are to dancing, they bring opera to the masses, and, at regular intervals over the coming years, more musical movie magic follows: Rose Marie, Maytime, Girl of the Golden West, New Moon, Sweethearts, Bitter Sweet, and I Married An Angel.

But life is not a movie, and the songbirds who epitomize pure and true love on-screen, are anything but angels, and their life is often more hellish than heavenly. Nelson incurs the wrath of Louis B. Mayer, whose fury at finding that he cannot control Nelson the way he can most of his stable of stars almost broaches on madness; he even goes to the extreme of putting studio profits in peril by sabotaging the couple's films, plastering Nelson's face with unflattering, often effeminate pancake makeup and cutting out some of his best scenes. He warns, threatens, and browbeats Jeanette, making her fear for her own all-important career and Nelson's physical well-being. To make matters worse, the couple fight against themselves as well as each other. Jeanette's obsession with her career does considerable damage to the couple's hopes and dreams of happiness.

When she becomes pregnant during the filming of "Rose Marie" Jeanette vehemently declares that she does not want the baby, that it will ruin everything. The lovers quarrel heatedly, and when Jeanette, always a woman of frail health, with a heart condition she goes to great lengths to conceal, suffers a miscarriage soon afterwards, Nelson refuses to believe her, thinking she has had an abortion instead. In a moment of weakness, and wanting to hurt Nelson, Jeanette accepts a marriage proposal from actor Gene Raymond, a man who, just like Jeanette herself, understands Hollywood and the rules of the game. But handsome, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Gene has an ulterior motive--if he cannot be a star in his own right he is content to bask in the reflected glory of a movie star wife who can afford to give him the lavish lifestyle he has always longed for. And he speaks the words that are magic to Jeanette's ears: He will never do anything to jeopardize her career. To keep her from wriggling off the hook now that he has caught her, Gene promptly calls Louis B. Mayer and asks his blessing. Mayer is so elated that this will spell "The End" for the songbirds off-screen love affair that he magnanimously offers to pay for the wedding, a Hawaiian honeymoon, and a stately home for the couple to start married life in. To the vindictive Mayer, Nelson's suffering is worth every penny.

Despite Nelson's pleas, Jeanette goes through with the marriage, only to realize on her honeymoon that she has made a huge mistake. Kindness and understanding are only roles that Gene plays when it is to his advantage, usually only in public and in the presence of cameras and reporters. He is a closeted but careless homosexual, at a time when homosexuality could ruin a man's reputation and career, with an insatiable appetite for handsome young men which he indulges freely every chance he gets, even on his honeymoon, and he is an alcoholic as well.

In the years that follow Jeanette and Nelson kiss and make up then break up again and again. There are even suicide attempts, which the studio covers up and keeps secret from the press. And Nelson, wanting to hurt Jeanette, makes a mistake of his own. Drunk out of his mind, he marries Ann Franklin, a vindictive money-loving shrew who, once she gets her claws into Nelson, will never let him go. Whenever Nelson even mentions the word divorce Ann threatens to call the press and drag Jeanette's name through the mud. Given the social mores of the era, and the public's ideas about Jeanette and Nelson based on their pure and wholesome screen image, even a hint of carnality, and words like "adultery" and "divorce," would mean instant ruin. The MacDonald-Eddy partnership is a goldmine for MGM and Louis B. Mayer is hellbent on protecting the profits, and both of their spouses enjoy their status too much to ever let them go, thus Jeanette and Nelson are well and truly trapped in their respective marital hells.

It is a sad and ironic truth that two people who brought so much happiness to millions of moviegoers had so little happiness in their own lives. Their romance is a story of two lovers battling the odds, themselves, and sometimes even each other, to be together and find some measure of happiness.

"Farewell To Dreams" is a rare and often costly book, for those unwilling or unable to obtain a copy, I highly recommend the much more reasonably priced "Sweethearts" by author Sharon Rich instead. Though "Sweethearts" is a nonfiction book about the real life MacDonald-Eddy romance, it is a much better book in my opinion, well written and exhaustively researched. "Farewell To Dreams" is an entertaining read that holds interest throughout, but not a remarkable one; in other words: it's an okay book with an often outrageous price tag. The authors do a good job of replicating 1930s slang and dialogue, and the two main characters emerge as painfully real human beings, not picture-perfect like their on-screen images, but complex and flawed individuals, with messy, imperfect lives, who hurt each other, themselves, and are in turn hurt by life and the machinations of others. The book is also laced with love scenes that recall the style of "bodice ripper" romance novels.
You can purchase Farewell To Dreams, if you are willing to spend that much money on a book from Amazon's used books marketplace:

For a more reasonably priced book that tells the same story, and much better in my opinion, try Sweethearts by Sharon Rich, available at

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