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MacDonald-Eddy: Stoking the Passions of New Fans

March 01, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two facts conspired to land Mark Fletcher at the Sportsman's Lodge not long ago:

Fact No. 1 was that he loves old movies.

Fact No. 2 was that his car broke down just minutes in time and space from the meeting place of the Mac/Eddy International Fan Club, keeper of the flame for America's erstwhile singing sweethearts, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Never mind that Fletcher is a mere 37, nowheresville on the Mac/Eddy timeline. Fletcher still wanted the skinny on their private lives, which Mac/Eddy fan club head Sharon Rich had scrutinized in her new book, "Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair--On Screen and Off--Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy" (Donald I. Fine).

"I have a morbid fascination with the dirt in famous people's lives," said the scruffy Fletcher, peering into the fan-filled function room in Studio City. "The difference with me is, it's usually dead famous people, not living famous people."

In some quarters, death is not a downer. Indeed, among MacDonald and Eddy folk, you'd never know their heyday was more moons ago than any reasonable person would care to count--the pair spiffed up the Depression with their virginal MGM romances wreathed in tragedy and ball gowns, opera and innocence, and, lest we forget, material excess in a time of drought.

But no one could accuse MacDonald and Eddy of being stuck in time. The passions they selectively evoke still simmer, lo these many generations later. Witness a recent petition drive organized by Mac/Eddy-ites to immortalize them on a stamp.

"People have been writing for years trying to get a MacDonald/Eddy stamp," said Rich, a 41-year-old New Yorker. "Their contribution to film is so great, and they've been so neglected."

Rich and her ilk collected 20,000 signatures. And last Friday, she led a band of 20 Mac/Eddy-ites to Washington, D.C., to lay the petitions at the feet of the U.S. Postal Service, serenading the mail folk with the stars' signature duet, "Indian Love Call." An Elvis impersonator came by to lend moral support: "Hey, I got my stamp. Now it's time for them to get theirs."

Betty and Harold Monroe of Azusa, Calif., spent a nice chunk of winter rounding up 4,000 of those names.

"I feel they should have this stamp, and I don't want to give up on it," said Betty, who won an oil portrait of MacDonald/Eddy from the club for her efforts.

It's too soon to tell whether that's all they'll get. The U.S. Postal Service receives 50,000 letters a year nominating stamp stars, "so the competition is real stiff," said Robin Minard, Postal Service representative. "Out of 50,000, they pick 25 to 30."

But that's not all ruffling the afterworld of MacDonald and Eddy. The four clubs around the country dedicated to one, the other, or both don't necessarily see eye to eye on whether the pair's romance was a celluloid dream or the stuff of real extramarital fervor.

And apparently, it really matters.

Rich's book argues that MacDonald and Eddy were lovers off and on for 30 years, even while each was married to another. She became curious about their private lives in the early '70s as a high schooler volunteering at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home. There she met MacDonald's older sister Blossom Rock, a.k.a. the grandmother on "The Addams Family" TV show.

"I had never heard of Jeanette MacDonald, so I felt like an idiot," said Rich, whose fan club now numbers 3,300 members around the world, more than 400 in Southern California.

She smartened up. Rock arranged a screening of the late pair's 1938 romance "Sweethearts" at the motion picture old folks' home, and Rock and her friends would reminisce about the couple's alleged secret affair, Rich said.

"Their films were laughed at. Nobody remembered them. It was as if they didn't exist. They put MGM musicals on the map. Nelson was the highest-paid singer in the world for 14 years.

"I had to ask, why has this thing been covered up?"

Rich said she interviewed their contemporaries and came to a conclusion that had all the pathos of, well, a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie. Their true romance never led to the altar, she said, because Eddy wanted MacDonald to retire from show business if she became his wife. And so each married another.

"He figured the two of them were so temperamental, it wouldn't last if they were both fighting to be the best. But she didn't want to do that because she was at the peak of her career."

But some sectors of MacDonald and Eddy-land say there was nothing more than dust and magic between the screen sweeties. Clara Rhoades, president of the 58-year-old Jeanette MacDonald International Fan Club in Topeka, Kan., called Rich's contention "utter nonsense," and said that the actress's husband and honorary club president, Gene Raymond, declined to comment on it.

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