Prolific stage, screen, and radio star Nelson Eddy was born June 29, 1901, in Providence, Rhode Island, to parents William D. Eddy and Caroline I. Kendrick. His father worked as a toolmaker, part-time stagehand at the Providence Opera House, and choir singer, while his mother was a soloist in the church choir. Eddy’s maternal grandmother, Caroline N.A. Kendrick, was also an accomplished “oratorio” singer (a genre of music related to opera), and it was clear, even from an early age, that Eddy was to be the next in a line of talented musicians and thespians.
Throughout his childhood, Eddy moved around quite a lot, living in both Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and, later, New Bedford Massachusetts. Due to their financial difficulties, Eddy and his mother were forced to move from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with Caroline’s brother, Clark Kendrick. It was at this point that Eddy was forced to quit school and enter the workforce, with his uncle helping him to secure a position at the Motts Iron Works Company. Eddy went on to hold a number of different positions during his early life, working as a telegraph operator, shipping clerk, newspaper artist, copywriter, and reporter with the Philadelphia Press, the Evening Public Ledger, and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. However, the stage remained Nelson Eddy’s true passion, and he soon shifted his career to follow that dream.
Having spent his childhood and adolescence singing soprano in local church choirs, Eddy went on to cultivate his vocal talent as a baritone by studying the recordings of his favorite opera singers by phonograph; later on in his career, Eddy would have the opportunity to undertake professional voice study in New York, Paris, and Dresden. His first notable stage performance came in 1922, in a Philadelphia production of The Marriage Tax, which won Eddy a positive write-up in the press. Not long afterward, Eddy joined the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company, landing his first major opera role as Amonasro in Aida. In 1924, Eddy was cast as the character of Tonio in the opera Pagliacci, which he had the honor of performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Eddy also performed the comedic operas of famed writing duo W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as a member of the Savoy Company—the oldest amateur opera troupe in the world.
In the latter half of the 1920s, Eddy began to shift his professional focus from opera performance to voice-study, and, later, concert-singing. For his first major concert in 1928, Eddy was paired with pianist Theodore Paxon, who would remain Eddy’s friend and accompanist for the remainder of Eddy’s nearly four-decade performance career. In the early 1930s, Eddy relocated to Hollywood, and, though he continued to sing and study vocals, he soon shifted his focus to cultivating a film career. Brought to the attention of Hollywood execs by his vocal prowess, Eddy signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer in 1933, and appeared in a number of small screen roles until his “big break” in 1935 as the male lead in Naughty Marietta, the film adaptation of Victor Herbert’s 1910 operetta of the same name. It was in this film that Eddy would first star opposite renowned actress and musical star Jeanette MacDonald, with whom he would go on to star with in seven more MGM pictures—including, among others, 1936’s Rose Marie, 1938’s Sweethearts, and 1942’s I Married an Angel. Their first outing together in Naughty Marietta was a smashing success, earning Eddy a gold record for the song “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” winning the Photoplay Gold Medal Award for Best Picture, the Oscar for Best Sound Recording, and netting an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture of 1935.
Eddy married Ann Denitz Franklin, ex-wife of famed director Sidney Franklin, in 1939. Though the couple had no children of their own, Franklin’s son from her previous marriage, Sidney Jr., became Eddy’s stepson, whom he raised as his own child. Though his partner and co-star, Jeanette MacDonald, had married her own husband, Gene Raymond, in 1937, rumors persisted that she and Eddy had continued an illicit relationship behind their spouses’ backs. While some of the evidence for this affair remains difficult to substantiate, it is undeniable that Eddy and MacDonald shared both a close personal and professional bond, and remained friends until MacDonald’s passing in 1965; in a Christmas letter between the two, Eddy once told his costar that “you are an extravagant wretchess [sic], but I love you and will always be devoted to you.”
At the outset of the Second World War, Nelson Eddy remained active as a performer, and used both his talents and star-status to aid in the war effort. He held a charity concert for Poland in 1939, before the U.S. had even entered the conflict, and later worked at both the Hollywood Canteen (a California dinner club for servicemen being sent to the Pacific) and as an air-raid warden. Additionally, in 1943, Eddy embarked on a two-month global concert tour, performing for troops stationed in Brazil, Ghana, Yemen, Eritrea, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, and the Azores. During his time performing in Cairo, Eddy’s knowledge of German—gleaned from his time studying opera in Dresden—allowed him to serve as an undercover intelligence operative for the OSS.
During the 1940s and beyond, Eddy continued to add to his portfolio of film and television roles, starring in 1943’s Phantom of the Opera, voice-acting in in 1946 Disney film Make Mine Music, and starring in the television program The Electric Hour from 1944-1946. Though he continued to make both radio and television appearances, Eddy decided to transition from increasingly unpopular concert tours to a nightclub act, which began touring in 1953, and featured Eddy’s first-ever accompanist, Ted Paxon. Eddy’s nightclub act was extremely popular, and would continue touring for the next fourteen years, until March 5, 1967, when—in the middle of a packed performance in Miami Beach, Florida—Eddy suffered a stroke on-stage and collapsed. Though a doctor from the show’s audience rushed to his aid, Eddy was transported to a local hospital and died later that night, at the age of 65. He is buried, alongside his mother, Caroline, and wife, Ann, in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
For further reading on Nelson Eddy’s personal life and Hollywood career, be sure to pick up Sharon Rich’s 2014 biography Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair—On-Screen and Off—Between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, available from Bell Harbor Press.