“My BFF Changed My Name,” Jeanette and Emily

Continuing in the week’s celebration of my favorite BFFs in Hollywood, we’re going to learn a little about Jeanette MacDonald’s best friend, secretary, and confidante for many years, Emily Wentz. (Also known as Emily West because Jeanette said that would prevent misunderstandings. Friendship level: Ultimate. “My pal just casually changed my name, so whatever.”)

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Emily MacDonald Wentz was born in Brooklyn on June 4, 1903, the youngest of seven children.  (The MacDonald came from her maternal grandmother’s maiden name.  I can’t help wondering if she and Jeanette ever joked about both being MacDonalds, especially when they were being frugal.)  Her father died in 1913 and Emily and her mother moved in with her sister’s family.

At Erasmus Hall High School Emily learned “a smattering of typing and shorthand.”  Despote a lovely contralto voice, she was very shy about performing on her own.  She worked at Story & Clark Piano Company, piano manufacturers and restorers, earning just about enough to pay for singing lessons.  Emily’s voice teacher, Shubert leading lady Laura Hoffman, helped Emily get an audition for her first Broadway musical, Princess Flavia (1925).  She continued to perform in the ensemble of several Broadway shows, including Cherry Blossom (1927), The Love Call (1927), and Rainbow (1928).  For eight years she also was part of “Roxy’s Gang,” a troop of performers headed by theatrical impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, who produced live shows at New York’s Roxy Theater and Radio City Music Hall.

Sometime during the 1920s, Emily began studying with Ferdinand Torriani, Jeanette’s voice teacher.  After his death in 1925, both Emily and Jeanette became pupils of his associate Grace Adele Newell, who continued his vocal techniques.  In a 1956 Golden Comet Emily said, “Miss Newell has always said I could have been one of the greatest contraltos.  However, I guess it wasn’t meant to be, as nerves got the better of me!  I just couldn’t sing alone!”  Emily and Jeanette often joked about Grace’s order to “vitalize!”

Emily met Jeanette through a mutual friend Eleanor Uehlinger.  Sources disagree on the exact year.  Emily later said that she and Jeanette hit it off so much that they both lost touch with Eleanor.  Emily remembered spending many pleasant times at the MacDonalds’ apartment and enjoying Jeanette’s father’s delightful sense of humor.  When Jeanette and Emily were working on the New York stage, they sometimes met for dinner between shows or went on double dates after their performances or on days they weren’t working.  Anna was over-protective of Jeanette but would sometimes let Jeanette spend the night at Emily’s apt. in Brooklyn after they double dated.

One night between their matinee and evening performances they went to dinner at Mama Leone’s, a legendary restaurant in New York’s theater district.  After stuffing themselves with spaghetti, they each got in trouble with their respective stage managers for eating garlic before a show.  (This reminds me of Clark Gable’s breath. LOL)  Another night, after dinner they went dancing with their dates at a popular Brooklyn hotel.  They got back to Emily’s very late, where they were met by Mrs. Wentz with a disapproving glare.  Never mind that they both probably were over 21.

In December 1936, Emily and her mother went to California, presumably to spend the holidays with Emily’s brother who lived in Glendale.  They planned to stay and attend Jeanette’s wedding in June, then return to New York.  However, Emily’s mother liked California so much that they decided to make it their home.

With Jeanette’s help, Emily got work as an extra at MGM. At that time there was a very strong clique of singers and it was only at Jeanette’s insistence that Emily was cast.  Jeanette advised Emily that she could get maximum work calls if her face didn’t appear on film too often.  All of the pros knew to hide behind a column or shrink behind a crowd so the producers wouldn’t recognize them when they reviewed the dailies.  (This may be why it is so hard to spot her.)  Emily’s favorite “hiding scene” was in the chapel in Smilin’ Through.  One day, near the completion of the film, Emily whispered to Jeanette that they were five minutes to overtime.  Jeanette purposely flubbed her next scene and ran into overtime for retakes so the extras would make more money.  I think Emily was in the chorus of the radio scene in Sweethearts.  You can spy her in New Moon during Nelson’s speech on the island and she has a line prior to that, asking Jeanette to fetch goat’s milk.  There is at least one still of her in the choir in Smilin’ Through during Land of Hope and Glory.  In a 1937 interview, Nelson mentioned that she was one of the sixty-four trained singers in the finale of Rosalie, although he called her a “noted soprano,” not a contralto.  She allegedly was in all of Jeanette’s movies after she arrived in CA.

Jeanette also hired Emily part time to help her secretary, Sylvia Grogg, with the fan mail.  During World War II, Emily worked at Douglas Aircraft.  In 1942 Jeanette needed a full time secretary after Sylvia (now Wright) left.  Although Emily thought that she was unqualified, Jeanette insisted that she was perfect for the job.  Since Jeanette was planning a concert tour to benefit the Army Emergency Relief Fund, she called Col. Stevenson, head of the personnel department at Douglas, and obtained Emily’s release, despite the fact that all war plant employees were “frozen” in their jobs.  Emily said it helped that Col. Stevenson was a Jeanette fan.  After Emily’s mother death in 1943, Jeanette suggested that Emily move into the apartment above the garage at Twin Gables to keep her company since Gene was away in the service.  Emily remained there for the next twenty years.

Emily was much more than a secretary.  She not only handled correspondence at home and at the studio, but went on the road with Jeanette, doing anything she could to make Jeanette’s life easier.  She handled secretarial duties, arranged press conferences, took care of travel reservations, played golf with her, and sometimes served as Jeanette’s dresser.  Once she even had to change a tire when their car got a flat and Jeanette was supposed to attend a tea before a concert.  She helped fans get backstage, herded Jeanette to safety if the crowd was out of control (like at Carnegie Hall), notified club members of personal appearances, and conveyed messages to them when Jeanette was able to arrange for them to attend press conferences or dress rehearsals.

Emily and Jeanette had a lot of fun on the road.  While in New York, one evening they dined at one of their favorite restaurants, Danny’s Hideaway.  When they realized they couldn’t finish their very large meals, they couldn’t resist asking for doggie bags.  They didn’t know the manager had picked up the check so they could only smile sweetly as they departed with their leftovers.  Another time they noticed a woman in the hotel room opposite theirs kept checking out their room service tray when they placed it outside their room, helping herself to any leftovers.  As a prank, Jeanette ordered a slice of berry pie, carefully ate all the berries, and put the empty crust on the tray outside her door.  They watched while the woman picked up the empty pie crust.  She probably was stunned when she went to eat it once she was in her room.  When Jeanette had insomnia, Emily would give her a massage or they would play gin rummy.

It was clear that Emily was considered part of the family, as she often was included in holiday celebrations and vacations with the Raymonds.  Even after Jeanette’s death, she was considered family.  She’s the one who accompanied Blossom to Gene’s wedding.  How close were they?  In Jeanette’s will she left Emily her car, her favorite piece of jewelry (the infamous sapphire brooch/necklace), and any pets she had at the time of her death.  You don’t trust your dog to just anyone!

When the Raymonds sold Twin Gables and moved to the Comstock apartment in 1963, Emily moved into a Beverly Hills apartment building that Jeanette owned at 9752 Olympic Boulevard and acted as the building manager.  She continued to help Jeanette with her correspondence.  After Jeanette’s death, Emily continued to work for and socialize with Gene, as well as Jeanette’s family.   She retired in 1972.

Emily died December 11, 1996.  A private memorial service was held at the Chapel at Westwood Cemetery on December 14.  The Rev. Dr. Myron Taylor of Westwood Village Christian Church delivered the eulogy.  Jeanette’s recording of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” was played during the service.  Gene spoke about Emily’s devotion, service, and friendship, calling her the most responsible person he had ever known, adding, “there was only one other person like her,” alluding to Jeanette.  Emily’s ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

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Blossom, Gene, Jeanette, and Emily, 1960.

Blossom, Gene, Jeanette, and Emily, 1960.

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2 thoughts on ““My BFF Changed My Name,” Jeanette and Emily

  1. In late 1951 Jeanette and Gene were staying in New York because most of the TV and stage work was on the east coast. Emily was still in California, readying Twin Gables and Anna’s old house for rental, and organizing the furnishings that they would move to New York, put in storage, or leave at Twin Gables. This involved a lot of shuffling of furnishings between Twin Gables, Anna’s house, and Emily’s apartment over the garage, as well as some painting and renovating. She wrote to Jeanette, “The paper in the back room is terribly torn, but, fortunately, I remembered putting a few small rolls up in the attic over the room I used to have. He can patch it up with that. (Emily never throws anything away!)” Jeanette sent the letter back with comments in the margin. Next to this, she wrote “Good girl!!” I think they were two of a kind.

  2. Thanks for this peek into a friendship that few people will ever share. It was beautiful and funny, too. I love the part about the empty berry pie. Can’t you just see Jeanette doing that??

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