Gene Raymond, leading man of stage, film, and TV, singer, composer, writer, director, producer, decorated military pilot, and, for twenty-eight years, the first and only husband of Jeanette MacDonald, died May 3rd, 1998 in Los Angeles. He was 89.
He had enjoyed a long and illustrious film, stage, and television career. His important films include Red Dust with Jean Harlow, Zoo in Budapest with Loretta Young, Flying Down to Rio with Astaire and Rogers, I am Suzanne with Lilian Harvey, Sadie McKee with Joan Crawford, and Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Carole Lombard. He starred in one film with his wife, Smilin’ Through, in 1942.
A man of many talents, Gene was also a composer, and some of his songs were used in the series of light-hearted RKO musicals he made with Ann Sothern, or sung by his wife in concert.
Gene Raymond was born Raymond Guion on August 13, 1908 in New York City. He attended the Professional Children’s School while appearing in productions like Rip Van Winkle and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. His Broadway debut, at age 17, was in The Cradle Snatchers which ran two years. (The cast included Mary Boland, Edna May Oliver, and young Humphrey Bogart.)
His screen debut was in Personal Maid in 1931. With his blond good looks, classic profile, and youthful exuberance — plus a name change to the more pronounceable “Gene Raymond” — he scored in films like the classic Zoo In Budapest and a series of light RKO musicals, mostly with Ann Sothern. He wrote a number of songs, including the popular “Will You?” which he sang to Ann Sothern in Smartest Girl In Town (1936). Jeanette sang several of his more classical pieces in her concerts and recorded an especially lovely one, “Let Me Always Sing.”
Jeanette and Gene made one film together, Smilin’ Through, which came out as the U.S. was on the verge of entering the World War II. Since Nazi Germany had invaded Poland in 1939, Gene had been taking flying lessons at his own expense, sure the U.S. would soon be involved. After Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant.
Initially, he flew as an observer in B-17s on anti-sub patrol off the Atlantic coast. After attending intelligence school, he was sent to England in July 1942 and assigned to the 97th Bomb Group. He was soon promoted to Assistant Operations Officer in the 8th Bomber Command. During these difficult years of frequent separation, Jeanette constantly wore a pair of his flying wings pinned to her dress.
In 1943, Gene returned to the U.S. and flew B-17s, B-25s, B-26s, and P-39s. After the war, he was released from active duty as a Major on Oct. 22, 1945. He remained in the USAF Reserve, taking jet training and flying the T-33, T-39, KC-97, KC-135, and C-141. He logged more than 5,000 hours and received his command pilot wings before his retirement from the USAF on August 13, 1968 as a Colonel.
(To read more about Gene Raymond’s WWII military service, go to http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/wwii/gr.htm)
Postwar Hollywood was whole new ball game, and few of the old actors resumed their former status. He wrote and directed Million Dollar Weekend, 1949, and a TV pilot for his wife, “Prima Donna.” His own TV acting credits included “Fireside Theatre,” “Hollywood Summer Theatre,” and TV’s Reader’s Digest” in the 1950s. He was a series regular on “Paris 7000” on ABC in `970 and had guest roles on “The Outer Limits,” “Robert Montgomery Presents,” “Playhouse 90,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Ironside,” Mannix,” “The Defenders,” “The Name of the Game,” “Lux Video Theatre,” “Kraft Television Theatre,” and “U.S. Steel Hour.” (Gene Raymond’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is in front of 7001 Hollywood Blvd.)
Gene was very active behind the scenes of the entertainment industry. He served as a board member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and as president of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. He was also a vice president of the Arthritis Foundation of Southern California and a president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Air Force Association.
Jeanette and Gene in 1959. Photo by Nat Dallinger, © King Features Syndicate
Jeanette died on January 15, 1965. A decade later, Gene remarried. His second wife’s first name was, coincidentally, Nelson—the former Mrs. Bentley Hees. “Nels,” as she was called, died in 1995. Gene followed her on May 3, 1998. He was laid to rest next to Jeanette at Forest Lawn, with Nels’ family among the mourners.
Personal Maid, 1931
Ladies of the Big House, with Sylvia Sidney, 1931
Forgotten Commandments, 1932
The Night of June 13, 1932
If I Had a Million, with W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, 1932
Red Dust, with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, 1932
Zoo in Budapest, with Loretta Young, 1933
Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis, 1933
Ann Carver’s Profession, 1933
Brief Moment, 1933
The House on 56th Street, with Kay Francis, 1933
Flying Down to Rio, with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, 1933
I Am Suzanne, with Lilian Harvey, 1934
Coming-Out Party, with Frances Dee, 1934
Sadie McKee, with Joan Crawford, 1934
Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, with Nancy Carrol, 1934
Hooray for Love, with Ann Sothern, 1935
The Woman in Red, with Barbara Stanwyck, 1935
Behold My Wife, with Sylvia Sidney, 1935
Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1935
Walking on Air, with Ann Sothern, 1936
Love on a Bet, 1936
The Bride Walks Out, with Barbara Stanwyck, 1936
Smartest Girl in Town, with Ann Sothern, 1936
There Goes My Girl, 1937
The Life of the Party, 1937
That Girl From Paris, with Lily Pons, 1937
She’s Got Everything, with Ann Sothern, 1938
Stolen Heaven, with Olympe Bradna, 1938
Cross-Country Romance, 1940
They Met in Argentina, with Maureen O’Hara, 1941
Smilin’ Through, with Jeanette MacDonald, 1941
Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Alfred Hitchcock director, with Robert Montgomery and
Carole Lombard, 1941
The Locket, with Laraine Day, 1946
Assigned to Danger, 1948
Hit the Deck, with Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, 1955
Plunder Road, 1957
The Best Man, with Henry Fonda, 1964
I’d Rather Be Rich, with Maurice Chevalier, 1964
Five Bloody Graves (voice only), 1969
(Recommended: “Gene Raymond: Renaissance Man” by Maury Daly in the November
1995 issue of Classic Images.)