William Eddy of Johnston came from a potato-farming family. A machine-shop toolmaker himself, he resided on Common Street in Providence with his Georgian wife, Isabelle, and their son, Nelson.
Nelson Ackerman Eddy was born in Johnston on June 29, 1901. As a young teen, his parents divorced, and he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents on Myrtle Street in Pawtucket. His grandfather was employed as an ice merchant, and it didn’t seem likely that Nelson would have any opportunities afforded to him much grander than being a farmer, machinist or salesperson.
Unable to make ends meet on her own, Isabelle decided to take her son and relocate to Pennsylvania, where her brother lived. Nelson dropped out of school and secured a job in Philadelphia at a plumbing supply company. A few years later, he had switched to toiling in a newspaper office.
The one thing within a difficult and monotonous life that Nelson seemed to take great pleasure in was singing in the church choir. In 1924, when he was 23 years old, he entered a vocal contest in which the prize was the opportunity to perform with the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. Nelson won the contest and before long was working and touring as a professional singer.
In Philadelphia, he moved out of his mother’s home and rented an apartment with an elderly physician named Frederick Strouse. By the mid-1930’s, he was being billed as America’s most popular singer, pulling in concert fees of up to $10,000 per show. He was signed by MGM and began producing musical films for stage, television and radio.
Besides becoming the heartthrob of teenage girls all across the country, Nelson Eddy was a favorite performer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the alleged secret lover of famed actress Jeanette McDonald, with whom he was said to have had a torrid affair.
He would go on to provide the voice of the singing whale in Walt Disney’s film “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” star in 1943’s “Phantom of the Opera” and record almost 300 songs under the labels of RCA Victor and Columbia Records.
CBS gave him his own television show in 1942 and he made guest appearances on the “Bob Hope Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show” and the popular television program “Make Room for Daddy.”
On March 6, 1967, while performing on stage at the Sans Souci Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, he suddenly suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and collapsed. He died only hours later and was laid to rest in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
The Rhode Island boy had gone from a simple life in Johnston to a magnificent home on Halvern Drive in Los Angeles, California, where his neighbors were famous movie producers, actors and directors. He saw his footprints embedded in front of the well-known Grauman’s Chinese Theater, along with those of other celebrities, and had his fame immortalized with three stars – for film, recording and radio – on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Though Johnston can claim Nelson Eddy as its own, he rests eternally on the opposite coast alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Rooney.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.