Jeanette Anna MacDonald was born in Philadelphia and made her professional debut at the age of six, singing "Old Mother Hubbard" in a charity opera at Philadelphia's Academy of Music. At the age of 16, accompanied by her father, she went to see her older sister, Blossom Rock, perform on Broadway, New York. An audition was arranged by her sister for a part as dancer in the chorus of another production. Jeanette got the part and was given permission by her parents to take the job. Of her start in Broadway, many years later she told Ed Sullivan, "I got a crick in my neck and $40 a week".
Jeanette MacDonald performed on Broadway a further nine years, progressing to leading roles in Yes, Yes, Yvette (1927), Sunny Days (1928), Angela (1928) and Boom Boom (1929), before she was chosen by the Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch to play the lead in his new film musical The Love Parade in 1929. It wasn't until Irving Thalberg lured her to Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1934, that she had her biggest hits including The Merry Widow (1934) (with Maurice Chevalier), Naughty Marietta (1935), the above-mentioned Rose-Marie, and Maytime (with Nelson Eddy). The latter, where she ages from a young girl to an old woman, is said to have been her favourite. On very rare occasions she was given roles that allowed to extend her range as a dramatic actress, however she was still expected to sing. Cast opposite Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco (1936), she was given some key dramatic scenes, but also contributed several obligatory musical numbers.
She didn't confine herself to operetta, appearing in stage productions of grand opera, including Charles Gounod's Faust in 1943 and 1951, the latter being her last full length opera perfomance.
In 1937, Jeanette MacDonald married Gene Raymond, with whom she co-starred in 1941's Smilin' Through. Although they were married until her death from heart disease in 1965, they were unable to have children. Jeanette died in Houston, Texas and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
After her death, rumors began to emerge that Jeanette MacDonald had an off-screen relationship with Nelson Eddy. Sharon Rich, purportedly a friend of MacDonald's sister Blossom, wrote two books supporting these rumors with excerpts claimed to be from letters and an unpublished autobiography by MacDonald. However, another recent biography, Hollywood Diva by Edward Baron Turk (2000), ISBN 0520222539, denies there was any such affair.