I just finished reading Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend by David Shipman, and it left me feeling very sad for her. What an utterly painful, tragic life- despite her triumphs. The young only know of her as the girl who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and who sang Over the Rainbow. But, Judy Garland was a very diverse and gifted vocalist. Yip Harburg, the lyricist who wrote the words to Over the Rainbow (which was voted the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute), said that Judy Garland had the “greatest voice of the first half of the 20th century.” If you’d like to hear how great her voice was, just listen to her sing The Man That Got Away from A Star is Born. Here it is on Youtube:
What a voice! Who else can sing like that? And it’s amazing because even then, at age 32, she had already been through the wringer.
She was born Frances Gumm in Minnesota in 1922. Her parents were both Vaudeville performers, and they brought their three daughters into the act from the age of 3, including “Baby” as Frances was called. Her father, Frank Gumm, was gay (despite having had three daughters), and as you might expect, it put a lot of strain on the marriage. However, before the marriage ended in divorce, the family moved from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, mainly because it was considered safer for him. But, like other Vaudevillians, they did a lot of travelling, and it was in Chicago that George Jessel suggested changing the name of the three girls from “The Gumm Sisters” to “The Garland Sisters”. That stuck. Frances, herself, chose the name change to Judy, and it was inspired by the Hoagy Carmichael song of that name.
When her oldest sister left to get married, it broke up the act, and Judy, who was always the most talented of the three, signed with MGM ; she was 13. Then her father died of spinal meningitis, and from then on, MGM essentially became her parent.
(Judy’s relationship with her mother, Ethel, deteriorated after her father’s death, and they eventually became completely estranged. Her mother had to take a low-paying clerical job at Douglas Aircraft to survive, and she even sold stories about Judy to the tabloids to make ends meet. Her attempt to sue Judy for support late in life failed. Ethyl died ignominiously- her body found in a parking garage. She and Judy never reconciled.)
But getting back to young Judy, MGM became like a parent and controlled every aspect of her life, including her food. She tended to be pudgy as a child, and they were constantly restricting what, and how much, she ate. And like most teenagers, Judy rebelled and tried to get the food she wanted. None of it was health food. The problem was that she did not have a movie star’s figure. She was very short- less than 5 feet tall, and she had no waistline. None! So, even in her teens, she had to wear tight corsets in order to project a figure. It’s amazing she could sing wearing them.
But, the worst thing was that they got her hooked on drugs. It started with amphetamines by day for weight control. But that’s a form of speed, so she couldn’t sleep at night. But, there was a simple solution: heavy duty barbiturates, which are knock-out pills. This was a 14 year old child! It was criminal child abuse. Didn’t they know that it would wreck her? Did they even care?
Her first big movie was Broadway Melody of 1938 which was followed by The Wizard of Oz, which of course made movie history. Over the Rainbow became one of the most covered songs of all time, but back then, Americans only wanted to hear Judy Garland sing it. She was the ultimate good girl, which led to her nine collaborations with the ultimate good boy Mickey Rooney, starting with Babes in Arms.
But, it was all a Hollywood mirage. Judy started smoking at age 9, drinking at age 13, and popping pills at age 14. And she was quite precocious about men. She was drawn to older men. Her first serious crush was for bandleader Artie Shaw. But, when he married Lana Turner, who was still a teenager herself and only 6 months older than Judy, Garland was devastated. She sought solace with a musician, David Rose, and at the age of 19, she married him. But, it only lasted a couple of years. She said he was more interested in his model train set than in her.
She met her second husband, Vincent Minnelli, on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis. And incidentally, a song from that movie, and sung by Judy Garland, became a very popular Christmas song and still is: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. I’m sure you know it- it’s very pretty but also wistfully melancholy. Well, it was much more melancholy in its original form. The original first verse went: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we will all be living in the past. “ Judy thought that was way too morose, so she changed it to: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Great improvement.
Vincent Minnelli was an up and coming director, and he was gay, and Judy knew it. And, she didn’t mind because she thought it would give her the freedom to have affairs with other men while married. And the fact was: Judy was bisexual. In her wedding photo with Minnelli, there is a woman in the line, Mary Aster, who had been a lover of Garland’s. Judy liked the idea of being married, but she never went for monogamy. Her attitude about sex was wild and cavalier. She relished having as many lovers as she could- of both genders. But, Judy and Vincente did have a child together, Liza Minnelli. The name “Liza” was inspired by the George and Ira Gershwin song of that name.
In 1946, Minnelli directed Garland and Gene Kelly in The Pirate. By then, Judy’s lifestyle was having visibly destructive effects. She did not look good. She was only 24, still young enough to play the ingénue, but she looked much older. The makeup task of suiting her to the role was more challenging than that in The Wizard of Oz, where she was a 16 year old playing an adolescent. Judy had her first nervous breakdown during the making of The Pirate and she was placed into a psychiatric hospital for several weeks. She completed the film, but shortly afterwards, she made her first suicide attempt by slashing her wrists. Over the years, she would have many suicide attempts. It goes to show that you can’t dose yourself with mind-altering drugs day and night without sinking into hellish depression. MGM responded by putting her into Psychoanalysis, which was very popular in Hollywood at the time, but unfortunately, it did her no more good than it did Marilyn Monroe.
That trend continued and worsened with subsequent movies. She completed Easter Parade with Fred Astaire, who was always very patient with her, but she slashed her neck once during the making of it. She barely got through Summer Stock with Gene Kelly, which was interrupted by another trip to the psych ward. Because of her deteriorating mental condition and severe drug abuse, she lost her roles in Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, and The Barkleys of Broadway (which fortunately resulted in the last great teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). And then, during the making of Royal Wedding, which also starred Fred Astaire, she was summarily fired by MGM- not just from the movie but from the whole studio.
That brought vast changes in Judy’s life. She and Minnelli got divorced. She got a new manager, Sid Luft, who eventually became her third husband. And since no movie studio would hire her because of her erratic behavior, she turned to live concerts to make money, starting with a big production on Broadway, and then a big show at the Palladium in London. Then, she and Sid got married, and Liza came to live with them, as did Sid’s son John. Then, Judy gave birth to their daughter Lorna, named after a character from the Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy. But through it all, the tantrums, the breakdowns, the drug abuse, and the suicide attempts continued. She would get so exhausted performing that they would keep ammonia capsules handy to revive her when she felt faint.
In 1954, Sid worked out a deal with Warner Brothers for Judy’s movie comeback in A Star Is Born. It was plagued with all the same problems as before, but at least her weight was at a good level, and though there were a lot of costly delays thanks to Judy, the picture got finished and was considered excellent. Judy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and she was the presumptive winner. So, it was a shock when the Oscar went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. Groucho Marx called it “the biggest robbery since Brinks.” Judy was disappointed, but she had her new baby boy Joey to console her. His name was taken from the old standard, “Happiness is just a thing called Joe.” So, all her children’s names were inspired by show business.
Despite rave reviews, A Star is Born was a flop at the box office and lost a ton of money. So, there were no movie offers after that, and Judy turned to television.
The night before her first television special, she overdosed on sleeping pills, and in the morning, she could not be aroused. Sid carried her to the bathroom and put her in a cold shower. That woke her up, but she was unable to move her body. They called her doctor who recommended loading her up with tea. So they did that, and she slowly started coming around. By the time, they got to the studio, she could walk, but she still couldn’t talk. So, they went through the rehearsal dry- with no singing. By the time the show was to begin, she did have her voice back, but the first two songs came out a little garbled. But, by the end, she was able to sing normally.
Despite declining health, Judy was very productive in her last decade, the 1960s. Her concerts were well received on both sides of the Atlantic, culminating in her Carnegie Hall performance which was described as “the greatest night in show business history.” Her television series ran for 26 broadcasts and was exceeded in the ratings only by the very popular Bonanza. And she made three movies in the 60s, including Judgment at Nuremberg, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. But through it all, there were numerous hospitalizations: for acute hepatitis (liver), cirrhosis of the liver, acute pyelonephritis (kidney), spastic colitis, repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, and life-threatening drug overdoses. Once, someone with a photo of her having her stomach pumped at a hospital in London after a drug overdose blackmailed her for $50,000, which she paid. Years later, it was found to be her own manager. Her divorce from Sid Luft was probably the longest in history, dragging on for years in court. She had to hire 24-hour bodyguards for her two children with him- lest he kidnap them.
After her television series ended, she began a world tour in the company of a young man, Mark Herron, an aspiring actor whom she met at a party. The first stop was Australia, where the Sydney concert went well. But, the Melbourne concert was a disaster. She was late getting there, and she seemed to be drunk. The audience was brutal, and she fled the stage within 40 minutes. She hurried to Hong Kong, but the bad press followed her. There, she made her most serious suicide attempt yet by overdosing on Seconol. It put her into a deep coma which lasted for days. She was said to be “clinically dead.” Specialists from the US were rushed to Hong Kong to try to save her. And she did come out of it with her doctors saying that she would never be able to work again. But, they were wrong.
Upon regaining consciousness, Judy was informed that her sister Suzy had succeeded at committing suicide in the same manner in Las Vegas, although probably using a different drug. Then, Judy was determined to marry Mark Herron, who happened to be gay. They went through two marriage ceremonies in Hong Kong, but the legitimacy of it was in question because her divorce from Sid Luft had not been finalized. They topped it off with a third ceremony in Las Vegas, but that was only six months before they divorced, with each accusing the other of extreme violence.
But, in November 1964, Judy proudly did a live concert with Liza in London which was well received. Afterwards, Liza announced her engagement to Peter Allen, a musician friend of Mark’s, who, like Mark, was gay. Judy approved of the marriage. But by the time of the wedding, Judy and Mark were already divorced, and it was Liza’s father, Vincent Minnelli, who escorted Judy to the wedding. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other in 16 years.
The last few years of Judy’s life were very sad and miserable. She was sick, unable to work. But, she did so anyway because she had to. She was broke and had debts galore, including being hounded by the IRS. In 1967, she was offered a small role in Valley of the Dolls, mainly because the story was based largely on her life. But, she didn’t get along with the actress playing her, who was Patty Duke. And mentally, she wasn’t up for it; she couldn’t remember her dialogue or take direction. They had to let her go.
By then, Judy was truly a basket case. Her younger children, Lorna and Joey, went to live with their older sister Liza and her husband. All Judy could do was take whatever small gigs she could. But, her voice was gone; her health was gone; her money was gone; and most of her friends were gone.
Three months before she died, Judy married her fifth husband, a young nightclub owner from London, Mickey Deans. Yes, he too was gay.
On the evening of June 21, 1969, in his small London apartment where they lived, Judy and Mickey had a huge argument, and she went storming out. He watched television for a while and then went to bed. The next morning, a phone call for her awoke him. He looked for her and found that the bathroom door was locked. He shouted and banged, but there was no response. When he finally crawled in through a window, he found her sitting on the toilet. She was dead, and rigor mortis had set in. She was 47 years old, and $4 million in debt. The autopsy revealed that she had died from an overdose of Seconal. The coroner said that it was “accidental,” but many believe that she finally succeeded at committing suicide.
I think the lesson of Judy Garland’s life is that you can’t pharmacologize basic biological functions like eating, sleeping, and wakefulness without inviting ruin and disaster. And starting such nasty interventions early in life, as she did, guarantees that you are never going to have a normal life. That’s why it was such a crime what Louie B. Mayer and the other MGM execs did to her.In one respect, it’s better today: the studios aren’t so powerful. They don’t own anybody any more. But, the mindset of our culture is still very drug-happy, and there are still plenty of doctors willing to prescribe drugs, and of course, illicit drugs are readily available. And, talented stars are still dying tragically, such as River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, and most recently, Amy Winehouse. The solution has to begin with a change in attitude about drugs- by individuals and by society at large.