Remembering Judy Garland
Judy Garland died 45 years ago today. Her fifth husband Mickey Deans found her in the bathroom of their mews house at 4 Cadogan Lane, Chelsea, around 10am on June 22, 1969. She had been dead for 6-8 hours, according to the coroner, Gavin Thurston. He wrote ‘barbiturate poisoning’ on her death certificate, judging that it was accidental. She had tried to commit suicide on a couple of occasions, but this was not one of them. He thought she had probably taken several capsules to get to sleep, then several more when she woke up, having forgotten the earlier ones. A horrible mistake, in other words.
She was 47 years old, living on borrowed time. She had cirrhosis of the liver, and the lifetime of pills had almost killed her a couple of times since 1960. She had overdosed in Sweden during a concert tour a couple of months earlier. Even so, most of the concerts in the 1960’s had been successes. Even her tour of Australia in 1964, which saw her booed off the stage in Melbourne, featured two knockout concerts in Sydney – and one major argument with her tour promoter Harry M Miller, during which she is said to have slapped his face (attagirl Judy!).
That story comes from Gerald Clarke’s 2000 biography, Get Happy – The Life of Judy Garland – one of more than two dozen books about her. Harvey Weinstein has optioned Clarke’s book, with Anne Hathaway signed to play her in both a musical play and film. The movie is supposed to shoot this northern summer, although IMDB lists it as still ‘in development’.
How then should we remember Judy Garland? Was she ‘the greatest entertainer who ever lived’, as Fred Astaire said? She was certainly an actress and singer of extraordinary gifts, from an early age. Her movies weren’t always great, but she was never bad in them. In some of them – The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, Girl Crazy, Easter Parade, A Star is Born – she was unforgettable. More than any other actress of her time, Garland was capable of moving an audience, just by being there. When she sang, an atheist might believe there was a god, after all.
In death, her legend multiplied. She became the archetypal show-business tragedy, the victim of a profession that chews up talent and spits it out to die on Hollywood Boulevard, the first of a long line that leads to Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Michael Jackson and all the rest. Except that Marilyn died before her and the drug use started not at MGM under Louis B Mayer, but with her mother Ethel Gumm, who gave her ‘pep pills’ before she was ten. Clarke writes that Ethel had done the same with her two elder daughters, the other members of the juvenile trio that Frances, or Baby as they called her, had joined, aged two. ‘When the pills started keeping her awake at night, Ethel counteracted them with sleeping tablets,’ writes Clarke. ‘I’ve got to keep those girls going,’ Ethel would say, a line that is bound to end up in the coming movie.
Clarke’s book is controversial, despite positive reviews. Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft denounced it. The book contains a lot of startlingly frank stories about the star’s sex life and those of her parents, although it’s far from an unaffectionate portrait, or simple tabloid expose. Clarke argues that Judy was the way she was – in both her talent and her despair – because Ethel never really loved her. He writes that her father Frank, a warm-hearted singer and manager of movie theatres, adored her, while Ethel just saw a talent that was going to make the family rich. Her emotional singing was her cry for help.
One of the reasons for Ethel’s coolness may have been her anger at finding out her husband was ‘basically homosexual’. The family had twice to move from small towns in Minnesota after Frank was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour with young men at the family’s theatre. Their last move was to Lancaster, just outside Los Angeles, where Ethel basically abandoned him, taking the three girls to Hollywood in 1933. Frank had to move on again soon after when his liaison with a Lancaster high school boy became public.
His youngest, now calling herself Judy Garland, never believed the stories about her father, but she repeated her mother’s pattern when she married Vincente Minnelli in 1945. Minnelli, probably the best director she ever had, was living as a gay man in New York before he went to Hollywood, according to Emanuel Levy’s biography of him. Minnelli and Garland’s child Liza married Peter Allen, as most Australians know. Three generations thus married three gay men, which makes Judy’s success as a gay icon that much stranger.
Judy would have had reason to resent gay men, if she had wanted to, but there is no evidence that she did. She was already much loved in the gay community before she died. It wasn’t just because her performance as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz was such a bright gay metaphor. The ‘Friends of Dorothy’ saw in her a woman who turned suffering into art, and died because of it. She was less romantic about her troubles. In January 1969, she told an English journalist: ‘Don’t for heaven’s sake give me that old sob stuff routine. Of course I’d do it all over again, with the same mistakes!’