Wednesday 16 October 2019

Over the rainbow

The songs of Judy Garland struck a chord with writer Suzie Boyt. Like the troubled singer, Boyt had an unusual life. Though her father Lucian Freud's paintings now sell for many millions, her family experienced poverty. She tells Emily Hourican about her childhood and posing for her father's work at the age of sixteen

Emily Hourican

At the risk of sounding totally corny, there are three of us in this interview; me, writer Susie Boyt, and Judy Garland. Following on from four big-selling, critically-appreciated novels, Susie has just published a beautifully-written, sparkling, show-stopper of a book, My Judy Garland Life. Part biography, part memoir, part musing on the way we live, with a dash of self-help thrown in, it is a love-letter to a star who is vitally linked with the magic of Susie's life.

Judy Garland captivated her from the first moment she heard Over The Rainbow, as a child in the cinema with her mother, and ever since, Garland has been the conduit for the kind of intense emotions that are sometimes better lived at a remove. Garland lent glamour, even the allure of tragedy, to the kind of weaknesses that society usually finds unappealing, even repellent -- neediness, insecurity, yearning -- the kind of things that were all part of Susie's make-up as a child, and went hand-in-hand with her innate interest in "love and fame and how to cheer people up, and rescue and consolation and grief".

"I wanted it to be a book about how we all live, in disguise as a book about Judy Garland," she says, twisting her hands a little nervously, and speaking in precise, slightly clipped tones that carry echoes of the nursery. Tall, pretty, with smooth, pale blonde hair and a delicate pink-and-white complexion, wearing what isn't but could almost be, a grey pinafore, she looks a good 10 years younger than her 39 years, and has the aura of a well-brought-up childhood about her.

Although she did attend a strict school where everything was rules and regulations, with badges for tidiness and deportment, the aura is largely an illusion. Her home life was highly bohemian -- she is the youngest of the five children of painter Lucian Freud and Suzie Boyt and was brought up by her mother.

For all the dazzle of Judy, the book is also, in a very touching way, a tribute to this amazing mother, who supported the family on a small vintage clothes business she ran. There were many house moves, much making-do, some deprivation, but plenty of cosiness despite the poverty -- in which she refuses to wallow anyway. "I don't like to go on about it. We always had somewhere to live," recalls Susie, "afternoons in continual tea times," eating buns and brushing her mother's hair for a penny a minute while singing Judy songs. Even she is surprised at how much of her life has made it into the book; "I'm rather a private person in a way, so I was astonished to see I'd written a book that had got quite a lot of me in it. But what Judy's good at is communicating really neat emotion, and I felt I'd have to be a bit like that too ... if she were going to be super-sincere in her communication, I didn't want to be holding back."

Later, she says, "it made me more anxious than anything I've ever done in my life. At an early stage, I gave it to both my parents and said, 'If you want me to take anything out, just say'. They didn't. My mother said she thought it was daring, but in no way shocking, and my father didn't ask me to take anything out, either."

Susie's father, Lucian Freud, the greatest portrait painter of the age, who recently became the highest-selling too, when one of his works went at auction for $33.6m, has painted everyone from the Queen to Kate Moss and even Donegal businessman Pat Doherty, and had a dramatic, often very public, private life. Her mother, Suzie Boyt, was first his student at Slade Art School, then partner for many years.

Her parents had split up by the time Susie, the youngest, was born. Although it feels distinctly odd to ask the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud to "tell me about your father", Susie is sporting, saying simply "ask what you like and I'll say what I can".

Despite the pre-natal break-up, Lucian was "a big presence" in Susie's young life -- "he came regularly but not that often". As was his wont with his children, Susie began sitting regularly for him when she turned 16 -- there are three completed portraits of her, one owned by the manager of the Grateful Dead -- which is when the two really forged a relationship. "I went from seeing him a handful of times a year to three or four times a week." These weren't silent, overly posed occasions either. "We talked all the time. It was amazing, and went very well from very early on. We got to know each other, discovered we had a lot in common, liked a lot of the same things. We talked about books a lot, I used to sing for him sometimes, and he used to make really delicious things to eat." In Susie's "rather unpromising schoolgirl life", these sessions were "an instant injection of glamour".

Contrary to the lurid media reports, Freud doesn't have 40 children ("it's more like 14"), of whom Susie is closest to his daughters by Bernardine Coverley, Bella and Esther Freud.

"I got to know them when they were 16 and 18, and came to London. They used to come to our house for Sunday lunch -- my mother was a big Sunday lunch maker -- and I had sisters that age. I was very school uniformy and had my hair in plaits, where they were sort of fabulous and had streams of admirers following them. Their friends would be sweet to me to try and get in with them, which was never going to work."

She laughs now, recounting it, but in the book there is a sense of this youngest duckling feeling inferior to her exciting older siblings, far more conscious of the differences between them than any similarities.

Inspired by Judy, Susie learned to sing and dance, taking four dance classes a week from seven to 13 years of age, "tap, ballet, contemporary and a very old-fashioned sort of dance called modern", and wanted to go to stage school.

This, her usually laid-back mother vetoed, and in retrospect Susie agrees it was "probably better I didn't go, I think it would have been a very unforgiving environment". All the same, she soaked up the gallant, show- must-go-on ethos of the hard- working, old-style Hollywood performer; "My inner chorus girl has made sure I am fully equipped with a funny story or song to suit any occasio," she writes in the book, and even now she says, "I love my life and I love being a writer, but it is my second choice."

If I were psychoanalysing, I might make the equation between distant, adored father in early childhood and distant, adoring relationship with dead Hollywood star, but why bother when she does such a good job of it herself? My Judy Garland Life is highly self-aware, pre-empting most of the kind of pop-psychology diagnoses likely to be welded to it.

Even so, there is a sort of emptiness in the book -- Susie herself calls it "a book of loss, in a way". Some of this is understandable -- the absence of her father in early childhood, the death in a climbing accident of a much-loved boyfriend when she was just 21 and at Oxford (the experience prompted Susie to train as a bereavement counsellor, and she is now on a government disaster reaction list, to be called up in times of national trauma), but beyond the obvious is a more existential, remote sense of things, sometimes only half-known, missing.

"I really wanted this book, if it has a subtext, to be about how utterly important it is to completely celebrate everything in life that needs to be celebrated, and also to mourn everything that needs mourning. That's the way to have the fullest life."

That said, the book is also deadpan hilarious, even though it's hard sometimes to work out how much is done for comic effect. Take this: "How I wished with all my heart for a stage mother, a sort of showbiz Jiminy Cricket figure," she writes, and later, "When I met someone I really liked my first thought was, wouldn't it be wonderful if you suffered some sort of mild crisis/ mild illness and I could be the one to help you through?" Which is exactly what did happen with her husband, producer Tom Astor (Tank Girl, Gorillaz, last year's Joy Division and Phoo Action). The couple met at Susie's sister's wedding.

"I caught the bouquet, turned around and he was standing there." They went on a date that evening, and the bouquet came, too. "Even though I knew it wasn't very cool to go out with someone you liked with a bouquet, it was my sister's, and I wasn't going to go throwing it into a bin." Tom did the decent thing by developing a nasty bout of flu; "I think he was so stunned by the standard of care and that's when he made up his mind," laughs Susie. Within four days, "it was quite clear it was serious".

Now married with two girls, Susie has found motherhood "a hard act to follow. I'm aware that my children have a lot of things I didn't have -- I was pretty well brought up by a single parent, my children have their father living in the house; also we were poor growing up and now we're not. But my mother's talent for making everything lovely is something I try and recreate in my own household".

When I ask her about one of the family's great adventures -- a round-the-world boat trip instigated by her mother in a leaky old yacht that gave up the ghost in Trinidad, from where the family was deported back to England -- which happened before Susie was born, her response is a shudder. Is she not tempted to try something similar, depart on the voyage of a lifetime? "I cannot tell you how not tempted I am," she says firmly. "I like being in my house, I like cups of tea, I like order and plenty." The legacy of a childhood doing without. When at low ebb, she browses the bed and bath sections of department stores, taking comfort from the stacks of neatly folded towels and sheets. Because for all the appeal of drama and tragedy, there is also magic to be found in ordinary things, in the lure of sense over sensibility.

My Judy Garland Life is available now from Virago, priced £12.99

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top