Monday 21 October 2019

Judy Garland: the diva, the drugs and the damage

Born into vaudeville, Judy Garland was performing by the time she could walk. Her daughter, Lorna Luft is currently touring the UK with a medley of her mother's best-loved songs. We examine three generations of showbiz troupers and the terrible toll of life lived onstage

Judy Garland in 1945
Judy Garland in 1945
Judy Garland as Dorothy with Toto in the Wizard of Oz
Lorna Luft performing in New York last year
Lisa Minelli Lorna Luft and Judy Garland
Judy Garland with baby Lorna Luft and then husband, Sidney Luft.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland

Julia Molony

When Judy Garland took to the stage of Carnegie Hall in April 1961, it wasn't her first, or indeed her only come-back. There had been many moments of triumph and tragedy before, and there would be a few more to follow. But it was, without doubt, her most spectacular. The high-water-mark of the night was Over the Rainbow, her anthem - a song that had taken on so much bitter-sweet significance in the years since she first performed it as a fresh-faced girl in The Wizard of Oz. Her voice, still rich with emotion now creaked with the weight of years of disappointment and hard-living. She was frail, but tireless. Garland sobbed, and the crowd howled with rapture. It was called the "greatest night in showbiz history."

She was 38 years of age when she stepped onto that stage in New York, and yet already a worn-out veteran in the twilight years of her career. Both her personal and professional lives had been in disarray for a long time. A decade previously, she'd been dropped by MGM, the studio that had made her a star, following a run of lateness, delayed filming, no-shows and erratic behaviour caused by her fragile psychological state and long-entrenched dependence on barbiturates and amphetamines. In the intervening years, she'd suffered at least one nervous break-down, and two suicide attempts had been reported in the press. In 1959, she was admitted to hospital with acute hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver, caused in part, it was surmised, by the toxic cocktail of pills she'd been dependent upon for over 15 years. Stevie Phillips, Garland's former agent, who is about to publish a book about her four years working with the star, has written that she was, by this point in her life "a demented, demanding, supremely talented drug-addict."

In the period between Carnegie Hall and her death from an overdose less than a decade later, Garland would divorce, marry two further times, engage in an acrimonious and public custody battle for her two youngest children with third husband Sid Luft, be repeatedly hospitalised, occasionally after being found unconscious, and make several much-hyped returns to stage and screen. Life was lived in a constant state of near-hysterical drama, according to Phillips. In her book, Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me, she recalls an occasion when Garland self-immolated by setting her own dressing-gown on fire. Phillips also claims that Garland made sexual advances towards her in the back of a Limo, and once covered her in blood after slashing her wrists. "Judy wasn't easy" Phillips writes, "Sadly, she was the queen of tragedy'

Garland's need to perform, she once explained, eventually became the only thing that kept a looming sense of isolation at bay. "I was always lonesome. The only time I felt accepted or wanted was when I was on stage performing. I guess the stage was my only friend . . . It was the only place where I felt equal and safe."

Perhaps it was in her blood. "The show must go on" could have been Garland's family motto. She was born into entertainment. Her parents were in vaudeville, and all three of Judy's children went on to inherit their mothers love of the stage, despite her initial misgivings about allowing them to perform. Her eldest, Liza Minnelli, an Oscar-winning actress and singer, was working professionally by the age of 16. Lorna Luft, Garlands first child with producer Sidney Luft, is a multi-Emmy winning performer who once sang backing vocals with Blondie, and who this summer is touring the UK, singing a medley of her mother's songs: Judy Garland, The Life and Music of A Hollywood Legend. Judy's son Joey Luft has also carved a career in showbiz.

Judy Garland first started performing when she was just two and a half years old. Born Frances Gumm, her parents, Ethel and Frank put her on stage with her older sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy almost as soon as she was able to walk.

In the early 1930s the trio became a well-known act on local vaudeville circuits. They performed as The Gumm Sisters, until the singer and producer George Jessel caught sight of them and encouraged them to change their name. The Garland Sisters were born, and not long after Frances changed her first name to Judy.

But despite the painted smiles and larks in front of an audience, The Gumms were not a happy family. At home, a darker, more dysfunctional picture emerged. Frank Gumm was gay but, because of the mores of the time, condemned to live a closeted life in an unhappy marriage. He ran movie theatres for a living and was successful at it, but rumours of his extra-marital indiscretions, and attempts to seduce the ushers at the theatre, dogged the family. They moved often, apparently abandoning jobs and homes when the threat of scandal came too near.

Still, Garland was very fond of her father. He died in 1935, when Judy was just 13, and she later said that losing him was "the most terrible thing that has happened in my life." Perhaps the trauma was compounded by the fact that it left her at the mercy of her mother. Ethel was the ruthlessly ambitious driving force behind her daughter's precocious and lucrative career. Judy once described her as "the real Wicked Witch of the West."

According to biographer Gerald Clarke, towards the end of her life Judy Garland confessed that her long history with prescription drugs began when she was just a child, when her mother, driving her children to perform, would offer pick-me-ups and sleeping pills to help them manage the stresses of professional life.

At 13 years of age, Judy was brought by her father to the office of movie mogul Louis B Mayer, at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. She was signed on the spot and packed off to studio boot-camp - alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner. Despite her superior voice, she would always feel physically inadequate, keeping company among the great beauties of the day. The director Charles Waters, who worked with Judy several times, said, "Judy was the big moneymaker at the time - a big success, but she was the ugly duckling. . . I think it had a damaging effect on her for a long time. I think it lasted forever really."

From the first, it was clear the girl had talent. Her debut appearance on celluloid, in a musical short Every Sunday, persuaded Louis B Mayer of her potential. In the following years, he cast Garland opposite Mickey Rooney for a series of comedy musicals - the pair were to star in nine films together.

The rigours of life in the studio system at that time are renowned - few children went into the Hollywood star production line and came out unscathed.

"They had us working days and nights on end," Judy said of those early days. "They'd give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills - Mickey (Rooney) sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then after four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us," she recalled.

Though already a well-known and hard-working Hollywood success story, it was The Wizard of Oz that changed Garland's fate forever. The film was a huge critical and commercial success, and the role of Dorothy an iconic one.

During filming, Garland, then 17, was in the full, fleshy, bloom of early womanhood. But her rounded shape didn't chime with the girl-next-door innocence the studio demanded. They monitored her diet ruthlessly, feeding her chicken soup and cigarettes to keep off the pounds, strapped down her breasts and squeezed her into punishing corsets, thus launching a lifetime of insecurity about her weight; binges, purges and yo-yo diets.

At 20, she embarked on the first of five marriages, eloping with David Rose, a composer and conductor who was 12 years older than her. When she became pregnant soon after, the studio, and her mother insisted she have an abortion, and Judy reluctantly agreed.

The marriage lasted only three years, and it's dissolution launched Judy into a whirlwind of intensive work and personal chaos. Throughout the 1940s she was among the hardest-working performers in Hollywood, clocking up hit-after-hit. In 1947, with exhaustion taking its toll, she suffered a nervous breakdown while on set filming The Pirate. She spent a period of time recovering in a sanatorium. In July of that year she took a piece of broken glass to her wrists.

By the end of the decade, her behaviour was having a deleterious effect on her career. It was during filming of The Barklays of Broadway that things came to a head. She delayed the production - missing days of shooting. When her doctor said that she should only be available to work for a few days at a time, with breaks in between, she was dropped from the movie, and Ginger Rogers was hired to take on the role instead.

The same thing happened on Annie Get Your Gun - once again she was replaced. And on Royal Wedding - a rash of no-shows and flake-outs culminated in Judy being, yet again, fired. By 1950, she was burnt out, unreliable. She'd become a star who was impossible to manage and the studio cancelled her contract.

It was the end of a long, and often dysfunctional relationship between star and studio. According to some reports, MGM were a pernicious influence in her life, keeping close tabs on her behaviour and even sending spies around to her house to check she was sticking to her diet. And she herself suggested that Louis B Meyer was a predatory creep, who would grope her breast while insisting she "sang from the heart." "I often thought I was lucky I didn't sing from another part of my anatomy," she once said.

Judy married movie director Vincente Minnelli in 1945 and soon after had her first daughter, Liza. Judy would later claim, in a series of posthumously discovered recordings, that the marriage with Minnelli had been set up by the studio. In any case, it soon became clear to Judy that Minnelli was gay. In the recordings she recounts her devastation at returning home one day to find her husband in bed with the handyman, causing her to rush to the bedroom to slash her wrist.

Whatever the chaos that surrounded her, however, Garland was a warm and loving mother. Perhaps determined to redress the scars of her own childhood, she was devoted to her children and they, in turn, to her. In 2002, Liza Minnelli told Vanity Fair that much of her childhood was filled with joy, despite her mother's struggles. "She was so smart and truly funny," she said. "A lot of people don't understand that. I used to try and explain my mom. I'd say, 'No, she's not tragic. She was really funny.' But they don't want to hear that. My mom knew that. She'd say, 'Listen. Let them think what they want to think. They have their right. We know who we are and that's what counts'."

Still, Liza has also admitted to the turmoil that Garland's erratic existence exacted on her early life. "There were no middles, no times when I was just tranquil," she said in the 1980s. "I was used only to screaming attacks or excessive love bouts, rivers of money or no money at all, seeing my mother constantly or not seeing her for weeks at a time.'' But underneath it all, Garland's determination to be loving and kind won out. "She was so supportive, she'd congratulate me if I walked across the room," Liza has said.

When Liza began to express an interest in following her mother into show-business, Garland initially had misgivings. "I look at my three fine children and wonder whether I would want them to be entertainers, too. Applause alone doesn't sustain you at 3am, when you can't sleep,'' she told an interviewer." Ultimately realising that she had to allow them to follow their own path, she offered one piece of advice. "Watch me, learn from me and learn from my mistakes.''

Perhaps seeking to avoid the cruel indifference of the Hollywood machine, Liza went to Broadway first. Unaided financially by her parents, she began her professional life while still a teenager.

But despite being her mother's caretaker and confidante, Minnelli was unable to follow her mother's exhortation to "learn from my mistakes." Instead, she was fated to make many of the same mistakes herself; several failed marriages, marriage to a gay man, and substance abuse. Liza's half-sister Lorna Luft, has written of how she was forced to staged an intervention in 1984, borrowing Frank Sinatra's plane and calling on Elizabeth Taylor's guidance to kidnap her sister from her unhappy marriage to the sculptor Mark Gero, and delivering her to a facility for treatment of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. It was the first of several trips to rehab that Minnelli has undertaken over the years - her most recent in March this year, when the 69-year-old checked into an undisclosed facility. But if Minnelli inherited many vulnerabilities from her mother, she also inherited many strengths; professionalism and resilience, and a determination to smile and keep on singing whatever storms might be raging within.

Lorna Luft, Judy's younger daughter, has perhaps always been more robust. She was just 16-years-old when her mother died, and has said that as a coping mechanism she simply "ran away." Though she adored her mother, she was daunted by her circus of a lifestyle. "My mother was the greatest mother she knew how to be, and she was way ahead of her time," Lorna said recently. "In our family, Mum went to work and that's just the way it was."

It wasn't until she reached her 50s and had raised her family that Lorna finally felt ready to step into the limelight. Now she keeps her mother's legacy alive, performing her most famous hits. One song, however, is not on Lorna's repertoire - Over the Rainbow. "I've never sung the song and I never will," she said earlier this year. "How can you improve on perfection?"

Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me: A Memoir by Stevie Phillips is published on Tuesday

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top