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Dark side of the diva: Life and times of Judy Garland

The tragedy and traumas of Judy Garland's life and career are laid bare in a new book about the Hollywood star

By Julia Molony

Published 06/06/2015

Judy Garland
Judy Garland
Judy Garland with daughters Liza and Lorna
Judy Garland as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

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."

"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. Her eldest, Liza Minnelli, an Oscar-winning actress and singer, was working professionally by the age of 16. Lorna 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'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 The Gumms were not a happy family. Frank Gumm was gay but, because of the mores of the time, condemned to live a closeted life in an unhappy marriage.

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."

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.

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.

"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. She was dropped from the movie.

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.

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. 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. We know who we are and that's what counts'."

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

Belfast Telegraph

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