Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: My brief encounter with the prodigiously talented but deeply tragic Judy Garland

Troubled life: Judy Garland
Troubled life: Judy Garland

By Mary Kenny

Renee Zellweger's portrayal of the legendary star Judy Garland - in the new film Judy, which appears in cinemas this Friday - brought to mind my own memory of meeting that great and tragic legend shortly before her death in 1969.

As a young reporter, I had been sent to The Talk of the Town arena in London to interview Miss Garland before her show. It was one of many comeback performances over the years, as her life had been episodically punctured by troubled marriages, drink and drug problems, suicide attempts and abortions forced on her by the mighty studio bosses.

After her first marriage to David Rose, when she was aged 19, she became pregnant - not an unusual event subsequent to marriage back in 1942.

But, according to her biographer Gerald Clarke, although Judy felt "joy" at the pregnancy, she also knew that MGM frowned on their female stars having babies - it interrupted the filming schedule and cost money. Indeed, the dictatorial studio boss Louis B Mayer told her "we simply can't have that baby". Backed by Judy's ambitious mother, she was made to have a termination. After that, Judy told June Allyson, "the marriage was never the same. Something was gone. It broke my heart".

Judy's life had been rocky from the start. She was the third daughter of vaudeville performers Ethel and Frank Gumm and initially was an unwanted child. This, says her biographer, gave her an "ugly duckling" syndrome all her life. Yet, when the three Gumm girls became successful as a singing and dancing group - with Judy the most talented - she became an asset, rather than a liability.

She adored her father, even though he hadn't originally wanted her, and spent most of her life looking for men to replace him. Frank was bisexual and got into trouble more than once in small-town America for molesting teenage boys. This issue was dealt with in the old familiar way: Frank was asked to move on.

Replacing her dad, who died when she was 13, she often chose bisexual men as husbands and lovers. Three of her five husbands were bisexual and she had an affair with the matinee idol Tyrone Power, who was also bisexual (though he had three wives and a passionate affair with Lana Turner).

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Gay men had a special affinity with Judy. 'Friend of Dorothy' was a gay code in more repressed times, and Judy was Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz. People have said that there was a "twinning of souls" with Judy and her struggles against emotional suffering. For her part, Judy Garland, according to her publicist Matthew West, was attracted to "the sensitivity of bisexual men".

Judy's Hollywood life was always turbulent. Her legendary voice was mature at 14 years old - there's a terrific clip on YouTube of Judy singing You Made Me Love You to a portrait of Clark Gable, her voice already rich in yearning lyricism. But Hollywood made her an early drug addict, feeding her pills to lose weight - amphetamines, barbiturates and even opium. At one point, she had five doctors all prescribing addictive medication.

MGM worked her hard - Mayer described her as the studio's "greatest asset" - but didn't take care of her. At one point they forced her into electric shock therapy.

Lacking good managers, she always had money and tax problems.

Her mother, who had been a gifted vaudeville artiste herself and may have been jealous of Judy, seems to have been pushy and exploitative, but maybe she had her own problems, always worrying whether Frank would be found with another teenager.

Judy made some very successful movies, including Easter Parade, Meet Me in St Louis and the original A Star is Born, with James Mason. And always there was the singing.

She had three children with two husbands, Liza Minnelli, Lorna and Joe Luft, and took them with her on tour, whenever possible, but drug and alcohol problems dogged her all her life and, by the age of 47, in 1969, she was worn out.

When I duly turned up at The Talk of the Town for the arranged interview with Miss Garland, I waited in a dressing room backstage, though the diva was nowhere to be found. Eventually she surfaced: very tiny and slight (she was under five foot), confused, and somehow sweetly vulnerable. "I'm hiding," she said, with a funny little smile and slipped away again. I didn't get much out of her: she was afraid of the press and I saw terror in her eyes.

My recollection is that there was backstage pandemonium, as she was expected to perform and the audience had been waiting a long, long time. That night, when she finally went on stage, Judy Garland got catcalls rather than applause. She died soon afterwards.

Renee Zellweger as the star
Renee Zellweger as the star

Can Renee Zellweger portray this great artiste and tragic star? The clips look promising, although I'm doubtful about the decision for Renee herself to sing, rather than mime the unique Garland voice.

There's a stunning clip on YouTube of Judy singing But Not for Me in 1943. "With love to lead the way," she sings, "I've found more skies of grey/Than any Russian play could guarantee." Her story, indeed.

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