Here we go–time to talk about Miss Show Business!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When people think of Judy Garland, they most often go right to the sordid parts of her life. This is a huge shame, because to the people who knew her, Judy had such a gift for bringing joy. John Fricke decided to shine the spotlight on the many, many good things that made up Judy’s life in his excellent book, Judy Garland: A Portrait In Art and Anecdote.
Judy is a museum on paper. Fricke breaks up her biography by decade, and features advertising, magazine covers, and movie posters, both American and international. Sprinkled liberally throughout are rare photos of Judy at work and play, and that means we get to see Judy relaxed and having fun, which is refreshing. Most importantly, the book is chock-full of tidbits and true stories from Judy’s friends, family and colleagues, as well as from Judy herself.
The section covering Judy’s time in Grand Rapids, Minnesota was all too quick, but then again, she didn’t spend a whole lot of time there. There are photos of “Baby” lounging on the lawn at home with her sisters, playing with a kitten, and dressed up for her earliest performances. She looks happy and like a regular kid, with no pressure and no stress. People in Grand Rapids remembered the Gumm sisters putting on talent shows in their garage, with “Baby” outshining everyone and Ethel making peach compote. After the family moved to California and Frank bought the Lancaster Theater, they were written up favorably in the Antelope Valley Ledger-Gazette, garnering adjectives like “pleasing” and “winning.”
Judy’s early years are a study in small-time going very, very big. Judy starts out in cheap costumes, worn tap shoes with ragged grosgrain ribbons, and frizzy, lank hair, then she goes on to look more and more polished in tailored fashions and expertly-styled coifs. Star power doesn’t change everything, though, and Fricke includes several unretouched pictures. Judy had beautiful skin, and anyone who only saw Judy in her glossies or in magazines would never know she also had a few freckles. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye, but back then, freckles were not wanted.
There are lots of Wizard of Oz photos in the thirties section of Fricke’s book, and it covers both the Thorpe and Fleming eras. Thank goodness the former’s version didn’t end up as the final product, or we probably wouldn’t be watching Wizard today. At least, not as much.
Obviously, as Judy’s star ascended, the way she was presented to the public changed, such as when she graduated from junior high and high school. M-G-M’s schoolhouse didn’t have regular graduation ceremonies, so when Judy finished the eighth grade, the studio made special arrangements for her to get her diploma from Bancroft Junior High. It was before Judy was a star, and her graduation was commemorated by a simple studio photo of her in a simple dress, jubilantly waving a diploma above her head. Judy’s high school graduation was similar, with Judy as a part of the ceremony at University High School, except that now Judy had The Wizard of Oz under her belt. Judy told her mom specifically that she didn’t want to be different from the other girls. She politely declined to wear the corsages Mickey Rooney and her mom had sent her, because no one else would have had corsages. What’s interesting, though, is the photo taken at the ceremony shows Judy in her furs and diamond necklace, surrounded by enthusiastic new grads and looking like visiting royalty.
Judy had a playful sense of humor and it knew no bounds. One behind-the-scenes photo from Babes In Arms shows her giving a clown rabbit ears. She was famous around the lot for getting the giggles on set, and once she got going, the cast and crew just had to wait her out. Judy had a prolific radio career, which was a great outlet for her wit, and made plenty of guest appearances on Bob Hope’s show, for instance. Hope remembered one particular night:
I was always talking about the beauty of Madeleine Carroll, and I promised that she would appear on the show. Two or three weeks of buildup went by, and finally Madeleine Carroll appeared. I had been impressing upon the show’s cast to be respectful to her. Finally, I had to introduce her to Judy. Judy immediately contemplated Madeleine’s blond locks, and said, ‘Hmmm…peroxide.’ I never heard an audience laugh so long.
The nineteen-forties section of Fricke’s book shows Judy at the height of her stardom, with a busy schedule to match. Not only was she making radio appearances and filming at least one musical a year, but the Second World War was happening. Judy toured camp hospitals and sang at the Hollywood Canteen. She was featured in a campaign to invite servicemen over for Thanksgiving dinner and went on several bond tours. Naturally, she made a big impression, and her service wasn’t always noticed by the public. Actor Robert Stack remembered what Judy would do for him while he was in the Navy:
When I came back on leave, you’d be surprised how few people know who the heck you are…Judy, no matter what she had to do, would always cancel for me: there she was. And she was my date over my leave…a gifted, wonderful talent and a dear, loyal friend.
Amazingly enough, Judy found time to get married during the forties. Twice. The first was David Rose when she was nineteen, and the second was Vincente Minnelli when she was twenty-three. Of course, she became a mother during this period as well, giving birth to her first daughter, Liza Minnelli in 1946.
The nineteen-fifties and sixties saw Judy out of M-G-M, out of her marriage to Minnelli, and out of regular film appearances. It was when she became the Comeback Queen–any time she did any kind of performance, it was a “comeback.” I’ve always found this funny, because Judy never seemed to drop out of the limelight long enough for people to forget about her. She not only became well-established on the concert stage, but made the ill-fated masterpiece, A Star Is Born. The later sections feature very few magazine covers relative to the previous two decades, but this was when Judy didn’t have M-G-M’s publicity department bird-dogging for her. However, she was still highly photographed.
One of the highlights of the nineteen-fifties was when Judy kicked off a vaudeville-style show at the Palace Theater in New York on April 9, 1951. Adela Rogers St. Johns summed it up when she said, “Judy’s opening night at the Palace. There’s never been anything like it.”
The Palace show was so successful that it was taken on the road, and one of the stops was the Philharmonic in Los Angeles. Ann Miller remembered that engagement:
I mean, everybody from M-G-M was there that night…When she walked out on the stage, she had what psychics call a force field around her that was so powerful that it would reach to the back of that house. She didn’t need a microphone–she had such a force field of energy that hit the audience. It was like mystical electricity; all great performers have that…and when you have it, it gets to the audience. Call it charisma, call it star quality; you don’t see it very often, but Judy was electrical. She was dynamite.
The fifties were probably one of the most stable times in Judy’s life. She was married to Sid Luft from 1952 to 1963, and was able to establish a home in Holmby Hills with he, Liza, Lorna and Joe. Unfortunately, she had a bout of hepatitis in that period that doctors predicted would make her a semi-invalid, but Miss Comeback Queen wouldn’t have any of it. She not only beat the disease, but continued to sing and perform.
The final decade of Judy’s life, the sixties, was one of extremes. Fricke maintains the positive angle as much as possible, but doesn’t shy away from what Judy was dealing with. Judy’s marriage to Sid Luft ended in the early part of the decade and two years later she had a very brief matrimony with Mark Herron. While her health was really beginning to decline and her finances were in sad shape, Judy had great professional success at her Carnegie Hall performance in 1961, her TV show, and in a few feature films such as the aptly-titled I Could Go On Singing.
In spite of her mounting troubles, the old Judy still remained. Mort Lindsay said of her:
I have served as musical director for a number of artists. It would not be demeaning or belittling to state that Judy Garland was head and shoulders above them all. She was as warm and generous as she was talented. Her sense of humor was fantastic. In short, it was an honor, a vital experience, and a privilege to make music with her. In all the concerts, TV shows–no matter where or how often–I always felt goose bumps when she sang. She was truly one of a kind. God bless her. We miss her.
Fricke doesn’t delve into any of the sensationalism surrounding Judy’s death in 1969; rather, it barely gets a paragraph and makes it clear that the cause was accidental overdose. Instead, the book goes out on more positive notes about Judy in life and the legacy she left as a person and an entertainer.
I’ve only scratched the surface of John Fricke’s wonderful volume. It’s a very full, very fun picture of Judy’s life, and it may be one of the most honest. The temptation with a book of this type is to be over-adulating, but Fricke avoids that pitfall superbly, allowing Judy and those who knew her to speak. I wish his view of Judy’s life was more common than the tragic kind, and I’m glad Fricke chose to think outside the box. In the end, entertainment history will thank him.
That’s the end of my Day One of The Judy Garland Blogathon, with Day Two on the way tomorrow. In the meantime, check in with Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for more Judy. Thanks for reading, and see you mañana!
Fricke, John. Judy Garland: A Portrait In Art and Anecdote. Boston, New York, London: Bulfinch Press, 2003