• U.S.

Singers: End of the Rainbow

6 minute read

The Scarecrow came to her funeral; so did Andy Hardy. So, in spirit, did the countless legions of Judy Garland’s fans, 21,000 of whom appeared in per son and jammed the streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side last week to file past the bier where her body, dressed in the ankle-length gown she had worn at her fifth wedding, lay in state. Many were moved to tears when a young girl from The Bronx began to play Judy’s records on a battery-powered phonograph. Some, of course, came only out of curiosity. Others were responding to a remembered image of the plucky, wide-eyed little girl in The Wizard of Oz who had said: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Be cause if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Why Change? Unlike Dorothy of Oz, Judy Garland never really had a backyard to call her own. Born Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minn., Judy was a vaudeville trouper at the age of five. Her father died when she was twelve, and her mother, as Judy remarked bitterly years later, “was no good for anything except to create cha os and fear. She was the worst — the real-life Wicked Witch of the West.” The nearest thing to a home that Judy had was the MGM lot in Hollywood, where — between long agonizing hours before the camera — Louis B. Mayer sent her to the studio school with the rest of his adolescent stars.

To her studio, Judy was not a child but a box-office property with rare nat ural gifts. Rarest of all was the instinctive, trembling vocal style that somehow managed to combine womanly pathos and childish innocence. There were no singing lessons to mar her delivery, nor any acting lessons to ruin the uninhibited intensity of her stage presence. “She was so sweet,” recalls Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man. “I would say, ‘Well, Judy, if you ever become a star, please stay as sweet as you are,’ and she would say, ‘I don’t know what could change me, Jack. Why would anything change?’ ”

But she did change. At 21 she was visiting a psychiatrist regularly and living on pills: pills to put her to sleep, pills to wake her up, pills to help keep her weight down. Eleven years, two husbands, and 20 movies (including the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney, Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade) after making Oz, she had established herself as the best of a bevy of girlish filmland warblers that included Gloria Jean, Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell. But she could no longer handle the pressure of stardom. She began showing up for work late or sick, then did not show up at all. She was suspended once, twice, and finally, in 1950, fired for good.

Judy had too much talent and too much voice to stay down for long. Perhaps her finest performance was as the unlucky-in-love heroine of the musical A Star Is Born (1954), for which she won an Oscar nomination. As recently as 1961, she took the small role of a drab Jewish hausfrau in Judgment at Nuremberg—and turned the vignette into a dramatic triumph. There were also memorable personal appearances —Manhattan’s Palace in 1951 and 1967, Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel in 1956, the London Palladium hi 1960. To those who felt the magic of her voice—not everyone did—a Garland concert was as personal as a love affair. Garland was never a pioneer, just a music-hall balladeer who liked to sing love songs. She was never allowed to leave the stage without one more chorus of the tunes she had made her own, Stormy Weather or Over the Rainbow. She belted them out in a high, throbbing, no-holds-barred soprano that sounded as if it came from a near-to-bursting heart. “A Garland audience doesn’t just listen,” Spencer Tracy once said. “They feel. They have their arms around her when she works.”

Camp Followers. Judy’s fans loved her for better or worse; in recent years it was mostly for worse. She drank too much, gained too much weight (then lost it too quickly), and made periodic, halfhearted attempts at suicide. Lawsuit followed lawsuit—lawsuits against Judy, lawsuits by Judy against agents, husbands, theaters. Divorce followed divorce. The ghosts of her personal life followed her onstage. Her spent voice began to crack and wobble, and Judy would stumble over lyrics she had sung a hundred times before. Eventually, some people came to see Judy in the morbid hope that she would falter; she attracted a limp army of camp followers to whom she was a figure of mock adoration. Time and again, she had to cancel engagements suddenly because of “illness.”

Last January, Judy began a three-week run at London’s Talk of the Town cabaret. It turned out to be the biggest flop of her life. One night she appeared an hour late. At first, the audience booed and jeered her, then threw bread, cigarette packages and butts onto the stage. Judy tripped over the microphone line, struggled with a shoulder strap and looked, as one London reporter put it, like a “walking casualty.”

In March, she married her fifth husband, sometime Discotheque Manager Mickey Deans.* All the old Garland sparkle swelled in her voice when she exclaimed: “Finally, finally, I am loved.” Judy began talking about comebacks —an autobiographical film, more recordings, more nightclub appearances. Although physically wasted, she drank less, seemed to friends to be happy, even relaxed. She spent her last night with Deans in their whitewashed mews cottage in the fashionable Belgravia section of London, watching a TV show. Some time during the night, she went to the bathroom and collapsed. Deans found her there the next morning. The official verdict was that Judy had died, at the age of 47, of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. But Ray Bolger, who as the Scarecrow had danced to the Emerald City with Dorothy to find the Wizard, had another explanation: “Judy didn’t die of anything, except wearing out. She just plain wore out.”

* The others: Composer David Rose (1941-45); Film Director Vincente Minnelli (1945-51) (by whom she had one daughter, Liza, now a star in her own right); Manager Sid Luft (1952-65) (a daughter, Lorna, and a son, Joseph); Actor Mark Herron (1965-67).

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