Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic was inspired by Mark Steyn’s column The Passing Parade marking the anniversary today of the death of the great Judy Garland at just 47 years old.
Had to share this — Judy Garland singing Over The Rainbow at the age of 21. Filmed during a broadcast of the Command Performance radio program.
June 23, 1969:
Judy Garland, 47, Found Dead
ONDON, June 22- Judy Garland, whose successes on stage and screen were later overshadowed by the pathos of her personal life, was found dead in her home here today.
The cause of death of the 47-year-old singer was not immediately established, and an autopsy was scheduled. [Reuters reported that police sources said a preliminary investigation revealed nothing to suggest that Miss Garland had taken her own life.]
Miss Garland’s personal life often seemed a fruitless search for the happiness promised in “Over the Rainbow,” the song she made famous in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
Her father died when she was 12 years old; the pressures of adolescent stardom sent her to a psychiatrist at the age of 18; she was married five times; she was frequently ill; her singing voice faltered, and she suffered from the effects of drugs she once said were prescribed either to invigorate or tranquilize her.
She came here at the end of last year to play a cabaret in another of the “comeback” performances that dotted her last 15 years.
Three months ago she married Mickey Deans, a discotheque manager. It was Mr. Deans, her fifth husband, who found Miss Garland dead on the bathroom floor in their home in the Belgravia district.
Also surviving are three children, Liza Minnelli, the singer and actress, and Lorna and Joseph Luft.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete tonight.
Moved by Compulsion
Judy Garland’s career was marked by a compulsive quality that displayed itself even during her first performance at the age of 30 months at the New Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, Minn. Here, the story is told, Frances Gumm- both her parents were vaudeville players- sang “Jingle Bells” on a Christmas program. She responded so favorably to the footlights that her father was forced to remove her after she repeated the song seven times.
The other side of the compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances that were her stage hallmark was a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection. And often they did, screaming, “We love you, Judy- we love you.”
She made more that 35 films, once set a New York vaudeville record with an engagement of 19 weeks and 184 performances, cut numerous records and in recent years made frequent television appearances.
Her other films include “Every Sunday,” “Babes in Arms,” “Little Nelly Kelly,” “For Me and My Gal,” “The Harvey Girls,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Pirate,” “Easter Parade,” “A Star is Born,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and “A Child Is Waiting.”
Miss Garland’s early success was firmly rooted in an extraordinary talent. She was an instinctive actress and comedienne with a sweet singing voice that had a kind of brassy edge to it, which made her something of an anachronism: a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete.
In an earlier era, or in another society, she might have grown up slowly, developing her talent as she disciplined it, and gone on like other, tougher performers to enjoy a long and profitable career.
Discipline Not Required
Instead, Judy became a star at 15 in the relentless world of motion pictures. Movies- which are put together in bits and pieces- do not particularly require rigid discipline, and she therefore never had the chance to acquire the quality that could have sustained her talent over the years.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the career of Judy Garland was that she was able to continue as long as she did- long after her voice had failed and long after her physical reserves had been spent in various illnesses that might have left a less tenacious woman an invalid.
She was the kind of movie personality whose private life defined much of her public response. Whenever she stepped on a stage in recent years, she brought with her, whether she welcomed it or not, all the well-publicized phantoms of her emotional breakdown, her career collapses and comebacks.
The pressures of performing began for her at an early age. When she was 18 and Louis B. Mayer’s favorite at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios making $150,000 a picture, she was already seeing a psychiatrist.
She wrote about the experience years later: “No wonder I was strange. Imagine whipping out of bed, dashing over to the doctor’s office, lying down on a torn leather couch, telling my troubles to an old man who couldn’t hear, who answered with an accent I couldn’t understand, and then dashing to Metro to make movie love to Mickey Rooney.”
It was during this period that she also began taking stimulants and depressants. “They’d give us pep pills,” she wrote. “Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills… after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again…
That’s the way we worked, and that’s the way we got thin. That’s the way we got mixed up. And that’s the way we lost contact.”
Less than ten years after these experiences, at the age of 28, the singer attempted suicide.
The unhappiness that plagued her during the last few years alone included the breakup of her 13-year marriage to Sid Luft, a film director and the third of her five husbands; a subsequent bitter custody fight over their children, Lorna and Joseph, with Mr. Luft accusing her of having attempted suicide on at least 20 occasions; sudden hospitalizations for causes ranging from paralysis to unconsciousness after a fall in a hotel room, and the breaking of her voice during appearances in several cities.
Miss Garland was born in Grand Rapids on June 10, 1922, the youngest of three daughters of Frank Avent and Ethel Marian Gumm. Her parents billed themselves in vaudeville as Jack and Virginia Lee.
After her debut with “Jingle Bells,” she performed with her sisters, Suzanne and Virginia, until, according to theatrical legend, their act was erroneously billed at a Chicago theater as “The Glum Sisters.”
Garland was her mother’s maiden name. When the family arrived in Hollywood in 1936, the 14-year-old singer, who made her feature film debut in “Pigskin Parade,” was billed as Judy Garland.
She made a short subject with another adolescent singer, Deanna Durbin. Louis B. Mayer was impressed, and when he learned that M-G-M had allowed Miss Durbin’s contract to lapse and lost her to a rival studio, he determined to give Miss Garland a major build-up.
She sang “Dear Mr. Gable” in “Broadway Melody of 1938.” Then she made a bigger hit as a gawky adolescent with a crush on Mickey Rooney in “Love Finds Andy Hardy.”
In “Dear Mr. Gable” she confessed her hopeless adolescent love for an idealized movie star in special lyrics added to the ballad “You Made Me Love You.”
At 17, playing the pig-tailed girl in “The Wizard of Oz,” she sang the song that became her trademark, “Over the Rainbow”- a wistful pursuit of happiness that seemed, to her, unattainable.
In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” earned her a special Oscar.
Ray Bolger, the dancer, actor and singer, who played the Scarecrow in “The Wizard,” made it plain yesterday that Miss Garland’s charisma was notable even when they made that film.
Three months after she had signed the contract with M-G-M, Judy’s father died of spinal meningitis. In a newspaper article in 1964, Miss Garland wrote that her father’s death “was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me in my life.” “I can say that now,” she went on, “because I’m more secure than I was then.”
“But the terrible thing about it,” she wrote, “was that I couldn’t cry at my father’s funeral. I’d never been to a funeral. I was ashamed I couldn’t cry, so I feigned it. But I just couldn’t cry for eight days, and then I locked myself in a bathroom and cried for 14 hours.
“I wasn’t close to my father, but I wanted to be all my life. He had a funny sense of humor, and he laughed all the time- good and loud, like I do. He was a gay Irish gentleman and very good-looking. And he wanted to be close to me, too, but we never had much time together.”
Passed Awkward Age
By 1942, Miss Garland had passed the awkward age through a popular series of musical comedies with Mr. Rooney, and was playing love scenes with Gene Kelly in “For Me and My Gal.” She was already one of the top box-office stars at the most celebrated star studio in Hollywood.
Her personal troubles had already begun. She was married to the composer-pianist David Rose in 1941. They were divorced three years later. The next year she was married to her director, the gifted musical specialist, Vincente Minnelli.
Under her husband’s guidance, her career flourished. She sang “The Trolley Song” in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and was praised for her first nonsinging dramatic performance, in “The Clock.”
By 1948, when Miss Garland played with Gene Kelly in “The Pirate,” and Fred Astaire in “Easter Parade,” she was indisputably the leading musical star in films.
The next year she failed to report for work on three successive films and was reported to be suffering from a nervous breakdown. The one film she did finish in this period, “Summer Stock,” attracted much comment because of her increased weight.
It was during the next year, 1950, that she slashed her wrists after M-G-M suspended her contract. She and Mr. Minnelli were divorced the next year.
In 1951 Miss Garland returned to the stage in England, doing a solo singing show with great success. She had another success with a vaudeville engagement at the New York Palace.
Frequently, however, she complained of laryngitis, and critics noted that her voice had lost some of its quality. At the same time they noted that her personality retained its full impact.
In reviewing a later performance at the Palace, Vincent Camby wrote in The New York Times of Aug. 1, 1967, “that the voice- as of last night’s performance, anyway- is now a memory seems almost beside the point.” He concluded that all the performers on the bill were good, “but it is Judy who is great. And let’s not worry about her voice.”
Another writer called a typical Garland appearance “more than a concert… it is a tribal celebration.” The crowds often screamed during her frenzied finales for “More! More!” and began the ritual chants of “We Love You, Judy!”
When she left the stage for the intermission, Miss Garland often staggered to her dressing room, sometimes gasping, panting that she could not possibly finish the show, that she was exhausted or that her throat ached. But back she went.
Miss Garland described her feelings toward the audience for a magazine interviewer in 1961:
“A really great reception makes me feel like I have a great big warm heating pad all over me. People en masse have always been wonderful to me. I truly have a great love for an audience, and I used to want to prove it to them by giving them blood. But I have a funny new thing now, a real determination to make people enjoy the show. I want to give them two hours of just pow.”
The performer made an impressive return to films in 1954 with “A Star Is Born,” with James Mason. But her erratic work habits had caused the production to take months longer than planned, at great expense. A commercial disappointment, the film represented a personal triumph for her.
Her best song in “A Star Is Born,” a torch ballad called “The Man That Got Away,” joined “Over the Rainbow” as a Garland trademark. She was expected to win an Academy Award for her performance, but Grace Kelly won it instead, for “The Country Girl.”
For the next few years Miss Garland was plagued by throat troubles and marital difficulties. She was overweight for a star, consistently ill and more temperamental than ever. Hollywood would not risk employing her.
By the autumn of 1959 she was unable to work at all. She felt sick, frightened and mentally confused. In late November she was admitted to a New York hospital, where doctors found she was suffering from hepatitis.
They said she might have had the illness for as long as three years and that the hepatitis was attributed at least in part to the combined effects of certain tranquilizers and diet pills that previous doctors, treating earlier breakdowns, had prescribed for her.
Miss Garland admitted at the time to having taken a great many drugs over the last 15 years, including sleeping pills, pep pills, diet medicines and nerve tonics.
Then, in 1960, she came back again. During a concert at London’s Palladium, she was more successful than ever. She followed it with a spectacular, sobbing performance at Carnegie Hall.
Miss Garland signed for a weekly television series, with much fanfare, in 1963, but it was a failure. The carefully nurtured emotional impact that made each of her performances a special event was lost in the weekly program.
The Columbia Broadcasting System dropped the show after one season, amid loud complaints from the voluble legion of Garland fans.
Seemingly undaunted, she set out for Australia on another concert tour. Again she was plagued with “laryngitis.”
When Miss Garland left Australia, she spoke wistfully about retiring and devoting herself to her three children, Liza Minnelli, 18, Lorna Luft, 11, and Joseph Luft, 9.
After her divorce from Mr. Luft, Miss Garland admitted to friends that she sometimes felt “like I’m living in a blizzard.”
In 1965 she married Mark Herron, an actor. Two years later, they were divorced.
She went to London at the end of 1968 for a five-week cabaret appearance and announced she would marry Mr. Deans.
Looking slim and relaxed, Miss Garland won a standing ovation at her first London appearance. But then she began appearing late for performances, and one night walked off the stage when she was heckled by the audience, whom she had kept waiting for an hour and 20 minutes.
A few days later it was announced she was ill and would not finish the last week of the run. Unpredictable as ever, Miss Garland appeared on the stage that night, gave a smash performance and announced that she had married Mr. Deans three weeks earlier in a secret church ceremony.
The confusion from which Miss Garland often seemed to suffer in her personal life apparently extended to her performance in “The Wizard of Oz.” Harold Arlen, who composed the score for the film, said she felt most deeply about the song “Over the Rainbow.”
He quoted yesterday from a letter he said he had received from Miss Garland. She wrote:
“As for my feelings toward ‘Over the Rainbow,’ it’s become part of my life. It is so symbolic of all my dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it.”
But recently recalling her role in “The Wizard” in another context, she said, “I was really little tortured Tillie in the whole damn thing.”
The Least Worst Man
by Mark Steyn
Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade
In London fifty years ago today – June 22nd 1969 – a nightclub manager Mickey Deans walked into the bathroom of his rented house in a Belgravia mews and found his wife of three months dead. Judy Garland was just forty-seven. The cause of death was an accidental – or, as the English coroner put it, “incautious” – overdose of barbiturates. Talent requires a certain managerial competence, which is why Frank Sinatra died at eighty-two owing Capitol Records an album and his pal Judy died a little over half that age and leaving an estate worth $40,000. We shall have a couple of Garland-themed pieces this weekend, starting with this much requested obituary for Sid Luft. Miss Garland was equally “incautious” in her choice of husbands, but Sid last longer than than anyone. This piece is anthologized in my book Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade, and on its first appearance in 2005 earned a lot of praise. Jonathan Last, then at The Weekly Standard, commented:
I’ll be surprised if I read a better essay this year than this beautiful, funny, sad, Mark Steyn entry on Sid Luft.
This is a perfect piece of writing. Don’t miss it.
If you did miss it, I hope you’ll enjoy this encore presentation:
Sid Luft was the nearest Judy Garland came to the man that didn’t get away. By the end the nights were bitter, the star had lost her glitter, but he was hanging in there. The longest-lasting of her five husbands, he played Mister Judy Garland from 1952 to 1965—or half her adult life, if one can call it that. Unlike his predecessor, he was not “musical,” in either the artistic or the euphemistic sense; unlike his successor, he was not voraciously gay. A scrappy, gravelly little guy known as One-Punch Luft, he was an all but unique figure: a rare friend of Judy who wasn’t a friend of Dorothy. And as a result, folks can’t figure out what he saw in her. For a long time the received wisdom was that he was a sleazy opportunist who’d hitched himself to her coattails and then milked her as long as he could. Yet insofar as there was a second act to Garland’s career, he was its impresario: A Star Is Born, the great Capitol albums, Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium, the TV specials and weekly variety show that got closer than anything to the real Judy—all these are from the Luft years.
In fact, he was making headlines long before he met his alleged meal ticket: “Boy, 12, Walking Arsenal” reported his hometown paper back in Westchester County. In those days it wasn’t the easiest neighborhood for a Jew, which is why young Sid was packing heat at a tender age. At the local rink an older kid whacked him with a hockey stick and barked, “Hey, Jew, get off the ice!” So he took boxing lessons and lifted weights to the point where at age sixteen he could walk up the stairs on the palms of his hands.
That proved less useful in Hollywood, where even the tough guys condescended to him. Once, at a party at Ira Gershwin’s, he began an observation with the words “Culturally speaking …” Humphrey Bogart cut in: “What right do you have to say ‘culturally speaking’? You weren’t really exposed to much culture as a young man, were you?” Warming to this theme, Bogie said, “I lived on Park Avenue, my father was a doctor, my mother was an artist, so if I say ‘culturally speaking,’ people will take it to be the truth. But you, Sid?”
“That does it,” said Sid. “Let’s take this outside!”
Bogart put on his glasses. “You wouldn’t hit an old man, would you?”
If he never quite fit in in Hollywood, he spent a lifetime not quite fitting in anywhere else, either. Boxer, brawler, boozer, businessman, and good at all but the last of those, Luft had been in California since the thirties, save for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, for which he volunteered after the outbreak of war—that is, well before Pearl Harbor. His timing was rarely that good: a perpetually failing entrepreneur, he got most of his good ideas too soon or too late, and the rest of the time he mooched along on the fringes of glamour. By the end of the forties he’d started and folded a custom car company and been a test pilot, a nondescript talent agent, the producer of a couple of B movies with the elderly child stars Jackie Cooper and Jackie Coogan, and the husband of a Hollywood starlet, Lynn Bari. After seven years the starlet divorced him on grounds of cruelty, because he had a habit of leaving the house at six to buy the evening paper and coming back with it in the wee small hours.
By that point, Judy Garland had gone to Oz and back, been Andy Hardy’s sweetheart and Fred Astaire’s dance partner, married a top bandleader (David Rose) and a top movie director (Vincente Minnelli). Luft wasn’t a top anything. As one gossip columnist put it, “So Sid Luft is what a girl finds over the rainbow?” They were the perfect couple: her career had self-detonated and his never ignited.
As their daughter, Lorna Luft, tells it, they met at Billy Reed’s Little Club in New York, where Judy was dining with a friend, Freddie Finklehoffe. Sid never forgot the moment. She was wearing a gold coat, a black dress, and a pillbox hat, and she had him at “Hello.” “When you met her, she’d say, ‘hello,’ and you’d fall down. The voice would kill you. In a sense, you would drop dead every time she talked to you.” Which is what her date would have preferred. “Get lost,” Finklehoffe told Luft. But Luft didn’t, not for fifteen years.
“I love Judy,” he said when they married. “I want to protect her from the trauma she once knew. I don’t want her to be bewildered or hurt again. I want her to have happiness.” And for a while she did. There were two Judy Garlands: The first was the moonfaced little girl who got swept up by that Kansas twister and did the show right here in the barn for as many years as MGM could strap her breasts down and do whatever else was needed to keep the child star a child. That Garland was gone long before 1950, when Metro finally fired her. The second Judy went straight from Andy Hardy’s barn to premature middle age, and emerged as the most dynamic stage presence since Al Jolson: a ballad singer whose taste in songs was second only to Sinatra’s, a great comedienne, and a rueful raconteuse. That was Luft’s gift to the rest of us.
He got her back into movies, too, producing her comeback picture, A Star Is Born, the story of a rising young star and a fading self-destructive one, with an actress who’d been both all but simultaneously. At the end, with her husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), having taken his one-way walk into the sea, a teary Vicki Lester (Garland) takes the microphone and announces, “Hello, everybody … This is … Mrs Norman Maine.” She got an Oscar nomination for the role, and if she’d won, she’d have been more than happy to start her acceptance speech with “This is Mrs Sidney Luft.” But she was pregnant with her son, Joey, and on Oscar night she was in the maternity ward with a camera crew parked outside. They weren’t needed; and as Grace Kelly went up to accept her award for The Country Girl, Luft looked at the TV technicians dismantling their equipment and told his wife, “Baby, f**k the Academy Awards, you’ve got yours in the incubator.”
The sweet talk didn’t last. Every star is fleeced by hangers-on to one degree or another. If you’re a celebrity prone to erratic behavior and no-shows and “health problems,” it’s worse, because at any one time you’ve got half a dozen contractual disputes and suits and countersuits or something going on. The Lufts had money problems from day one and always needed the next deal to pay off the mess hanging over from the last deal. For the first half of their marriage Sid was Judy’s business manager, and thus got the blame. For the second half he handed it off to others and then found himself on the outside as everyone else bled her dry. The best at it was David Begelman, a peerless Hollywood embezzler who eventually blew his brains out.
Meanwhile, between bust-ups and reconciliations, Judy was finding consolation elsewhere. She’d go round to Sinatra’s pad and hector Frank into having sex with her. He would plan a quiet night sitting in his orange mohair sweater reading Bennett Cerf, only to look down and find Judy trying to pull his pants off. One night her TV producer, Bill Colleran, was at her place watching the show when he noticed her hand on his crotch. “I can’t,” he protested quaintly. “I’m married.” Judy flounced across the room and sighed, “Nobody wants to f**k the legend.”
Sid Luft did. But as the “reconciliations” grew shorter and the gaps between longer, he became a Hollywood synonym for “loser.” Bob Hope worked him into an Oscar act, as merely the latest variation on Hope’s standard emcee’s gag (“Welcome to the Academy Awards—or, as it’s known at my house, Passover”). On Oscar night in 1962 Hope closed the show with “There’ll be a victory celebration at the International Ballroom at the Hilton Hotel. I’ll be there at a special table with Sid Luft and Eddie Fisher.”
Back in 1943, when he was a test pilot for Douglas, Luft took one of the first A-20s on a ferry flight to Daggett, California. On his final approach a fuel-line fitting broke. He got the plane down but, with the left engine on fire, had to crawl out through the flames. He got most of the way before realizing he was caught in the leg straps of his harness. Hanging out the cockpit upside down, he had to crawl back inside the burning plane to free his feet from the straps. In the final years of his marriage to Garland he must have occasionally felt he was reliving that moment on an endless loop: he’d try to exit but would snag on something and have to crawl back in to get burned all over again.
In the end the security guards threw him out of the house. Judy took the kids to London and married a guy named Mark Herron. He recommended a young pianist named Peter Allen to Judy, and Judy in turn pressed Allen on her daughter Liza. Herron carried on a sexual relationship with Allen during their respective marriages to Judy and Liza. One is all for being broad-minded and sophisticated about these things, and Peter Allen was certainly a fetching young Aussie hunk back in those days; but measured only by careless damage to others, Sid Luft can stake a plausible claim to being the least worst man in Judy Garland’s life.
He remained in Hollywood, and though no ship ever quite came in, he stayed afloat. A couple of years ago one of my colleagues at the Telegraph in London, Michael Shelden, asked him how he did it. “Well,” said Sid, “I made money on horses and—oh, yeah—I once helped a guy try to sell Indonesia an air force.”
Easier than managing Judy, I’d bet.
He proved the canniest steward of her legacy. The TV specials and weekly shows are out on DVD, and A Star Is Born has been lavishly restored with the half hour Jack Warner cut out, and watching them you can almost forget the camp grotesquerie that the Garland story has dwindled down to in the hands of Liza and David Gest. Like daughter, like mother; Judy is alleged to have assaulted Sid, but he didn’t sue over it. And so history repeats itself. If Judy’s decline was a tragedy, Liza’s is a farce. Which, when you think about it, is even sadder.
Like many men about town in swingin’ London, Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver!, was reported on his death to have been “romantically linked to Judy Garland,” a lovely formulation that tells you exactly where his real interests lay. But Sid Luft really was romantically linked to Judy, and never quite severed his affections. “She was only five foot tall—just a shrimp of a girl, really—but she had a very sensuous body and, up close, her skin was like porcelain, pure white. I was crazy about her. She had incredibly kissable lips … You don’t fall out of love with somebody like her.”
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