My Judy Garland Life

In her new memoir/biography My Judy Garland Life, author Susie Boyt identifies “the ‘gotcha moment’ . . . when Judy gets you and that’s just it for life.” I vividly remember mine. It was Sunday, June 22, 1969. I told my Mom that I’d seen Judy Garland on a repeat of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson the night before, and I’d been bowled over by her wit and talent. Mom said, “You’d better look at the paper.” Of course the headline was something along the lines of: JUDY GARLAND DIES OF A DRUG OVERDOSE IN LONDON AT AGE 47. The only problem is that my vivid memory isn’t as accurate as I thought. The memory is true alright; it’s just that it didn’t happen where I remember it happening. We were living in a house other than the one I remember. We wouldn’t move back to the house of my memory for several months yet. And there begins the difference between my Judy Garland life and Susie Boyt’s.

My Judy Garland Life is a difficult book to categorize: it’s part memoir, part Judy Garland biography, part philosophy, and partly an examination of hero worship. In the same spirit, I offer this piece, part book review and partly an examination of personal memories and emotions stirred up while reading this book. In the opening pages, Susie Boyt explains:

“As a young child it seemed that all anyone ever said to me was: ‘You must learn to toughen up. You mustn’t take everything to heart so. You really ought to control your feelings more or you won’t have a happy life.” This then, I learned was the job of childhood. If you could only gain mastery of your emotional world, why you would be set up for ever! But how to do it? Nobody said. . . . Into this fragile environment, one day, came the voice of Judy Garland. At the cinema for the first time with my mother, I listened, transfixed, to Dorothy singing ‘Over the Rainbow’. I had never heard anything like it in my life. It was immediately clear to me that Garland’s singing bypassed all the indignity of strong feelings that I was grappling with, and instead she capitalized on her struggles. She absolutely led with them, presenting them as the best things life contains.”

I too, way before my “gotcha moment”, had watched Judy sing “Over the Rainbow”. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, The Wizard of Oz was an annual, much-anticipated television event. This, of course, was before the days of VCRs and such. I remember my sisters and I crowding around our old Hoffman black and white television set watching Dorothy and her pals following the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. Mom had told us that the movie went from black and white to color when Dorothy landed in Oz, and we tried to guess just exactly the moment when that must occur in the film. I also remember the much ballyhooed debut of her weekly Sunday night television show on CBS, The Judy Garland Show. We didn’t get to watch that though. Dad had control of the TV set and wanted to watch something else, although what that was I can’t remember. It wasn’t Judy’s nemesis Bonanza on NBC, so it must have been whatever ABC had to offer. There weren’t that many choices way back then.

“Her [Garland’s] central credo, and it always comes to me as her voice begins to swell, is that to be the person with the strongest feelings in life is to be the best. This is an instinct I am quite sure I was born with. A notion that is right inside my bones. Yet I know it is something I am no longer meant to believe.”

Boyt, growing up a chubby little girl in 1970s England (I know this sounds unkind, and I don’t mean it as such), a little girl with feelings beyond those which others found acceptable, found a kindred spirit in Judy Garland. As she grew up, her fascination with Garland, her identification with her life and her image, continued. Early in the book she analyzes Garland’s performance of “Look for the Silver Lining” in the 1946 film Till the Clouds Roll By in some detail. As I was reading that passage it occurred to me that I had that movie on DVD and I could watch the clip. Then it occurred to me that I had every movie that Judy Garland ever made as well. Then my own memories started to intrude into the text.

I realized that somewhere along the way I had suppressed my own admiration of Garland. It never went away, but instead it had become private, something, if not completely hidden, subtly reworked in order to present a more palatable persona for public consumption. Eventually Judy Garland became just one of several movie stars that I admire greatly from the classic age of Hollywood films. Boyt does not have too much to say about the phenomena of Garland’s appeal to gay men, although it might be more accurate now to say gay men “of a certain age”. In the nineteen forties, fifties and early sixties “Friend of Dorothy” was code for gay. As in, “Is he a Friend of Dorothy?” And, yes, I was. But I didn’t want to be identified as such, not that way. It didn’t seem masculine enough. What can I say? It was another time and I was, in some ways, another person. I’d like to think I have a little more self assurance now. Sorry, Judy. And the more I read of Garland’s life, and there are myriad biographies out there, the more I could not go down that particular path of fandom. Finally after reading David Shipman’s 1992 biography, I gave up reading about her. Enough is enough and it had all become too much. There were things I did not want to know. And yet still I continued to track down and see all her films.

My Judy Garland Life is a brave book. Boyt reveals herself to an extent that some readers, and probably some reviewers, may ridicule her obsession with a movie star now gone forty years. I’m sure she took that into consideration. But, she asserts:

“Harboring obsessions is a pursuit whose status is low. Obsessions are the territory of children or the infirm, or so the view of my circle goes. Fanaticism equals embarrassment because of the vulnerability and ardour it betrays. These human facets are quite out of fashion and have been for more than half a century. . . . Well, I don’t care. Obsessions are a modest way of making life bearable when it plainly isn’t, detractors say. How quaint. . . . Wrong! Hero worship, when properly entered into, has a great deal of poetry to it. It inspires, renews, and revives. It encourages introspection, investigation of desire, personal moral inventory and all manner of fruitful examinations.”

At one point in her life, after a terrible personal tragedy, Boyt maintains that the only thing that kept her going was watching a copy of the 1985 PBS documentary Judy Garland: The Concert Years once a day for six months. I now remember many, many nights myself listening to Judy’s recordings of “Why Can’t I?”, “Do It Again”, “The Man That Got Away”, and even the entire album “Judy at Carnegie Hall” during tough times. Who am I to judge? What Boyt says about her understanding of Garland, I turn back onto her: “I accept there are layers and layers of things. Very often the one thing that makes sense of everything is the one thing you don’t know. . . . I shy away from defining her, from defining anybody. The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

But is this a book that Garland fans will want to read? I say yes. Boyt is a fine writer. She is the author of four previously published novels. The second chapter of My Judy Garland Life is titled “World’s Greatest Entertainer”. Whether you tend to agree with that description of Garland (and with a couple of caveats, I do) doesn’t really matter. But in this chapter Boyt precisely describes and explores what it is about Garland that continues to seduce and entrance. Her assessment of Garland’s “Do you think you can make me sing?” speech from the 1963 film I Could Go On Singing, perhaps the classic “Garland scene” in a Garland film, is completely on the money:

“Most fans and biographers believe these scenes are as successful as they are because Judy Garland was speaking directly about her own experiences. Even the director [Ronald Neame] described it as a ‘catharsis for everything that was taking place in her own life’ . . . Am I the only person in the world who has never completely gone along with this? It seems to me it isn’t how art goes. Judy is drawing on her own experience, certainly, but it insults the extraordinary skill of her handling of the material to say she has gone into some semi-automatic self-revealing trance.”

You are not alone Susie. I too believe that such starry-eyed pronouncements denigrate Garland’s very real talent as an actress. People often believe that if something seems real in a performance then it must have been channeled from some inner core of the performer’s being. The application of talent, skill, and concentration, which are actually required to get the job done, is not nearly as mysterious and magical. Performances are often confused with the role being played. I think this is true of Garland’s musical performances as well. Boyt quotes Liza Minnelli saying this about her mother’s concert performances:

“She understood that her vulnerability in performance was something that we all recognize in ourselves. She knew how to portray somebody in flux, somebody in pain, very well. She understood it enough to be able to portray it. She created the legend. She did it, and she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Of course, as any Garland fan knows, there’s the bad stuff too: the off-stage temperament, the neediness, and the self-destructive behavior. In a chapter titled “The Disillusionment Stage” Boyt faces that and deals with it as well. Ten pages of the chapter are devoted to a taped interview Boyt did with Mayo Simon, the screenwriter for Garland’s last film I Could Go On Singing. “I did not ask Mayo Simon questions. This is simply an account of his Judy Garland life.” He was there during those tumultuous months in England in 1962. It was not a pretty picture at all. Yet even he, who after the experience forbade his family to ever mention the words Judy or Garland in their household again, ends his nightmarish story with this:

“But on the set, in front of the camera, she was always excellent. The out-takes were excellent, even when there’s a little bit of her coming into a room she’s coming in to a room but there’s a liveliness and a presence about her that is terrific. She never schlepped through a scene: she always knew her stuff. The real Judy was the one who was performing. I never saw her do a bad thing when she was performing.”

Boyt chronicles the life and times of Judy Garland, but not in a linear, chronological way. That’s not all she’s doing however; she’s also interpreting the myth and legend of Judy Garland, personally through her own life and through the lives of other fans. She’s pondering as well the question: does hero worship serve any sort of purpose in one’s life? If you are looking for a standard biography of Garland there are lots to choose from. Gerald Frank’s 1975 biography Judy is probably the standard reference text. The original hardcover book is 654 pages long. Frank had access to many people involved personally and professionally with Garland, many now gone. But if you already know the story, Susie Boyt’s book gives the Garland legend a new spin. She talks with lots of folks about their connection to Garland, and interviews Liza and Lorna, talks briefly to Joey and sits down with Mickey Rooney and his wife Jan. The book is well researched with twenty-five pages of notes, bibliographies, credits and acknowledgements at the end. There are dozens of photos, many of which I don’t remember seeing before.

I never had the opportunity to see Judy Garland perform live on stage even though we shared the planet for a number of years. My only opportunity would have been on July 17, 1955 when Judy played a concert date in my home town of Seattle. It’s the only time both Judy and I were in the same place at the same time. The only trouble was that I was only three years old at the time and had no transportation. I did have the opportunity once to walk around the old MGM, now Sony, studio and fantasize about days long gone by when the lot would have been bustling with movie productions, some of them starring Judy Garland. At the Smithsonian I’ve seen the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Judy’s red dress that she wore to the Christmas dance in Meet me in St. Louis. I’ve been to CBS Television City in Hollywood although five years after The Judy Garland Show taped its last episode there. I’ve seen Liza perform in concert twice. And I’ve been to the Judy Garland Birthplace Museum in Grand Rapids Minnesota. And I was there three weeks and a day before Susie Boyt was.

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