Who was Judy Garland? A magic, tragic enigma; One of the most enchanting -- and documented -- figures of American entertainment history, her perversity lives on.


June 29 marked the 30th anniversary of Judy Garland's death. What made the day a signal one was less its lack of fuss than the realization that, in the three decades she's been gone, show business still has not produced anyone to equal her. One of the major performers spawned in the between-the-world-wars glory years of American popular entertainment, she was at her best a singer of rare gifts, an actress of depth and potential; above all she was a presence, whose magnetism often changed the lives of those who encountered her.

And not, alas, merely onstage. Intense, mercurial, self-absorbed, emotionally voracious, she inspired -- still inspires -- near-fanatical devotion in some, unforgiving opprobrium in others. "People either love Judy Garland or can't stand her," was the late Roy Hemming's assessment. Call it fatal fascination, a magical spell, or just naked iconolatry, but it is beyond argument that no combination of time, distance, sociology, death, generational change, musical fashion, even the formidable talents of her two daughters, can diminish Judy Garland as an immediate, fascinating and infinitely painful figure.

Taken by itself, an ability to polarize opinion is common among popular entertainers. Stars from Cohan to Jolson, Jeanette MacDonald to Streisand, have attracted their legions of votaries and vilifiers. Even in that context, Judy Garland stands alone in the intensity of devotion she still arouses in those who watch her old television shows, hear her records, behold her in such films as "The Harvey Girls," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and the nonpareil, ground-breaking "Wizard of Oz." As Hemming says, there "is no denying the uniquely heart-melting and musically vibrant quality of her best work," and of the voice itself, described so accurately by the late Henry Pleasants:

"She had the most utterly natural vocal production of any singer I have ever heard ... an open-throated, almost birdlike vocal production, clear, pure, resonant, innocent ... a sound innocent of anything that smacked of artful management."

And this, Pleasants noted in his landmark study, "The Great American Popular Singers" (Gollancz, 1974), despite serious limitations of vocal range and an inability to cover technical weaknesses. From all indication, she simply opened her mouth and sang, and the sound at its best (some have likened it to a bow being drawn across the strings of a violin or viola, vibrato and all) could warm any heart, including many hardened by offstage behavior variously described as fearful, insecure, erratic, selfish, floundering, sadistic, theatrical, self-deceiving, childish, petulant, posturing, apathetic, megalomaniacal, capricious and recklessly destructive.

Some have been harder on her than others: There are more than a few show business veterans who will not suffer to speak her name, so lasting was their sense of umbrage at her manipulation, deceptions and seemingly endless self-dramatization.

Yet the very magnitude of Garland's talent seems to exhort posterity to cut her a generous amount of slack -- which can make the going especially tough for an aspiring biographer. It means working on two levels, telling the frequently dispiriting story -- the vaudeville childhood, the pampered years as an MGM "property," the desperate, failed romances, escalating dependence on pills of myriad shapes and sizes, gratuitously cruel behavior -- but also addressing the art, the mystique, head-on.

Some who knew her, and a few who didn't, have tried, producing books that were, with few exceptions, flawed, incomplete, blinkered. Fellow singer Mel Torme, whose responses to "Sadie," as he called her, ranged from "impatience and compassion, to disgust, admiration, and honest-to-God love," wisely restricted his focus in "The Other Side of the Rainbow" (Oxford University Press, 1991) to his nine months working on her 1963-64 television show. The result is a well-nuanced, concise, miniature portrait of its subject.

The latest entry in the field is "Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland" (Random House, 510 pages, $29.95) by Gerald Clarke, author of a best-selling 1988 biography of Truman Capote. A diligent researcher and polished craftsman, Clarke spent nearly a decade interviewing, reading, listening and, above all, thinking hard about Judy Garland. The result is perhaps the most comprehensive Garland study we have, unsparing yet humane in its depiction both of her heart-stopping performances and the truly monstrous behavior that so often repelled even close friends and admirers.

Obviously determined to be fair, Clarke nevertheless allows preferences and aversions to color some characterizations: He all but demonizes the singer's mother, Ethel Gumm, as the putative architect of her daughter's self-destruction, and much evidence, it must be said, supports him. By contrast, it's refreshing to see the oft-vilified Sid Luft, Garland's third husband and father of singer Lorna Luft, presented in a generally sympathetic light.

Less charitable is the writer's take on Arthur Freed, the lyricist-producer and architect of the "Golden Age" of MGM musicals: "Mispronouncing words, flashing filthy fingernails and spraying the dinner table with food as he talked, he was almost obstinately sloppy and uncouth ... more like the sweat-stained song-plugger he once had been than the high-paid producer he had become."

One disappointment of "Get Happy" lies in Clarke's failure to address Garland's lasting allure for gays, who constitute perhaps her most durable and outspokenly tenacious following. He can only suggest rather lamely that "the homosexuals of that closeted era identified with Judy because they, too, were the objects of demeaning jokes and casual contempt ... and they derived comfort and inspiration from her ability to survive similar assaults."

So glib a reading hardly begins to explain the extremes of Garland's beatification by homosexuals. A complex, multilayered issue, it's somehow allied to theatricality, artifice, posturing, glamour, the phenomenon of femininity at once venerated and distorted, exaggerated and caricatured.

Garland, especially late Garland, remains both diva and reigning divinity in a pantheon of camp icons that also includes figures as disparate as the end-of-career Marlene Dietrich, Hildegarde and Bette Davis. Readers, appetite whetted, want to know more.

Toward the end of her career, Clarke suggests, Judy Garland may have been suffering from identifiable, and certifiable, mental illness. He describes some chilling scenes, far beyond anything that can be explained as temperamental: Filming in England, for example, she explodes in uncontrolled fury at the absence of a private bathroom in her star trailer -- and takes her revenge by using a wastebasket as a toilet.

A housemaid, fed up, announces she's quitting Garland's employ; the singer, shrieking oaths, hurls a turkey leg at her, hounds her outside, picks up a rock and smashes the windshield of the hapless woman's car. There are clumsy, stagy suicide attempts, violent public outbursts, gratuitous insults, petty and repellent reactions to slights real and (most often) imagined. "The behavior of someone unhinged," director George Cukor called it during the filming of "A Star Is Born," with "an arrogance and a ruthless selfishness that evetually alienates one's sympathy."

Clarke has obviously had to prune and condense his text to its current 510-page length. That implies much left out; but the essence, for good and ill, remains. Counterbalancing even the worst excesses, there is plenty of Garland at her performing peak: the MGM movies, the 1951 comeback run at the Palace, the singing on the "Star Is Born" soundtrack, the triumphant Carnegie Hall concert of 1961 -- all here, described with clarity, affection and welcome avoidance of hyperbole.

It's unlikely that any biographer, however dedicated and skilled, will ever be able to fully explain Judy Garland. Too much of what she was lies buried in a shadowed necropolis called Oz. But Gerald Clarke has at least provided a Baedecker, a Wegweiser, to help us avoid getting lost on the turns and twists of the yellow brick road, and for that he is to be thanked.

Richard M. Sudhalter is a professional trumpeter and cultural historian. He is currently at work on a biography of composer Hoagy Carmichael.

Pub Date: 04/02/00

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad