JAN / FEB 2016: BY VERONICA LEIGH
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of somebody else!” – Judy Garland
We all have an idea of who Judy Garland was. For some, she is the girl wearing a blue gingham dress who skipped her way down the Yellow Brick Road in ruby slippers. For others, she is the queen of the musicals in old Hollywood. Still more remember her as the one who brought back vaudeville in the 1950’s and had one-woman shows that became her bread and butter. Alas, it is her problems with substance abuse, multiple marriages and erratic behavior that most remember her by. We tend to forget Judy the person, who wanted nothing more than to love and be loved.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm to vaudevillian parents, nicknamed Baby, she was almost destined from the start to become great. Her parents ran a theater and formed an act starring their two elder daughters. At age two, Baby made her stage debut on a Christmas Eve program singing Jingle Bells. The love affair between young entertainer and audience bloomed. From then on, the three Gumm sisters performed kiddie acts in and around Minnesota. The family left the Midwest for Hollywood, to perhaps try to usher their girls into showbiz. There were parties and radio spots, even name changes from Gumm to Garland, from Baby to Judy, but not until one fateful audition at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did things begin to turn around for Judy.
In Old Hollywood, actors and actresses were under contract to studios. Judy was no different. At the tender age of twelve she signed herself over and became the property of MGM. Stardom didn’t come quickly, in fact, it came rather slow for her. Often cast as the little ugly duckling in whatever movie MGM had in mind for her, she felt out of place. You had to be Shirley Temple or Greta Garbo… there was no in between. To try and alter her appearance, the studio doctors prescribed diet and pep pills to boost her metabolism, which began a battle with drugs that would last a lifetime.
Judy’s chance of a lifetime came when she was offered the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. That was a stepping-stone into the public eye and she became America’s sweetheart. What followed was a successful sixteen year cache of movies, public appearances, promotional acts and radio spots that took its toll on her. Between that and the pills, by her late twenties it was causing her troubles. Not only did it affect her work, it affected her personal life and her relationships. By 1950, she was emotionally and physically unable to work, and her contract with MGM was terminated.
Hollywood considered her unreliable and wouldn’t hire her. In the typical Judy fashion, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made her return to the stage. She had shows at the London Pallidium and Carnegie Hall; she would make and break records. At forty-seven, having worked her whole life, she died of an overdose… however her spirit refused to die.
Somewhere along the line, there is a disconnect between Judy the person and Judy the legend. We have forgotten that she loved to write poetry and published short stories when she was young. She could play the piano but never did so in public because it was her own private pleasure. Judy was one of the first actresses to perform for the USO and visit the military during WWII. Her children were her life; nothing made her happier than to be a mother to Liza, Lorna and Joe. Although initially dissuading her children from the entertainment industry due to her struggles, when Liza chose that as her profession, Judy was her biggest supporter. Her two younger children would perform on occasion with her in her shows. Judy was an avid storyteller and liked nothing better than to laugh and make people laugh.
It’s been said that Judy Garland had lived more in her 47 years than most 100 year olds do. Her indomitable spirit continues to live on to this day, in her children, her films and songs, and in the hearts of her fans. ♥
Veronica Leigh is an aspiring novelist, who lives in Indiana with her family and six furbabies. Her obsessions range from Jane Austen to the Holocaust to Once Upon a Time. She has published two short autobiographical pieces and hopes to see more in print. She also lurks on her blog.