“Truth is far stranger than fiction but not as popular.”
The source of that marvelous quote has never been identified but he or she could have easily been talking about the life and death of Judy Garland.
On June 22nd, 1969 Miss Garland departed this mortal coil. Of course, Judy Garland would probably roll her eyes at such a melodramatic turn of phrase. After all she did accomplish in 47 years what most of us will not accomplish in 80 or 90 years. Yet, her untimely death has left a void and still brings a tear to the eye of so many of us who love her and admire her remarkable body of work.
Recently Miss Garland’s remains were disinterred by her family from Ferncliff Mausoleum in Upstate New York and reinterred into a new niche at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. In a new section of the cemetery called the Judy Garland Pavilion.
One can only imagine La Garland getting word of the news behind the pearly gates hearing the news and sitting on a cloud somewhere, quick witted as ever turning to St. Peter and quipping:
“Well, darling I suppose it really was time for another come back!”
I can honestly say that I was unsettled at the news initially. Such an act seemed so morbid now. I had personally visited Judy’s grave from time to time whenever I was living in New York or on any visits back from the West Coast. There were always flowers and cards, almost all with the same inscriptions, “Thank you”, “I Love You”. It didn’t quite make much sense to me. But then again, Judy dying at the tender age of 47 is something I have never been able to wrap my head around.
However, it has always been abundantly clear how much Judy loved and adored her three children and how much they love her so very much and now she will be closer to them, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Of course, there is so much baggage that goes along with such an exhumation. People (the “press” in particular) have become fixated on her death. There is an abundance of trashy tabloid “facts”, and subsequently myths that abound. Her death and her addiction to prescription medication become the focal point and definition of who and what she was. Rather than what really counts. That is her inimitable talent, her delicious wit and the way she lived.
It is ironic to me that this week, the anniversary of Judy’s passing, that another icon who left us way too soon, Carrie Fisher has also become the same target of sensationalistic media bullshit. This following the release of Fisher’s autopsy report. Rather than focusing on the incredible body of work that Miss Fisher left behind to the world. Carrie was to Princess Leia what Judy was to Dorothy Gale but the hell with Star Wars. I am talking about her brilliant ability as a writer and her indomitable wit. The press would rather fixate on Carrie’s “tragic end” as they almost always do with Judy.
Aside from Judy’s exhumation and being relocated to Southern California she was brought further into the public consciousness once more this year with the posthumous release of her third husband, Sid Luft’s memoirs Judy and I. While the details are often harrowing, Sid Luft does not overlook Judy’s incredible sense of humor, her intelligence or her warmth. The writings are those of man who truly loved a woman. Sid, like Judy, had his demons, but I think it is clear to say that each was the great love of the other’s life.
If nothing else, Sid Luft deserves all the praise there is for being the only author who finally had the balls to publish the truth about the events of the night of Judy’s death. Pivotal details that had been glossed over for decades. In all fairness, undoubtedly because those other authors probably feared litigation from Judy’s fifth husband (and I use that term loosely), Mickey Deans.
Deans was always looking a way to make a buck off Judy, even selling her personal effects out the trunk of his car a week after her death or striking a book deal just a few hours after her funeral. It was Deans who orchestrated Garland’s wake and funeral and why the family (her children specifically) had very little if nothing to say about it at the time. With Deans gone it now finally gave the Garland children the ability to bring her back to them. I might add, to a resting place befitting true show business royalty.
On a lighter note, as a Judy Garland Tribute Artist. I am always astounded and quite happily so, at how audiences are delighted and touched by the woman who was unhesitatingly billed and hailed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer!”
One June 10th, what would have been Judy’s 95th birthday, I paid tribute to her on stage with her co-star in MGM’S Meet Me in St. Louis, Academy Award winner Margaret O’Brien.
Afterwards, we spent a lovely evening with Joan Beck Coulson, author of Always for Judy: Witness to the Joy and Genius of Judy Garland, and a very dear lady by the name of Eleanor Lyon. Miss Lyon was one of Judy’s “Bench Wenches”. These were a devoted group of fans (Eleanor was a teenager at the time) who never missed a taping of the 1963/1964 CBS television series, The Judy Garland Show and who got to witness just what a professional and lovely human being the star was. Eleanor told me, unequivocally, that there was never any evidence of the tabloid image that the press had created…and she should know, she was there!
Further, Miss Coulson was privileged enough to be an extra in, I Could Go On Singing, to work at CBS at the time of her series and got to sit on Judy’s recording sessions in London. You can imagine Joan’s reaction when entering the recording studio and being led down a corridor by Judy herself, who turned to her and said,
“I don’t know why you want to listen to this. It’s going to be so boring!”
We were admiring a charcoal sketch that had been presented to me as a gift at dinner from a friend of Miss O’ Brien’s. It depicts Judy from her 1954 film A Star is Born and the artist had captured Judy’s eyes in the most uncanny and haunting way.
It sparked a memory of something that Joan observed when she was in Judy’s company.
“Judy looked right at you when she spoke to you or you spoke to her and it was genuine and it was sincere. Those eyes went right through you. She meant it!” Joan imparted to me. “She was truly interested in what you had to say!”
Joan went on to say, as she did in her book,
“Judy will be a part of our culture for 100, 200, and even 500 years in the future! She is perhaps as important now as when she was alive because of her artistry. Young people hear her voice or see a glimpse of her on television, and they are captured; they want to learn more about her, and so it continues.”
Within my own work as a Judy Garland Tribute Artist I work tirelessly to break the myth. It is not just about entertaining the audiences but educating them as well. Sans the garish drag caricature of a pill popping, booze swilling, drugged up, hot mess of a diva on the decline. Yes, I deal with Judy’s demons. It would be impossible not to within a theatrical cabaret evening but NEVER with her as the butt of a callous joke.
Instead I handle it sympathetically and compassionately and most importantly, through her own words. I always have to remember that Judy Garland had the ability to break your heart one moment, and just as easily shift gears, and make your heart strings “zing, zing, zing” the next. And that’s what I do with my audiences, to immediately bring them back to a “forget your troubles, come on get happy” Judy high. Just as they would have been had they really been sitting at one of her concerts, even if she were having a bad night.
Some who portray (or who have portrayed) Miss Garland (both male and female) seem to find perverse pleasure in getting a laugh out of her pain. Some even fancy themselves a reincarnation of Miss Show business. They should focus less on making fun of Judy’s addiction to prescription medication and perhaps consider taking a pill themselves!
In the final analysis, even for those of us who portray Judy reverently or lovingly, it does not matter how well any of us might “embody” the legend or her essence on stage. No matter how perfectly coiffed our brown lacquered bouffant is, or how much our sequin swing coats sparkle, or how masterfully we whip a microphone chord over our shoulder, or how meticulously we DON’T pronounce our consonants, and/or have a belting vibrato that could set off a fire alarm. Well, to paraphrase Ann Baxter in All About Eve,
“We’re just the carbon copy you watch when you can’t find the original!”
There was and always will be one Judy! Perhaps Tennessee Williams put it best, in an interview with author and journalist, James Grissom:
“I do not subscribe to the legend of Judy Garland because I lived the reality of Judy Garland. Those who wish to mythologize her and cast her as an icon of sadness are entitled to their odd form of worship.” He continues: “Let’s not forget her gifts and the giving of them. Let’s not sacrifice yet another thing in her name to assuage some victimization via art. We have the work. Watch it, study it, love it, use it, be changed by it”.
Now fans and admirers who do study, love, use and are changed by Judy’s work can go and pay their respects to her at her new final resting place at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Of course, she’s not really there. That soul could not be contained in a crypt any more than it could be contained in her 4’11” body when she was physically alive.
Her soul is in her films, in her recordings. Every time you watch her “put on a show in the barn” with Mickey Rooney, every time she says, “I’ll Sing ’em all and we’ll stay all night!” on Judy at Carnegie Hall and of course, every time danced she down the yellow brick road with Toto in the land “where troubles melt like lemon drops”.
Judy gave so much of herself and perhaps that is why she left us all too soon. She gave from the deepest recesses of her soul.
I feel the very essence of Judy Garland’s soul, and the love of her audiences and her children, could be best be summed up within the lyrics of a song. A song that was written for her shortly before she died. It was composed by John Meyer. With whom she shared a brief romance. She would sing them in her last public television appearance. Mr. Meyer could not have known at the time, December 17, 1968 just how prophetic these lyrics would become on June 22, 1969.
“When Life is through, when all my days are done.
By every star above it’s you I love, the only one.
Then let them say, this much was true.
It was all for you. All for You!”