Sunday, March 1, 2020

No Gold at the End of This Rainbow: Judy Garland

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Judy Garland's life is the prototype of the modern celebrity drug addict.  Pushed into child labor by the studio heads, pimped by her mother & most of her intimate partners, robbed of anything resembling a normal childhood & put on a pedestal by her millions of fans, she never had anything approaching unconditional love except from her children.  The drugs get top billing in her tragic biography but were merely a symptom of something far more painful.

Born Frances Gumm in 1922, Judy was one of three sisters all pushed into showbiz at an early age--Vaudeville to be precise.  But only Judy stayed in the business long-term.  Her first performance took place at age 2.  As child star stories often go, Garland had an authoritative stage mom who pimped out her kids in search of fame & money for herself.  Judy's dad, on the other hand, was a passive & loving father who just happened to be a closeted gay man.  The family was run out of town after he was caught making passes at male ushers at the local theater which was not socially acceptable in those days.  At all.

Judy's true downward spiral began immediately after being signed to MGM.  She was frequently called an "ugly duckling" or variations of "fat" and put on amphetamine "pep" pills to shed weight before the age of 10.  The studio heads controlled her diet, feeding her only chicken soup, cigarettes & coffee during her Wizard of Oz years.  Of course speed causes severe insomnia when taken day after day, so she was also put on barbiturates to knock her out at bedtime--a rare treat.  She & fellow child star Mickey Rooney were often given only 4 hours to sleep after days of work & then re-drugged with uppers to start all over again.

Like Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe & countless others, Judy was exposed to sexual abuse & harassment in the industry.  On the set of Oz, she claims Louis B. Mayer touched her inappropriately:

     …Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, Judy herself was to be approached for sex — and approached again and again. “Don’t think they all didn’t try,” she said. Top on the list was Mayer himself. Whenever he complimented her on her voice — she sang from the heart, he said — Mayer would invariably place his hand on her left breast to show just where her heart was. “I often thought I was lucky,” observed Judy, “that I didn’t sing with another part of my anatomy.” That scenario, a compliment followed by a grope, was repeated many times until, grown up at last, Judy put a stop to it. “Mr. Mayer, don’t you ever, ever do that again,” she finally had the courage to say. “I just will not stand for it.” -- (Get Happy:  The Life of Judy Garland)

But it gets worse.  

Another studio exec blatantly demanded sex from the 16-year-old actress as was his style.  When she refused he began loudly threatening to "ruin her" and "break you if it's the last thing I do."  (Source).  And it didn't end there: the adult men who played "Munchkins" in the iconic film also harassed & molested her, making her life on set a living hell.  But things like that tend to not be left on set--they follow you for life, particularly when they happen so young.  

By this time Judy was already waist-deep into the (forced) use of uppers/downers that would remain a staple until her dying day.  As she got older she'd occasionally add alcohol to the mix.  As I can attest, the uptown/downtown combo is particularly damaging to both physical & mental health.  Combined with lack of sleep & poor nutrition, they're a recipe for psychosis.  And Judy teetered on the brink of insanity much of the time.  During a particularly stressful period, she attempted suicide by cutting her throat.  Another time she set her dressing room on fire.  

In her eternal search for love & acceptance, she had a total of 5 failed marriages, the first of which happened at only 19.  Her union with second husband Vincent Minelli produced a daughter, the famous Liza Minelli.  It's said that people often find partners with qualities similar to their own parents, and this appears to be true in Judy's case.  Vincent Minelli was at least bisexual & likely gay.  He was said to be "completely out of the closet" in New York, where he had many liasons with men.  Judy's other two children, Lorna & Joey Luft, were much younger & had a different father--the one with whom Judy had the most tumultuous & deep relationship of all her husbands:  Sid Luft.  

Despite her serious drug problem & grueling schedule, Judy had a genuine love for her kids & they for her.  She took every measure to NOT be like the mother who raised her, though I'm sure her children endured some of the same stresses all kids of drug addicts face...particularly when they lost her so abruptly.  But Mommie Dearest she was not.  

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Looking puffy during her bout with hepatitis

In her final years, Judy's health was noticeably declining.  And not just her mental health.  The 40-something looked closer to 65 due to years of stress & hard drug abuse; she contracted hepatitis & bloated up to 180 lbs. rapidly due to liver failure & nearly died in 1959 before making what doctors called a "miraculous recovery."  Her small frame appeared shrunken & hunched over from her diet of amphetamines most of the time.  She tried to quit drugs many times but was never successful for long.  Makes sense:  when you put a kid on high doses of addictive drugs when their brain is developing, that can make permanent changes that aren't easily undone.  

Garland is seen in her dressing room before performing at New York's Palace Theatre in 1968
In 1968 a year before her death

Her final months on Earth were depicted in the 2019 biopic JUDY starring Renee Zellweger.  It's a harrowing account of speed-induced insomnia, estrangement from her kids, a whirlwind romance with a much younger opportunistic man & several onstage breakdowns.  Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969, of an overdose of Secobarbital (97 mg was found in her blood at autopsy) and liver damage due to a lifetime of drug abuse.  Her liver was 4 times its normal size despite not having an alcohol problem, proving just how damaging prescription pill abuse can be in the long-term.  She was only 47.  

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