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Garland, Judy 1922–1969

Garland, Judy

Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was a child movie star who later gained fame as an adult actress and singer. She died of a drug overdose at the age of forty-seven in London, England, on June 22, 1969, and is buried in New York. She had a devoted fan base and was, at times, the most popular entertainer in the United States. Whereas critics have argued over whether she had great technical skill as a singer, she is recognized as one of the premiere musical stylists of the twentieth century, with a voice, emotional quality, and musical phrasing that are unique. Her life was quite troubled, both professionally and romantically, in contrast to her usually polished performances. Her ability to persevere professionally while dealing with a turbulent life in a public manner made her seem fallible and familiar. This contrasts with other stars who cultivated an image of perfection, making them admirable and loved but not accessible in the same way that Garland was.

Garland was born into a vaudeville family, and performed on stage as a child before the family moved to California for possible film work. In 1935 she signed with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and was asked to sing the popular song "You Made Me Love You" to Clark Gable (1901–1960) at a birthday event. The effect of the pubescent Garland singing a love song to one of Hollywood's biggest male stars was a hit, and it was later filmed (with Garland singing to a photograph) for 1937's Broadway Melody of 1938. She was very popular but was in competition with Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), a singer of the same age also under contract with MGM. Whereas Durbin had a classically trained soprano voice, Garland sang in a more casual, popular style and had a lower range. Durbin was also more traditionally beautiful, whereas Garland tended towards plumpness and was considered cute rather than beautiful. Her appeal would often be based upon the undeniable sexiness of her nontraditional voice and appearance. The way that she embodied the appeal of the nonnormative is often cited as the basis for her devoted homosexual fan base.

In 1937 and 1938 Garland had minor roles in many films, and also starred in Love Finds Andy Hardy and Babes in Arms with Mickey Rooney (b. 1920). Rooney was an established star and the pairing of the two made for some of the most memorable and successful films of the era. Although the two were sometimes cast as a romantic couple, the Andy Hardy series saw Garland as his best friend, leaving Rooney to chase after starlets like Lana Turner (1920–1995). Garland would rise to romantic female lead roles, but always had a girl-next-door appeal instead of the raw sexuality of some of her colleagues.

Garland's first major hit was 1939's The Wizard of Oz, in which she played Dorothy Gale and sang "Over the Rainbow," one of the most popular Hollywood songs of all time. It was the first time that she had carried a film on her own, and the studio originally tried to get Shirley Temple (b. 1928) for the role out of concern that Garland was not up to the task. Garland performed expertly and the film was a huge success, even earning Garland her only Academy Award, a miniature statuette for Outstanding Performance by a Juvenile (given the year before to Durbin). While this was a major professional success for Garland, this was also the period that saw Garland's personal life in decline. Her father had died in 1935 leaving her to be raised by an overbearing mother and a movie studio. To keep Garland at peak performance ability, she was prescribed a series of amphetamines, as well as depressants to allow her to counter their effects. This combination, along with weight control drugs, led to her lifelong struggle with drug addiction.

At the age of nineteen, Garland married songwriter David Rose, twelve years her senior. Many biographers assert that she did love Rose but was most interested in minimizing her mother's influence in her life. The studio was furious that she had married, afraid she would tarnish her virginal image. Records indicate that she may have had an abortion during this short marriage at the insistence of her mother and the film studio. Rose and Garland divorced in 1945, the year she married director Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986). The two met while working on the 1944 musical film Meet Me in St. Louis, in which Garland sang "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The film was a huge success and marked Garland's move into roles suited to her actual age rather than her usual child roles. Garland and Minnelli were married until 1951 and had one daughter, singer and actress Liza Minnelli, in 1946. Vincente Minnelli was a known bisexual and the first of Garland's many relationships with bisexual or homosexual men.

Garland's drug use took a toll on her work and her health, leading to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt in 1947. She was eventually fired from MGM in 1950 during the filming of Annie Get Your Gun and replaced by actress Betty Hutton (1921–2007). In 1952 Garland married Sid Luft (1959–2005), who became her manager and engineered her return to fame. He arranged for her to perform at the legendary vaudeville venue Palace Theater in New York, betting that she could transfer her on-screen likeability into live performance. She set a box office record, playing for nineteen sold-out weeks. Based on this success Luft convinced Warner Brothers to finance her 1954 film A Star Is Born, a popular and critical success that brought Garland an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Disputes with the studio over editing and distribution of the film precluded any further film deals until 1961, and Garland made only a few films between then and her death. Garland and Luft had two children, performer Lorna Luft (b. 1952) and photographer Joey Luft (b. 1955).

Garland continued to perform in concert and in television specials throughout the 1950s and 1960s, these appearances producing the bulk of her income. Her finances were badly mishandled by Luft, and when they separated in 1964, he left her almost penniless. Her greatest success during this period of her life was The Judy Garland Show, a weekly program in 1963–1964 that paired Garland with other singers of the day, including Lena Horne (b. 1917), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Dean Martin (1917–1995), Ethel Merman (1908–1984), and a very young Barbra Streisand (b. 1942). The show was a popular and critical success but was canceled after only one season. The most famous moment from the series was her rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in tribute to her friend, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), following his assassination in November of 1963. The final years of her life were spent in concert tours, including an engagement at the London Palladium with her teenage daughter Liza, and as a personality on talk shows hosted by other stars. Her health was in serious decline, as were her finances, and she made a series of poor relationship choices in an effort to find stability. From 1965–1966 she was married to Mark Herron (1928–1996), although her divorce from Luft was not yet final, and she married Mickey Deans (1934–2003) in 1969, just three months before her death. Herron was a homosexual and some sources have claimed the same of Deans.

When Garland died in June 1969, there was an immediate reaction from her fans, including thousands of people who clogged the streets of New York during her funeral as they tried to catch a glimpse of the service. More than 22,000 people attended her funeral, and it is estimated that half were gay men. Her popularity with homosexual men had been noted publicly as early as the 1950s, and a large part of the audiences at her concerts were gay men. The specific reason for her emergence as a gay icon is not known, but it was clear even during her life that her life and career were especially valued among the homosexual community. The date of her funeral, June 27, 1969, was the day before the beginning of the Stonewall Riots, usually thought of as the start of the gay rights movement. Although no specific connection between the two events is known, legend holds that drag queens at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, rebelled against the usual police raids that day out of grief over Garland's death. Garland's connection with drag queens was also unusually close; impersonation of Garland is a standard feature of many drag performances. In homage to her Wizard of Oz character, gay men are sometimes referred to as friends of Dorothy.


Braun, Eric. 2002. Frightening the Horses: The Rise and Rise of Gay Cinema. Richmond, UK: Reynolds & Hearn.

Coleman, Emily R. 1990. The Complete Judy Garland: The Ultimate Guide to Her Career in Films, Records, Concerts, Radio, and Television, 1935–1969. New York: Harper & Row.

Frank, Gerold. 1975. Judy. New York: HarperCollins.

Fricke, John. 1992. Judy Garland: World's Greatest Entertainer. New York: Henry Holt.

Luft, Lorna. 1998. Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Piro, Rita E. 2001. Judy Garland: The Golden Years. New York: Great Feats Press.

Sanders, Coyne Steven. 1990. Rainbow's End: The Judy Garland Show. New York: William Morrow.

Shipman, David. 1992. Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend. New York: Hyperion.

                                        Brian D. Holcomb

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