The tragic downfall of Judy Garland
Judy Garland revived fifty years after her death
Judy Garland is stepping back into the spotlight — in spirit. Fifty years after her death, her story is returning to the silver screen in the recent biopic, Judy. Portrayed by actress Renée Zellweger, the movie does Garland justice by exhibiting her personal and professional struggles in her later years.
Garland was a woman that endured professional failures, heartache, long-term substance abuse, and the harsh reality of the spotlight. Although the film only encapsulates a piece of Garland’s past, it accurately depicts how her life wasn’t all bluebirds and rainbows.
Where do bluebirds fly?
Similar to child actors Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, or Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland is a household name. Garland was forever immortalized as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and has rightly earned the moniker “The Little Girl with the Big Voice.”
An icon on the screen and on the stage, Garland was also a role model for the LGBTQ+ community. Who would have ever imagined that a person would have such an influence in the lives of the many, even 50 years after her death? Unfortunately, not everything was rainbows and bluebirds for Garland. There was also a lifetime worth of heartache.
Failed stars wanted to be seen
Unfortunately, most people are familiar with how Garland met her end. With just a handful of sleeping pills, the world lost a powerful individual with a voice to match. Typically, stars like Garland are viewed through the lens of tabloids or gossip.
With the release of Judy, viewers can’t help but wonder what life was really like for the child star. Before the spotlight, the powerful lure of the stage, and her eventual downfall, she was known simply as Frances “Baby” Gumm. She was also a rather petite girl with big dreams from Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
A child that was almost never born
There’s a cliche that all actors or actresses have some kind of “backdoor access” into the entertainment industry. Whether it was coming from a family of entertainers, or knowing someone in the industry (nepotism at its finest), there’s always a way to get ahead in Hollywood.
Garland was no exception. Her parents, Ethel and Frank Gumm, were entertainers charmed by the silent film and Vaudeville era. When they met, it was evident that they wanted to somehow leave their mark on the silver screen. Instead, they became theater owners and parents to three daughters. You would think that welcoming a soon-to-be child celebrity was easy, but the sad truth was, Judy Garland was almost never born.
Frank asked for medical advice
The Gumm family did not want a third child, as it was financially difficult to do so at the time. So when the couple discovered they were pregnant, Frank Gumm decided to meet with a family friend, a second-year medical student by the name of Marc Rabwin, to help with their delicate situation.
On E! True Hollywood Story: The Last Days of Judy Garland, Marcella Rabwin, Marc Rabwin’s wife, recounted the story: “Frank said, ‘Ethel’s pregnant’ and he [Frank] says, ‘we can’t afford another baby. I don’t want another child. It’s all I could do to feed the other two I have.’” Marc Rabwin, of course, said something that would change the couple’s life forever.
The child would remain
Rabwin gave his friend some advice (communicated through his wife): “Look, Frank, are you asking me to arrange an abortion for Ethel?” and Frank said, “yes I am.” Marc says, “Don’t be a fool. I will not put her on the kitchen table with a rusty knife.”
That was the way “procedures” were conducted in that day. After being denied an abortion, Frank returned to his wife. Ethel took extreme measures to stop her pregnancy by driving over bumpy roads, hoping to induce a miscarriage, but the attempt failed.
Her name was Frances Ethel Gumm
It’s frightening to believe that Ethel would want to terminate her pregnancy. But, unlike the early days of film, not everything was in black and white. What were their options in 1922? There weren’t many. Fate had fortunately intervened, and the couple gave birth to their final Gumm child, whom they would name after themselves, Frances Ethel Gumm.
Despite Frank and Ethel’s circumstances, they fell in love with their youngest daughter and gave her the nickname “Baby.” As she took her first gulp of air in the world, her cries would mature into a otherworldly voice. And her parents saw her potential as she grew.
Judy was a star by two
Garland’s parents didn’t wait long to get their daughter on stage. One night, the Gumm family was performing on-stage during an amateur night at the theater. Between acts, Garland’s grandmother encouraged her to go on stage. The two-year-old stood in front of a small audience and sang “Jingle Bells.”
Garland recalled the event during her personal recording sessions: “I was too little when I went into Vaudeville. I was two years old and I just knew ‘Jingle Bells’ … I just sang ‘Jingle Bells’ and nobody told me to stop. So, nobody ever asked me.” At that moment, Garland’s talents were showcased for all to see.
Her mom was hungry for fame and glory
Garland’s mother wanted to make a name for her daughters, and decided to bill them as a Vaudeville act called the “Gumm Sisters.” The trio would “tour” the country until another opportunity arose, but not without scandal. Before The Gumm Sisters could tour, their father was caught up in a situation that drove the Gumm family out of Grand Rapids.
Although it’s unclear whether Frank was gay or bisexual, it has been speculated that Frank was attracted to men. And when word got out that Frank had a tryst with a young boy — reported to be in his late teens — there was no way to repair the damage. The Gumm family packed their bags and left Minnesota and toward the high desert of Lancaster, California.
Ethel Gumm put her daughters on tour
Garland would later recount how her life in Grand Rapids was one of the happiest times in her life. When the Gumm family moved to California, however, “Tinsel Town” was just two hours shy from the desert.
The Gumm’s opened another theater, and Ethel decided to sign her daughters up for singing and acting lessons. Long hours of hard work and labor eventually landed them a small movie production known as The Big Revue. When the girls were on-stage, their mother saw something she could never earn for herself — fame.
Judy did not have fond memories of her mother
In a 1967 Barbara Walters interview, Garland spoke about her rise to fame, which started with her mother Ethel. Although Garland’s celebrity was pushed by her overly ambitious stage mom, there was a tinge of resentment toward the person who pushed her so hard. Garland said in the interview, “My mother was truly a stage mother.
A mean one. She was very jealous because she had absolutely no talent.” Was Garland’s description justified? It’s hard to imagine a mother being so cruel as to warrant such a statement from her own child. It was her mother who was responsible for both Garland’s rise and fall.
She was given ‘pep’ pills at age nine
At the age of nine or 10, Garland and her sisters were appearing before a motion picture audience. Their mother then began to rely on pharmaceutical substances to keep the girls wired. Ethel was said to give the girls “pep pills,” to keep them energized during exhausting workdays.
When the girls were too wired to sleep, they were given barbiturates to knock them out, then, another amphetamine to wake them up in the morning. It was like clockwork. This was the beginning of Garland’s dependency on drugs. But that was the least of Garland’s problems.
Judy had no choice but to meet studio demands
While it’s understandable for adults to battle addiction, it’s almost unthinkable for a pre-teen child. At that time, the regulations or restrictions when it came to pharmaceutical substances were rather lax. If it wasn’t broken, why fix it? For Garland, pills were both the crutch and sickle throughout her life.
What was worse, her dependency on pills was not only to keep her spirits up (or down) but was also for weight loss. While one may not believe so now, Garland was far from perfect in Hollywood’s eye. To a multi-million dollar business (at the time), celebrities were not safe from the pursuit of perfection.
Louis B. Mayer offered a contract after her audition
Garland and her sisters retired from the Vaudeville scene and Ethel decided to use her youngest daughter to insert her foot across the thresholds of Hollywood. When Garland auditioned for MGM studios in 1935, the agent and secretary watching her audition were floored by her performance.
She was no more than 13 years old when she gave a jaw-dropping signing performance. Instead of a voice belonging to a child, the voice of a woman erupted. She amazed the studio secretary so much, that studio executive, Louis B. Mayer, was called on set. What he did for Garland would alter her life for the better. Or would it?
She gave Mayer seven years and he gave her $100 a week
Dragged to the set, Garland was then asked to audition for Mayer. When she sang again, he was shocked. Rumor has it that Mayer offered her a contract on the spot. It was said she was the only actress to have been offered a deal in such a manner.
The contract would last for seven years, with a starting salary of $100 a week — which today would be approximately $1,800. Garland had made it to the big leagues, but MGM struggled to put her in a major motion picture. With a major lack of imagination and the vanity of Hollywood, Garland was flawed in their eyes.
She was too young to play a love interest
Since she was only 13 years old, MGM had a hard time categorizing Garland. She was too young to play a love interest and too old to play a child. The word “teenager” was not introduced until the 1950s, so Garland was in an awkward position. On top of that, the studio pointed to every “flaw” they could find.
Some complained that Garland was not “beautiful enough,” that her eyes were too far apart, her teeth weren’t right, and was said to have a hump. It was reported that Mayer gave Garland the nickname, “my little hunchback.” If that wasn’t enough, the studio was relentless about her body image.
She made her first feature film in Broadway Melody of 1938
Eventually, Garland appeared in her first picture, Broadway Melody of 1938. Herem she was seen as the perfect “girl next door.” But as her body changed, the studio saw her natural growth as a weight issue, so had Garland on a strict diet of broth soup and lettuce. She was also on a vast array of pills to control her weight.
In her book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Drama, and Deviance from the Golden Age, Anne Peterson wrote that one day while eating at the studio canteen, Garland ordered her normal lunch. Instead, she was given “three measly spoonfuls of soup” and a side of lettuce.
MGM thought she was physically flawed
Garland was a healthy girl, even the studio’s physician said that her “bulky” appearance was because she was busty and had a large diaphragm. Combine those two attributes with her petite frame, and you have an “imperfect” representation of the young actress.
Of course, Garland wasn’t like Lana Turner or Katharine Hepburn but was beautiful in her own right. The execs at MGM didn’t care about taking the time to look for the positive qualities in Garland, they needed to find her a role, one that would bring in more money for the studio. Finally, Garland found herself taking on a role that would solidify her as an icon.
Judy Garland didn’t think she was glamorous
Unfortunately, Garland caved to the studio scrutiny and saw herself just as the executives did — imperfect. Her dependency on pills escalated and it was only a matter of time before everything unraveled. Garland would work with MGM for 15 years and produce thirty movies. One of which was her first-ever feature film, The Wizard of Oz.
Garland wasn’t their first choice, however. The studio had actresses such as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin to play the part of Dorothy, but there were some (un)fortunate mishaps with studio loans and contracts that had the script to Oz fall on Garland’s lap.
The Wizard of Oz made her a star
Thankfully, her role in The Wizard of Oz made her a national treasure. Garland regarded her time shooting the beloved film was one of the greatest times of her life. The audience fell in love with her sincere performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
After her ruby red success, Garland worked nonstop. She then starred in feature films alongside fellow child actor and close friend, Mickey Rooney. But as the Wizard of Oz train slowed, Garland was feeling the full brunt of exhaustion, both physically and mentally.
Studio hours were criminal
Just when things started to look up for Garland, the pressures of success came at full force. In fact, it was said that Garland and Rooney would sleep for 4 hours and work for 17. To keep up with the studio’s demands, Garland relied on her two best friends, amphetamine and barbiturates, to keep her going (talk about a toxic relationship).
Although she was doing more than her fair share of work, there were reports of Garland fainting on set from exhaustion. She was only 18 years old, and since her lead role in The Wizard of Oz, she performed in t10 song and dance films. The work was taxing, and Garland sought an escape, romance.
She found love on-set
David Rose was Garland’s first husband, and it was her marriage to Vincent Minelli that made her problems dissipate. After their marriage in 1945, Garland threw away her pills and took the time necessary to take care of her mental and physical wellbeing.
In 1946, Garland gave birth to a baby girl, named Liza Minelli. Garland finally felt at peace — that stability was finally in her grasp. She was no longer her mother’s property, or the studios, for that matter. But, the idea of escape was merely an illusion. When MGM renewed her contract after a year-long absence, things took a turn for the worst.
Paranoia made her hard to work with
Just when Garland thought she had control over her life, she was tossed back into the strict studio regime. To lose her baby weight, Garland went back to taking pills, the same ones that were pushing her over the edge. Paranoia took ahold of her, a common side effect of amphetamines, making her seem irrational or difficult on-set.
It was clear that Garland was unwell and at the age of 25, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Doctors recommended that Garland take extended time off to recuperate from her addiction and depression. Of course, execs were far from understanding.
MGM let go of one of their biggest stars
Instead of giving the actress the break she deserved, Mayer treated her like a cash cow, forcing her to come back to work. Garland did as she was told but the consequences were too much to bear. Garland’s increasingly erratic behavior saw her suspended from MGM twice before her livelihood was given a fatal blow.
As a result, her contract with MGM was terminated. What’s worse, along with her career, her marriage was in shambles. She was only 28 years old and her world was about to be shaken once more.
Garland was hanging by a thread
27-year-old Judy Garland was walking a tightrope between her personal life and her career. She was walking on a frayed tightrope hovering over a pit of alligators. It was obvious Garland needed help. Between the pills and the stress piling up at work, Garland earned two suspensions through MGM which eventually turned into her termination in 1950.
She was pushed away by MGM and her paycheck was immediately cut off. But what really rattled her chains was her husband’s infidelity. One day, Garland came home early from the studio and found Minelli with another man. The illusion of stability fractured and shattered.
Attempt at her own life
When Garland witnessed Minelli’s infidelity, Garland was livid. According to E! True Hollywood Story: The Last Days of Judy Garland, after Garland found her husband with the chauffeur, Garland immediately locked herself in the bathroom. While Minelli tried to reconcile the situation, he heard the shattering of glass followed by a loud thud.
When Minelli broke down the door, Garland was found on the bathroom floor with a broken glass shard in her hand from a glass cup, and attempted to cut her throat. Thankfully, the wound wasn’t deep and was reported to be nothing more than a superficial cut. Though the wound wasn’t serious, her heart was severely wounded by her husband’s betrayal.
Garland lacked control over her life
Hollywood is a cruel mistress. But the way the entertainment industry treated Garland was beyond criminal. Since the age of two, her whole life had been decided for her. So, without a job and seemingly without purpose, Garland hid away from the spotlight.
Her name was close to being forgotten. Luck was on her side, however, because Garland didn’t stay away for too long. Believe it or not, it took one person to set Garland’s career back on track.
Sid Luft revived Garland’s career
After being fired from MGM, Garland didn’t stay away from the public eye completely. Instead, she turned to radio. Her charming and engaging personality was a success with radio audiences, however, many knew Garland wasn’t meant for the radio. Her presence belonged in front of a camera. Cue admirer, Sid Luft.
Not only was Luft Garland’s admirer, but he was also responsible for getting her back on the stage. Luft became Garland’s protector and agent. The next thing Garland knew, she was performing in London in front of an adoring crowd. Once it was clear that Garland was an international success, it was clear to Luft and Garland that they needed to return to the US.
Everyone loved her in A Star is Born
Of course, Garland was an immediate success back in the US, where she made headlines and memorable Vaudeville performances. By 1954, she starred in A Star Is Born and happy times seemed to have been back in Garland’s life, not just her career, but her home life too.
Garland and Luft married and soon had another child, Lorna, in 1952. Unfortunately, the happy days were short-lived. Debt, depression, and disappointment lay in wait for the remaining years in Garland’s life. Life was a violent roller coaster for Garland, and there was no end to the heralding twist and turns on the track of her life.
Substance abuse would ruin her life
Hollywood welcomed their veteran actress with opened arms, but the revelry of their most successful actress would not last long. Old habits died hard for Garland. She never got over her substance abuse, and like before, she was periodically late for filming. Garland was so out of it, that it was almost impossible to shoot a film with her.
She returned to theater where she would perform on stage after stage, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, but consequentially, she was in debt. Garland pointed the finger to her husband, Luft, for the lack of financial security, in fact, she pointed the finger in his direction more than once.
Garland blamed Sid Luft for her financial ruin
You would think that Garland would have enough money to fund a small city or end world hunger, but the sad truth of the matter was Garland was broke between the early and mid-1950s. Rumor had it that Sid Luft was to blame for her financial ruin, spending Garland’s money on nice clothes and at the race tracks.
The IRS was calling to collect and Garland was cashed out, once again struggling to make ends meet. Thankfully, Garland eventually divorced Luft, calling him an “animal” in her personal recordings, a “certain breed” she would say. She called him a “thief, a sadist, and a man who doesn’t even care one bit one way or another.”
Garland was a part of the original “Rat Pack”
It was clear that Garland’s third husband was taking advantage of Garland’s fame and income. It was so obvious that Hollywood neighbor Humphry Bogart called Luft out (in the most savage way possible). Before Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, the original Hollywood Rat Pack was known as Holmby Hills Rat Pack (Holmby Hills was the neighborhood Garland and Bogart lived in).
The Bogarts would invite an exclusive list of people to their home including Garland and (begrudgingly) her husband. When Sid Luft showed up on his custom suits and shoes, Bogart would ask Luft a simple question, “Do you sing?” Before Luft could answer, Bogart gave him the verbal upper-cut.
Humphry Bogart told Sid Luft he had “no class”
Bogart grew up with the money and knew a classless swine when he saw one. Bogart relished in attacking Luft and did so by asking, “do you sing?” Before Luft could answer, Bogart, answered, “No you don’t. Then why the hell are you making a living off a singer?” K.O. Luft was tongue-tied by the insult, and preceded to act like a raging bull.
Bogart, however, kept pushing his buttons by making fun of Luft’s custom suits and shoes and would tell Luft — constantly — that class could be neither bought nor acquired. To which Bogart ended the conversation by saying, “And I can tell you that you don’t have it, my friend, and you never will.” Garland, though embarrassed, remained composed. It wasn’t long before Garland saw what the Bogarts saw in Luft.
Garland fell into hard times
Garland was no fool, and eventually divorced Luft in 1965, but not without Luft taking every penny in Garland’s pocket, leaving her in substantial debt that left her scrambling for money. Garland felt defeated. Why was it so hard to obtain what she desired the most? Garland wanted — like any other human being — security, a home, a family, and to be with her children.
For Garland, that dream was never realized and she struggled with financial ruin and drug addiction until the very end of her life. The ups and downs of Garland’s life proved too steep and her dependency on drugs eventually got the best of her.
Garland was at tug-a-war between stardom and being little to nothing. When she was under the spotlight, she felt true to herself and to her audience, but it was a double edged sword. Though she enjoyed the stage, behind the curtain were leeches profiting off her. What choice did she have?
Garland knew how people saw her, and she was rightfully angry, “I’m an angry lady! I’ve been insulted! Slandered! Humiliated! I wanted to believe, and I tried my damndest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over — and I couldn’t..! I hate anybody’s gut who used me, because I wanted to be a nice girl!”
She never made it over the rainbow
Garland’s remaining years were a constant game of catch-up and misery, but there was a silver lining. Happiness was over the rainbow. Make no mistake, sure, Judy Garland might have had a serious of tragedy throughout her life, but Garland reported to not have regretted it once.
In a 1967 Barbara Walters interview, Garland said: “I’ve had a lot of distress with a lot of people, but I’ve had an awfully nice life.” Many see Garland’s life as a deep tragedy. It’s easy to think so, but really, Garland was a complicated individual like most of us just trying to survive in the entertainment industry.
Not all was a tragedy
It’s hard to imagine that anyone with a lifelike Judy Garland could have found an ounce of happiness in her life. Well, she did. Like most of us going through the motions of our every day, but Galand was a celebrity, and celebrities were often in the brunt of the public eye, but that didn’t make her any less grateful for what she endured.
When asked what brought her happiness, Garland went on to say, “First of all, my two friends here [Lorna and Joey Luft] myself, my oldest daughter, my son-in-law, my future, my past, my present, and my audiences.”