Me and Judy Garland

No, I’m not gay. The only way in which I’ve been a friend of Dorothy was with the woman who married my Uncle Ted a few years after Aunt Em died. And that’s a coincidence; don’t go looking for any weird connections through characters in The Wizard of Oz. But for the past fifty years Judy Garland has held a little spot in a corner of my mind, swaying gently on a stool as she sips a martini and puffs on a cigarette. It’s the result of a childhood memory and a couple of my earliest lessons on the darker twists of life.

Pic of Judy GarlandIt was The London Palladium Show on ATV. I was eight years-old, didn’t know much about her except that she was a big American star and the TV station was making a fuss over her appearance. We watched the show every Sunday evening, but there was a sense that this was one of the special episodes; no second tier pop star or variety show comic at the top of the bill, but someone who was a big name in Hollywood. I don’t remember anything about what came before, nothing until the moment that Judy Garland was announced, the band struck up a song, the audience applauded and then …. an empty stage. The band carried on playing, a tune that was familiar at the time but I can’t now recall, and still she didn’t appear. Her name was announced again, the band ripped into another song, and still nothing. There were comments in our living room – “Did they tell her it’s starting?” “Did she get lost somewhere?” – and after a couple of minutes, although it seemed like longer, she appeared.

It only a took a few seconds to see that something was off. She was wobbly on her feet, slurred the words of the songs and seemed to forget some of the lines. I don’t recall what she tried to sing, but what came out wasn’t singing; I just remember the stumbling, shouting at the band in the middle of a verse, and leering at the audience as if they were dissolving before her eyes.

“She’s drunk!” said my mum.

“What’s drunk?” asked my sister.

“She’s been on the bottle.”

I didn’t need telling. I had been to parties with grown-ups and knew that some of them got all woozy and wobbly when they had been drinking. So I said my bit.

“She’s flipping rotten!”

It went on like that for a few minutes, then it ended, there was half-hearted applause, and the host – I think it was Jimmy Tarbuck – came on with an embarrassed smile and encouraged the audience to clap some more. Then it was over.

As the show ended my mum, dad, sister and myself had a one-minute family discussion and agreed that Judy Garland had been well and truly pickled. Then we began the usual evening argument about whether it was bedtime.

Next morning the newspaper was delivered with a picture of Judy Garland over the second story on its front page, and a headline that read Judy Garland ‘ill’ at Palladium performance. I read the story, a hundred words or so explaining that her manager or someone at the Palladium or ATV said she had felt unwell before the show but insisted on going on. I thought back to the previous evening, all the stumbling and slurring and forgetting lines, and knew that wasn’t like being ill; it was being drunk. And then came a small but significant realisation – that sometimes adults tell big fat lies. Like most eight-year-olds I was still pretty trusting of grown-ups and believed they only told me off for telling a fib because they never told fibs themselves. But this was so obviously untrue, and about someone so famous and important that she was on The London Palladium Show, and the newspaper printed it as if there was nothing wrong. It was my first little revelation that sometimes the world worked around people telling lies – even if at that age I couldn’t grasp the reason for it doing so.

She hung around London in the following months. I vaguely remember ripples of gossip and tabloid headlines about her shambling wreck of a life. I have a stronger memory of the TV news reporting her marriage to Mickey Deans, at least ten years younger and apparently sober, and wondering what he saw in her. They were interviewed on camera, she swayed and slurred again, and when asked where they going on honeymoon she said one place and he said another. It prompted another round of muttering in our living room and adult warnings that the marriage wouldn’t last long.

It didn’t. Three months later he found her dead on the toilet from an overdose of barbiturates. That triggered an explosion in the media, but suddenly it wasn’t about a shambling drunk but a tragic heroine, a giant of showbiz who had been steamrollered by pressures too heavy for anyone to handle. There were gushing tributes, a lying in state, and suddenly you couldn’t get away from the strains of Over the Rainbow. But there was an acknowledgement that she had been a mess for years before she died, and I picked up another little life lesson: some people were successful, famous, rich, screwed up, scared and desperately unhappy. I began to sense that life would be full of unexpected pressures and horribly complicated. It was a little bit scary.

As I grew up Judy Garland retained her little place in my mind. I enjoyed some of her old movies on TV – Meet Me in St Louis, The Pirate, A Star is Born ­– and came to appreciate her talent as a singer, a chanteuse who produced some classy renditions from the Great American Songbook. I never got around to buying any of her records, preferring the Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra versions of those songs. In fact, I even preferred Ella’s Over the Rainbow. But I read a biography in the 1990s and would always acknowledge that Judy Garland had been something special.

When the movie about that sorry closing phase of her life was released I was keen to see it, wondering how it would seem against memories that had stuck for fifty years. I thought Rene Zellwegger was convincing in the role, conveying that combination of pathetic vulnerability and sporadically explosive flamboyance, and carrying off the songs with some aplomb. The Trolley Song was especially good. There was something icky about what goes on during Over the Rainbow, but I know enough about screenwriting to have expected it. My wife and I agreed that the film had been worth seeing. The enjoyment had partly been in a reminder of how I had seen the world as a child who was beginning to look further than the home and playground. There was excitement, glamour, pain, tears and the fact that in 1969 it was difficult to find a restaurant open in England after eleven o’clock. And for a couple of hours Judy Garland had come out of her corner and held my attention, entertaining me with the glorious tragedy that had been her life. I was satisfied; it was enough.

But it’s been a few weeks, and something won’t leave me alone. Every day I’ve felt a wriggling in my ear. It’s that song.


Over the rainbow ……


Image: Trailer screenshot, A Star Is Born trailer, public domain