Judy Garland – the tragic arc of the child star.


My grandmother, Mitzi Cummings, interviews a very young Judy Garland, who in this photo looks like she may be promoting her first movie, musical short Every Sunday, which included fellow child actor, Deanna Durbin. Date unknown, however the location is most likely an MGM set.

Like any starry-eyed teenager, the young singer was ready to experience the glamorous world of the movie star. Instead, Garland was sent to MGM school where she met Mickey Rooney and the other kid talents of the time, most of whom were true beauties, like Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. She was not in their league, but then again, none of them could sing like her either.

FOR OVER FORTY years, Judy Garland performed her heart out, but instead of transitioning from child star to solid adult success, her life went terribly off the rails in the 1940s and never quite recovered. We watched with one eye open as she lurched from stellar performances, to tantrums and no-shows, from happy family times to alcoholism, drug use and suicide attempts, from gold records to near bankruptcy.

In 1969, three months after her fifth marriage, and 11 days after her 47th birthday – just as she was attempting to get on her feet again – Judy Garland died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates. The painfully vulnerable, profoundly talented performer finished the third and final act of her short and tumultuous life in the way we always knew was coming, but crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t be so.

In a business where thick skin is a must, Garland appeared to have no armor; she just wanted to perform.

At just three years old, Frances “Baby” Gumm, as she was known then was so keen to sing she dashed onto the stage naked. The toddler misunderstood her cue and left the wings before her mother Ethel could pull up some undies and throw a babydoll dress over her head.

Only two years later, when the tiny performer and two sisters were on the road with their mother as manager, wardrobe lady, pianist, voice coach and cook, they were thrilled to get billing on a big town marquee. When the excited little group arrived before showtime they were crestfallen to see that instead of “The Gumm Sisters”, their name was up in lights as “The Glum Sisters”. Garland apparently never got over the pain and humiliation of this.

Though the young girls were glum indeed, vaudeville legend George Jessel, who later became a Hollywood filmmaker, put little Frances on his knee and said she was “pretty as a garland of flowers” and suggested the group change their name. While they were at it, the littlest one piped up and said she also liked the name Judy. That night, a name was born, but not the star; it would be a few more years of ups and downs until finally Garland’s two older sisters fell in love, got married and left performing, leaving their young singer with a big voice and no place to go.

According to Hollywood reporter Carleton Cheney, in a 1940 syndicated serial about Judy’s young life so far, Garland was on vacation and singing around a Lake Tahoe campfire when a talent scout heard the 12-year-old and invited her to come to Hollywood. An alternate story about this period is that my great-uncle, Louis B. Mayer, sent director and musical choreographer Busby Berkeley downtown to the Orpheum Theater to watch the Gumm Sisters perform.

Either way, in 1935 Frank Gumm, Garland’s father, vaudevillian and theater operator took her to the casting office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At just 4′ 11″, a button nose and almost 13, no one was quite sure what to do with her until she began to sing. Someone sent word to L.B.’s office that he should see the kid in action. Judy Garland belted out another tune or two and evidently on this basis she was given a contract. This version of events sounds idealized but she was definitely signed on the strength of her voice alone. No screen tests were conducted. Sadly, Frank Gumm died just a few months after this, but Garland swore her father had been her lucky charm.

Like any starry-eyed teenager, the young singer was ready to experience the glamorous world of the movie star. Instead, Garland was sent to MGM school where she met Mickey Rooney and the other kid talents of the time, most of whom were true beauties, such as Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. She was not in their league, but then again none of them could sing like her either.

In 1937, Garland made her first film Every Sunday, a musical short with fellow child actor and MGM schoolmate, Deanna Durbin. Several films followed, including parts in the Andy Hardy series. Audiences loved her as the cute girl next door. Her image was accessible, whereas the other young ones were something to aspire to.

Charles Walters, who directed Garland in a number of films, said “Judy was the big money-maker at the time, a big success, but she was the ugly duckling… I think it had a very damaging effect on her emotionally for a long time. I think it lasted forever, really”.

It didn’t help that Uncle Louis evidently referred to Garland as his “little hunchback”, which, if you know Jewish humor, was most certainly a term of endearment. His own closest sibling, my great-grandmother Ida, was the same height.

Like a lot of teenage girls, Garland’s weight fluctuated, but for a bankable star this would not do. She was put on dieting regimes and pills to slim down. I have also read contemporary articles that claim that to keep up with the frantic pace of making one film after another, Garland, Rooney, and other young performers were regularly given amphetamines and barbiturates.

I don’t know if this true, but certainly the ’30s and ’40s were more innocent times. Doctors recommended smoking and ‘modern’ drugs were put on pedestals, considered to have almost magical qualities, without known side effects. So if Garland’s drug use began as sanctioned ‘pep pills’ there was certainly context – rather than some evil plan.

What is known is that her weight troubles and demands from MGM execs to lose weight were reported in the papers, which would be crushing for any teenager, but even more so for one whose image goes hand-in-hand with her paycheck and her prospects. Then, mix in goddess-like beauties swanning around on every MGM sound stage, with Garland’s intense self-doubt and you have one toxic cocktail.

In late 1938, Garland was announced as Dorothy in the upcoming Wizard of Oz, but only because 20th Century Fox would not release Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin was not available. When the movie debuted in 1939, it was a tremendous critical success. The choice to cast her looked inspired, even if it hadn’t been intentional. At the 1940 Academy Awards, the teenager received an Academy Juvenile Award for her performances the year before, including in The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms.

During the same week as the Oscars, Judy Garland was threatened by a 19-year-old stalker, who plotted to kidnap her. Earlier in the week, Ethel had found “I love you” scribbled on their mailbox in red. After the young man is swiftly arrested, he tells police Garland is his perfect girl.

So now comes the cusp from child star to teenager – Garland’s sights are set on a dangerous territory just over the horizon called womanhood. At 17, she has a romance with band leader Artie Shaw, but is heartbroken when he eloped with Lana Turner. Garland then falls hard for musician David Rose, and on her 18th birthday he asks her to marry him. As Rose was still married at the time to the actress and singer Martha Raye, the couple waited a year for his divorce to be finalized. On July 27, 1941 they married but it would last less than two years.

Tragically, Judy Garland’s life is already assembling into that tried and true Hollywood template of unstable people getting involved with other unstable people, and to no one’s surprise whatsoever, having unstable relationships. It is during this time that Garland and her mother either become estranged, or a power struggle ensues. Certainly, daughters in their late teens can be challenging for any parents. But with a child star – now accustomed to adoration, making enormous amounts of money, running with a sophisticated, fast crowd – Ethel would not have had much in her court. Garland’s choices would have been painful to watch for any mother, regardless of her ambitions or plans. Evidently, Ethel Gumm had a lot of both.

At 21, in 1943, Garland is given a glamor role in Presenting Lily Mars and is utterly transformed with blonde hair and beautiful gowns. Audiences, however, still want her to be the girl next door and are uncomfortable seeing her as a womanly love interest. She goes back to form in 1944 with one of her most successful films for MGM, Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincent Minnelli. They began a relationship and in June of 1945, Garland and Minnelli married; nine months later, their daughter Liza was born.

Meanwhile, Deanna Durbin, Garland’s old studio school buddy, had been let go from MGM. How many tiny songbirds does one studio need? Evidently, the execs did the numbers and decided there was only room for one. Durbin, who has already had two failed marriages, has a useless stint at Universal and flees Hollywood to live in France with her third husband.

The next, year Garland suffered her first nervous breakdown and cut her wrists with broken glass. She became increasingly unreliable and was pulled from film after film, declared ‘unfit to work’, didn’t show up for rehearsals, and in the case of Annie Get Your Gun, Garland left for lunch and simply didn’t come back.

By now, MGM is the grandest studio in the land. According to New York Times bestselling author Scott Eyman in his amazing biography, Lion of Hollywood: the Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, the studio covered 167 acres. “Lot 1 encompassed seventy-two acres, housed all the thirty sound-stages, office buildings, and dressing rooms, the seven warehouses crammed with furniture, props, and draperies. Lot 2 consisted of thirty-seven acres of permanent exterior sets, including the town of Carvel, home of the Hardy family, and the great Victorian street from Meet Me in St. Louis. Here was the house where David Copperfield lived, there the street where Marie Antoinette rolled to the guillotine.”

There were three lots for the outdoor settings, including jungles and rivers for Tarzan and Trader Horn. There were 13 miles of paved road, 6,000 employees and three entrances. There were 33 designated ‘stars’, 72 featured players and 25 directors under contract.

MGM had its own police force, dentist, chiropractor, foundry and electrical plant. It was an empire at the peak of its history and its yield was hit movies and stars.

It is in this context that we not only have to place MGM’s child stars, but also Garland and her significant personal problems. So often, modern commentary about Louis B. Mayer regarding individual stars like Garland, reads as if they were his only concern and that he exerted a total, Svengali-like focus on each individual’s life. Yet, how could this be possible?

Yes, L.B. was particularly fond of Garland and paid for her many hospital visits and other medical care, but he was running a massive multi-million dollar business with the Loew Corporation in New York to answer to. While other studios were floundering, MGM was a powerhouse of talent from every discipline, major hits each year, and money in the bank.

In 1949, after her daughter’s second nervous breakdown, Ethel Gumm has had enough, or realizes there is nothing she can do, or both. She takes up a position as a theater manager in Dallas, familiar ground for her as she too had been a vaudeville performer prior to rearing her daughters and focusing on Judy’s career.

A year later, during a meeting between Garland, her agent and studio execs, the troubled star leaves the room and attempts to slit her own throat. She was only mildly injured but clearly it was another cry for help. Reports from the time are front page news and understandably disbelieving.

The child star is now long gone.

In October 1951, Garland opened in a vaudeville-style show at the newly refurbished Palace Theatre on Broadway. Her twice a day, 19-week engagement smashed earlier records. Jack Garver, an industry columnist at the time, described it as “one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history”. For her contribution to the revival of vaudeville Garland was presented with a Special Tony Award.

By June of 1952, Garland married again – this time to show business manager Sidney Luft. Five months later their first child is born, Lorna Luft. Although the next few years would be highly productive for Garland, turmoil was always just under the surface. In 1953, Ethel Gumm is found dead between two cars in the parking lot of the aircraft factory where she worked as a $60/week clerk. Claims of an estrangement were denied by Garland’s lawyer, but it is hard to view this ignominious end for the mother of one of America’s biggest stars of the time without their being a total rift between the two.

In 1954, Garland makes A Star is Born, which is so popular and critically well received that she is considered a shoo-in to win the Oscar. A camera crew is sent to her hospital bedside where she has just given birth to her son, Joseph Loft.

The Academy Award went to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, and for Judy it must have felt just like old times, feeling overshadowed by the pretty girl. Groucho Marx sent her a telegram after the awards ceremony, declaring her loss “the biggest robbery since Brinks”. Time magazine labeled her performance as “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history”. It wasn’t a complete loss for the awards season, Garland was recognized at the Golden Globes with Best Actress in a Musical.

From here, now a fully-fledged woman, wife and mother, Garland would make just a few more films, including Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for which she was Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Supporting Actress, before turning her attention to Las Vegas, TV shows and performances at the Palladium in London. Her star seemed to be burning brightly. By 1956, she is on $55,000 a week – the highest paid performer in Vegas.

Garland’s final act begins in November of 1959, when she is hospitalized with acute hepatitis. Her prognosis is grim; she is given five years or less to live. Initially the singer says she felt “…greatly relieved. The pressure was off me for the first time in my life”. Yet, by August of that year, Garland makes a triumphant return to the Palladium and is so warmly received, she announces her intention to move to London.

Our hero seems to be conquering many mountains: her concert appearance at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961, was called “the greatest night in show business history” and the two-record Judy at Carnegie Hall was certified gold, charting for 95 weeks on Billboard, including 13 weeks at number one. The album won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal of the Year. It has never been out of print.

Like an underground river, though, her personal life is not in step with her public appearances. Garland sues Luft for divorce in 1963, claiming “cruelty” and that he had repeatedly struck her while he was drinking. Her suit also states that Luft had attempted to take their children from her by force.

For Garland, the 60s are replete with huge ups and downs. There are command performances, including at the Palladium with an 18-year-old Liza Minnelli, and a much-loved TV show, as well as near fatal pleurisy, which hampers her Australian tour and leaves her Australian audiences disillusioned. In fact, for one show in Sydney, Garland is an hour late, forgets her own songs and after sustained booing, the singer flees the stage.

Her divorce from Sidney Luft, her third husband, becomes final on May 19, 1965, and shortly thereafter she marries her tour promoter, Mark Herron. This marriage lasts only six months.

In February 1967, Garland is cast as Helen Lawson in 20th Century Fox’s Valley of the Dolls but instead it’s Groundhog Day as she repeatedly misses rehearsals, just as she had done so 20 years earlier at MGM. In April, she is fired and replaced by Susan Hayward.

That July, Garland makes her last appearances at New York’s Palace Theatre with a 16-show run, performing with her children, Lorna and Joey Luft. Ironically, her wardrobe for this show is the sequined pantsuit that she would have worn in the Valley of the Dolls. Her last stage appearance is in Copenhagen in March, 1969. She marries her fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans, in the registry office in Chelsea, London on March 15.

On June 22, Deans finds Garland dead in the bathroom of their rented house. Her death is later ruled accidental by an “incautious self-overdose” of barbiturates.

Following Garland’s death, Deanna Durbin gave one of only two interviews as a former child star and Hollywood refugee. In an honest and heartfelt interview with AP reporter and industry guru, Bob Thomas, she said that along with their strong voices the two girls had other things in common: they “hated their lives as movie stars” and had “pushy, ambitious mothers”.

Durbin goes on to explain the fatal flaw in childhood stardom: “People put child stars on a pedestal. They expect them to be perfect little darlings; and to remain that way when they grow up. People criticize [them] when these stars grow up and prove themselves to be human beings with their own faults”.

When Garland last saw her old MGM schoolmate in Paris, she confided in her, “I didn’t like [the] publicity, [the] invasion of my private life. A person needs to have an identity of their own. When you’re a star, it’s virtually impossible”.

Deanna Durbin died on April 20th, 2013 surrounded by family in the French village she lived in for 70 years. Her legacy is not that of Judy Garland’s but then again, she lived a long, happy life.

Postscript: Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, clarified her mother’s position on Louis B. Mayer. She wrote, “She loved L.B. Mayer to the end of her life. In the decade after she left Metro… she never blamed L.B. for what had happened to her. She always spoke lovingly of him to us as children and to my father. It was L.B. Mayer who paid for my mother’s hospitalizations when she became ill during her years at MGM, even when it was clear she might never be able to make another movie for him”.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2013.


17 thoughts on “Judy Garland – the tragic arc of the child star.

  1. This was a great story. You certainly see the parallels of young stars today ie Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, brittney Spears, etc. it’s as if history keeps repeating. So sad.

  2. Thank you so much for your feedback Jacki. And you are so right about history repeating itself. I always wonder how complicit we are as audiences too. I read this story to my 13-year-old son before posting it (I always read my essays out loud to catch mistakes – doesn’t always work!) and one of his first comments was about Lindsay Lohan. Thanks again for reading.

  3. Very sad indeed. I remember two occasions during my childhood when I saw my father cry. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, and when Judy Garland died. I think my Dad made me watch all her movies…and we got “A Star is Born” to play for him in his hospice room. Hard to believe she was only 47….and such unhappiness during her life. You’re so right about Deanna Durbin…she had both the career and a “real” life. I bet if you ask her, she’d take the ordinary life over the glamor, any day.

    Another great post, Alicia. And I’m sure you’re right. The people who gave Judy and other kids amphetamines and benzos probably rationalized it that they were “helping” them. After all, what girl wants to be fat? The real criminals are these kids’ parents, who trade fame and money for their children’s health and well-being. I’ve seen it a lot.

  4. Thank you again Melissa for your wonderful feedback. You bring even more pathos to this story with the touching thought of your father’s tears for Garland. I read in Scott Eyman’s book that basically LB and MGM tried whatever they could to help her – the intentions were good ones. And not just to enable another star to get back on her feet, but because they cared for her. I’ve added a new postscript, which I don’t know if you’ve seen from Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, who sounds like a wonderful person. Yes Deanna Durbin seems to have won – as have her family. And I’m sure Liza Minelli and Lorna and Joey Luft would have chosen a long, happy life for their mother over her amazing legacy any day. x

  5. I don’t think Judy could have ever retired and lived a life like Deanna’s. Judy seemed born to do what she did. She was a great artist, she had to be what she was. No, it’s not a great life, but while the path for her could have been a lot smoother, I think she chose it, and couldn’t have been happy as a non-performer.

    When she became a star, talking pictures were less than a decade old, and musical films were a new medium. Nobody really knew how a human being would stand up against the incredible workload and pace. For about 15 years (with time out to have Liza) she starred or was featured in these films, doing most of the acting, singing, dancing, appearing in almost every scene. I don’t know how she did it. There aren’t many stars today who could or would keep up that pace. She burnt out in her late 20’s, but was back on Broadway in about a year. Seems to me this was a person of determination.

  6. I didn’t mention that it was a great article. Liked what Lorna Luft said. There are lots of one-sided views of JG and MGM, but Mayer and the studio clearly liked her, and gave her an incredible showcase. Thanks to them we have her films today.

  7. Thanks Ross. Yes I read Lorna Luft’s comments in Scott Eyman’s book, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. His book serves to round out the person, however lately it has become commonplace to portray him as a maniac, which of course, he wasn’t and couldn’t have been to steer MGM to such greatness. He was no angel, that is for sure. Most visionaries are difficult people and certainly he loomed large over our family. Today, LB is often used as a punching bag. I saw a tweet yesterday along the lines of LB being “manipulatively evil” from someone who looked like she was in her early 20s. What on earth could she possibly know about him? And yet she feels qualified to blast that out to the world. I am happy to be a counter-point to this but I am no apologist.

  8. Just a little of history, to add, I had a neighbor from Costa Rican, we were friends in Jamaica Plain, Ma. We became friends, a we both liked the Red sox, he was a family man with a “green” card and a fine fellow, he worked at the Park Plaza in Boston as a room man, and told me during a conversation, that early in the 70’s, he had occaision to bring room service to Judy Garlands room, he said, it was very sad, she was very sick, and probably on some kind of pills, he was sad,as was I, we both loved her work through the years, and still do, but a sad denoument to a wonderful, gifted actress and singer, he stated it was one of the saddest things he ever witnessed in many years of serving the rich and famous, I ended up, taking a day off work, and going into Boston Immigration court and testifying he would be a fine citizen, he was and is, we had a native dinner to celebrate citizenship, his kids and mine remain as friends to this day, first time I ever enjoyed Plaintains etc, and the happiness of an occaision of friendship, best day off, I ever had, the kids and Mom and Dad, so proud to become American’s, as a vet and one that looks at illegal immigration with sceptical eyes, I can say, Legal immigration a boon to USA society, those who step in front of right doing folks, deserve not a thing, get in line, prove yourself, do not step in front of these wonderful additions to our citizenship roles.Judy Garland, like Elvis and some others, the cream of the crop, but corperate greed, celebrity and money denegrates true talent, does dog wag the tail? or visa versa? Just food for thought, all true.

  9. Hi, Alicia – I remember reading Scott Eyman’s book but being disappointed. Since it’s been a while, I don’t remember why. His more recent book about DeMille was great, though. Maybe the definitive bio of LB Mayer has yet to written.

    I’m a big fan of the singer Kris Allen (who won American Idol a few years ago) and he once said, jokingly, “Twitter is evil,” and I thought of that when I saw what you wrote. Because info is disseminated so fast these days, that one girl’s tweet about LB was probably read by more people than read Eyman’s book! But at least, I think the nature of twitter makes people question most of what they read, don’t you?

    The tweet also reminded me of seeing Helen Hayes in the documentary, “When The Lion Roared” (I think that’s the title), because she also described LBM as “evil,” or “the most evil man I’ve known,” something like that. (She didn’t elaborate but since she was apparently friends with Thalberg, maybe she had an axe to grind. idk) On the other hand, I know June Allyson said she loved him, called him Pops. Real dichotomy of opinions! All studio heads seem to have been hated by some people. Not all of them have been described as evil. Not all of them have been loved by some of their stars, either. I doubt any of his stars called Harry Cohn “Pops.” Ha.

    But anyway, I agree it’s disturbing when a younger person, who probably has only heard a story or two, describes a man she probably knows little about, as “manipulatively evil.” It’s absurd.

    I’m glad you’re not an apologist. I like to see all sides of something when I can, seems you do, too.

  10. Judy died in 1969, so your friend couldn’t possibly have visited her hotel room in the early 70’s. Maybe you’re referring to the early 60’s?

  11. How right you are about the perennial worship of newly discovered talent and the sad, sordid tale of destruction that often follows, although I’ve seen few entertainers with gift and stage presence of Garland.

    Although your great-uncle employed child actors in creating his legendary films, I cannot hold him responsible for the destructive patterns in their later lives. He was a businessman, driven to create the best and most profitable family entertainment available at the time and these performers were his employees. It was not his place to be their guardian. It was Ethel Gumm (and parents like her) who exploited their progeny for income and neglected to give their children necessary sense of self and boundaries any person needs to mature. Entertainment is an incredible competitive industry at the best and any parent worthy of the name behaves as a child’s protector instead of promoter whenever the child is working. Ethel Gumm failure as a mother created the flaws that undermined Judy Garland.

    As you mentioned, both Garland and Deanna Durbin married young, as did Fox’s Shirley Temple (marriage gave all three women legal emancipation from their parents) and each first marriage failed. However, Durbin created a life she enjoyed, Shirley Temple Black became an accomplished woman in politics and both women enjoyed long, successful marriages. Only Garland, with her overarching emotional vulnerability, continued the roller-coaster ride between approval and disaster and she die terribly young. I hope I never see another talent as pure and tortured as hers. That experience is more than enough.

  12. I’m late to the game, but this is an extremely well-written article.
    Thank you for acknowledging that while your Uncle may not have been the abuser he’s been portrayed to be, he was not infallible and mistakes were most likely made.
    None of the horrible practices should be shouldered by him alone-this was a different time, no safeguards were in place within the industry. Hell, cigarettes were pushed as a great thing and nobody had seat belts in their cars.
    Being contracted by a studio at that time can be likened to being owned by a pimp today. Sounds crass, but many, many parallels. Not all pimps are bad, some allow their workers to choose which “projects” they work, pay them a fair percentage of the money etc., however the being a sex worker comes with a high cost, much like being a child actress.

  13. Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. The studio system was definitely a paternalistic one in that they controlled so much of their actors’ lives, but that also gave many of them wonderful lives. They were wealthy, busy, involved, and adored. But sadly for some, and particularly for those who battled mental illness, it was all too much and the excess was not what would’ve been best for a happy life.

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