Judy Garland: A Personal Impression

I am always puzzled by Judy Garland’s generally accepted reputation as someone who was a wonderful performer but whose life – and career – was  destroyed by drink and drugs.

I worked with her for five years as her accompanist, musical advisor and musical director. This was when she was living in London.  I became very close to Judy during this period and we spent long hours talking about her life – and sometimes her problems. 

Judy was a sweet, generous person.  She loved living life to the full and if that meant spending money she would do so with little regard for the future.  She was also a wonderful raconteur. 

I remember a story she told me of an occasion when film star Mitzi Gaynor was booked to do a show in Las Vegas.  In order to support her, Judy, with Carol Landis and show business star Ethel Merman decided to go to see her opening night.  When Mitzi found they were coming to the show, she begged Judy to call it off saying, “Please let me be the star of the night.

With Judy Garland, Carol Landis and Ether Merman sitting there, you’ll be the stars not me.”  Judy told her not to worry; they wouldn’t come in until the show was on and they would creep in at the very back of the place where no one would see them. By the time they had quietly got to their table, about a half hour into the show, they were all pretty high from sitting for the previous hour in nearby bar. But they were very good and kept as low a profile as they could – as they had promised.

But at the next table sat a tall handsome, elegantly dressed Texan replete with ten gallon hat, black, silk dress suit and inch-long pistol cuff links in his expensive frilly silk dress shirt. These cuff links attracted the slightly sozzled Carol Landis who was continually staring at them. The Texan, realising this, took off one of his cuff links and handed it to Carol.  What he neglected to tell her was that these were very special cuff links indeed insofar as they contained tiny bullets.  Carol not knowing this pulled the trigger and screamed as the cuff-link gun went off with a pop, the bullet making a tiny flesh wound in her breast.  

This happened, Judy explained to me, just as Mitzi was going into a big ballad – one of the high points in her show. Naturally, the audience turned to see what had caused the scream. And it was then that Ethel Merman, who was blessed with the loudest voice in show business stood up and shouted at the top of her voice, “Oh my god! Carol Landis has just shot herself in the left tit with a cuff-link!  

Mitzi didn’t forgive them for a very long time.

There are many other hilarious, wild and wonderful stories to tell about the crazy things that happened when we were on tour. I’ll leave those for future blog posts! Most of all, though, I like to remember her as an exceptionally wonderful performer. I remember we gave a concert in Yorkshire in Leeds Town Hall. Just as she was going into “Zing Went the stings of my Heart” the entire sound system broke. Most singers – especially big stars – would have walked off the stage refusing to sing another note until the mikes were up and running again. Not Judy. She got off the stage and walked up and down the aisles in the auditorium belting out the songs as loud as she could, and getting a massively big hand for doing so.

Maybe it was because of her lack of height, I don’t know, but from the audience point of view she somehow looked looked kind of lonely on the stage – a little girl doing her best -, which often brought out the machismo from the males in the audience. They felt she needed protection. Sometimes, a man would get out from his seat in the auditorium and run down the centre aisle shouting, “I love you Judy” with the accent on the first word, as if he would protect her; what from, we never found out. It caused us a few laughs.

But my long, sometimes all-night conversations with her left me in no doubt: her biggest problem was her total inability to pick nice, decent men to fall in love with.  Band leader and clarinet genius Artie Shaw beat her up very badly.  A famous Hollywood screenwriter walked out on her after three years of what she thought had been a happy relationship. There were many others she told me about but whose names I will not mention because it could upset a lot of people.  Oddly enough, this seems to have been a problem with many female singers, from opera star Maria Callas right across the entire vocal spectrum to jazz singer Billie Holiday.   

Her husband when I was with her was Sid Luft, tall, and handsome, an ex- test pilot, who liked living on the wild side of life. He was a gambler and the sort of guy who would not only fly from Britain back to the States to watch a horse he had bet a bundle of money on; he would also take a half dozen friends with him, paying their first class fares, and picking up the tab for expensive drinks and food in the best restaurants. The trouble was, it was Judy’s money he was spending. When she finally left the UK to return to Hollywood she was broke and Sid had walked out on her. Her agent, at that time Harold Davison, even had to pay her air fares.

As I was married with a new baby, I could not go with Judy when she left the UK. I was told by those close to her that she was thrilled by the next husband she married, but he left her, hurting her deeply by saying she was too old for him. It broke her heart and she did thereafter become a deeply saddened and depressed person. She went slowly downhill after that.

There is a lot of talk as to her death. I saw her about a week before she died. She looked in terrible health and was almost monosyllabic in her speech.

I have heard she died from an overdose of some drug, or that she drank herself into a coma from which she never recovered, and even that she was murdered.

I don’t know. What I do have are strong memories of a truly magnificent performer, someone who was great fun to be with, and a woman with a heart as big as the Empire State Building.