Something Terrible Happened: The Journey to Oz and Beyond

Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland , by Gerald Clarke. Random House, 510 pages, $29.95.

Somewhere over the rainbow Judy Garland is plaintively asking the bluebirds why then, oh why yet another biography? Didn’t the job get done in 1975, the year of Anne Edwards’ less-than-accurate biography, and Gerold Frank’s exhaustive study, and Young Judy by David Dahl and Barry Kehoe, and Christopher Finch’s excellent Rainbow: The Stormy Life of Judy Garland ? Two years earlier there had been Little Girl Lost , a fan’s tribute from Al DiOrio Jr., and three years before that, The Other Side of the Rainbow , Mel Tormé’s unhappy account of Judy’s doomed television series. And what about the paperback quickie, Judy Garland , by Brad Steiger, rushed out in 1969, the year of her death? (In his extended section on “Judy and the Occult,” neatly divided into subsections on astrology, graphology and numerology, Mr. Steiger reveals that when young Frances Gumm changed her name to Judy Garland, “she took on the vibration of the number nine.”)

More recently there have been The Complete Judy Garland: The Ultimate Guide to Her Career in Films, Records, Concerts, Radio, and Television, 1935-1969 (1990) and John Fricke’s handsome, fact-filled Judy Garland: World’s Greatest Entertainer (1992) and David Shipman’s solid Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend (1993). John Meyer called his 1983 memoir Heartbreaker (the heart was Mr. Meyer’s: In 315 pages he chronicles its breakage, day by excruciating day, through the two months during which he and Judy met, fell in love, got engaged and split). There are also memoirs by her last husband, Mickey Deans, and her younger daughter, Lorna Luft, and her star turns in so many other autobiographies, from Mickey Rooney’s to second husband Vincente Minnelli’s. Just last year saw Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow by Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, and Rainbow , a collection of Judyana ranging from M.G.M. press releases to “in-depth” journalism by Shana Alexander and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison–and, in case you missed it back in 1975, a reissue of Gerold Frank.

When is enough enough? What is there left to say? And–more than 30 years after her death–who cares?

Well, I care–at least enough to read all of Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland , by Gerald Clarke, biographer of Truman Capote. I’m not a Judy cultist–I didn’t standingly ovate at the Palace or the Palladium or Carnegie Hall (I never saw her perform live); I wasn’t one of the 20,000 mourners who filed past her open coffin at Frank Campbell’s funeral parlor in 1969; I didn’t bid on her ruby slippers when they came up at auction. And I’m not drawn to sagas of self-destructing divas. I suppose I just still love the girl who was up there on the screen in the 30’s and 40’s–not only the girl from Oz and St. Louis, the Babe in Arms, the Harvey Girl, but the pre-star girl in earlier and slighter movies like Everybody Sing and Love Finds Andy Hardy , the girl who cheers her underdog team on to victory in Pigskin Parade and sings “Dear Mr. Gable” to a photo of dear Mr. Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938 .

And I love her singing. Not the over-the-top, desperate mess it became in the final years but the big, joyous love of putting a song over and trying to make you feel good, which is the essence of her early and mature work. When she was a little girl in vaudeville she often blasted out inappropriate torch songs, but when she was given material like “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” nobody ever had more appeal. You can hear it all–the singles, the air checks, the movie numbers–on countless compilations. And just recently, a 2-CD repackaging of her famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert has been released. The sound is excellent, though not really superior to that of the best-selling LP version. The only difference is that on the CD’s all of Judy’s patter is included–a peculiar little anecdote about a collapsed hairdo in Paris; a loving nod to composer Harold (“Over the Rainbow”) Arlen who’s in the audience; a joke about her sweating. All of it’s fun to hear–once.

The Carnegie Hall performance was a bravura display of talent and stamina–there was a whole lotta beltin’ goin’ on. The complicated arrangements worked, mostly, and the voice was certainly strong–which was fortunate, since so many of the songs rise in key and swell in volume as they approach climax. She sang a passionate and moving “Alone Together” and an original and very effective “Stormy Weather.” There were Al Jolson songs (of course) and–surprise!–”The Trolley Song” and, yes, she was over that rainbow again. Through 26 numbers she hardly faltered. At the age of 38, after 36 years of performing and some very unhappy headlines, she was telling the world, “Don’t count me out! I’m back again–Judy Garland the legend, but also your little pal, dear audience, and I love you.” And the audience loved her and loved her and loved her in return.

On screen in the early years she was the ideal kid sister, daughter, girl next door. She was never phony, never “cute.” She wasn’t mechanical like Shirley Temple or frantic like her pal Mickey Rooney. Her early rival Deanna Durbin (who was talented and charming) didn’t approach her in spirit or range. Like all great stars, Garland was unique: not worshipped, not lusted after, not someone to make you laugh or scare you or awe you but someone to believe in and to love. You’d have to go back to Mary Pickford to find another star whom America felt that way about. And because of the ubiquitous The Wizard of Oz , there’s no way to forget her.

The disparity between what Judy-Dorothy means to people and what became of Judy herself is what one reads these books to understand. Something terrible happened, but what was it? One moment she was dancing and singing away–with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade , with Van Johnson in In the Good Old Summertime –and then, suddenly, there were suicide attempts, ejection from M.G.M., broken marriages; rumors about addiction to pills, to alcohol. Those were things you expected of a Clara Bow, a Jean Harlow, a Marilyn Monroe–it made sense that sex goddesses were punished with breakdowns, even early death. Not Dorothy of Oz. (When Judy was finally allowed to grow up and suffer as Mrs. Norman Maine in A Star is Born , it seemed as if her adulthood was just a phase–she’d get over it, the way other people get over adolescence.)

Mr. Clarke lays it all out: The driven and unnurturing mother, the charming but weak (and bisexual) father who dies when she’s still a kid, the ogres of Metro who starve her (she’s fat and she’s hungry) and infantalize her both off and on screen (binding her very developed breasts in order to disguise her advanced age of 16 while she’s making Oz ), her despair at not being beautiful in an M.G.M. world of Lana Turners and Elizabeth Taylors (Louis B. Mayer is said to have referred to her as “my little hunchback”), the Benzedrine to keep her thin, to keep her energy going, and the sleeping pills to counteract the Benzedrine, the relentless schedule of picture after picture to cash in on her popularity, the search for a husband to replace the father (she succeeded all too well: At least two of her five husbands were gay), the collapses, the comebacks, the horrifying descent into illness, addiction and degradation.

Mr. Clarke is particularly good on the mother, Ethel Gumm, who regarded Judy “as an asset to be exploited, rather than as a child to be cherished.” He’s also convincing about Frank Gumm, and very specific about Frank’s homosexuality, which he believes is the reason the Gumms had to move from town to town while Judy was growing up. As the manager of the local movie house, Frank encountered lots of boys. (Mr. Clarke’s most explicit account reads: “In the high school locker room, two of the school’s top athletes … bragged about the pleasure Frank was giving them with oral sex, not neglecting a description of how they made him beg.”) Sexual revelations punctuate the book: “What is certain is that Judy had lost her virginity by the age of 15.” Buddy Pepper, “her senior by just seven weeks, who had several trysts with her in his apartment,” is the source for this information (he kissed in the 30’s and told in the 90’s), and Garland isn’t here to confirm or deny it. Do we care? Determining precisely when a dead movie star lost her virginity isn’t high on everybody’s list of scholarly priorities.

More disturbing are accounts of later sexual encounters, which Mr. Clarke supplies to demonstrate that “to give pleasure to a man … was the proof she required, ever and always, that she was something more than Mr. Mayer’s little hunchback.” “One ugly-minded lover bragged that after she gave him oral sex, for example, he made her sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ so he could hear those famous words sung through a mouthful of semen.” The “ugly-minded lover,” we’re told, “made that boast to a source who requested anonymity.” No doubt! But where was the polygraph test? The kind of man who could tell such a story could just as easily have invented it.

As for M.G.M.’s responsibility for what happened to Judy, Mr. Clarke gives us a Louis B. Mayer who is sometimes the brutal overseer, sometimes the loving paterfamilias. This sounds fair: Mayer was running a huge business and Judy was a major asset, but he was also clearly fond of her, and indeed “loaned” her money of his own when she needed hospitalization. At times, Garland demonized Mayer as she demonized her mother and many others, yet her younger daughter, Lorna Luft, tells us in her honest and moving memoir that “Mom” always spoke with affection and regard for “Mr. Mayer.” In Mr. Clarke’s account, it’s not necessarily Louis B. but “the dark-suited people in the Thalberg Building” who are the villains. And of course Mother Ethel, who, in this telling, started Judy on pills before she was 10, betrayed Frank with (and later married) a lover whom Judy detested, and dissipated Judy’s fortune.

So perhaps there were villains in the piece. But to what extent was Garland complicit in her own destruction? We can’t blame her for being an extroverted 2-year-old who grinned and piped her way into the Gumm Sisters’ vaudeville act–and immediately became its star; she couldn’t help having her talent, and the need to express it. But although she repeatedly said that she longed for an ordinary small-town life, few people have stardom thrust upon them. And though she had many friends and mentors, and a number of men cared about her and tried to care for her, she became one of those people, all vulnerability and pathos, whom others rush to help but who can’t be helped. When she was in the grip of her demons, the passive aggression turned to active and fierce aggression. As her health deteriorated, her grasp of reality grew increasingly uncertain: Two years before her death she blithely stated, “Isn’t it remarkable that with all the horror, with all that I’ve been through, I never drifted into booze or pills?” Garland loved to play games, and her humor was not always kind.

She was never pretentious, though, and that’s more than you can say for Mr. Clarke. Tyrone Power’s charm was “so exundant that few could withstand it”; Judy’s voice “ripened into the rutilant maturity of midsummer.” And how about this: As Judy’s audience at the Palace left the theater, “they displayed not merely smiles of happiness” but “the ecstasy of deliverance. They had not attended a concert; they had participated in an incantation, a rite more ancient than the pyramids themselves. Her altar may have been a stage on Times Square, with the subway rumbling underneath and taxis honking outside, but Judy had more than a little in common with those shamans of old Nile, chanting their cures in the crouching shadow of the newborn sphinx.” As the young Judy might have put it, “Golly!”

Despite the literary excesses and prurient flashes, there are reasons to read Get Happy if you care about Garland. Gerold Frank had access to all the prime sources (including Garland herself), but writers back in 1975 had to be discreet. Both Mr. Finch and Mr. Shipman are more knowledgeable about Hollywood and about singing than Mr. Clarke, and Mr. Finch is particularly useful as a corrective to Garland’s self-mythologizing–he’s an admiring skeptic–but his treatment of the later years is thin. Mr. Shipman is judicious and frank without being salacious, though he’s sometimes a little distanced. Mr. Clarke goes further than his predecessors in illuminating the darker corners of Garland’s life, and if at times he accepts Garland’s self-dramatizing testimony too uncritically, his account can be gripping. Most important, he made me feel yet again the tragedy of this wonderfully gifted girl who brought happiness into so many lives while leading such an unhappy life herself.