The Truth about Judy Garland’s ‘Incautious’ Death

Posted on June 25, 2021 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Memorial
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Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?  And for me to live with me?  I’ve had to do it — and what more unkind life can you think of than the one I’ve lived?”

Two years after making those comments to McCall’s magazine, Judy Garland was found dead in her rented London home.  It was June 22, 1969 and Garland’s unkind life was over at the age of 47.

Gavin Thurston, the coroner, ruled her death “accidental,” due to an “incautious self-overdosage” of barbiturates.  “This is quite clearly an accidental circumstance to a person who was accustomed to taking barbiturates over a very long time,” he said.

Garland’s body was flown to New York for a service that turned out to be a landmark occasion. Undeterred by sweltering heat and humidity, 22,000 mourners filed by her open casket at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home — several more thousand were turned away because of time constraints.

In his eulogy, James Mason, who played opposite Garland in A Star is Born, described her as a “lady who gave so much and richly, both to her vast audience …and to friends…that there was no currency in which to repay her.  And she needed to be repaid, she needed devotion and love beyond the resources of any of us.”

Garland was initially interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, 25 miles north of New York City.  In January, 2017, her family, including daughters Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, decided to move her remains to Hollywood Forever, a Los Angeles cemetery which is located near several venerable Hollywood studios. She now rests there in a family mausoleum which is called the Judy Garland Pavillion — eventually her daughters, son Joey Luft, and her grandchildren will be interred beside her.

The calamitous Garland saga has been told innumerable times.  The vaudeville debut at two years old, when she sang Jingle Bells to encore after encore until she had to be carried from the stage; the MGM halcyon Wizard of Oz/Andy Hardy years; drug-fueled stardom, punctuated by multiple, spectacular comebacks; and the final curtain, when she died drugged and broke behind a locked bathroom door.

The template was established — and the villain was always the studio system which introduced her to the deadly cycle of drug addiction.  Long hours plus the pills turned her into what one writer called a “walking casualty.”

It wasn’t until Gerald Clarke undertook Garland’s biography that new information recast the familiar tropes.  Clarke — who also authored the celebrated book, Capote— knew Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, had signed Garland and writer Freddie Finkelhoffe to produce an autobiography. Cerf, in 1959, paid the pair a total of $30,000; Finkelhoffe wrote, to quote Cerf, “just enough to get the advance” and then he disappeared.

Over the years, the sixty-eight pages Finkelhoffe composed had also disappeared:  Clarke located the manuscript ensconced in the library at Columbia University.  It was the haymaker find every biographer dreams about – Garland’s candid recollections about her childhood, first two marriages, and the MGM grind were shocking.

Clarke was an indefatigable researcher.  In ten years of work on his book, Get Happy, the most important fact he uncovered was that MGM did not introduce Garland to drugs.  That happened when, at the age of 9, Garland’s mother, Ethel Gumm, put her on barbiturates for sleeping and amphetamines for waking.  This practice kept her daughter at full strength for vaudeville performances.

“MGM did not start her on drugs, as has always been reported,” Clarke said.  “The villain…was her own mother.  The studio exacerbated her drug problems by giving her diet pills.”

The other myth Get Happy dispels is related to Garland’s mood swings.  Acknowledging that she was probably bipolar, Clarke said: “The biggest misconception is that she was a tragic figure, always wallowing in pain and suffering.  There was a lot of sadness in her life…but there was just as much happiness…she had some very happy times.”

After the devastating childhood she experienced, Garland certainly deserved those moments of happiness.  Even to this day, fifty-two years later, her films and music are still entertaining us.

Judy Garland, RIP



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