A few years ago on Christmas Eve, my family and I watched “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the vibrant, charming 1944 musical starring Judy Garland, on TV. “Play it again!” my four-year-old cousin said as the movie ended. Pointing to Garland, she said, “I want to hear the Happy Lady again!”
I’ve been thinking about Garland recently. I’m wishing her happy birthday as I write! (She was born on June 10, 1922.) Later this month, I’ll raise a glass in her honor on the day of her death. (Garland died on June 22, 1969.)
There have been many stars and popular entertainers. But few have been as beloved or legendary as Garland. Fifty years after her death, she remains iconic, especially to the queer community. Even in the age of Lady Gaga, Garland is still on the radar. Rufus Wainwright has recreated Garland’s fabulous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert “Judy.” A biopic starring Renee Zellweger about Garland’s last days, will be released in September.
Whether you’re eight or 80, queer or straight, you’ve likely been bewitched by “The Wizard of Oz” or shed tears over “A Star is Born.” When I was a kid, my Dad would wake me up to watch Garland talk to Jack Paar on TV. “She’s the greatest there’s ever been,” my father would say, “you can’t stop watching her even when she’s just talking.”
Knowing what we know about Garland’s personal problems – from bad marriages to illnesses to struggles with drug addiction – it can be too easy to see her only as a tragic figure, to forget how incredibly talented she was and how much she accomplished in her short life.
“Judy had a prescription drug problem. She worked for years but had nothing to show for it in her 40s,” John Fricke, author of the “The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic,” told me in a phone interview.
But as her daughter Lorna Luff has said, tragic things happened to her mom, but her mother wasn’t a tragedy, Fricke said.
In addition to making records and performing on TV, Garland made 34 films. Her Emmy-nominated TV series “The Judy Garland Show” ran from 1963-1964. She received two Grammy Awards for her album “Judy at Carnegie Hall” and a special Tony Award for her long-running concert at the Palace Theatre in New York. She was awarded a special Academy Juvenile Award, nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for “A Star is Born” and nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
“Across the four decades of her career, Judy Garland enjoyed astounding levels of accomplishment in every entertainment medium,” Fricke writes in his invaluable book “Judy: A Legendary Film Career.”
“These achievements have since proved to be joyously timeless,” he adds.
Though Garland is renowned for her performances in concerts and movie musicals, she is also a talented dramatic actress. Recently, I watched “The Clock,” released in 1945 near the end of World War II, starring Garland and Robert Walker. It’s the story of how Joe (Walker), a soldier on leave from the war, and Alice (Garland), an office worker, accidentally meet, fall in love and marry in New York. There’s no singing. Yet, I found myself totally believing Garland was Alice, the young woman who must send her husband back to the war.
Garland was a great comedian and clown, Fricke said. Lucille Ball told him that Garland was the funniest woman in Hollywood. “‘She made me look like a mortician,’ Lucy said,” Fricke recalled.
“I am incredibly grateful to the gay community for keeping my mom’s legacy alive,” Lorna Luff, an adviser to the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, told NPR.
In this season of Pride, we are proud, Judy, to help keep your legacy alive and to have you as part of our history.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.