As a kid I watched her early movies—the cheesy faux-America Andy Hardy ones—on an old TV I stole from the attic. I had a special routine for watching Judy Garland (June 10, 1922-June 22, 1969): lying on my bed, propped up on my elbows and peeling a McIntosh apple with the rusted bean peeler from our kitchen. It was obvious that the pale, big-eyed girl was someone you like—compelling and astonishingly natural. No question that Andy Hardy’s other girls—Lana Turner and Esther Williams and the rest—were the sort that come and go, the ones a smart girl waits out. As Judy once said about Lana (in real life, after Lana married one of Judy’s crushes), “It’s like talking to a beautiful lamp.”
The non-Garland parts of the movies were unbearably cutesy. I’d wait for her while trying to peel my apple in one long string: If the McIntosh was too young, the tough red skin would break; if too old, it would crumble. In the final reel, Judy always got Mickey. Because if you had Judy Garland in your movie, you’d be an idiot not to have her voice be the last thing the audience hears. When the pale girl opened her mouth to sing, all that lace-curtained, smotheringly smug MGM crap fell by the wayside. It was an instrument for the ages—an infinitely flexible and sweet, sad soul massage.
And though Garland was tough, in the end she both broke and crumbled. Rotted a bit, too (self-pity marred her performances, from A Star is Born on). That astonishing core of talent saved her and damned her again and again. She went from being run out of small towns with her shamed father to joining the greatest studio in Hollywood, from skipping out on hotel bills to performing Carnegie Hall’s most legendary show ever. In her final weeks, she married a man no one much liked in a wedding no one showed up to (her daughter Liza promised, “I’ll go the next one, Mama”).
And then she died of yet another overdose, on yet another rainy night in London. Her husband broke open the door and found her on the toilet, slumped over. Her horribly hip 60s clothing was hanging off her bony loose-skinned form. She looked 70 but was 47.
The story of Judy Garland, nee Frances Gumm, is the cruelest to come out of golden Hollywood—a town known for skimming the cream off youth and beauty, then throwing the husk aside. Louis B. Mayer had so little appreciation for Garland’s golden, gobsmacking talent that he called her “My little hunchback” when he should have been buying her slippers made of real rubies (which she then should have used to walk all over him).
Instead, the head of MGM bound her breasts and put her to work. The Times obit quoted Garland as saying, “They’d give us pep pills. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills…after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again…That’s the way we worked, and that’s the way we got thin. That’s the way we got mixed up. And that’s the way we lost contact.”
She was actually Mayer’s best little money-maker. She made more than 35 films and later, when Hollywood turned its back on her, set a New York record with a vaudeville engagement of 19 weeks and 184 performances.
And she really did try to clean up, but the urge for sabotage ran too deep. Although she reportedly loathed MGM, Garland also seemed to buy their whole illusion—that there was somewhere better, somewhere from which she was cruelly excluded.
Gavin Thurston, the coroner in Chelsea, London, later said, “This is a clear picture of someone who had been habituated to barbiturates in the form of Seconal for a very long period of time, and who on the night of June 22nd…perhaps in a state of confusion from a previous dose (although this is pure speculation) took more barbiturate than her body could tolerate.”
Judy could tolerate a lot, but she was gone. And all those who didn’t come to her wedding came to her funeral—20,000 mourners in New York. It was paid for by the intermittently mensch-ish Frank Sinatra, who said, “Judy will now have a mystic survival. She was the greatest.”
The greatest, yes. And by the end, the tiniest—skinnier even than L.B. Mayer had wanted her. The police in London found an easy way to get her emaciated body out of the house without alerting the hordes of pressmen and photographers already vulturing outside: Garland’s bird-like 4’11” form was bent double with rigor mortis, so a large cop simply placed her over his arm, put his heavy raincoat on top, and walked out of the place. For hours afterward, the pressmen stood there, wanting a final shot of Judy’s body to sell some more papers. I bet she’d have liked the thought of all those flesh-peddlers out in the rain, waiting for a blue bird that had already flown.
This essay originally appeared on afterpartychat.com