Singer, dancer, actor and icon of old Hollywood, Judy Garland spent much of her troubled life seeking the kind of peace of mind she often sang about in songs, such as “Get Happy,” or “Over the Rainbow.” Despite the adoration she received from millions of fans around the world, Garland’s personal life was an exercise in perseverance as she attempted to navigate childhood fame, a pushy stage mother, father-figure studio executives, suicidal thoughts and actions, five marriages and drug dependency.
Forced into performing by her parents, Garland said 'the only time I felt wanted when I was a kid was when I was on stage'
Born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Garland would make her theatrical debut at the age of two and a half. “The only time I felt wanted when I was a kid was when I was on stage, performing,” Garland once said of her childhood, which was spent performing alongside her two older siblings Mary Jane and Virginia, and always under the watchful, and usually critical according to Garland, gaze of her mother, Ethel.
Garland’s father Frank Gumm, who like his wife was a former vaudevillian, ran a movie theater in Grand Rapids that also hosted live performances. His marriage to Ethel was troubled and the addition of a third child was unwelcomed, so much so that he reportedly inquired about the possibility of terminating the pregnancy. Only four years after her birth, Garland’s parents uprooted the family and moved to Lancaster, California, after rumors circulated that Frank had made sexual advances towards the male ushers at the theater.
In California, Ethel would push hard for her daughters to become noticed, with the hope they would one day appear in motion pictures. Performing as the Gumm Sisters and then the Garland Sisters, the trio would entertain at bars, clubs and theaters, with some of the venues being of questionable repute. But success was Ethel’s goal for her daughters and she would continue to push, even going as far as introducing the young Garland to pills in order to boost energy or encourage sleep, according to biographer Gerald Clark. Such antics resulted in a strained familial relationship, with Garland once referring to her mother as “the real Wicked Witch of the West.”
MGM put Garland on a strict diet and encouraged her to take 'pep pills'
Signed to MGM in 1935, teenage Garland would go on to find fame in more than two dozen films for the studio, including the Andy Hardy series with co-star Mickey Rooney. Due to her diminutive stature – she stood four feet 11 ½ inches tall – and cherubic face, Garland was often cast as characters younger than her real age. Dancing and singing in body-hugging costumes drew attention to her physique, with the result that studio head Louis B. Mayer and other executives placed Garland on a strict regimen of black coffee, chicken soup and cigarettes in order to keep her weight down.
Alongside her reduced intake, Garland was also given pills to suppress her appetite and boost her energy. Known as “pep pills” in the industry, they were utilized to ensure performers could work long, grueling hours and were often partnered with sleep-inducing medication known as downers. “They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted,” Garland told biographer Paul Donnelley of the practice. “Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills.” For the rest of her life, Garland would rely on pills, yo-yo dieting and heavy alcohol consumption to cope with performing and the mental pressures of stardom.
During these early years she was also subjected to sexual harassment and propositioned for sex by studio executives, including Mayer who Garland accused of unwanted physical overtures. “Don’t think they all didn’t try,” she said in her unfinished memoir for Random House.
She married her first husband when she was 19
Garland achieved international fame and a special Academy Award for her portrayal of Dorothy in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. Two years later, not yet 20 years of age, she would marry her first husband, bandleader David Rose who was 12 years her senior. Divorced in 1944, Garland would remarry only a year later to director Vincent Minnelli, whom she met on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis.
Minnelli encouraged his wife to drop her girl-next-door image and they worked together again on 1945’s The Clock and 1948’s The Pirate. In 1946 they welcomed a daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Garland reportedly attempted suicide twice
Though seemingly blessed with a successful career and a child she had longed for, Garland suffered crippling anxiety and was self-medicating with pills on a regular basis. Fired from MGM after 15 years, she had a nervous breakdown and reportedly attempted suicide twice. Her marriage in trouble, Garland began an affair with the man who would become her third husband, Sid Luft. Garland and Minnelli divorced in 1951.
Though she was married, unemployed and recovering after a suicide attempt, tour manager and producer Luft was enthralled by Garland and wrote in his memoir that he felt “an electrical force” between them. Married in 1952 it would be Garland’s longest union and the couple had two children together: Lorna (born 1952) and Joey (born 1955). Luft became Garland’s manager and aided in her casting for 1954’s A Star Is Born, which the couple produced through their company and was billed as a comeback for the star. Garland received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for the picture, losing to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.
According to Luft, Garland’s substance abuse continued throughout and strained their union to the point that by 1962 they were living virtually separate lives. Often high on medication, Luft wrote their young children “wouldn’t realize [Garland] was stoned” when she spent time with them. They divorced in 1965 amid accusations of abuse on Luft’s part, though he denied the claims.
Her fourth marriage lasted five months
Husband number four was Mark Herron, an actor and tour promoter who produced Garland’s two 1964 London Palladium concerts in which she performed alongside daughter Liza. Garland married Herron in 1965 but they separated only five months later. A divorce was granted with Garland testifying that Herron had beaten her. In Herron’s 1996 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he is quoted as saying he had “only hit her in self-defense.”
By this point in her life, Garland was “a demented, demanding, supremely talented drug addict,” wrote Stevie Phillips, Garland’s former agent in her book Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me, which chronicled Phillips' four years working for the star. Garland’s life was lived in a constant state of drama and near hysteria, according to the memoir, including one occasion when the star set fire to her own dressing room.
Garland was strapped for cash one year before her death
Years of substance abuse had weakened Garland’s body and voice, and by 1968 she was also in dire financial straits due to mismanagement and embezzlement of her money. She’d spent the prior decade continuing to experience extreme highs: her eponymous 1963 television variety show was well received; and very public lows: she was booed at a 1964 concert in Melbourne, Australia.
Personal debts and money owed to the IRS resulted in Garland selling her Brentwood, California home at a below-value price, and in an effort to raise further funds she accepted an offer to perform a five-week run of shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London. The series of shows form the basis of the 2019 film Judy, starring Renee Zellweger as Garland.
The shows were billed as another comeback for the star. “I’m the queen of the comeback,” Garland said to Dick Cavett during a 1968 interview. “I’m getting tired of coming back. I really am. I can’t even go to… the powder room without making a comeback.”
Garland overdosed on barbiturates and died at age 47
It was in London she married her fifth and last husband, American musician Mickey Deans, who revealed in his 1972 book, Weep No More, My Lady: The Best Selling Story of Judy Garland, that the first time they met was when he delivered a package of stimulant pills to her New York hotel in 1966. Deans, 12 years Garland’s junior, accompanied her to London and the couple set up home at a rented mews house in Belgravia, marrying at a registry office in March 1969, where Garland told reporters, “Finally, finally, I am loved.”
Three months later Deans would find Garland dead in the bathroom of their London home. Ruled accidental, her cause of death was due to an overdose of barbiturates ingested over a long period of time. There was no suggestion or evidence of suicide.
Her death, only 12 days following her 47th birthday, made headlines around the world. The media celebrated her professional legacy but also gave much attention to her troubled private life, in particular, her five marriages, frequent illnesses and almost life-long substance abuse. According to her New York Times obituary, Garland’s “personal life often seemed a fruitless search for the happiness promised in ‘Over the Rainbow,’ the song she made famous in the movie The Wizard of Oz.”