In 1954, actress and singer Judy Garland starred in what as destined to be her last iconic film role, as Esther Blodgett (aka Vicki Lester) in A Star is Born. Though she played the ingenue in the film, Garland herself perhaps had more in common with Vicki’s love interest Norman Maine (James Mason), a former A lister whose career had begun to wane. Then a mere 32-years-old, Garland had already spent most of her life on the stage and screen, with a career that oscillated wildly along with her own mental and physical health. It was a trend that she would sadly continue until her death, 15 years later.
“I’m the queen of the comeback,” Garland said during an interview in 1968. “I’m getting tired of coming back. I really am. I can’t even go to… the powder room without making a comeback.”
Judy Garland’s life was marked with tragedy from beginning to end. Before she traveled down the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz, she had to confront a difficult family life — including a driven stage mother — and a studio system that thought nothing of giving a young girl pills to lose weight and to keep her working long hours. We look back at her turbulent youth and how it shaped her into an artist who could touch audiences for generations.
Actress and singer Judy Garland was born June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Garland signed a movie contract with MGM at the age of 13. In 1939, she scored one of her greatest on-screen successes with The Wizard of Oz. In 1950, MGM dropped her from her contract. In the 1960s, Judy Garland spent more time as a singer than an actress. She died in 1969 of an accidental overdose.
Judy Garland Biography and Profile
Judy Garland: Early Life
Actress and singer Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Garland, the star of many classic musical films, was known for her tremendous talent and troubled life. The daughter of vaudeville professionals, she started her stage career as a child.
Garland was called “Baby Gumm” and sang “Jingle Bells” at her first public performance at the age of two and a half. With her two older sisters, Susie and Jimmie, Garland soon began performing as part of the Gumm Sisters.
In 1926, the Gumm family moved to California where Garland and her sisters studied acting and dancing. They played numerous gigs that their mother, Ethel, had arranged for them as their manager and agent. In the late 1920s, the Gumm sisters also appeared in several short films.
The Gumm sisters transformed into the Garland sisters at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1934. Traveling with their mother, the sisters played at a theater with comedian George Jessel, who reportedly suggested they become the Garland sisters. Garland shed her nickname “Baby” in favor of a more mature and vibrant Judy.
The following year, she would become a solo act, signing a movie contract with MGM at the age of 13. It was on a radio broadcast that November, however, that Garland debuted one of the songs most closely associated with her, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” Shortly after the program aired, Garland suffered a great personal loss when her father, Frank, died of spinal meningitis.
Judy Garland: Breakout Role
Despite her personal anguish, Garland continued on her path to film stardom. One of her first feature film roles was in Pigskin Parade (1936). Playing a girl-next-door type, Garland went on to co-star in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), with friend Mickey Rooney. The two proved to be a popular pairing, and they co-starred in several more Andy Hardy films.
Not only was she working a lot, but Garland was also under pressure from the studio about her looks and her weight. She was given amphetamines to boost her energy and control her weight. Unfortunately, Garland would soon become reliant on this medication, along with needing other substances to help her sleep. Drug problems would plague her throughout her career.
In 1939, Garland scored one of her greatest on-screen successes with The Wizard of Oz, which showcased her singing talents as well as her acting abilities. Garland received a special Academy Award for her portrayal of Dorothy, the girl from Kansas transported to Oz. She soon made several more musicals, including Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes of Broadway (1942), with Rooney, and For Me and My Gal (1943), with Gene Kelly.
Judy Garland: Personal Life
Garland married for the first time at the age of 19. Her union with bandleader David Rose was decidedly short-lived, however. On the set of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), another of Garland’s signature films, she met director Vincent Minnelli. She officially divorced Rose in 1945 and soon wed Minnelli. The couple also welcomed a daughter, Liza, in 1946. Unfortunately, Garland’s second marriage only lasted a little longer than her first. The Garland-Minnelli union was practically over by 1949 (they officially divorced in 1952).
Around this time, Garland began to break down emotionally. Likely exhausted from years of constant work and from all the medications she used to keep herself going, she developed a reputation for being unreliable and unstable. In 1950, MGM dropped her from her contract because of her emotional and physical difficulties. Garland’s career appeared to be spiraling downward.
Judy Garland: Singing and Acting
In 1951, Garland started to rebuild her career with help from producer Sid Luft. She starred in her own show on Broadway at the Palace Theater, which drew large crowds and ran for more than 20 weeks. More than simply showcasing her powerful and expressive voice, the revue also proved that Garland was a dedicated performer, helping to dispel the earlier negative stories about her. She earned a special Tony Award for her work on the show and her contributions to vaudeville in 1952.
Garland married Luft in 1952, which was a stormy relationship by some reports. They had two children together — daughter Lorna in 1952 and son Joey in 1955. Whatever personal difficulty Garland and Luft had, he had a positive impact on her career and was instrumental in putting together one of her greatest films. Starring opposite James Mason, Garland gave an outstanding performance as a woman who obtains stardom at the price of love in A Star Is Born (1954). Her rendition of “The Man That Got Away” is considered one of her best performances on film, and she was nominated for an Academy Award.
In the 1960s, Garland spent more time as a singer than an actress, but she still managed to earn another Academy Award nomination. She played a woman who had been persecuted by the Nazis in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. That same year, Garland won Grammy Awards for Best Solo Vocal Performance and Album of the Year, for Judy at Carnegie Hall. Despite all of her success as a singer, these were the only Grammy wins of her career.
Garland also tried her hand at series television. From 1963 to 1964, she starred in The Judy Garland Show. The program went through many changes in its short run, but its strongest moments featured Garland showcasing her singing ability. Her two daughters, Lorna and Liza, made appearances on the show, as did her old co-star, Rooney. Jazz and pop vocalist Mel Tormé served as the program’s musical adviser. For her work on the show, Garland earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program in 1964.
Judy Garland: Final Years and Death
Although her television series ended, Garland was still in demand as an entertainer, playing gigs around the world. But her personal life was as troubled as ever. After many separations, Garland divorced Luft in 1965 after a bitter battle over child custody. She quickly remarried — this time to actor Mark Herron. But that union lasted only a few months before dissolving. The pair officially divorced in 1967, the same year Garland made a critically acclaimed return to Broadway for At Home at the Palace.
The next year, Garland went to London. She was in personal and financial trouble by this time. During performances at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, Garland was clearly not in good shape on stage.
Garland wed former bandleader and club manager Mickey Deans in March 1969. However, just a few months later, on June 22, 1969, she died in London of what was reported to be an accidental overdose.
Judy Garland: Legacy
The legacy of Garland has been carried on by her daughters, both of whom are singers and have had varying degrees of success. Lorna wrote about her life with Garland in her 1998 autobiography, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir. It became the basis for the 2001 television mini-series Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Both of the featured actresses — Tammy Blanchard as young Judy and Judy Davis as more mature Judy — took home Emmy Awards for their portrayals of the famed entertainer.
Despite her premature death, Garland continues to maintain a devoted following. There are countless fan sites online as well as published biographies that explore almost every aspect of her life — from her brilliant talent, her professional successes and failures, and her myriad of personal struggles. In celebration of the late star, the Judy Garland Museum at her birthplace holds an annual festival.
In September 2019, the biopic Judy starring Renée Zellweger explores Garlands final year and London concerts.
Frances Ethel Gumm Biography and Profile (Biography)