At just 17, child star Judy Garland made a splash as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz — and entered the realm of Hollywood legend. Her endlessly complex life was filled with successes, comebacks, struggles, and determination, and we’re about to find out why. It’s time to take a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to examine the triumphs, setbacks, and even cruelty that shaped the career journey of this mythical figure of stage and screen.
The Toddler Performer
Born Frances Gumm on June 10, 1922, Judy Garland’s life was always full of adventure. Raised by vaudevillian parents, her upbringing was far from conventional. Since Garland’s parents ran a theater in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, she was thrust into the entertainer lifestyle practically from the moment she learned how to walk.
She’d perform with her two sisters under the name The Gumm Sisters. In fact, her stage name back then was “Baby Gumm”, while her sisters were nicknamed Suzy and Jimmie. Her first onstage performance was at the young age of three, when she sang the famous Christmas tune of “Jingle Bells” with her mom accompanying on piano. But a change in location would be key.
Judy Had A “Mom-ager”
Garland and her two older sisters continued to show their burgeoning talents onstage throughout the ’20s and early ’30s, with their mother Ethel managing them with an iron fist. In fact, she managed them so well that the Gumm Sisters were soon receiving roles to appear in actual motion pictures.
It also didn’t hurt that the Gumm family had just relocated across the country to Lancaster, California — which, of course, meant that they were that much closer to Hollywood. They all began to appear in a handful of movies during this time period. And it soon became unavoidably apparent that there was one sister out of the three who stood out.
Anyone who watched little Frances Gumm perform back then could see clearly how talented she was, but also agreed that her name wasn’t so catchy for show business. As happened with many stars in Hollywood at that time (and for decades after), name changes often accompanied the glorified image a studio wanted to project for their artist.
Out of her daughters, Frances was the one who her mother Ethel thought possessed the most talent. She wanted her to have a name suited for entertainment — so eventually it was decided that her stage name would be changed to Judy Garland. Young Judy was only 13 at the time, but she was already vastly more experienced than most actors. And she’d barely begun her rise to superstardom.
Parting Ways With Her Sisters
We hear similar stories of celebrity all the time: a group thrives, but one individual shines brighter than the rest, and eventually branches out to become a star. Such was the case with Judy taking her life into her own hands and establishing herself as an actress in her own right, independent of her sisters.
Bear in mind that she was barely a teenager at the time; but then again, her powerhouse of a manager, her mother, was pushing hard for her success. This passion and relentlessness ultimately landed Judy Garland a contract with established media company MGM. That was the moment when teenage Judy’s career really got kicked into top gear — though not exactly in the way she expected.
Introducing Judy To The World
Hollywood’s star-making system in the days of the Great Depression was cold and calculated. There was an agenda to make this new kid on the block, naturally talented though she was, to seem as appealing as possible to a world of potential fans and viewers.
Once she had been signed to MGM, studio hands were doing all they could to make audiences get excited about their prized starlet. One of the ways MGM did this was by releasing a handful of promotional photos of the young actress in order to create a bit of a buzz. This worked like a charm, serving to get the whole world ready for the various movies they’d soon cast her in.
Judy’s Film Debut
Judy Garland was finally given her first major role in 1936, portraying Sairy in the film Pigskin Parade. This picture combined sports, music, and comedy as well, giving the adolescent Garland a solid first challenge, as well as an opportunity to show off her versatile talents. However, this wasn’t the film that would catapult her into icon status.
There were other ideas being thrown around behind the scenes, most notably a popular screenplay that had already been adapted to a live action movie in the past, but hadn’t succeeded. The enigmatic new film seemed appropriate for this new face of MGM, but would she actually be able to step up to the task? They would soon find out.
The aforementioned film, of course, was 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz, and Garland was being considered for the esteemed role of Dorothy Gale. Not many people actually know this, but the role of Dorothy was originally earmarked for child mega-star Shirley Temple. We’ll never know just how sweetly Shirley Temple might have sung “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” — but it’s hard to beat Judy Garland’s timeless rendition.
Eventually the decision was made to cast Garland, giving her a major shot at success — and she knocked it out of the park. She was absolutely spellbinding in her iconic performance of the now-classic film, reminding us all that there’s no place like home, and that sometimes when you want something bad enough, you just have to follow the yellow brick road and get it. In her real life, however, things were quickly becoming far from sunny.
Judy Garland had real, raw talents that MGM was eager to capitalize on. She could act, she could dance, and she had a remarkably mature, sonorous singing voice. The studio was determined to monitor and control as much as possible of their prize asset — and they took some rather sinister measures to ensure that. For starters, Judy had discs fitted inside her nostrils to alter the shape of her nose.
Constant, cruel comments were made by studio executives about the teenager’s weight. MGM’s cafeteria was instructed only to serve her broth and lettuce, and Judy was ordered to only eat chicken soup, black coffee, and dozens of cigarettes a day. Not only did MGM agents spy on her to make sure she kept her diet, but they employed yet another tactic — one that would leave its mark on her for the rest of her life.
Of Medicine And Poison
In what was apparently common practice in studios back in the 1930s, and not only for its female stars, Judy Garland was put on a regimen of pills. These served several purposes. In order to make sure she would have energy despite her strict diet, stay skinny, and be able to work nonstop on various film projects, she was given amphetamines, “pep pills” to keep her on her feet.
At day’s end, sometimes after having done shoots for perhaps three days straight, wired and dizzy, she would be given barbiturates in order to fall asleep. Sadly, this wasn’t even her first encounter with pills, as some sources claim her own mother started giving her amphetamines at just 11. She was 17, hungry, chain-smoking, body-shamed, and developing a chemical dependency. Her dangerous induction into Hollywood had begun.
The Epitome Of Innocence
To this day, her performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz remains Garland’s most iconic and recognizable role the world over. There are many reasons for its longevity and esteem, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Dorothy was so pure and honest, and Judy mirrored that persona very well.
As Dorothy Gale deals with the harsh facts of the world (or at least of Oz), it’s heartening to see her handle these challenges head on. Judy Garland did an outstanding job relaying that pristine sense of innocence and virtue. But in the ’40s, after The Wizard Of Oz came out, Garland began receiving a different kind of agenda from MGM.
Transitioning Into More Mature Roles
Judy Garland had to go through very similar challenges that most child stars go through. After being known as a young innocent teen marked by the purity she exuded, she was now about to enter her twenties, and had to deal with a major image change. MGM was quite aware of this, and thus they wanted to give her more mature roles to reflect what was going on in her life.
Throughout the ’40s, Garland starred and acted in a number of major films. One of them was Little Nellie Kelly, in which she received the task of performing her first on-screen kiss, and her first death scene as well. Her characters were becoming more adult — and in real life, Judy had new goals and interests propelling her.
Real-Life Romance And Drama
Even back in that long gone era, celebrities found solace in one another’s arms pretty easily. While Judy Garland was still in her teens, she struck up a young romance with Artie Shaw, a famous bandleader of the time. Young, bright-eyed, and hopelessly in love, she was extremely loyal to Shaw.
This, of course, made it all the more devastating when Shaw left her for fellow actress Lana Turner. However, Garland resiliently bounced back pretty quickly, finding solace in the arms of a new musician named David Rose. She was just as committed to him, and he responded just as enthusiastically. But was this going to just end in heartbreak again?
Judy Garland’s Secret Engagement
Judy Garland’s relationship with David Rose was going steady, but she had no idea just how serious things were from his end of the equation — until he popped the question. Garland happily accepted, and it seemed as if everything was going to be okay in her love life.
But she had no idea of the murky dealings that were going on behind the scenes. It wasn’t long before the studio found out there was far more than met the eye: David Rose was actually still married to another actress-singer, Martha Raye. For this reason, Garland and Rose were forced to wait an entire year for the divorce to get finalized, before they could actually get married.
The Challenges Of Staying Faithful
Even back in those days, Hollywood and its accompanying lifestyle meant it was not an easy place to be in a relationship. The temptations of being in the spotlight, of having everything handed to you on a silver platter, were hard to ignore. During the year that Garland was still engaged to Rose, she ended up doing something that would badly jeopardize her relationship with him.
She had a minor fling on the side with yet another musician, Johnny Mercer. However, this affair wasn’t potent enough to destroy what she had with Rose. The pair ultimately ended up going through with their marriage regardless, little over a month after Judy’s 19th birthday in 1941. The media labeled their marriage a “true rarity” — but they’d soon be eating their words.
Dealing With Major Loss
Judy Garland’s marriage to David Rose seemed like the happily-ever-after she was hoping for — until, of course, it wasn’t. Their relationship soon enough became pockmarked by turmoil, and it wasn’t long before they decided to undergo a trial separation. This ultimately led to a full-blown divorce in 1944, leaving them both to date whomever they pleased.
But unfortunately for Garland, there was another issue she was being faced with. She was pregnant with Rose’s child, and the studio didn’t approve of it, especially in light of the divorce. To make matters worse, her mother was also vehemently against Judy having a baby. And so, in a gut-wrenchingly callous move, ultimately Garland was forced to terminate her pregnancy. The decade was about to shake her.
Judy Felt Insecure Inside
It was around this time that Judy’s career path began to get rocky. She was a young actress in the prime of her career, and everyone adored her — so what was the problem? The issue was that Hollywood is a cutthroat business, and there will always be people seeking to thrive from negativity. Such was the case for Judy Garland, with critics commenting on whether her career was going downhill.
For a young star like Garland, the constant stream of harsh attention can be hard to ignore, sewing the seeds for deep-rooted feelings of incompetence. These feelings were about to manifest in a very real way. Unfortunately, instead of handling it with grace, Hollywood, the system that changed her name and put her on pills, was turning her into something that would only cause more trouble.
A Completely New Judy
Judy Garland began getting better and better projects. She starred alongside a new face on the screen, one Gene Kelly, in the 1942 production For Me and My Gal, directed by famed choreographer Busby Berkeley, an excellent vehicle to show off their multiple talents of acting, singing, and dancing. And for her 1943 film Presenting Lily Mars, the studio decided to give Garland a complete makeover.
Judy was given a “glamour treatment” that would let the world know she wasn’t a little girl any more. From her wardrobe to her hair, Garland’s image, and indeed her career, seemed to be taking a major turn. But deep inside, she wasn’t happy at all. She had trouble separating herself from that “girl next door” type, and felt like the audience would never take her seriously.
More Passion And Deceit
Judy Garland was trying to find her voice as a professional in the industry, but her personal life kept spilling into the public sphere. It was learned that she and well-renowned actor and director Orson Welles actually had an affair in the mid-’40s, even though he was married at the time to one of the top actresses of the time, Rita Hayworth.
However, beside the scandal and the gossip, there were more stable relationships blossoming in Garland’s life. While filming one of her most iconic roles in the 1944 hit musical Meet Me in St. Louis, she butted heads with reputable director Vincente Minnelli — but what started off as sour would eventually turn into something much more sweet. A new love was emerging. But her biggest hardship yet was right around the corner.
Judy Garland’s Greatest Gift
Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland had met as far back as 1940, yet the fire took several years to be kindled. Smitten, on June 15th, 1945, the pair were married. A year later, Judy gave birth to her first daughter, Liza, who would grow up to be a tour-de-force of the acting and singing world in her own right.
Beyond her acting and singing careers, she had another role to play in society, one that would endure beyond the years of her life. She was, and still remains, a symbol of hope for one particular demographic in the world today.
Friend Of Dorothy
Judy Garland is one of the biggest and most recognizable icons for generations of the LGBTQ community. Her role as Dorothy is crucial in understanding this; Dorothy accepts a variety of characters, each with their quirks — and, of course, she sings “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. Considering that very same image has become the symbol of gay pride, it’s no surprise she seamlessly found acceptance in the gay world, then highly repressed and underground.
From her ruby red slippers on screen, to her image as a strongly talented diva constantly being broken down, many LGBTQ could identify with the hounding she suffered. In fact, the phrase “friend of Dorothy” became a code phrase for gay men under the radar in the 1940s. Behind the scenes, Judy reportedly loved going to gay bars with her few openly gay peers in Hollywood. But even finding a crowd who loved her as she was couldn’t save her.
Keeping Judy Whole
In April 1947, while being directed by her husband alongside Gene Kelly in the film The Pirate, Judy Garland suffered a nervous breakdown. With her daughter barely over a year old, Judy was placed in a private hospital. After enough time there, she was cleared to continue filming. But her return to the studio did not signify a full recovery of Judy’s mental health.
The Hollywood system, its control and its demands, had become too much for her. Absent from many days of shooting, depressed, dependent on pills, and seeing her marriage strained, several months later, Garland attempted to take her own life. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Filming of The Pirate was further delayed, ultimately losing a lot of money due to the production costs of shuffling around scheduling. But a few glimmers of hope were yet to peek over her horizon.
A New Judy Garland Is Born
Many stars go through a period where they attempt to reinvent their career in attempts to stay relevant. The ’50s began with Judy divorcing Vincente Minnelli and marrying her tour manager Sidney Luft, with whom she would have daughter Lorna and son Joey. After a series of wildly successful international stage tours, in 1954, she starred alongside actor James Mason in the legendary musical remake of A Star is Born.
The difficulties Judy faced behind the scenes of A Star is Born, wracked by illness or fear of illness, are widely known. Similar to before, this led to multiple shooting delays, resulting in financial losses for the production company. Nonetheless, her performance received rave reviews. Time referred to it as “the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history”. She was even nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. And she had some other sources of income that were paying off.
Viva Las Vegas
Husband Luft was responsible in part for helping revitalize Judy’s career. But she realized that if she wanted to stay relevant in show business, she had to keep all of her options open. She soon began to do a handful of television specials, including on the anthology series Ford Star Jubilee in 1955. But Garland was thinking beyond just the television medium.
She soon received offers to perform live shows at Las Vegas, and even earned $55,000 a week to perform at the New Frontier Hotel (this was worth a lot more back then). In 1960, Garland also signed a lucrative deal to write an autobiography, which became yet another key source of income. But all these successes couldn’t solve her struggles off camera.
Judy Was A Victim Of Abuse
After Vincente Minnelli, Judy had thought she’d found her match with Sidney Luft. Yet his treatment of Garland was quite appalling. She divorced him in 1963, on multiple claims of abuse, both physical and mental. According to Judy, he had been cruel to her in a variety of ways, including striking her when under the influence.
In fact, understandably, Judy had been trying to divorce Sidney Luft for years, and at last it seemed she would have this burden off of her shoulders. But although she was finally free of this toxic relationship, inside, the star’s health was rapidly deteriorating.
Performing Through The Pain
After decades of grueling schedules, difficult relationships, the strain of the industry, mental turmoil, and the ever-present pills, Judy Garland’s health was not in good shape throughout the ’60s. Nonetheless, she consented to take on an even bigger workload. In addition to her stint in Vegas, Garland also toured to London and throughout the United States, singing to audiences who were absolutely spellbound by her unforgettable singing voice.
Even before the decade had begun, in 1959, Judy had suffered one of her biggest health scares yet. She had been hospitalized for getting hepatitis, and the ordeal nearly took her life. The doctors attributed it to stress — but she continued to work her tail off in the competitive industry she knew and loved.
Judy’s Final Hurrah
Despite warning signs from the doctor, Judy Garland powered her way through the ’60s, hoping to make another massive comeback. She started off by appearing in the star-studded 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, a serious and dark role far removed from her screen image. The bold choice actually landed her another Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actress. But some say her defining moment of the decade happened later that year.
Recorded in 1961, Garland’s live album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, ended up snagging her two Grammy Awards — one for Best Solo Vocal Performance, and one for Album of the Year. After all the struggles she had gone through, the hills and peaks, the fame and the disappointments, this was definitely seen as a major victory. And then, it all came crashing down.
A Star Is Reborn
Judy had worked hard to regain her name in the ’60s, despite yet another marriage that ended painfully, agents mismanaging her money and forcing her to sell her home, and being mistreated and ultimately fired from a film that could have been a great comeback for her, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. On June 22, 1969, at age 47, Judy Garland sadly passed away in London.
Judy had accidentally ingested a barbiturate overdose. 20,000 grieving fans showed up to pay their respects at her Manhattan funeral. Incidentally, one day later, members of the LGBTQ community, whom she had loved and had loved her in return, rose up against police repression at the Stonewall Inn, launching the modern gay rights movement. Through her music and films, as well as the Oscar-winning 2019 biopic, Judy Garland continues to be cherished — and introduced to new generations of fans.
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