Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Gay Pride

A special Villager supplement

Trying to understand my, our, love affair with Judy Garland

By Jerry Tallmer

In a hotel room high over Central Park South, George Cukor stopped dead in his tracks. He stared out and down through a picture window overlooking the park.

“There’s some fucking white thing down there,” said Mr. Cukor, half to me, the reporter on the case, half to his companion, a gentleman more or less in Cukor’s then own 70s who had come along for the ride from Hollywood. “What’s that fucking white thing down there?”

I have not ever, before or since, heard anyone homosexual or heterosexual issue the F word quite so frequently and joyously as George Cukor, who in that perhaps half-hour tossed it two or three times into almost every part of speech, whether shooting the breeze about Katharine Hepburn or James Stewart or Judy Holiday or Joan Crawford or Garbo or Audrey Hepburn, or some effing white thing down there out that window.

This was the man who had directed 10 or 20 of the movies I had loved best in all this world — bright, crackling, intelligent, affecting American movies — from “Dinner at Eight” (1933) to “Camille” (1936) to “Holiday” (1938) to “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) to “A Woman’s Face” (1941) to “Adam’s Rib” (1949) to “Born Yesterday” (1950) to “The Marrying Kind” (1952) to “It Should Happen to You” in 1954, which is also the year George Cukor oversaw the motion picture which from the very first has dug deeper under my skin than all those other wonders put together. It is called “A Star Is Born.” It relit — more incandescent than ever before — Judy Garland’s own burnt-out star at age 32; did somewhat the same for James Mason. The occasion for Cukor’s press tour was that great film’s revival booking in New York maybe 15 years ago. And here he was, this man of ultra-sophistication and civilized strength who had helped her do it, effing this and effing that and especially effing that white thing, whatever it was, 20 stories below.

So I looked out the window and saw something white moving around. Mr. Cukor, I said, that is the polar bear in the Central Park Zoo.

Flashback: I think the year would be 1963 — one of those years when, at the New York Post, I was called upon to write television reviews during sabbaticals of the regular TV man, an assignment that very nearly made an alcoholic out of an alcoholic.

I am watching a talk show with all the fascination of someone being hypnotized by a cobra — the cobra in this instance being New York magazine theater critic John Simon, who keeps saying how horribly sick he is of Judy Garland “spewing her guts, regurgitating her insides, all over us.” He says it once, says it twice, three times, and finally Otto Preminger, across the table from him, explodes Teutonically with: “But-t-t you are shpeaking about vun uff zee greatest talents of all time!” Nothing daunted, Simon starts belaboring Miss Garland’s insides for the fourth time, and just when Otto Preminger looks ready to bomb Mr. Simon and the entire television studio into dust, Betty Furness, running the program, swiftly and coolly says: “This subject is now closed,” and it is.

I am looking for a key here somewhere, an explanation with which to unlock a mystery that has baffled me over many years, a phenomenon that crystallized most dramatically, and tellingly, on that night in June 1969 — 37 years ago this month — when some sharp share of the 2,000 people who had filed past Judy Garland’s casket at Frank E. Campbell’s in the previous 24 hours fought back against the police in the Battle of Stonewall that gave birth to the Gay Pride movement in this country.

Why do so many gay people — most gay people, so far as the eye can see — adore Judy Garland? What was it about her that engendered such adoration? Surely it wasn’t just her marriages to several apparently homosexual young men, because Vincente Minnelli, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, was not, I was long ago apprised, homosexual — just look at the way he makes close-up love to exquisite 21-year-old Judy as she sings “The Boy Next Door” in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” or look at her in “The Clock” and “The Pirate” — and Sid Luft, the father of her other two children, was almost the cliché diametric opposite of homosexual.

So I think we go back to John Simon’s “spewing her guts, her insides, all over us.” I think that’s it. Judy Garland not only knew something about being wounded, she was virtually born wounded and very quickly, on the MGM lot, as we all know, suffered the tender barbiturate mercies of that studio and the trauma of an abortion as commanded by Louis B. Mayer when also in her early 20s. She had an uncrushable, marvelous, unique sense of humor — was really a very funny woman, if you ever talked with her — but she was walking wounded for all that, and it burned through.

Flashback. Atlantic City. A holiday weekend in I think the summer of 1961. Our newborn twins, at home, are being cared for over the weekend by Louise’s parents.

On the Boardwalk, at the entrance to the Convention Center, there is a sign. Very simple: “JUDY JUDY JUDY.” The Convention Center, as big as a football field, must seat upwards of 3,000. Tickets are available in the very last row only. O.K., I’ll take two.

And there she is, bouncing out onto the stage, a tiny figure in a most unflattering checked jacket, who looks to be 2 miles away, a far cry from the Esther Blodgett who saves Norman Maine’s drunken ass as he stumbles on stage at the beginning of “A Star Is Born.” Can Judy do it? Will she do it? Attempt it? Is the voice still there? Can she hit the high note without cracking? On those great old songs?

“Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town … I saw a man dancing with his own wife!” — the laughter, infectious laughter, trickles to us through her nose. The big moment is approaching. Second chorus.

“Chi-ca-go, Chi — kahh — go!” She’s hit it, she’s done it, she’s made it, and as she prances and sings her way across the border of the stage from our right to left and back again, 3,000 people let out a sigh of relief. Then suddenly I see what looks like grain, amber waves of grain, surging this way, that way, under a following spot, across the floor of the Convention Center, like a field of wheat in shifting winds.

A field of wheat made up of hands, hundreds of hands, maybe a thousand hands up front, reaching for her — reaching, reaching — straining to reach Judy Garland as she hits the high one again and laughs and finishes this song and launches into another.

I don’t have to tell you which. She does this one, as always, seated at the footlights, knees up, clutched in her own arms into a tiny W.

Flashback. Aboard a troopship crossing the Pacific. A smartass young sergeant who seems to know everything. Says he met Judy Garland at a U.S.O. in Los Angeles. “And she’s very, very Jewish,” he confides.

He should live so long. Frances Ethel Gumm was three-quarters Scottish and one-quarter Irish, the Internet tells us. But I take his scoop as a compliment anyway.

Flashback. Basement of the Palace Theater, Broadway, 1967. Judy Garland has just come off the stage after “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at these footlights — and after dragging Liza, Lorna and Joey out there with her, as I saw her also do on Long Island. The three kids are now waiting around, here in the Palace basement, for their mother to finish her on-our-feet interview with me. Sid Luft, meanwhile, who has made his ex-wife’s return to the Palace possible, whatever else his pluses or minuses, is sitting on a trunk in the middle distance, impatiently kicking his heels.

Miss Garland gets me laughing at something, I don’t remember what. My heart is beating too hard anyway. She has got through those high notes again, here, but not as easily and not as decisively as six years earlier at Atlantic City. The relief of all concerned is palpable.

I go back to the paper, write my piece, using, as a lead, the phoenix that always rises from the ashes just when everybody sees him/her as dead. Two days later something arrives at my desk. A bottle of champagne and a card: “Dear Mr. Tallmer, You not only write nice things about me but you write it so well … ”

June 22, 1969. Dead in London at 47 years and 12 days. This is Mrs. Norman Maine. “I thought she’d outlive us all,” said Liza.

She has. She will. Wounds, laughter, guts and all

.

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