They liked it when she stumbled on stage and forgot her lyrics, when she ballooned up to 15 stone, when she shrank to insect thinness. They loved it when they heard of the 20-odd suicide attempts, the pill addictions, the booze. She was Woman on the cross, and oh, how they loved her vulnerability. She in turn had a great affection for gays, probably because her adored father was one: three of her five husbands were gay. Her own sexual tastes bordered on nymphomania, and including a few lesbian affairs. Shipman shows that Hollywood in its heyday was a sexual free-for-all comparable to the last days of Imperial Rome, and Garland was a game participant.
What went wrong? How did so much stunning talent blow itself out so young? Garland was a trouper at 10, a film star at 16, a has-been at 26, dead at 47. Her life seems to have spun on fast-forward. She was appearing on stage, as 'Baby Gumm', while still a toddler. Later, she blamed all her problems on her mother, who she believed sacrificed her on the altar of her own ambition, but then she in turn dragged her daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, on stage almost as soon as they could walk. Garland also blamed the studio, MGM, which she said worked her like a slave from the age of 13, and gave her pills to get thin and pills to go to sleep and pills to wake
up. But in fact MGM seems to have been unusually patient with her: Shipman quotes memos recording day after day of late arrivals, unexplained absences, and a general pattern of time-keeping on a par with Marilyn Monroe's. Yet still they accommodated her,
and even paid her hospital bills after she was fired.
The real problem was the pills, which she would gobble by the handful. When she finally died, sitting on the lavatory, the autopsy confirmed a long history of Seconal addiction. She was probably addicted by the age of 20 and quite blatant about it: she would run around film sets asking the technicians if they had any Benzedrine. Her children learned, painfully young, to empty their mother's capsules and fill them with sugar; wardrobe assistants would find caches of pills sewn into the hems of her clothes. The last few years were horrifying: penniless, unable to sing, her contract sold by her ex-husband Sid Luft to a gang of hoodlums, she slept on her daughter's friends' floors and lived on handouts.
And yet, for all the squalor of her later years, there was a sort of valiant grace to her. Doris Day said that 'unhappy as she was, there was something straight about Judy', while many other people testified to her charm, her wit and her insatiable desire to please; several recalled that they laughed more with her than with anyone else they ever met.
David Shipman is a trustworthy biographer who steers a tactful course between realism and admiration. He obviously is a fan, and enough of one to persuade a non-fan like me that Garland was a truly incomparable singer and actress, but he is never besotted. He records the bad comments (Anita Loos calling her 'a character ruled by petulance') as well as the good, and is properly sceptical of some of Garland's own wilder claims, noting that she was a compulsive liar. The only faults of the book are that it is poorly illustrated and about 100 pages too long.