My Judy Garland Life, By Susie Boyt

This heartfelt hymn to a tragic star will make you more a fan of Susie's than a friend of Dorothy's
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Writing as someone who has been described as "a friend of Dorothy" without my ever having expressed such an attachment, I have to say that I approached this book with some caution. I am not a Judy Garland fan, at least not in the way that, say, Rufus Wainwright is. I've always found her too cloying, too needy, too desperate to be loved. Perhaps this is why she was so attracted to gay men, and they to her – at least in the bad old days before gay liberation.

The legend still persists that it was Garland's death that sparked the Stonewall riots, when grief-stricken gays fought back against the police and the modern gay rights movement was born. One wonders what the gay men of today will do the day Madonna dies. Set fire to themselves? Or build a gym in her honour, where they can worship daily and honour their heroine's ambition of achieving zero body fat?

Boyt makes no mention of the Stonewall Riots in her book, and why should she? She does touch on Garland's fanatical gay following and develops a close friendship with a gay fan she meets through a website, but really this is a book about her obsession, not theirs. And an obsession it undoubtedly is. What starts as a sort of schoolgirl crush soon develops into a fixation of life-changing proportions. Boyt is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, so she digs deep. This book excavates her passion for the woman who died five months after she was born.

As you'd expect from a memoir dedicated to such an icon, My Judy Garland Life is deliciously camp, and never more so than when the author is indulging in flights of fancy about Judy washing the dishes or Judy rustling something up in the kitchen. "I can't eat shepherd's pie without recalling Judy's recipe for that economical dish," Boyt remarks at one point, and it doesn't come much more camp than that.

Then there are her encounters with Mickey Rooney and with Garland's three children, Joe and Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli. The meeting with Minnelli inevitably raises the greatest expectations. After watching the DVD release of Liza With a "Z", Boyt orders an enormous bouquet of roses to present to Liza, so large that they obscure all but her feet: "I wanted to walk into the interview, my body obscured by a small pink tree." She even toys with the idea of wearing cherry red patent leather shoes in a nod to those famous ruby slippers. Perhaps it's for the best that the interview is postponed and the roses wither and die. When they do finally meet, Susie tells Liza: "When I watched the film, what I kept thinking was, if I were your mother I'd be insane with pride." Prior to the interview, Boyt was expressly told that Liza doesn't like to talk about her mother, so we can only assume that her reply ("Oh that's so sweet") wasn't entirely heartfelt.

Elsewhere, Boyt is brutally honest about her identification with Garland – her youthful obsession with her weight, her refusal to hide her true feelings – and equally clear about where they part company. People tell Boyt that she is "reasonably balanced and settled", whereas "Garland lived out her life at the apex of excitement in such a maelstrom of lurching highs and bitter lows, that by the end of her life she was circling the world, impossible, penniless looking anywhere for a foothold or some mooring yet still stunning audiences with her consummate performance skills." And despite attending dance classes as a child, Boyt never really took to the stage. "If only my mother had had thwarted stage ambitions," she writes. "It seemed to me this was the finest legacy you could leave a child." It's a quip worthy of Quentin Crisp, or possibly even Oscar Wilde.

It says something about Boyt's grasp of her subject that for all its girly concerns, the book this most reminded me of was Neil Bartlett's "present for Mr Oscar Wilde", Who Was that Man? Of that book, Edmund White wrote that "Neil Bartlett has grabbed history by the collar and made bitter love to it". To say that Susie Boyt has grabbed Judy Garland by the collar and made bitter love to her would be pushing it a bit. (Surely Rufus Wainwright got in there first?) But when the author visits Garland's tomb and is so overcome with emotion that she breaks down in tears, you'd need the heart of a Tin Man not to feel moved.

Having read this book, I'm still not a huge fan of Judy Garland. But I have developed quite a crush on Susie Boyt. You will, too.

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