Sid Luft

Film producer third husband of Judy Garland who revived her career


Michael Sidney Luft, film producer: born New York 2 November, 1915; married 1943 Lynn Bari (died 1989; one son; marriage dissolved 1950), 1952 Judy Garland (died 1969; one son, one daughter, one stepdaughter; marriage dissolved 1965), 1970 Patti Hemingway (marriage dissolved), 1993 Camille Keaton; died Santa Monica, California 15 September 2005.

The producer Sid Luft was Judy Garland's third husband, and is credited with reviving her flagging career in the early Fifties by encouraging her concert performances and producing the film A Star is Born. He met Garland at a crucial point of her life. The star of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis, The Pirate and Easter Parade had just made her final MGM musical, Summer Stock, and had been in the headlines through being sacked from the film version of Annie Get Your Gun and for a heavily publicised suicide attempt.

When Luft began to court her, reactions from those who knew him were mixed. The writer Fred Finklehoffe, who had been having an affair with Garland, referred to Luft as "a dirty, low-down S.O.B.", but the director Vincente Minnelli, to whom Garland was still married, said that Luft "has seemingly discovered the secret to keeping Judy sane and healthy".

Michael Sidney Luft was born to a middle-class Jewish family in New Rochelle, in the Bronxville section of New York, in 1915, and is reputed to have been a pugnacious youth who enrolled at the Charles Atlas correspondence school for body-building and had some success as an amateur boxer. At the age of 19 he worked in Ottawa on the production staff of an aquacade, which gave him a taste for show business, and after a spell in the Royal Canadian Air Force he went to Los Angeles, where an old friend from his youth, Eleanor Powell, had become the screen's top female dancing star. Powell and the tall, handsome Luft allegedly became lovers, and he also served as her personal manager.

He then worked as a test pilot for the aircraft firm Douglas, which prompted 20th Century-Fox to hire him as consultant on a film they were making, Charter Pilot (1940), starring Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari. The film was a "B" movie, typical of the product that Bari had been starring in. A contract player at the studio since the mid-Thirties, she had failed to reach the heights of stardom, but had become a reliable star of minor films and a supporting player (usually as "the other woman") in major ones. Luft married Bari in 1943, and they had a son, John.

After Bari's contract at Fox concluded with the thankless role of a school librarian in the Jeanne Crain vehicle Margie (1946), he advised her not to renew her contract but to freelance, and let him manage her career. Her first film under this arrangement was a good, if minor, film noir, Nocturne (1946), with George Raft, but after that her career flagged.

Luft then fulfilled an ambition to be a film producer with the movie Kilroy Was Here (1947). It was a low-grade one made for the "poverty row" studio Monogram, starring former the child stars Jackie Cooper (as the Kilroy of the slogan) and Jackie Coogan, but it proved popular enough for Luft to produce a sequel with the same stars entitled French Leave (1948).

When he met Garland, both of them were in the process of divorcing their partners, and Luft had gained a reputation as a ladies' man and heavy drinker, with a predilection for bar-room brawls and a passion for racetrack gambling. "I grew up in a rough New York neighbourhood," he said,

and didn't put up with shit from anyone. I'm a survivor, with the scars to show for it, and I think that appealed to Judy. She needed someone to lean on who wouldn't crack.

When MGM finally ended their association with Garland in September 1950, Luft was one of those who persuaded her to accept an invitation to appear at the London Palladium, a venue which had established a reputation for showcasing Hollywood's finest entertainers. The triumphant engagement in 1951 led to Garland's record-breaking appearance in New York, bringing back vaudeville to the Palace Theatre after 10 years. (During rehearsals, Garland had discovered that she was pregnant with Luft's child, but he persuaded her to have an abortion.)

Bing Crosby, on whose radio show Garland had often appeared, wanted her to co-star with him in the musical Just for You, but Luft dissuaded her, pointing out that the role was subsidiary to Crosby's (Jane Wyman ultimately played the part). Garland was later to say of this period,

Sid kept telling me that my career wasn't over, that it had just begun. He was so right. He took me through the dark times, and I'll never forget that.

In June 1952, after Garland found she was pregnant again, she and Luft were married. "She had a very sensuous body," recalled Luft in 2001. "Up close, her skin was like porcelain, pure white. I was crazy about her." Their daughter, Lorna, was born in November 1952, and their son Joey in 1955.

In 1953 production started on Garland's "comeback" movie, A Star is Born, made by Warners in association with Transcona, a production company formed by Luft. It was a musical remake of the 1937 film about a small-town girl who becomes a great movie star while her actor husband's career fades. Neither the director George Cukor nor the studio head Jack Warner felt kindly towards Luft, Warner later writing in his autobiography,

He's one of the original guys who promised his parents he'd never work a day in his life - and made good.

Lauren Bacall, a friend of Garland and her husband, later defended Luft:

Sid was a wheeler-dealer, but not a bad guy. He and Judy were crazy about each other...He gave her a semblance of family life. And he always took care of his children - he was devoted to them . . . Judy had a hard time dealing with life - she needed constant reassurance. Whatever quirks Sid may have had, he was the one who helped her get through.

A Star is Born won critical praise and six Oscar nominations, including ones for stars Garland and James Mason, but it was a box-office disappointment and failed to re-ignite Garland's film career. Film footage of the movie's premiere shows Garland's obvious devotion to her husband, but the marriage was to become increasingly stormy - both heavy drinkers, they were involved in some publicised rows, both with each other and with others. They separated and reconciled several times before they were divorced in 1965, Garland claiming that he struck her, drank excessively and used profane language in front of the children. Luft married twice more, as did Garland, who died in 1969.

In 1993 Luft tried to auction the Academy Award that Garland had received in 1939 as best juvenile actress in The Wizard of Oz, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sued him, claiming they had the right to buy the Oscar back for $10, and they won.

Recently, Luft became estranged from his daughter, Lorna, claiming that her 1998 autobiography Me and My Shadows: a family memoir, which was made into a television movie (Life with Judy Garland: me and my shadows, 2001), contained "so many lies" and erroneously charged him with mismanaging her money.

Luft is survived by his fourth wife, Camille Keaton (great-niece of Buster Keaton and star of I Spit on Your Grave, 1978), his three children and his stepdaughter Liza Minnelli.

Tom Vallance

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