This morning, I finished the biography of Judy Garland. Man oh man, was it sad.
Judy died at the age of 47, of a pill overdose. She had been using pills for three decades–pills to wake up, pills to fall asleep, pills to quiet pain, pills to numb depression. She developed a dependency on them in her teenage years when, in her mid-teens, she was signed by MGM and was told she was homely and overweight. The studio began restricting her food and feeding her pills to get her to slim down so that she could properly play the girl-next-door, the one with the pretty voice that the leading man could fall for instead of the beautiful girls, like Lana Turner. By the time she made her most iconic movie, the Wizard of Oz, at the age of 16, she was already extremely addicted.
But Judy Garland wasn’t her real name. Judy Garland was a guise she created for herself, both outwardly and inwardly, a person she could be that the public wanted to see. Judy Garland was the heartfelt, soulful girl-next-door with the voice that could make you feel everything, who could then stand up and smile and dance and make your heart skip with joy. Judy was a character, a mask she wore.
Deep down, she was Frances Ethel Gumm, the youngest daughter of Frank and Ethel. Frank had owned theaters where Vaudeville performers could show off for the public, and Ethel had been a domineering mother who had had her own aspirations to be a star. Frank liked young men, and had trysts with some, leading him to move from town to town when he was exposed. And Ethel dressed up her daughters and had them sing for money, performing for strange men in bars and small town theaters. Little Frances had been a performer, surely; she loved to sing and she loved to show off. But ultimately she was a child with deep insecurities and a desire to be loved by her mother and her father. But Frank died, and then Ethel depended on Frances to be the breadwinner of the family. So she became Judy, and then spent a lifetime searching for Frances.
And thus began the regimens of pills, 16 hour work days, consistently competing for roles against beautiful women while being told she wasn’t pretty enough and that she had to keep her weight between 96 and 98 pounds, and public appearances non-stop.
While Judy sang and worked, Frances looked for love. She married five times, each time believing in the beauty and purity of love and newness, and each time quickly having her heart broken. And Frances didn’t do well when left with her own demons. She spent more than two decades smiling for the public while falling deeper into debt, being ravaged by taxes, and screaming for the attention of her husbands (two of whom were gay). She had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, public and private suicide attempts, collapses on stage, medical complications, and near overdoses. Judy, her appearance ranging from skeletal to obese, strutted and sang for the public as flowers were tossed at her, while Frances was torn apart in the newspapers. Judy put forth the image of the perfect family while Frances struggled to know what it meant to be a mother to her three beloved children: Liza, Lorna, and Joey.
Although it sounds a bit stereotypical, since I’m gay, I have always loved the Wizard of Oz. But it wasn’t the movie that enchanted me initially. In fact, there are many movies from my childhood that remain very near and dear to my heart (Labyrinth, Annie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Clue, Pete’s Dragon, the Sound of Music, and many others). It was the Oz books that drew me in, the epic fairy tale stories from L. Frank Baum. I loved all of the books he wrote on Oz (more than a dozen) but it was the first three that captured my childhood and left me plotting sequels on notebook paper.
I didn’t resonate with Dorothy the character all that much, but I loved her as the heroine in the first Oz book. Not a super man or a private detective, but a simple little girl from Kansas whose most heroic traits were her determinedness and her ability to win over friends with logic and a good heart. After reading the books and then going back to watch the film, it is easy to see Judy Garland’s talent at acting and singing and dancing and stage presence… but the vulnerability, the raw quality that makes Dorothy seem both brave and sad and relatable all at once? That wasn’t Judy. That was Frances.
And so as I finish her story now, I’m left feeling a bit empty and sad, like I just finished an intensive therapy session. Her younger years, she was the product of a deadly system and an unsupportive family. And then she grew into a woman who was her own worst enemy and who just couldn’t break the habits, addictions, and depressions that took her life.
And so I close this with what I find to be the most iconic quote attributed to Judy/Frances. Ironic because perhaps if she could have been a little more Frances and a little less Judy, then maybe her story wouldn’t have been so sad.
“Always be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of somebody else.”