Before her untimely death at age 47 in 1969, Judy Garland accomplished more than most of us will in twice as many years. However, the woman often called “the world’s greatest entertainer,” who had numerous classic films, beloved recordings and legendary concerts on her resume and who endured a sometimes turbulent personal life, was never able to complete her memoir, despite numerous attempts to do so. “It’s going to be one hell of a great—everlastingly great—book with humor, tears, fun, emotion, and love,” she’d said upon signing a contract in 1960 to write her autobiography. Now, more than 50 years later, Randy Schmidt, author of Little Girl Blue, a superb biography of Karen Carpenter, with Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters has attempted to complete the task for the late superstar. Schmidt has chronologically compiled numerous interviews with magazines and transcribed TV conversations to offer a fascinating portrait of the woman using her own words. In a recent chat with Queerty, Schmidt revealed how Garland felt about her predominantly gay fan base and what might have happened if she hadn’t accidentally overdosed in 1969.
Queerty: There have already been dozens of books written about Judy. What was the impetus for yours?
Randy Schmidt: When I discovered the “Musicians in Their Own Words” series from Chicago Review Press, which published Little Girl Blue, I was intrigued with the concept and wondered who I might be able to contribute. I have adored Judy before I really knew anything about her, having fallen in love with “Dorothy” at age four. I bought my first Judy “Greatest Hits” cassette around age six and was shocked by what I heard. That sure wasn’t Dorothy singing “Over the Rainbow.” I began to explore her other films, learned more about her concert career and so on, and was a “Friend of Dorothy” long before I knew what that meant. In fact, when I did learn that term and discovered Judy was considered to be a gay icon, I began to distance myself from her. I sold many of the pieces of memorabilia I’d collected from childhood, and I decided it was time to put such childish things away and be a man.
The catalyst for the autobiography was Judy’s illness in late 1959 and early 1960. It was around that time that she was hospitalized at Manhattan’s Doctors Hospital and was told she’s never sing again. The doctors went so far as to tell her she would likely be a semi-invalid for the rest of her life. Judy’s husband Sid Luft went to Bennett Cerf at Random House and in no time they had a deal and a ghostwriter, Freddie Finklehoffe, began working with Judy to document her recollections. They made a number of tapes together and she was in good spirits, despite her recent prognosis. As we all know, it was barely a year later that Judy triumphed at Carnegie Hall, so her semi-invalidism was short lived. The project was set aside when she went back to touring and didn’t resume until after the cancellation of her CBS television series in 1964. She would return the project when times were tough or she was out of work. She went back to Bennett Cerf for more money in 1967, but he reminded her she hadn’t made good on their first contract. Penning an autobiography was obviously something very important to Judy. She worked on it off and on for nearly a decade, but she never sat still long enough to complete anything substantial.
Your book is very respectful to Judy and her legacy, but there’s a tendency for the media to focus on the negative aspects of her life and career. Why do you think this continues to hold such fascination?
Because it sells, I suppose. Several newspapers and tabloids have already excerpted parts of the book or created articles from its content, and it’s all about pills, suicide attempts and her hatred of Hollywood. Seeing the book featured in a national publication is great, but that is not at all an accurate representation of the book’s overall content.
Judy did have a dark side. How did you avoid making your book sensationalistic?
I like to read salacious and scandalous stuff as much as anyone, but as an author I am not one to manufacture it when it’s not already there. I suppose I could have framed the book somewhat differently to appeal to the tragedy seekers, but I felt this book was the first truly intimate and personal glimpse into her heart and mind. She deserves the best. She deserves to be honored with dignity.
Judy was known to embellish her tales on occasion. How did you sort the facts from the false stories?
I did my best to provide what I feel is an adequate disclaimer in the book’s Preface. I didn’t want to over-edit and get in the way of Judy. With the exception of correcting some common misspellings and using editor’s notes sparingly to identify major factual errors, I felt it was best to leave the articles as they’d originally appeared in print all those years ago.
She had a unique ability to not take herself too seriously. She could find humor in some of the saddest, most tragic situations that would cause any normal person to curl up in the fetal position and want to die.
While working on this project what did you learn about her that most surprised you?
I knew very little of her attempts to write an autobiography before I set out to do this project, so finding out how important it was to her was a pleasant surprise. I think authors sometimes struggle with how to present this sort of material in a way that is fresh and exciting. Who better to introduce and basically endorse the book than Judy herself? I was also taken with her wit. I knew she was funny, but had no idea to what extent. I think her sense of humor radiates from the pages of this book. She was so quick and so bizarre sometimes that I found myself laughing out loud. I know I drove my partner crazy with my outbursts of quotes that just had to be shared at all hours of the day and night.
How did Judy feel about her predominantly gay fan base and why do you think gay audiences responded to her so passionately?
Although Judy rarely addressed her gay audience as her “gay audience,” she did seem to come to their defense from time to time. In a 1965 press conference — in San Francisco, actually — she was asked how she felt about her gay following. She told those gathered, “I couldn’t care less. I sing to people!” Several years later, another interviewer asked about the abundance of homosexual fans. She explained that she’d always been treated brutally by the press and said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated.” What is most telling in regards to Judy’s kindness and love for others is the way she spoke on the topic of religion. It was 1946, so she was light years ahead of many in her generation. She said this: “I believe that the real expression of your religious beliefs is shown in the daily pattern of your life, in what you contribute to your surroundings and what you take away without infringing on the rights of other people. I don’t disapprove of people who make a habit of focusing all their thoughts on religious ideas, unless they let religion become an opiate with them and do harmful things to other people. No one should feel that because he goes to church every Sunday he can do cruel things which people are not ordinarily supposed to do and that God will overlook his bad behavior.”
Talent like Judy’s is timeless. I think people of most any generation can look at the output of an entertainer like Judy and appreciate the immense talent, whether it’s their type of film or music or whatever. The talent is undeniable. And of course there’s the appeal of The Wizard of Oz, which didn’t just make her a star, it made her immortal, really.
Based on your research, what do you think would have happened to Judy if she hadn’t died in 1969?
It’s likely that she would have died in 1970 or soon after that. There had to be intervention for someone in her condition, or at least help from someone who didn’t enable her destructive behaviors or have other ulterior motives. Judy didn’t feel she had a problem and justified the addiction issues since, to her, it was prescription medicine she’d been hooked on since she was a child. By mid-1969, she was a frail, skeleton of a woman, so her body was probably a ticking time bomb, as they say. As much as I’d like to say she would have turned things around and lived a long, happy life, I think too much damage had been done. Her body probably wouldn’t have survived much longer.
How do you think Judy would have fared if she was just starting out today in the age of TMZ and omnipresent paparazzi?
I would hate to see how the media of today would treat her. She was treated pretty poorly by the press in her own time, long before the rush of paparazzi following a star’s every move. I imagine they would have taunted and tortured her into acting out just so they could capture her frustrations or outbursts.
Despite her death at a young age, she had an astonishing and lengthy career. What do you consider the highlights of it?
The obvious career highlights in film are, of course, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star is Born. Live performances would be the 1952 and 1967 Palace engagements, and Carnegie Hall in 1961. Luckily, recordings of each of those are available. Her television career began around 1955, but peaked in the early to mid-1960s. The special with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin kicked off that decade, but it was her appearance on the Jack Paar Program in 1962 that established her as a viable TV personality. Never was she more radiant than that night with Paar when she was exceedingly charming, funny, and self-assured. As much as I love the idea that the transcription for that show made it into the new book, it’s one I recommend watching, in addition to reading. This was an instance where I found it difficult to truly capture such radiance in print. Still, I think the one true highlight of her career — whether it be film or concerts or television shows — is the honesty or sincerity that rang true in just about every performance she ever gave. You believe her. You identify with her. You root for her. She was so believable, whether it was “Over the Rainbow” or “The Man That Got Away.”
What’s been the response from Judy’s fans to your book?
So far so good. There’s been an enthusiastic response from fans because this is unlike most other Judy related books. People seem to be really pleased that all of this material has been collected and presented in one place. I think most people seem to be finishing the book with an increased awareness of Judy’s hopes, dreams, successes, and failures, and a better understanding of her clever sense of humor. It’s also received a good deal of positive press coverage and has succeeded in getting people talking about Judy again … not that they’ve ever stopped or ever will!
Watch Garland perform “The Man That Got Away” below.