Unintentional heroes are often the very best kind.
This week I have been reading a terrific, though heartbreaking and infuriating, biography: Judy Garland by Anne Edwards.
It’s heartbreaking because the child, Judy, born Frances Gumm in 1921, had no say in anything that went on in her life from the day she was born. Her mother was more of a ruthless stage mother than Rose Hovick ever was, putting her three kids on the vaudeville stage because she herself wanted to be a star but lacked the talent, echoing the plot of Gypsy to an eerie degree. Judy’s “big break” came when she was signed to an MGM contract at age 13, but it wasn’t a break at all: once she signed the contract, the studio, for all intents and purposes, practically owned the child.
Here is the infuriating part. Louis B. Mayer called the child with the great big voice but a propensity toward weight gain “my little hunchback.” Hunchback??!!! What kind of a term is that for a grown man to levy at a 13-year-old? She reportedly had a slightly sway back as a child, but come on! Furthermore, that child was beautiful. No one could ever have called her otherwise except, perhaps, within the confines of a movie studio where a certain type of beauty – that which could be most flatteringly photographed – was the norm. Had she been in school rather than signed to a studio, she’d have easily been regarded as a homecoming princess, not a hunchback. Since she easily put on the pounds, Mayer went and decreed that the studio commissary serve the girl nothing but chicken soup. How can a teenager survive on nothing all day long but soup? The man was worse than a dictator with these insane edicts. Yes, she had to be photographed a certain way on film, but still, nothing but liquid soup all day long for a teen? That’s less fare than a prisoner might have received while held in a Siberian gulag!
Later on, once she was doing beautifully in movies, Louis B. Mayer went further, authorizing amphetamines to keep Judy up for 36 hours at a time – 36! – to shoot movies, then allowing her to be handed sleeping pills to crash and get some shut-eye when she was no longer needed on the set. These were forced on the girl.
Uppers so that she could work for 36 hours straight.
Downers so she could sleep.
The beautiful girl became addicted, and it was that studio’s fault.
Still later, when her problems with pill addiction and became severe and she required treatments and hospitalizations, plural, what did Mayer say? That she was “a spoiled, bad girl having a temper tantrum!” This is complete insanity as a statement on his part. Judy developed that addiction problem only because Mayer himself created it!
In 1951, freed at last from her studio contract, the suggestion was put forth that she play The Palace Theater in New York City, the old temple of the very best of vaudeville acts from 1913-1933 – but by then it was being used as a movie house. Judy was hired to appear at England’s most famous vaudeville theater, The Palladium, in London instead.
I was further steaming when I read that before her opening performance, Judy was terrified, unable to sleep, and sick to her stomach. This beautiful girl, this astonishing singer, who had starred in so many pictures for MGM, had been so beaten down by her own studio, and for so long, that she didn’t think she could handle the live performance!
Here’s where the unintentional heroism of the British people comes in. They had, unbeknownst to Judy, loved her all through the darkest days of World War II. She’d gotten into their hearts with The Wizard of Oz by singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which happened to coincide with the beginning of the war – and their darkest national hour. She was in their hearts yet.
American newspapers had published scandalous stories about Judy; the British papers didn’t. They were thrilled she had arrived in England to entertain them.
They wished her luck.
She had gained weight after leaving the studio that starved her and knew it. She made a joke about it during her performance.
What did the British audience do? They replied with, “More to love! More to love!” Perhaps the walls constructed by Louis B. Mayer and his studio around what could have been the pretty girl’s self-esteem may not have ever been entirely erased, but that night, at least, at last, they started tumbling down.
This will go without saying, I’m sure, but they gave her several standing ovations that night, and during subsequent performances, too. Bravo, London! You didn’t just love her performance. You restored her dignity and, I believe, most likely even prolonged her life, as a result. This is the best story of an audience giving back that I’ve ever heard.
Here she is singing “Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” from that engagement. It includes the lines that so well applied to Judy herself:
“Weep no more my lady,
Sing your song again for me!”
I say again, since it’s worth repeating here: BRAVO, London!