Prodigies: Judy Garland

Episode Summary

Judy Garland (1922-1969) achieved international stardom with signature songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but her plucky innocence hid a much darker inner life.

Episode Notes

Judy Garland (1922-1969) achieved international stardom with signature songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but her plucky innocence hid a much darker inner life.

History classes can get a bad rap, and sometimes for good reason. When we were students, we couldn’t help wondering... where were all the ladies at? Why were so many incredible stories missing from the typical curriculum? Enter, Womanica. On this Wonder Media Network podcast we explore the lives of inspiring women in history you may not know about, but definitely should.

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know–but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more.  Womanica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Luvvie Ajayi Jones. I’m a NYT Best Selling author and host of the podcast Professional Troublemaker. I’m so excited to be your guest host for this month of Womanica!

Today, we’re talking about a prodigy whose star power has proven ever enduring. With signature songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” her sweet vibrato has proven a welcome soundtrack for generations of fans. But her plucky innocence hid a much darker inner life. 

Let’s talk about Judy Garland. 

In the summer of 1922, vaudeville actors Frank and Ethel Gumm welcomed their third daughter, Frances, into the world. Just two years later, she would make her stage debut at her parents’ Minnesota theater, singing “Jingle Bells” with her older sisters. 

By 10, Frances had become a singing sensation and star of the Gumm Sisters trio. And in 1935, at just 13 years old, she was signed to MGM, the world’s largest motion-picture studio, without even a screen test. Frances, by this point, had adopted the stage name Judy Garland.

Judy made her MGM debut in the short film Every Sunday. So began a whirlwind of performances, marked by her characteristic mix of pluck, innocence and open-heartedness. She became an onscreen partner with Mickey Rooney, ultimately starring in six films in as many years together.

In 1939, Judy starred in what is arguably her most famous role: Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz. That performance, featuring her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, earned Judy her only Academy Award: Outstanding Performance by a Screen Juvenile, complete with a mini statue. Because despite her poise and mile-long resume, Judy was still just 16 years old. 

Even with her professional success, Judy’s personal life was far from sunny. She barely survived the notorious MGM grooming process, and developed a deep insecurity about her weight and appearance. To keep up with her exhaustive filming schedule, the studio put her on a number of prescription drugs – uppers to lose weight, downers to sleep – that would become a lifelong addiction. 

On her 18th birthday, Judy became engaged to David Rose, a musician. Fearing bad press, MGM intervened, David was still married to another woman. The couple agreed to wait, and after David’s divorce was finalized, they wed in 1941. 

Three years later, Judy and David had split. 

That same year, in 1944, Judy starred in another instant classic: Meet Me in St. Louis. It included three songs that would become standards for Judy: "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." 

But those weren’t the only things Judy left set with. In 1945, she married the film’s director, Vincente Minelli. A year later, she gave birth to a daughter, Liza. Yes, that Liza Minelli. 

Judy would star in 22 movies throughout the 1940s, but towards the end of the decade, her mental health began to seriously decline. ***She had a nervous breakdown, and was institutionalized. She was released, with the okay to keep filming, but soon attempted suicide. Judy continued to get roles, but started showing up late to set, or unable to film, or not at all. In 1950, she was replaced in two movies. Distraught, she cut her neck with a piece of glass. The episode became sensationalized by the media, with the story that she’d slit her own throat. That year, MGM ended her contract. 

Judy was lost. But not for long.

In 1952, Judy married her new manager, Sid Luft, and gave birth to a daughter, Lorna. Sid booked Judy on concert tours, with long stays in London and on Broadway, the latter of which earned her a special Tony Award. 

Judy then set her sights, once again, on Hollywood. 

In 1954, Judy starred in a remake of “A Star is Born.” She told audiences it was, more or less, the story of her life. The three-hour movie was considered both a personal and artistic coup for Judy. She was back! And even better! She earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Everyone thought she would win. 

The night of the Oscars, she was in the hospital, recovering from the birth of her son. A film crew crowded into her room, ready to capture her win. And the Oscar went to… Grace Kelly, for the Country Girl. 

The camera men quietly packed up and left. It remains one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. TIME Magazine would later write that Judy had given “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.” 

But Judy, more than anyone, knew that the show must go on. So it did, and she did, too. Judy returned to live performances. She recorded more albums. In 1959, she collapsed. Doctors said it was hepatitis and that her performing career was over. 

But Judy refused to listen. She acted in her first film in 7 years, Judgment at Nuremberg, and earned another Oscar nomination. In 1960, she took off on another tour of one-woman concerts. It culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall that’s considered by many to be “the greatest night in show business history.  The album recorded that night won five Grammys, including album of the year and best female vocal performance.  It’s never gone out of print. In 2003, it was put on the National Recording Registry. Those who were there that night found it transcendent. 

Over the next few years, Judy continued to sing, and to perform. She had a brief television variety show, called, of course, The Judy Garland Show. She made the talk show rounds. She married her fifth husband. 

In 1969, only a few days after her birthday, Judy died from an accidental drug overdose. She was just 47 years old. 

Over 20,000 mourners packed the streets of New York for her funeral. For years, there was a myth that Judy’s death had, in some way, sparked the legendary Stonewall riots. Her fans called it, bittersweetly, the end of the rainbow. 

All month we’re highlighting prodigies. 

For more information, find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to creators Jenny and Liz Kaplan for having me as your guest host.Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!