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Life and Death of Judy Garland

Updated on May 12, 2020

Troubled Early Life

Born on June 10th, 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota to parent’s Ethel Marion Milne, mother and Francis Avent Gumm, father. Judy’s birth name was Francis Ethel Gumm and she had two elder sisters, Dorothy Virginia Gumm, born in 1917 and Mary Jane Gumm, born 1915. The Young Judy was an unwanted child, it was said her mother and father wanted to terminate the pregnancy once they knew about it. If it hadn’t been illegal Judy Garland might never have been born.

When Judy was just two and a half, she performed in public under “Baby Gumm”, and performed Jingle Bells. Her parent’s were Vaudeville Professionals and her mother became her and her sisters Manager and Agent. Later when Judy was a little older, the three sisters joined together to perform as “The Gumm Sisters”.

Judy’s mother was not a nice one, she would often threaten her to go on stage and perform even if Judy felt sick or just didn’t want to perform. She recalls her mother started her on Amphetamines in the morning and sleeping pills at night before she was 10 years old. This would continue later in her life as well. Her father, Frank, often had affairs with young men and was rumored to have affairs with teenage boys as well. The rumors and scandals got to be too much for the family and they were forced to move.

In 1926 the family moved to California to escape scandals from her father’s numerous affairs with young men. Here is where Judy and her sisters began to study acting and dancing. They played numerous small gigs that their mother would arrange for them. In the late 1020’s the “Gumm Sisters” went on to appear in several short films.

At the Worlds Fair in Chicago in 1934, the Gumm sisters turned into the Garland Sisters. This came about after the sisters were in a theater play with the comedian George Jessel who had suggested the sisters change their name to Garland. At this time, Judy had also dropped the “Baby” from her name for a more mature tone. In 1935 Judy officially changed her name from Francis Gumm to Judy Garland after the popular song “Judy”. Shortly after this name change, the sisters broke up and Judy went on her own path toward stardom.

The Gumm Sisters
The Gumm Sisters

Solo Career

Later that same year, when Judy was just 13, she signed a 7 year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM studios. Shortly after signing with the them the studio arranged for Judy to have a dental appointment as she had extensive tooth decay. Her love of chocolates and other sweets contributed to this problem.

In November on a radio broadcast, Judy debuted one of her first and most famous songs, “Zing! Went the strings of my heart”. Later she learned of her dad’s passing due to Spinal Meningitis. Despite this devastating loss, Judy kept on with her career path to become an actress.

One of the first films she was in was “Pigskin Parade” in 1936. She played the girl-next-door type. She went on to co-star in “Love Finds Andy Hardy” in 1938 with her good friend Micky Rooney. The two proved to be a good pair and went on to perform in several more Andy Hardy films together.

Pressures at the Studio

Judy was working a lot of jobs around this time, but was also under constant pressure by the studio about her weight and looks. Eventually the studio started to give her amphetamines to help her boost her energy while controlling her weight. Unfortunately she quickly became reliant on this drug again, and she was forced to get on other medication to help her with her insomnia. This drug addiction would continue to plague her life. It’s unclear if she got away from the drugs before she signed the contract or if she was still being given them by her mother when she signed the contract.

The life of a child actor was not a happy one. Judy’s schedule consisted of getting up early in the morning for 3 hours of schooling, followed by singing and dance rehearsal then finished by a full day of shooting. Sometimes these days could last until 5 in the morning, leaving little to no time for her to sleep.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale

The Wizard of Oz

In 1939 the Wizard of Oz, one of the worlds greatest onscreen successes, was made. Judy was just 16 when she got the roll of Dorothy Gale, a part that was initially going to be played by Shirley Temple. This was the perfect movie to showcase Judy’s acting and singing talent. She received a special Academy Award and even went on to star in several other musicals like “Strike Up the Band” in 1940 and “For me and my Gal” in 1943 with Gene Kelly.

Unfortunately Judy suffered immensely to obtain this roll. The studio needed her to look a lot younger than 16 and so they put her on a strict diet of diet pills, amphetamine, chicken soup, black coffee, 80 cigarettes and she was to wear a corset all day and even had a nose prosthetic.

Sexual Harassment at the Studio

Even as a teenager, Judy was often approached for sex by some of the most powerful Hollywood men. One of the men working at MGM, Mayer, would often grope her in his office and even during singing rehearsal. Mayer has been compared to Harvey Weinstine for his disgusting acts against his female actresses. His nickname for Judy was “Little Hunchback”. Judy was less than 5 feet tall and had a few spinal problems. Even while working on the set of the Wizard of Oz she was subjected to sexual harassment by the other actors including the men who played the munchkins. They would often torment Judy by putting their hands up her dress and grabbing at her.

Multiple Marriages

Judy Garland was married 5 times in her life starting when she was just 19. Her first marriage was more of a bid for freedom when she married 30 year old composer David Rose in 1941 against the wishes of her mother and MGM. During this relationship, Judy became pregnant but was talked into an abortion by her mother and husband. They worried it would ruin her figure and her innocent image. This relationship was short lived.

She had met director Vincent Minnelli on the set of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and started a relationship with him. She divorced Rose in 1944 and soon married Minnelli in 1945. They had a daughter together in 1946 named Liza but divorced just years later in 1954 after finding out Minnelli was having an affair with another man.

She went on to marry Sidney Luft in 1952 and had two children with him, Lorna and Joey. During this relationship she was pregnant for a third time, but was made to have an abortion by her husband. They divorced in 1965.

Her forth husband was Mark Herron who was a gay man. They married in 1965 but this was an abusive relationship and she divorced him in 1969 after she was done dealing with the abuse.

Mickey Deans was her fifth husband, marrying in 1969. He would deliver her stimulants up until she died 3 months later.

Judy and her three children
Judy and her three children

Years of Breakdowns and Rebuilding her Career

During the late 1940’s up until 1969, Judy’s career and life was in turmoil and she suffered numerous breakdowns. During the filming of “The Pirate” with Minnelli in 1948, Judy’s pill intake reportedly spiked and she was behaving extremely erratically. She would miss days of shooting, arrive late and had begun shouting paranoid thoughts.

In 1950 MGM dropped Judy for her erratic behavior and physical and emotional difficulties. Her breakdown was likely due to her exhaustion from years of being overworked and being on pills. Eventually she got a reputation for being unreliable and unstable.

In 1951, with the help of Sidney Luft, she began to rebuild her career and dispel the reputation of her being unreliable and unstable. By 1960 she was doing more singing than acting but was able to earn a Grammy Award for Best Solo Vocal Performance and even Album of the year for her Judy at Carnegie Hall.

In 1963 she had her own show called “The Judy Garland Show” but it was short lived. In 1967 She made her return to Broadway in London with “At Home at the Palace”. Sadly she began to take a downward spiral once again. She would have some good nights and perform beautifully, other nights she would come in late, slur her words and even get booed off stage by the live audience. Her last performance was on March 25th, 1969 in Copenhagen.

Death of Judy Garland

Just three months after her final performance, Judy was reported to have accidentally overdosed in her London home on Barbiturates on June 22nd, 1969. She was only 46 years old.

Some speculate it wasn’t an accident and that she overdosed on purpose due to her troubled career and money troubles from the multiple divorces and bitter custody battle of her children with Luft. Judy is survived by her three children, Liza, Lorna and Joey. Her two daughters went on to also be talented singers and her son is an actor.

Crisis and Suicide Hotline Numers

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide please feel free to call the Suicide Prevention number: 1-800-273-8255

The Suicide Crisis Line: 1-800-784-2433

Or the Crisis Call Center, 24/7 line: 1-775-784-8090

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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