Addicted to Judy Garland

Before Michael, there was Judy, an icon destroyed by fame. Michael Korda talks to Susie Boyt about her smart new book, My Judy Garland Life—and the toxic relationship between stars and fans.

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Fans. Many years ago I had the pleasure of editing a book by Joan Crawford, who, like Norma Desmond, was still a big star, it was just the movies that had gotten smaller.

In an unlikely way, we became friends during the ordeal of rewriting and editing. I have never forgotten a chilling story one of her enablers told me, apparently under the impression it was charming. Once, after one of Joan’s many retirements from the screen, she was leaving Chasen’s after dinner, in Beverly Hills, when a little girl ran over to her, holding out her autograph book, and looking up at her, eyes misty with excitement and admiration, said: “Miss Crawford, you’re my favorite star of all! Would you please sign my autograph book?”

“She could make ordinary people feel glamorous, and glamorous people feel ordinary,” Boyt says of Garland. It’s the mark of a great star, and Garland could do it even at the lowest, saddest points of her life.

Joan looked down at her young fan, fixing those extraordinary big eyes of hers on the girl, and smiled. “Go away, little girl,” she said. “I don’t need you anymore.”

The relationship between stars and their fans is always ambivalent and often highly charged with contradictory and ambivalent emotions, of which the most powerful is need. The real fans do not just admire the star of their choice, they identify with him or her, while the star, unlike Joan Crawford, comes to need the fans’ love, admiration, and constant interest.

It’s a mutual addiction, and in a few cases a toxic love affair, which often overshadows or puts an end to the possibility of any real one. After all, what real husband or lover could possibly be as uncritical, loyal, or forgiving as a star’s fans, or demand so little in return?

Some stars, not many, develop an eerie ability to share their own emotions, problems, weaknesses, and fears with their fans—of these, perhaps the most notorious was Judy Garland, whose stage concerts, in the last part of her life, were like a mass group-therapy session, as well as the emotional equivalent of watching some death-defying feat, like Evel Knievel’s attempt to leap across Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle.

The fans saw in Garland (I didn’t know her, so I don’t want to make that assumption of intimacy that fans make when they speak of “Judy,” or “Marlene,” or “Marilyn,” though I did know one of her husbands, Sid Luft, whom author Susie Boyt describes, correctly, as “the least worst man in her life”), a grander and more famous version of themselves, while she saw in them her soul mates.

But given her emotional and physical problems, it was like watching somebody play Russian roulette on stage—would she collapse, would she burst into tears, would she make the high notes, would she be able to continue after the obligatory emotional high point of the evening, when she sang Over the Rainbow, the national anthem of the emotionally challenged and disabled?

Garland didn’t just sing for them, she offered herself up as a kind of human sacrifice to her fans; her last concerts were unbearable, more like blood sport than theater, a kind of marathon of angst. Of course Garland was also able to project all the vulnerability and longing for affection of a puppy in an animal shelter—it was her trademark, and her stock in trade, after all—a psychic pleading: “Love me, take me home with you, help me, please, I promise to be good,” yet at the same time, she was a still a star, had been one since childhood, and so she also had the imperious ego, the relentless demands, the selfishness, the acute narcissism, and the brutal ability to cut people off— which are all hard-wired into any star’s persona.

Doubly so, in her case, since she had spent a good part of her childhood and youth as one of MGM’s brightest stars, at once spoiled and dominated by Louis B. Mayer and his satraps in a studio which, at one and the same time, was a dream world, a gulag, a magic kingdom (of which she was not just a princess, but the princess), a sweat shop, and a Dickensian rookery in which L.B. played the role of Fagin, and his child stars his brood of loyal pickpockets.

Nobody could emerge from a childhood at MGM unscathed. It is enough to know that at the fake New England clapboard schoolhouse at the studio—a concession to the child labor laws where the MGM kids were educated, since their shooting schedules didn’t mesh with the hours of normal kids—Judy Garland’s schoolmates were the young Lana Turner and Mickey Rooney.

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There is, of course, no need to write another biography of Garland—Gerold Frank’s Judy tells us as much as we need or ought to know—but the Garland fan waters have been stirred mightily in the U.K. by Susie Boyt’s My Judy Garland Life, which is in some ways the ultimate fan’s book, since Susie (I can call her by first name because I had the pleasure of talking to her for this piece) not only tells us about Garland’s life, but about her own.

Garland has become for her a kind of ghostly support group, inspiration, and role model, all wrapped up in one. It is difficult to know what to think about this. Once, when Vivien Leigh was going through a very public period of rage, anger, and emotional fragility, her own usually buoyant personality apparently merging with that of Blanche DuBois, over Laurence Olivier’s leaving her for Joan Plowright, a woman, trying to be kind, said, “I know exactly how you feel, dear.” To which Vivien (I did know Vivien, very well, and was very fond of her, so it’s OK for me to use her first name) replied crisply, “Oh, no, you don’t.”

Susie’s belief that she understands Garland might have elicited just such a reply from Garland if she were still alive—it’s faintly hubristic to think we understand the dead, because they’re not in a position to argue back.

But of course Susie’s book exists on two planes, the first her slightly eerie fascination with (and identification with) Garland, the second her own life, which is marked at once by a certain fragility of the spirit, and a defiant, determined effort to overcome all that and have a good time. The result is that one reads her book rather in the spirit of watching somebody gamely trying to swim a longer distance than she thinks she can manage, or that onlookers on shore suppose she can.

What comes through is courage in the face of emotional adversity and a deep need to find somebody who has faced the same kind of thing and overcame it, i.e., Judy Garland. Strange to say, instead of being (as one feared) weepy, her book is smart, often funny, occasionally very touching, and great fun to read in a way that a new biography of Garland would not be—it’s a survivor’s notebook, and Susie, who is a very accomplished novelist, has written it with a rare honesty that one can’t help admiring.

She is also very frank about her immersion in Garlandia, and what it means to identify with a celebrity. Speaking to her, I found she has a curious combination of solid common sense, very English that, and misty-eyed star worship that is very appealing.

She describes My Judy Garland Life as, “a high-spirited book about loss,” and she’s absolutely right, except that it’s also endearing and funny and very readable, and not the slightest bit self-pitying. She takes Garland seriously, but not herself. While admitting that she feels a “madly strong connection” with Garland, she points out that as pastimes go, a fascination for Garland is, after all, “a bit more interesting than hop-scotch,” which is true enough, and that although she was a fan from childhood on, she was never the kind of who “stole money from my mother’s purse to buy Judy Garland records,” which is the entry-level definition of totally dedicated fandom.

What the book is really about, Susie says, is “all the different ways in which family life can go wrong,” and as she says it, I can’t help thinking, yes, she’s right, isn’t that precisely the stuff of all good memoirs and biographies (this book is both) and how clever to have conflated her own ups and downs with those of Garland. She wanted to write about “the way we handle grief, and the way we handle love and fame,” and of course nobody is a better example of how not to handle those things than Garland, who is right there beside Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley in the pantheon of those who have been destroyed by gaining just the things the rest of us all want: glamour, fame, money, success.

Susie Boyt is a natural writer, but unlike most writers she’s bright and smart when she talks about herself. She spent four years at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford (she matriculated in 1988), and “wrote short stories a bit,” then, the day after she took her finals, she got down to work immediately and started a novel, she says in an admirably no-nonsense tone of voice.

When she talks about Garland it sounds, from time to time, as if she were talking about herself, but of course that’s the point. “Difficult people interest me,” she says, and of course Garland was famously difficult, even by the standards of stars, multiplied by the fact that her upbringing as a child star turned her out into the world as a grownup, “utterly powerful, but totally lacking in even the most basic skills,” something which is true of an amazing number of stars, but particularly those brought up in the “studio system,” some of whom never learned how to dial a telephone by themselves, let alone keep a checkbook, cook, or buy groceries.

Garland, Susie says, “was never motivated by money,” but that’s not altogether true; much of her later life was spent trying to earn enough money to keep on living like a star, and the men in her life were very often there because they claimed to understand all about money (Sid Luft) or because they siphoned off her earnings for themselves.

“She could make ordinary people feel glamorous, and glamorous people feel ordinary,” Susie says of Garland, and it’s true. It’s the mark of a great star, and Garland could do it even at the lowest, saddest points of her life.

“Afflictions can be positive experiences,” Susie observes shrewdly, and I have to turn that one over in my mind, and agree that it’s sad, but so. “Judy couldn’t be more out of fashion now, in some ways,” she adds, and that’s true too, partly I suspect because she has been flash-frozen as a victim by the hard-core fans, when in fact she was tough, smart, funny, brave, and at the same time ruinously self-destructive.

Instead, she has been enshrined as the poster child of celebrity victimization. And it’s a multigenerational emotional cliffhanger, too, with Liza Minnelli’s fans waiting, holding their breath, for her to go the same way her mother did. The adulation of the crowd is always a blood sport, not a pretty sight.

Anyway, this is a brilliant little book, sincere, funny, and sharp-minded, and it’s impossible to read it without liking Susie, which, one suspects, was the whole point of writing it. What next, I ask? Has she gotten Garland out of her system now?

Susie pauses, long enough for me to guess that the answer is no. “After I finished writing the book,” she says, “I used to freeze every time I heard Over the Rainbow...” Another pause, and she adds: “Writing the book has made me toughen up a bit, made me feel more resilient.”

Another pause. She’d like to do something now where the emotions are “turned down a few notches,” understandably enough. Part of Garland’s problem was that she had no way to turn down the emotional volume, it was always on full, all the time, not a good way to live. Susie is—she makes the point in the book—related to Freud.

She’d like to do something Freudian now, about a dynasty, perhaps, “a dark psychological novel.” I suspect she’d be very good at it, too—she seems to have an instinct for what makes people tick, whether it’s herself or Garland.

I am praising her sincerely, when she adds, out of the blue, that when her sister read the book she said, “I so admire you for what you’ve chosen to leave out.”

Nice praise, that, from a family member. Those of us who write memoirs should all be so lucky. Anyway, there’s enough in the book to make one feel that one knows a lot about Susie, and maybe even understands a little bit more about Garland. “I wanted this book to be for people who weren’t interested in Judy Garland,” Susie says, and do you know? She’s succeeded.

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New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.