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Gerald Clarke, author of "Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland" discusses the life of Judy Garland

April 18, 2000
Mr. Clarke joined the CNN Book Chat by telephone from Los Angeles. This is an edited transcript of the chat.

(CNN) - Judy Garland has been called the "World’s Greatest Entertainer." One of the most popular actresses in Hollywood, she could also sing and dance. Garland is probably best remembered for her performance in "Wizard of Oz" but she appeared in numerous movies between 1939 and 1950, including "Easter Parade," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "A Star is Born." Judy Garland starred in her own television show, performed hundreds of concerts and made over a dozen record albums.

"Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland" is the newest book by author Gerald Clarke. His previous bestselling book was the biography of Truman Capote. Clarke has written for many magazines including Esquire, Architectural Digest and Time.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to Book Chat. Today our guest is Gerald Clarke. After ten years of research, he tells us the real story of the "Wizard of Oz" wonder and Judy Garland, in "Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland."

Welcome, Gerald Clark.

Gerald Clarke: I'm delighted to be with you, and I hope that we can better understand Judy Garland when we're finished.

Question from Cathy: What is it about Judy Garland that interested you personally as a subject for a book?

Gerald Clarke: I have to go back a little bit. My previous book was a biography of Truman Capote. When I finished that, I was searching around for a subject of equal interest to me, which meant someone with both a record of achievement and a dramatic life. Someone mentioned Judy Garland to me and something within me clicked, but I did not want to write a book about Judy if the definitive book had already been written. So, I went back and I read the books that had been written at that time -- and that time was 1990. There were three biographies of Judy. But, after reading those books, I had no picture of Judy. I knew a lot of facts but Judy didn't come alive for me. And, at that point, I knew I had a book to write.

Chat Moderator: You spent nearly a decade researching and writing this book. Can you tell us about some of the sources you used and some of the interviews you conducted?

Gerald Clarke: I decided I really had to go back to square one, to start from scratch. The first thing I did was to go down to Tennessee where Judy's father, who played such an important role in her life, was born and where he was raised. One of the first people I met there, in Murphreesboro, Tennessee, was an old woman -- then in her 90s. She remembered Judy's father, Frank Gumm, as a young man walking along the street, always happy, always singing or whistling.

Then someone pointed me toward the courthouse where I found a big, thick sheaf of documents, covered with dust, that no one had looked at for 90 years -- since the turn of the century. Those documents laid out the history of the Gumm family, something no one had ever known before. It's too complicated to go into detail. I have it all in the book. The essence of it was that Frank Gumm's family had fallen on hard times and that Frank, for a while, was almost homeless. It was a situation that had an eerie similarity to the last years of Judy's own life.

Next I went to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where Judy was born, and to Superior, Wisconsin, where her parents were married in 1914. And again I stumbled upon the one essential source for that period. A woman overheard me saying I was writing a book on Judy and said, "Well, you've got to talk to Maude Holman." And so I did. Maude Holman, who was then 99-and- a-half years old, was living in a nursing home but had all her wits about her. Maude Holman, it turned out, had sung duets with Frank Gumm back before the First World War and knew both Frank and Ethel, his wife to be, very well. Then, towards the end of my research in 1998, I discovered what is for a biographer pure gold. That was Judy's unfinished, unpublished autobiography which had information that shocked even me.

Question from jthg: Just how old was Judy when she started acting?

Gerald Clarke: Judy was two-and-a-half years old when she first went onstage. That was on Christmas Eve at her father's little movie theater in Grand Rapids. She sang "Jingle Bells" and was so excited when the audience applauded that she did it again -- and again and again. That was the beginning of her longest-lasting love affair, her love affair with the audience. She was hired by MGM, the biggest studio in Hollywood, in 1935. But she did not get a real break until two years later when she appeared in a movie called "Broadway Melody of 1938."

Question from CathCNN: How did Judy Garland's name get changed from Frances Gumm?

Gerald Clarke: George Jessel, a then-famous comedian, was on a bill with Judy and her two sisters --- the Gumm Sisters, they called themselves -- and he decided that they needed a new name. Gumm, he said, rhymed with too many words like "glum," "dumb," "bum" and so on. So he gave them the name "Garland" after his friend Robert Garland, a drama critic in New York. Judy gave herself the name "Judy," which was the title of a popular song by Hoagy Carmichael.

Question from Babe_In_Arms: On what film was Judy Garland happiest working?

Gerald Clarke: "Easter Parade" in the late 40s with Fred Astaire. She adored Fred Astaire, he adored her and it was a happy, happy set.

Question from CathCNN: We all saw films with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Was there ever any romantic involvement between the two?

Gerald Clarke: No, but not because Judy didn't want to. She was crazy about Mickey but Mickey was more interested in sexy, long-legged beauties like Ava Gardner, who he married.

Question from barbara: Is it true that she wasn't the first choice for "The Wizard of Oz"?

Gerald Clarke: Yes, that is true. The first choice for "Wizard of Oz" was Shirley Temple, but a scout from MGM went to listen to Shirley Temple sing and came back and said, "She has no vocal talent whatsoever."

Question from HaleyCNN: Was she prone to depression? Was she aware she had a drug problem? Why did she continue to believe in men as her saviors, even after so many of them disappointed her?

Gerald Clarke: I believe that Judy was a manic-depressive. Nowadays we call such a condition bipolar disorder. Yes, of course she was aware that she had a drug problem; she was humiliated by it and didn't want to admit to it. But she knew very well that she was addicted. Judy had a very old-fashioned attitude toward men. She even wrote about it in a magazine article in the early 1950s. "The man must lead," she said, "and the woman must follow." And Judy followed, to her own near destruction.

Question from Do: Does your book use the newly-discovered audio tapes as reference?

Gerald Clarke: Yes. The audio tapes have actually been around in the Garland underground for many years, but I found it very useful to hear Judy's own voice. The emotion is overpowering. It's as if you're hearing a voice from the grave.

Question from Krauty: Are the roots for Judy's permanent unhappiness mainly in her unhappy childhood?

Gerald Clarke: I don't think Judy was permanently unhappy. She had many, many happy times. The title of my book, after all, is "Get Happy." But her problems, and her unhappy times, certainly found their origin in her childhood.

Question from billy j: Was she ever happily married?

Gerald Clarke: Each marriage was happy at the beginning and for some time thereafter. She was always in love with the men she married. Judy was a die-hard romantic.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts?

Gerald Clarke: Many people have said that Judy's life was tragic. There are obviously tragic elements in her life. But I maintain that her life was really a triumph in that she overcame problems that would have overwhelmed most other people. She was able to entertain and give such intense pleasure and joy to anyone who has eyes to watch a movie or ears to hear her sing.

Chat Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us today, Gerald Clarke.

Gerald Clarke: I appreciate your interest, and I hope that people find some enjoyment in my book. I think you will find Judy there.

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