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Biography Book Club Q&A with Gerald Clarke!

September 14, 2000

You've all been very patient, but I'm glad to say we now have Gerald Clarke's responses to your questions. I think you'll find them well worth the wait! If you want to see more about Judy Garland and Get Happy in particular, Gerald Clarke has a great official website you should check out. You can visit it at

Q: I have read Lorna Luft's book now and want to know what you thought of it. What did she leave out? How accurate did you find it?

A: I believe that Lorna is accurate about things she directly observed—her mother's wandering around the house late at night, for example. But Lorna seems to know her family's history only from previous biographies, which, as I discovered, were very often wrong. The first 80 or 90 pages of her own book are thus full of inaccuracies. What did she leave out? Just about everything she did not directly observe, which was just about everything. You have to remember that Lorna was only sixteen when Judy died—and had not even seen her mother for the last year of Judy's life.

What struck me about Lorna's book was not its many inaccuracies, however, but the rather mean spirit with which it seems to be written. Lorna often writes how much she loved her mother, but love was the last thing I detected. The emotions that came across to me were quite the opposite: resentment. Many of those who knew her told me she was an angry girl, and she seems to be an angry woman as well—she's now older than Judy was when she died.

Q: Having read your book, I am mystified as to why more of the personal tapes of Ms. Garland's thoughts and memories were not used. It seemed that they were only used as points of reference, here and there. Was there a reason you only made limited use of the tapes?

A: The tapes to which you refer were made toward the end of Judy's life. She was talking into a tape recorder for a projected autobiography. The tapes were important to me, but not because they provided new information. For the most part, they did not, and that's why I did not quote them more extensively. They were important, rather, because they gave me a unique connection to Judy's innermost feelings—to her hurt, her anger, her desperation. Listening to them, you feel that she is in the room with you. They are a voice from the grave.

Don't confuse the tapes with the unfinished, unpublished autobiography I uncovered, however. Written in 1960, five or six years before the tapes were made, that manuscript did have many revelations. In those 68 pages, Judy talked, for instance, about being a target for the sexual predators in M-G-M's executive suites—Louis B. Mayer, the head of the studio, was the worst, she said—and about being forced by her mother and David Rose, her first husband, into aborting her first pregnancy. For me, the autobiography was a treasure trove, biographical gold.

Q: Why do you think Judy remains so popular today? Do you feel your book will help keep Judy's legacy going and bring her new fans?

A: Judy's appeal is timeless. "Popular" is not the right word to apply to her because she transcends the usual norms or popularity. Why does she have such an extraordinary appeal? Each person who is drawn to her has a different answer. My own guess is that Judy's vulnerability speaks in some mysterious way to the vulnerability in each of us, that it strikes some chord deep in our subconscious. It's as if she has a message she wants to give us. There is no barrier, none at all, between her and her audience. Watch one of her early movies, Ziegfeld Girl, to see what I mean. It is not a great picture, certainly not one of Judy's best, but it makes my point. Her female co-stars are two classic Hollywood beauties, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr. Yet if you watch the picture today, your eye is drawn not to those two goddesses, but to Judy, the one who is merely pretty. Why? She possesses more than beauty: she has magic.

Judy already has uncounted thousands of fans, many of whom—I mention some of them in my acknowledgments—have been enormously helpful to me. Though it was not my purpose in writing it, I suspect that my book will attract many more. I suspect, too, that it will help to liberate her image from the Garland cultists. These are the hysterics—the word "fan" does not quite fit them—who have made her into a plaster Madonna, a woman who never, in fact, existed, or could have existed. For them, Judy worship has become a religion. Anybody who writes of the real Judy is thus branded a heretic, someone who should be burned on the Internet, if not at the stake.

I clicked on to one Garland website a couple of months before my book came out, and these self-appointed defenders of the faith were already denouncing me! Without having read a word I had written! If any student of abnormal psychology is looking for a subject to study, the Garland cult is it. The Judy I portray in Get Happy is the real Judy, a much more interesting and far more sympathetic figure than the cultists could ever conceive.

Q: What's the biggest misconception people have about Judy Garland?

A: The biggest misconception is that she was a tragic figure, always wallowing in pain and suffering. There was a lot of sadness in her life, of course, and I write about it. But there was just as much happiness, and I write about that as well. Judy felt more intensely than most other people—both the good and the bad. When she was sad, no one was sadder. But when she was happy, no one was happier. Play some of her early movies on the VCR and listen to her laugh: it's a waterfall of joy and jubilation. I didn't choose the title of my book—Get Happy—by accident!

Q: What role do you think M-G-M played in Judy's problems with addiction, low self-esteem, and depression?

A: Though it was not responsible for any of Judy's problems, the studio of the stars, as it liked to call itself, made all of them worse—much, much worse. M-G-M did not start her on drugs, as has always been reported. The villain, as I discovered, was her own mother. But the studio exacerbated her drug problems by giving her diet pills—amphetamines, in other words. Low self-esteem? Metro dished it out by the bucketful. When she came to Culver City, Judy was a slightly pudgy thirteen, and Metro did everything it could to force her to lose weight. Besides giving her diet pills, it used psychological pressure, humiliating her in front of her friends, for example. She could order anything she wanted in the commissary, the studio lunchroom, but the waitresses were told to give her nothing but chicken soup. The other kid stars could have hamburgers, french fries and apple pie. Not Judy. Louis B. Mayer also did his best to downgrade her, calling her "my little hunchback"—to her face. You can imagine how such treatment affected a sensitive teenager. It was devastating.

Q: You say you conducted a lot of interviews during the course of researching/writing this book—who was the most important/intriguing person you talked to?

A: I did indeed interview a lot of people—several hundred. I know I sound like a politician not wanting to offend anybody, but almost all of them were intriguing and important. The list runs for a couple of pages, and to mention one, or four of five, would not only be unfair, but misleading. One of the rewards of writing biographies has been the introduction it have given me to a rich cast of characters, some of whom have become close friends.

Q: This was such an extensive, exhaustively researched biography. How exactly did you decide on your subject? Why did you feel it was so important to tell her story?

A: Thank you for the compliment. My first book was a biography of Truman Capote. Truman, whom I knew very well, was not only a wonderful writer, but a brilliant, fascinating character, and his life, particularly toward the end, was a non-stop drama. After him, most subjects I considered seemed a little dull. Dull, that is, until someone suggested Judy Garland. At that, my eyes opened wide. There was brilliance! There was drama! There was a subject! I had only one qualm. Judy had already been the subject of three biographies, and I did not want to write about her if the book, the definitive biography, had already been written. So before going ahead, I read all three Garland biographies. Two were honest efforts—one was not—but to my relief, and somewhat to my surprise, even the honest ones were disappointing. Judy didn't come alive in them—at least not for me. I then knew I had a book of my own to write.

It is common, I think, to regard Hollywood biographies as pieces of fluff, not to be taken as seriously as books are about politicians or financiers. And many, though certainly not all movie biographies, are, in fact, slipshod affairs, promiscuous with the facts and silent about their sources. But some Hollywood figures ought to be taken very seriously, as seriously as the bigshots in Washington or on Wall Street. The politicians and tycoons affect our pocketbooks, our outsides. The stars—a few of them, anyway—touch our dreams. And no one touches us as much as the woman who has been with us since our childhoods, who entered our imaginations as little Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She was the personification of innocence, pluck and courage, and so she still remains, in an odd way, to this day.

By my definition, Judy Garland is an important figure in modern culture. Nor is her influence confined to the United States, or even the Western world. In fact, Salman Rushdie, the Indian novelist, says that The Wizard of Oz—the movie, not the book—was his original literary influence. "Over the Rainbow," he titled his first story, written in Bombay at the age of ten. Judy's is one of the most compelling personal stories of the century just behind us, and I tried to give it all the respect and attention it deserves.

Q: How has writing this book changed the way you see Judy? Are you less of a fan than you were before?

A: I admired Judy more when I finished than I did when I began. What I had not realized—and what I hope my book makes clear—was how courageous she was. Yes, she was addicted to drugs. Yes, she often behaved irrationally, particularly toward the end of her life. But put her problems into context. Consider, for example, a mother who exploited her from the age of two. Consider also a studio that looked on her as little more than a magical voice machine. Then consider the many men who took advantage of her. Consider all that, and you begin to realize how much she had to overcome to achieve what she did. And her achievements were—and will remain—monumental!

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