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Judy Garland’s Death and Downward Spiral

The Downward Spiral of Judy Garland

In the year preceding her tragic untimely passing at the age of 47 due to an accidental overdose of sedatives, Judy Garland was living in the glare of the media spotlight as she had for nearly her whole life. However, the focus at the end was not as celebratory as it had been as when the 17-year-old entertainer, turned into a worldwide star when she graced the silver screen as Dorothy in 1939 classic musical The Wizard of Oz.

During the years between The Wizard of Oz and her 1969 London shows, Judy Garland had encountered incredible career highs and unfortunate personal lows. She seemed always tormented by illness. Following a string of MGM hit movies, she toured frequently, made various Hollywood rebounds, was twice named for an Academy Award, and was the first female to win the Grammy for the 1961 Album of the Year for her two-record live recording Judy at Carnegie Hall in New York. This concert appearance, on the night of April 23, 1961, has been called “the greatest night in show business history.”

By 1968 years of dependence on prescription drugs and alcohol abuse had negatively affected her body and voice. A mother of three from four marriages, Garland had gone through her whole life slimming down and gorging, her weight yo-yoing in endeavors to satisfy studio execs. Her Los Angeles Times obituary stated she had been tormented by sickness for the duration of her life and “had suffered from hepatitis, exhaustion, kidney ailments, nervous breakdowns, near-fatal drug reactions, and injuries suffered in falls.”

Financial woes take a toll

Later in her life Judy Garland was in a desperate financial condition due to poor management and theft. The financial stability Judy once had was gone and she owed a huge debt of back taxes.  In a desperate state, she made what might be her last New York appearances at the Palace Theater in July, performing sold-out shows with her kids Lorna and Joey Luft from her union with her previous manager Sidney Luft. Most of Judy’s profit from the shows were supposedly seized to pay for her back taxes.

London’s Talk of the Town

Showing up at London’s Heathrow Airport just before 1969 for her Talk of the Town performances, Garland was served with a legal order to prevent her from appearing on the shows, stating she was as under contract to “two American businessmen” who had the exclusive rights of her services until the next June according to a news report which appeared in the London Observer.  Regardless of the claim, Judy continued to show up at Talk of the Town.

In her January 14, 1969 London performance, the Observer reviewed her as “thinner now, almost haggard, her hair flicked back like a boy’s. Her orange sequined suit makes her jaunty … With hand on hip, she struts and totters and stomps and prowls – tigerish and restless, her great brown eyes darting amongst the audience for a friendly face. ‘I haven’t been taught anything new since silent movies,’ she croaks.”

Heckled routinely by the late-night rabble, Garland smoked and drank in front of the audience, regularly calling partner Deans out from the wings as she attempted to get through her set-list, which included “I Belong to London,” “The Man That Got Away,” “You Made Me Love You,” and finishing with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Often late for her performances, Judy’s conduct on-and off-stage was inconsistent. She was often frightened to go before a crowd, and so Judy Garland demanded drugs to help her cope her feelings of dread. One night she limped into the spotlight an hour and twenty minutes late to confront an especially threatening crowd that tossed trash at her. As indicated by a newspaper report of the occurrence, Garland endeavored three tunes prior to leaving the stage “just as a glass, thrown from the audience, crashed behind her.”

Rosalyn Wilder, a production assistant, who worked on Talk of the Town from 1959 to 1979, was asked if there were ever any good nights of Garland’s run. “She did sometimes come in a little bit late and do a reasonably good show, and that was fine. But there were too many nights when she just didn’t come in at all. Or she came in terribly late, by which time the good will of the audience had largely disappeared. And one had to take an educated decision as to whether you were going to allow her to go on or not.” According to dramatist Quilter remarked, “In about a month and a half at the Talk of the Town everything reached a critical stage. It was her emotional car crash.” Video of the time shows Deans and Garland mobbed by fans on London roads, with Garland frequently looking ill at ease and uncertain.

The most unsuitable person to take care of her

In his autobiography released in 1972, Weep No More, My Lady, Judy’s husband Mickey Deans, a performer and previous club manager, wrote that he initially met Garland in 1966 when he delivered drugs to her. They dated on and off after that before Deans proposed and they married on March 16, 1969. At the time of their marriage Garland told columnists, “Finally, finally, I am loved.” In her book Me and My Shadows: Living With the Legacy of Judy Garland, Judy’s daughter Lorna wrote that when her mom wedded Deans, she was in the last phases of physician recommended chronic drug abuse and “was dying in front of his eyes.” Rosalyn Wilder portrays Deans as the “dreadful man who became her husband. … I mean if she put an advert in a newspaper for the most unsuitable person to take care of her, she wouldn’t have had a better response. … I don’t know what possessed… well, I know what possessed her because he gave in to her and he fed her all the things she wanted.”

Judy Garland dies in London at age 47 on June 22, 1969

Judy’s husband Mickey discovered her dead in their Belgravia home in London. He broke into a bolted washroom and found Garland with her hands holding up her head.

The Scotland Yard autopsy recorded that Judy Garland’s cause of death was “Barbiturate poisoning (quinabarbitone) incautious self-overdosage. Accidental.” The coroner that examined Judy’s body, Dr. Gavin Thurston, discovered proof of cirrhosis of the liver, likely caused by the amount of alcohol Garland drank over her lifetime. “This is unmistakably an incidental situation to an individual who was acclimated to taking barbiturates throughout quite a while,” Thurston said. “She took a larger number of barbiturates than she could endure.”

Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, had an alternate point of view. She felt that her mom died more from weariness than anything else. Despite the fact that Garland was just 47 when she died, she was depleted from years of hard work, continually feeling like she was rarely sufficient. “She let her guard down,” Minnelli said in 1972. “She didn’t die from an overdose. I think she just got tired. She lived like a taut wire. I don’t think she ever looked for real happiness, because she always thought happiness would mean the end.”

Much more than her stunning voice, a major piece of Judy Garland’s allure was her capacity to associate with her crowd.  Specifically, gay men found a close ally in Garland — especially later in her profession. Maybe it had something to do with her addressing flexibility notwithstanding mistreatment, originating from her numerous rebounds. Or then again perhaps her picture essentially addressed various components inside gay subcultures. One fan proposed, “Her audience, we, the gay people, could identify with her… could relate to her in the problems she had on and off stage.”

Garland’s funeral in New York occurred at about the same time as the Stonewall Riots, credited as a turning point in the history of the gay rights movement. Some LGBT historians believe the grief over Judy Garland’s death may have even heightened tensions between the patrons of the Stonewall Inn and the police. The sorrow after Judy Garland’s death was felt around the world, from fans to her loved ones. Previous film partner Mickey Rooney said: “She was a great talent and a great human being. She was — I’m sure — at peace, and has found that rainbow. At least I hope she has.”

The enduring story of Judy Garland’s life

As like stars who died before her — like Marilyn Monroe — a portion of Garland’s fortitude can be credited to the enduring impact that a heartbreaking figure projects in history. Like Monroe, Judy Garland is remembered for more than being an impressive figure who died too soon. The enduring story of Judy Garland’s life is that of an icon whose legacy will live on for eternity.

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