Review: ‘Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend’

David Shipman's perceptive account of the life and times of Judy Garland offers a judiciously sober-eyed take on "the world's greatest entertainer."

David Shipman’s perceptive account of the life and times of Judy Garland offers a judiciously sober-eyed take on “the world’s greatest entertainer.”

“Secret Life” is vague on sources, and, like Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe biography, openly thankful to fan clubs for information. It also lacks a filmography or discography. But the volume deftly melds extensive research with a compelling narrative.

As its title suggests, “Secret Life” delves into Garland’s sexual habits as well as her well-documented substance-abuse problems. Shipman offers as fact Garland’s bisexuality and second husband Vincente Minnelli’s flagrant homosexuality.

Among the other tidbits: Garland was bored by first husband David Rose because he didn’t like oral sex; she had three abortions (before having her Fallopian tubes tied); and her numerous affairs included “an unnamed woman” in MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, known on the lot as “the fairy unit.” Among her celebrated lovers were Mario Lanza, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.

Shipman is particularly insightful when it comes to the star’s stormy third marriage to Sid Luft. Author chronicles how Garland met Luft and decided to go back to basics, singing before live audiences, in the 1950s. Triumphant engagements at the London Palladium and New York’s Palace Theater were followed by her 1954 return to the screen in “A Star Is Born.”

While biographical beginnings can be dull, Shipman artfully weaves together strains from Garland’s early family life, which included a homosexual father and a classic stage mother.

Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Mich., on June 10, 1922, Garland was the youngest of three performing daughters. During the Depression, the Gumms moved to California. By the time she was 13, Frances had been signed to MGM.

Shipman suggests that all Garland’s subsequent problems (from her emotional volatility to substance abuse) were rooted in her early MGM years. Along with Garland’s impossible star persona, Shipman skillfully explores her vulnerable and insecure side.

When a 47-year-old Garland died of an accidental overdose in 1969, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: “The greatest shock about her death was that there was no shock. One simply wondered how she survived for so long.”

Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend


By David Shipman; Hyperion; 540 pages; $ 24.95.
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