Clarke is particularly and rewardingly attentive to the early years of Garland’s life, as well as those of her parents. Frank and Ethel Gumm met and married on the edge of Lake Superior, and their three daughters were born in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Gumms ran a movie house and performed between shows, having abandoned big dreams of vaudeville success. For themselves, that is: Their girls were soon performing alongside, and then in lieu of, mom and dad , with Baby, as little Frances was known, upstaging her sisters with vocal cords of womanly heft and a natural radiance that flooded across the footlights.
As Clarke reveals, the roots of Garland’s ultimate unhappiness can probably be found in the family dynamic that took hold when the Gumms headed to Southern California to further the girls’ careers. Whereas Frank looked at Baby and saw a beloved little girl, Ethel, the far more dominant parent, saw dollar signs. She dragged her daughter to auditions with a ferocious determination, and once Judy, newly renamed, was ensconced in the cosseting, constricting environment of MGM, Ethel gained an ally in her dominance of her daughter’s life: Louis B. Mayer.Clarke is also thorough and perceptive on the MGM years, as Garland went from being a puzzling encumbrance, the odd girl out that the studio didn’t quite know what to do with, to a major asset, a singing jewel in the studio’s star-studded crown. Clarke offers brief, incisive descriptions of the studio machinery and the men who moved it, from the maniacal Busby Berkeley and Louis B. Mayer to Vincente Minnelli, about whom he is particularly percipient. Comparing Minnelli to his idol, the waspish James McNeill Whistler, Clarke says of the inarticulate Minnelli that he “could scarcely make a point, let alone a witticism.”
Whistler is perhaps an unexpected figure to make an appearance in a book about Judy Garland, and Clarke, previously the author of the definitive biography of Truman Capote, introduces some other surprising voices. Surely this is the only Garland bio to include quotes from Baudelaire, Simone de Beauvoir and Milton. (Sometimes such erudition seems a little out of place: To compare David Begelman, Garland’s rapacious, criminal agent during her declining years, to Milton’s fallen angel Belial is to grant him a stature he hardly merits.)
Clarke’s prose is smooth and supple. Occasionally it does spill over into fulsomeness, as when he compares Garland’s fabled Palladium concert triumph in London to the exploits of Lindbergh and other courageous adventurers: “What of the writer and artist, the composer and entertainer, who risk career and livelihood to try something radically new? Are they, too, not brave, those explorers of the mind and the imagination?”
The author has taken some knocks for not delving deeply into analyses of Garland’s vocal or acting styles, but hers is a talent of such gut-grabbing directness that it hardly requires or justifies voluminous description. To watch her onscreen or to hear her sing is simply to witness honest and effortlessly articulate renderings of universal human feelings — life, withall its joys and sadnesses, stuck fast in the amber of art. “Good singing is a form of good acting,” he quotes Garland as saying, and there’s a lot of wisdom in that simple statement.
Intuitively intelligent as a performer, Garland was not particularly wise about life. Having been assiduously taken care of since childhood, Garland never learned how to take care of herself, and forever searched for someone to do it for her. She began that quest early, when the scandalous years of drug abuse sanctioned by the MGM machine led to breakdowns and suicide attempts and eventually to a parting with the studio that had more or less been her home for two decades. It’s still astonishing to realize that Garland was not even 30 when she was washed up in Hollywood.
The second act of Garland’s life was famously marked by glittering comebacks and squalid slides into emotional and financial chaos. She sang and sang, but the money disappeared almost as quickly as she could make it. The men she relied on to shepherd her through the shifting tides of show business weren’t much help. Garland was married five times, but never very happily. (Clarke points out the weird fact that three generations of women in her family — Judy, her mother Ethel and her daughter Liza — all married gay men, and he even suggests that Garland’s fifth husband, Mark Herron, may have been sleeping with Liza’s husband Peter Allen. Oy!)
Clarke moves speedily through these declining years; you get the sense he finds her downfall as painful to relate as it is to read. Other biographies have spent far more time on the minutiae of her concert career and her hospitalizations, and on her drawn-out battles with Sid Luft, the biggest influence in her late life and the father of two of her children. Clarke, whose book is deeply researched and contains thorough notes, does not make the mistake of insisting on giving us all the information he’s compiled. It often seems to be forgotten these days, but the biographer must also be an editor, and Clarke’s book doesn’t get bogged down in excessive detail.
“Missing from her makeup, to the astonishment of those who marveled at her gifts, was a sense of her own merit,” he writes at one point, and the sad fact still astonishes us, too. So much talent, so little self-esteem: an odd dichotomy that plagues so many performers and artists, even drives them, probably. Performing is an act of love that cannot really be reciprocated, after all — that’s why it can be both so beautiful and so dangerous.