Judy Garland was an undeniably sparkling presence on film, from her breakthrough role in The Wizard of Oz to later successes like A Star Is Born. Unfortunately, her life was marked by suffering; all of the horrible things that happened to her would dominate any faithful biography of the talented but tragic actress.
Behind the scenes of her legendary screen career were the dysfunctional parents, the studio abuses, early exposure to drugs and alcohol, and a series of unsuccessful marriages. All of that laid the foundation for an all-too-young passing, as she departed at the age of only 47. Garland was certainly the victim of the horrific world of Old Hollywood, but she seemed unable to break the cycle of bad relationships and financial ruin that ultimately took over her life and career.
As Dorothy Gale, she was able to successfully make it back home, to a house filled with love and stability. Sadly, in the real world, she would never be able to truly make it over the rainbow, as detailed in the 2019 biographical film, Judy. Here are some of the scandalous and heartbreaking aspects of the life of Judy Garland.
Her Childhood Was Dominated By Her Ambitious Stage Mom
Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, MN, on June 10, 1922. She almost wasn't born at all; her mother - who had two children at the time - initially consulted doctors about the possibility of abortion, but doctors talked her out of it.
Mrs. Gumm, a frustrated vaudevillian, put young Frances onstage when she was only two-and-a-half years old, adding her to an act with her two sisters. The Gumms relocated to Lancaster, CA, when Frances was 4 years old; Ethel wanted to get her children as close as possible to the film and entertainment center of Los Angeles.
Later, the actress remembered her mom as "the real Wicked Witch of the West."
- Photo: R. Gates/Staff/Getty Images
Her Parents Had An Unhappy Marriage Of Convenience
Frances's father, Frank Gumm, was also a vaudevillian. His marriage to his wife cemented their song-and-dance duo, if nothing else. But as biographies have detailed, Gumm was reportedly bisexual, and began making sexual advances to the teenage male ushers and students who frequented the movie theater the family owned. According to some sources, the rumors of Gumm's affinities were what ultimately drove the family to move to California.
Her parents' troubled relationship hurt young Frances. She later said, "As I recall, my parents were separating and getting back together all the time. It was very hard for me to understand those things and, of course, I remember clearly the fear I had of those separations."
Garland's father died in 1935, shortly after she signed with MGM.
She Was Forced To Diet And Modify Her Body To Appear Childlike
After their arrival in California, the Gumm Sisters decided to change their names. How this actually occurred is a subject of debate, but the trio became the "Garland Sisters" and Frances picked the name Judy.
In 1935, 13-year-old Judy Garland signed her first contract with MGM. Because Garland was more wholesome than the studio's "bombshells," she was given roles that perpetuated a childish, teenaged appearance. She was paired with Mickey Rooney in several popular and lucrative films, and the studio demanded that she maintain an immature appearance for as long as possible. She was forced to constantly diet and her chest was bound to keep her looking less developed.
Throughout this process, her mom, who served as both her guardian and manager, was quite comfortable with the studio's abusive control of Garland's physical appearance.
Studio Head Louis Mayer Referred To Her As His 'Little Hunchback'
That autocratic MGM studio head Louis Mayer openly referred to Garland as "My Little Hunchback" is enough, but Mayer also routinely assaulted the star, touching her inappropriately under the guise of telling her that she "sang from the heart." When Garland finally confronted him about this behavior, Mayer feigned shock and said he felt he was like a father to her.
Mayer also contributed to the process of keeping Garland as juvenile as possible, even if that required taping down her chest, fitting her with a painful corset to squeeze into her Wizard of Oz dress, and continually assigning her parts that were well below her age. None of this helped Garland's mental state, and eventually her neuroses and defiance got her fired from MGM in 1950.
She Had To Smoke And Take Drugs While Filming 'The Wizard of Oz'
Garland was 17 when she starred in MGM's 1939 technicolor fantasy The Wizard of Oz. While this film catapulted her to stardom, Garland paid a very heavy personal price.
With an intense focus on this major production, MGM executives were especially strict in their continued efforts to control the actress's physical appearance and diet. Garland had minders who snatched plates of food from her at the studio commissary, and she was encouraged to keep to a diet of black coffee and as many as 80 cigarettes a day. Garland was also given an assortment of stimulant and depressive drugs to help her finish the film and complete an exhausting promotional road show with her frequent on-screen companion Mickey Rooney. This practice likely kickstarted the substance abuse problem that perpetually plagued her and ultimately led to her demise.
You might think her co-stars would help, but even they reportedly ignored and ostracized her. They were adults who didn't want to be upstaged by a teenage actress who was getting the star treatment as well.
Her First Marriage Was An Ill-Fated Escape Attempt From Her Mother
Between dealing with harassment and ridicule from studio executives, hostility toward her domineering mother, and a belief that having a husband would shield her from all of the various bullies in her life, 19-year-old Garland decided to get married to bandleader David Rose. Despite ultimatums from both her mother and Louis Mayer, who both disliked the idea of the public no longer being able to perceive Garland as a young and innocent waif, Garland went through with the marriage on July 28, 1941.
Garland quickly became pregnant, but Rose – and several others – convinced her to have an abortion. Garland and Rose separated after only eight months, and officially divorced in 1944.