When Judy Garland died of a drug overdose after struggling with addiction at age 47 in 1969, many were sad but few were surprised. Unfortunately, how she died was all too similar to how she lived.
“I’m always being painted a more tragic figure than I am,” Judy Garland said in 1962. “Actually, I get awfully bored with myself as a tragic figure.” But in the summer of 1969, her tragic legacy was cemented with her untimely death.
Judy Garland was just 47 years old when she died, yet she’d lived many lives. From child star to leading lady to gay icon, Garland’s personal and professional life was full of tremendous highs and devastating lows.
From clicking her heels in The Wizard Of Oz to tap-dancing in Summer Stock, Garland was a decades-long institution in Hollywood before her death. Despite the heroines she’d been known for playing from the 1930s to the 1950s, Garland’s inner world was as shaky as her trademark vibrato.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a blizzard,” she once commented. “An absolute blizzard.” Indeed, pain, addiction, and self-doubt were as familiar to Garland as her beloved audiences — particularly toward the end of her life.
The 2019 film Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, explores these final days in London, but even the songbird’s own beloved medium of film can hardly capture the tragedy of Judy Garland’s death.
The true story behind the movie Judy is even more tragic.
Made For The Stage
Judy Garland’s childhood seemed like it could have been ripped from a movie much darker than the cheery, hopeful films she usually starred in.
Born Frances Gumm in a vaudeville family, Garland had a classic stage mother. Ethel Gumm was often critical and demanding. She was allegedly the first one to give her daughter pills to pep up her energy for the stage — and bring her down afterward — when she was just 10 years old.
Unfortunately, substance addiction quickly became a major part of the actress’ life. Amphetamines were one of her first major crutches, given to her by the studio of MGM to enliven her performances for the camera.
MGM encouraged this, as well as the starlet’s abuse of cigarettes and pills to suppress her appetite. The studio representatives also put young Garland on a strict diet of chicken soup and black coffee to ensure that the budding star could keep up physically with contemporary glamour girls.
One studio executive allegedly told the ingenue: “You look like a hunchback. We love you but you’re so fat you look like a monster.”
Naturally, this kind of deprivation and abuse did little for the confidence of an adolescent girl. While she starred in several successful movies as a youngster, she also began experiencing nervous breakdowns by her 20s.
She would eventually go on to attempt suicide at least 20 times throughout her life, according to her ex-husband Sid Luft.
Luft later recalled: “I wasn’t thinking of Judy as a clinically ill person, or This is an addict. I was worried something awful had happened to the delightful, brilliant woman I loved.”
But, of course, Garland suffered from many addictions. Despite career highs in the 1940s and 1950s — including her popular remake of A Star Is Born — her various addictions eventually caught up with her.
And as the movie Judy sadly shows, these addictions — and other personal issues — would ultimately lead to her demise in the end.
Judy Garland In London
By the late 1960s, Garland’s addictions and emotional issues were draining not only her health, but her finances as well. As Judy showed, she returned to doing shows in London to support herself and her children.
Garland had previously seen success doing a concert series in London back in the early 50s and likely hoped to reproduce that success.
“I’m the queen of the comeback,” Garland said in 1968. “I’m getting tired of coming back. I really am. I can’t even go to… the powder room without making a comeback.”
London, however, wasn’t the unblemished renaissance she needed. Her welcome back tour was a microcosm of the songstress’ long career, with the same startling highs and crushing lows.
When Judy was on, she could make the audience fall in love with her the way she always had, beckoning them with that creamy voice that captivated the world. However, when she was off, she couldn’t mask it for the crowd.
One January show proved that after the audience pelted her with bread and glasses when Garland kept them waiting for an hour.
Amid Garland’s career struggles, London also represented possibly the worst romantic period of her life. In the film Judy, Garland meets Mickey Deans at a party and he later surprises her by hiding under a room-service tray.
In reality, Garland met her last husband when he delivered drugs to her hotel in 1966.
But as the movie depicts, Garland and Deans’ marriage was not a very happy one. He allegedly was mostly with her to make a quick buck and enjoy his close proximity to fame.
Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft recalled that on the way out of her mother’s funeral, Deans insisted that their limousine pull over at a Manhattan office. She realized that he was apparently striking a book deal — mere hours after his wife was laid to rest.
The Death Of Judy Garland
Deans and Garland were still very much a couple when he found her dead in their Belgravia home on June 22, 1969.
He broke into a locked bathroom door and discovered Garland slumped on the toilet with her hands still 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, Dr. Gavin Thurston, found evidence of cirrhosis of the liver, likely due to the copious amount of alcohol had Garland consumed throughout her life.
“This is quite clearly an accidental circumstance to a person who was accustomed to taking barbiturates over a very long time,” Dr. Thurston said on Judy Garland’s cause of death. “She took more barbiturates than she could tolerate.”
Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli had a different perspective. She felt that her mother died more from exhaustion than anything else. Though Judy Garland died when she was only 47, she was exhausted from a long career in front of people, always feeling like she was never good enough.
“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.”
When Judy Garland died, it did mean the end. It was the end of her heartfelt connection with her audience and in some ways the end of an era. But it was also the beginning of her legacy.
A Star Is Gone
Even more than her lovely voice, a big part of Judy Garland’s appeal was her ability to connect with her audience. In particular, gay men found a kindred spirit in Garland — particularly later in her career.
Perhaps it had something to do with her representing resilience in the face of oppression, stemming from her many comebacks. Or maybe her image simply spoke to different elements within gay subcultures.
One fan suggested, “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 New York funeral coincided with the Stonewall Riots, credited as a turning point in the gay rights movement. Some LGBT historians believe the grief over Garland’s death may have even heightened tensions among the gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn and the police.
Either way, the grief after Judy Garland’s death was felt worldwide, from fans to her family and friends. Former 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.”
Like some other stars who died before her — such as Marilyn Monroe — some of Garland’s staying power can be attributed to the lasting effect that a tragic figure casts in history.
Like Monroe, however, Garland is remembered for so much more than just being a glamorous figure who died too young. The true story of Judy Garland’s life is that of an icon — whose legacy will live on forever.
For more tales of Hollywood abuse and neglect of budding young stars after reading about the death of Judy Garland, check out the story of screen siren Hedy Lamarr and more shocking vintage Hollywood stories of Tinseltown’s dark side.