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 The Beatrice Interview

Gerald Clarke

"It's a voice from the grave talking to you. It's strong stuff."


interviewed by Ron Hogan

"After I finished my previous book on Truman Capote," Gerald Clarke explains as we sit in a quiet corner of the bar at Seattle's Alexis Hotel, "I searched for a subject of equal interest-- which, to my mind, meant a life of achievement on one hand and drama on the other. Someone had suggested Judy Garland to me and it clicked, but I did not want to write a book about her if the definitive book had already been written. I would not want to write a book about Henry James, for example, because Leon Edel has done it very well, or about Proust after George Painter, and so on. So, I sat down and I read the biographies that had already been written and came up with no real impression of Judy. I had a lot of facts, but I didn't, as a reader, get a clear picture of who she was. She didn't come alive for me. There was a disconnect between the woman who emerged from the pages and the woman I saw in the movies and heard on the records. So, at that point, I knew I had a book. I knew that the book had not yet been written." Get Happy, which takes its name from one of Garland's most famous songs, is the compelling result.

RH: How long did you spend all together on Get Happy?

GC: Ten years. I didn't plan on spending that, but I did. The trouble is you get into something like this and you don't know how it's going to end. Once you're on the trail, you don't know where it's going to end and how long it's going to take. At least I don't.

David McCullough took ten years to write about Harry Truman. Most people would say, "Well, Judy Garland is just a movie star. You can do her in a year or two." But I don't agree. I think people are people, and Judy Garland is just as complicated as Harry Truman was. She didn't order the dropping of the atomic bomb or order troops into Korea; she didn't do lots of things. But in her own way, in a totally different sphere, her influence is lasting, and there's no difference in my mind, from the biographer's point of view, in writing about it. So I get a little annoyed when people, including publishers think, "Well, movie star. Why aren't you done yet? Churn it out. Get it out."

RH: And you need to set the historical context. If you really want to write about Judy Garland, for example, you have to be prepared to write about the Hollywood studio system in the '30's.

GC: I don't think that it would make much sense to write about Judy without really getting some background about MGM. It was such a special place, and I don't think readers now, or then either, really know that much about it. I'm sure that most readers have heard of MGM, but I don't think they really know about the extent of its power and the influence it had on its stars. And I don't think Judy makes much sense without this. It would be like painting a portrait with a black background. You have to know where the person was sitting.

RH: Now, in doing the research, you hit upon a number of lucky finds, including her attempt at an autobiography and some tapes she'd made discussing her life.

GC: Well, they are two distinct things. The tapes were made in the mid-'60s and had been circulating for some time in the Garland underground. I got a hold of them, and they were very helpful. It wasn't so much that they brought new information, but they show the depth of her emotion when you listen to them. It's a voice from the grave talking to you. It's strong stuff.

But a few years before that, she had actually written, with a ghost writer, 68 pages of an autobiography. A little bit of it had been in McCall's magazine and in newspapers, but the real meat of it had never been published, had been put in a file and remained unseen for forty years. She wrote it while she was recovering from an almost fatal attack of hepatitis; she'd been told she would never sing again and that she only had a few years to live. Well, she did sing again, of course, and once her career got going again, she lost interest and didn't have time... There were surprising things in there, one of which . . . I had found this only two years ago, really, as I was approaching the end of my book, and I had done many, many hundreds of interviews and talked to lots of people at MGM who knew her very well. And I think that they would all be surprised, but she talks about one sexual molestation at MGM, starting at the age of 16, when she was making The Wizard of Oz.

RH: She experienced a lot of sexual harassment at MGM when she was starting out, right?

GC: You've got to remember, she was a teenage girl then: pigtails, gingham dress, the picture of innocence--and here all these executives at MGM were putting the make on her. This is an exact quote [from her papers], "Don't think they all didn't try." There was one man, one of Mayer's lieutenants, who called her in, as he had done to many, many women there, and demanded that she have sex with him. As she described it, there was no chit-chat, no small talk, you just had sex with him. The same way he would say to a secretary, "Go get me coffee," or something like that. And she said, "No." He started screaming at her, told her she'd be fired. And she said, "No, you'll be out before I will be." And he was, but they fired him, not because of this, or anything else he had done to the women, just because the head of the studio thought the guy was conniving for his job.

I find equally chilling, in a different kind of way, the story of her abortion during her first marriage, to David Rose. I had heard rumors about it, but never had any proof until I read this. Judy describes it in great detail. The studio had been against the marriage in the first place; they wanted to keep her as a teenager who had never been kissed except for a peck on the cheek, and they felt that if she married, it would ruin her image. And, my God, if she had a baby...

David Rose was a cold fish, and you get some idea of the nature of their relationship by the fact that she didn't tell him herself that she was pregnant. She had her mother tell him. Her mother came back from his study and said, "Judy, you can't have this baby." Judy wanted the baby. She was desperate; one of the reasons she got married, perhaps even the chief reason, was to have children. She said, "Why not? It's mine. I've got to have it." And her mother very condescendingly said, "No, Judy. At the right time, you can have all the babies you want, but not now." In other words, she agreed with the studio. Then she said, "And David agrees with me." So, Judy gave in and the next day, the three of them drove to a place outside L.A., and there the pregnancy was terminated. And though it lasted on paper for some time after that, that was effectively the end of their marriage.

RH: You also made extensive discoveries about the background of her father, Frank Gumm.

GC: As far as I can tell, nobody else who had written about Judy ever bothered to go to the places she had lived, that were important to her history. So, I went down to Tennessee, which is where Frank Gumm came from, and someone steered me to a courthouse where I discovered a thick packet of documents, court records from civil court that had not been opened in ninety years that laid out the financial problems in Frank Gumm's family.

Then I went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Judy was born, and to Superior, Wisconsin, where her parents had been married in 1914. And there, a lot of things happened pretty fast. Someone said, "Oh, you ought to go see Maude Holman." So I went to see this 99 year- old woman in the nursing home where she lived, and it turned out she sang duets with Frank Gumm before the First World War, and knew both Frank and his wife, Ethel, very, very well. She confirmed the rumors about Frank being bisexual and about his getting into trouble for having sex with young men or teenage boys. For years, everybody had repeated these rumors as accepted fact, but nobody proved anything. Maude gave me some specifics, including how he had been run out of a specific nearby town. I subsequently found out all kinds of information that corroborated this; I actually talked with the guys that were propositioned by him. But her's was the first real information I had and it was invaluable to me.

All of this takes a lot of digging, and sometimes you go to a lot of trouble. These were lucky events, but you don't have luck unless you're there. Sometimes you don't have luck. I went to a lot of places, took a lot of trouble, spent a lot of money, extended a lot of energy...and nothing turned out. That happens all the time. You've got to do that before you find the good stuff.

RH: People who want to write about that heyday of the studio era are at a critical point in time. The window of opportunity to talk to the primary sources, the people who were there, who can give you the eyewitness reports, is closing very rapidly.

GC: It's almost gone. There are very few of them left . . . many of the people I talked to are now dead. We do have some of the archives which are very important. It doesn't sound very sexy, but the production notes for most of Judy's movies are in the USC library. They detail the filming of each movie minute by minute. Time was so important to them that if they lost five minutes it meant money to them. So an assistant director was assigned to write down what happened and why... Armed with this information, I could then go to people and refresh their memories during the interviews.

I actually spent several weeks at USC with a laptop computer just writing all this stuff down. I don't see how you can write a book about somebody like Judy without [such material]. Just going on interviews alone, valuable as they are, is not enough. You've really got to have documented information. You've got to get dates and really firm it up.

RH: I'm usually loathe to propose easy psychoanalytical explanations for people's lives, but from what we learn about Garland's early background, even I have to wonder about her later subsequent relationships with, or attempts to form relationships with, so many men who turned out to be bisexual or, ultimately, predominately gay.

GC: Well, there is a lot of that, but at the same time, she had many relationships with men who were not gay or bisexual. So you can't say she was only attracted to bisexual or gay men because it's not true. Everybody from Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw, who she did not have an affair with but she would have loved to if she could have, as well as Joe Mankiewicz and Sid Luft and Frank Sinatra. It's a little too easy to overlook these men when you talk about the others. And she stoutly denied that her father was gay. She had heard the rumors but she denied them. Just as Liza Minelli denies it about her father, Vincente [Garland's second husband].

RH: And just as, for years, Judy had denied it about Vincente.

GC: Well, Judy . . . a lot of it is denial, I think. She certainly had warning about Vincent. If anybody was sending out signals, it was Vincente Minelli, wearing makeup and mascara. People did say to her, "Be careful." And she said, "Oh, it's just his artistic temperament." But she found out better.

RH: I was fascinated by the extent to which her psychological damage and even her addictions had been shaped by the studio, but before that, her own mother, who started her out on diet pills.

GC: Her mother had her and her sisters, the Gumm Sisters act, hooked on diet pills when Judy was nine or ten. She gave them amphetamines in the morning to rev them up and then sleeping pills at night. Judy was the only one who was really hooked, because the two sisters got out of the business after a while and were not subjected to this. How do you get over such an addiction, starting that young? It's your lifetime. It's what you've grown up with. It must have been very hard. And during Judy's lifetime, I don't think there were any really good drug rehabilitation programs.

RH: And when your mother and the studio are actively collaborating by your late teens, tying in the pill use to problems you already have with your self-image and your physical appearance . . .

GC: It's a daunting combination, a formidable combination for anybody to overcome. The amazing thing is that she did overcome so much despite all this and then went on and on and on and had huge successes.

  
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