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In this highly-acclaimed biography, Shipman tells the whole story of this doomed and deified performer: her days as a child star, the daughter of a gay father; her ascension to teenage stardom; her introduction to drugs by MGM; her years of alcoholism and substance abuse; her relationship with ...
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In this highly-acclaimed biography, Shipman tells the whole story of this doomed and deified performer: her days as a child star, the daughter of a gay father; her ascension to teenage stardom; her introduction to drugs by MGM; her years of alcoholism and substance abuse; her relationship with daughter Liza Minelli; and more. Photos.
Born in a Trunk
"THE HISTORY OF MY LIFE is in my songs," Judy Garland declared in a lyric composed for her by her mentor, Roger Edens. One of her most famous songs announced that she had been "Born in a Trunk," and while this is not strictly accurate, she came from a theatrical background: her father managed a movie theater, where members of the family sometimes performed between screenings. Garland made her public debut on that stage when she was two and a half years old.
Although Garland often referred to her father's Irish charm, it is unlikely that much Irish blood flowed in Frank Gumm's veins. The name of Gumm is first recorded in England in the Middle Ages, and in America (in Sussex County, Delaware) in 1782. By way of Virginia, the Gumms arrived in Rutherford County, Tennessee, just after the beginning of the nineteenth century. Francis Avent Gumm was born in 1886 in Murfreesboro, a small town on the River Stones which had been settled at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It was a flourishing agricultural center, incorporated in 1817; two years later, it became the state capital for nine years. In 1862, it was the site of one of the most disastrous battles of the Civil War, which left the Union victorious but with losses almost as severe as those suffered by the Confederates. The establishment of the Stones River National Battlefield kept the event vivid while Frank was growing up.
Evidence that Frank's forebears had strong associations with this part of Tennessee is provided by the name of Gumm on the map--hardly even a hamlet, but boasting a cemetery largely occupied by members of the family. They were mostly brickmasons or farm laborers, and the eldest son was usually christened William. Though Frank's grandfather, John Alexander Gumm, was a second son, he followed the family tradition by calling his first son, who was born in 1859, William Tecumseh Gumm. In 1877, this William Gumm married into another old Tennessee family, the Baughs. In the 1880 census, his wife is listed as Elizabeth, but she was known throughout her life as Clemmie. Although the Baughs had bettered themselves materially earlier in the century, when Clemmie's mother, Mary, made her will in 1892, she was only able to sign it with an "X." She left her daughter a town lot on East Main Street, the prettiest thoroughfare in Murfreesboro, with instructions that it be sold and the proceeds used to build a dwelling for Clemmie's new family on the same property. The house in which Frank was born is antebellum, however, which suggests that William inherited rather than constructed it.
The same lot contained a butcher's shop, and as records vary as to whether William was a butcher-grocer or a "merchant," it is probable that, because he had married well, the clerics of Murfreesboro were somewhat at a loss as to how he should be classified. The Gumms were clearly well connected, since Frank was named after a prominent lawyer in the town, Frank Avent. He was the third of five children: the others were named Mary, Emmett, William and Alice. He was a happy, outgoing child, always singing. He later claimed that he had once run away to join a minstrel show. Brought back, he and one of his brothers sang on local trains, passing round the hat. He certainly possessed a photograph of himself, taken when he was about thirteen, in minstrel costume and blackface.
Another indication that the Gumms were highly thought of is the fact that Frank's godfather, George Darrow, was a prominent and wealthy Episcopalian who lived with his wife in Oakland Mansion, the house in which the Confederates had officially surrendered. Darrow was so struck by Frank's voice when he heard him sing at grade school, that he arranged for him to sing solos with the choir of St. Paul's Church, where Darrow was the treasurer and the Gumms were communicants. William Gumm was widowed in 1895, and at fifteen, his elder daughter, Mary, was not really mature enough to help him look after the four younger children. Frank was nine; and by the time he was thirteen, William had agreed to consign him to the care of George Darrow.
Darrow was also patron of the Grammar School at Sewanee, a town some fifty miles south of Murfreesboro. He arranged for Frank to attend on a choral scholarship, and he accompanied him there himself in June 1899, after receiving a "kind letter" from its principal, Benjamin L. Wiggins. The school's records show that Frank was Mr. Darrow's "protege. "
Frank was soon being praised in the campus newspaper for his choral solos and, more significantly, for his role in the school play--suitably amorous, apparently, as the prince in The Seven Little Dwarfs.
After three years, he moved on to Sewanee College, later known as the University of the South, where his voice (now a baritone) was a leading feature in musical and dramatic entertainments. He left in 1907, after what he later called "six of the happiest, the most beautiful years of my life."
His father had died a year earlier, splitting the family and leaving Frank, at twenty-one, uncertain of his future. Many of his classmates went on to distinguished careers--one of his closest friends, Henry Gass, was one of the first Rhodes scholars, and eventually returned to Sewanee as professor of Greek--but Frank hesitated. He joined one of his brothers and a sister, who were living in Tullahoma, a small town on the railway line halfway between Murfreesboro and Sewanee, and drifted into a job as a bookkeeper and then office manager for Walter D. Fox. He took an active interest in the orphanage which Fox had founded, dabbled in journalism and again sang in the choir, as well as at the local vaudeville house, the Citizens Theater. Why he eventually left is not recorded.
His brother and sister quit Tullahoma at the same time, but he went north alone. He had loved the backstage atmosphere--and the applause--at the Citizens, and almost certainly decided that this latest family breakup offered him an opportunity to try to make a career in what was then called "the" show business. From boyhood, through college, and while working as a clerk in Tullahoma, he had been singing in public, both with friends round a piano and on the stage. He was young, without ties and fully aware of the popularity his sunny personality brought him.
He was also a dreamer, and dreams were provided cheaply by the new entertainment: motion pictures. Offices, main-street stores and barns were being converted the country over, as audiences flocked to the picture shows. The first film stars were anonymous, characterized only by the companies which made their pictures, as in the cases of "The Vitagraph Girl" and "The Biograph Girl": soon every picturegoer would know that "The Girl With the Curls" was Mary Pickford. Biograph and Vitagraph were two of the handful of companies recognized by the government as having the right to manufacture motion pictures--a right challenged by scores of maverick companies springing up at that time. Many of them fled to California, as far as possible from the authority of the U. S. Patents Office in Washington, D.C., and settled in a suburb of Los Angeles, close to the Mexican border, over which they could escape if the law did pursue them. In 1913, that suburb officially adopted the name by which it was known locally: Hollywood.
The new industry was struggling out of the nickelodeon era to achieve the respectability it had longed for since its infancy--and for which it would continue to hunger for many more years. Vaudeville theaters had been the first homes of motion pictures, but had dropped them after the novelty wore off. It was not long, however, before some of those same theaters were reducing the number of acts on the bill to find more time for movies. Some theaters were switching over to the new amusement entirely, while, more impressive yet, the first purpose-built cinemas were opening.
In 1912, Frank Gumm found work at the People's Amusement Company of Portland, Oregon, using his experience in Tullahoma to get a job managing a theater; but more importantly, he doubled as a singer. This not only gave the house cachet, as it was offering "live entertainment," but helped pass the time while the reels were changed. Someone of Frank's exceptional charm was needed to keep audiences from becoming impatient. He was a vigorous, roundly handsome man with a beaming smile and a pleasing voice, and for these performances appeared immaculately dressed in a gleaming, stiff white collar and a tailored three-piece suit.
In the summer of 1913, after almost two years in Portland, he moved to Superior, Wisconsin, a prosperous Great Lakes resort town with a resident population of 45,000, and then in the midst of its influx of holiday-makers. Superior boasted a large number of movie theaters, many of them owned by Ray Hadfield, who took on Frank as a singer in September. Frank's partner at Hadfield's Savoy Theater was Maude Ayres, and the two vocalists were accompanied at the piano by Ethel Marian Milne, with whom Frank fell into an immediate accord. Like him, she came from a remote village, Michigamme, Michigan. She was of Irish stock on the side of her mother, Eva Fitzpatrick, and Scottish on the side of her father, John Milne. It was not a happy marriage, and indeed Eva was unlucky in this respect. She had already been married and divorced, at a time when divorce was virtually unknown except among the wealthy. John Milne was an engine driver, but drank so much that employment was hard to come by. Ethel was born in 1893, one of seven children, and grew up in Duluth, where the family had moved. Her father's improvidence had forced her to leave school while still quite young, but she had learned to play the piano sufficiently well to earn a living teaching others. For whatever reasons, Ethel had moved to Superior and, after a spell working at a Five and Ten, selling sheet music and playing for the "flickers" in the evening, she was taken on by Hadfield.
She was petite, vivacious, enthusiastic and splendidly in control of her life for someone so young. What she had above all was determination, a trait not uncommon in children from large families. Frank also came from a large family, and both he and Ethel were Episcopalians. Both were besotted with show business, and it seemed romantic to them to conduct their courtship in song before the unknowing audiences at the Savoy. She was captivated by his Southern accent and his Southern gentleman's manners, by his good humor and high spirits. She was twenty and he was twenty-seven.
He was also homosexual. Given the climate of the time, it may be that Frank thought that marriage could "cure" him. With the years he had already spent in show business, evidently he was not one of those men who discovered their sexual orientation only after marrying. It may be supposed that he intended to put temptation out of the way. He had already been engaged to a girl called Kathryn McGraw, but she became tired of waiting, and turned her attention to a minor vaudeville comic, Joe E. Brown, who later became a Hollywood star. Working before large audiences every night, Frank would have been justified in fearing public exposure and possible blackmail--indeed, these may have been the unexplained reasons why he left Portland.
The most likely reason for the marriage, however, was simply that Ethel had convinced them both that this was their destiny--and destiny was a concept then very appealing to the romantically minded. It would have been more usual for Frank to have formed an alliance with his singing partner, Maude, than the girl at the pit piano, but Ethel flattered him that together they could become a successful vaudeville act, with her accompanying him at the piano. From this there grew the idea of them as man and wife. With wedlock in view, Frank had a compulsive need to prove himself a worthy member of society. There would be no more roaming: he and Ethel would settle down and raise a family. They had recently made friends with Mr. and Mrs. C.E. Aikens, a middle-aged couple vacationing from Grand Rapids in the neighboring state of Minnesota, and from them they learned of a fine opportunity for Frank in that town. Frank's awareness of the severity of the Minnesota winters and his determination to live there indicates his wholehearted commitment to a new life. With the intervention of the Aikens, the job was confirmed, and Frank and Ethel were married on January 22, 1914, in Superior, an event celebrated with the customary banquet, but also with a dinner on stage at the Savoy for Maude and the bridal couple. They were not able to leave until the end of February, when his contract with Hadfield expired.
Grand Rapids was a somewhat cheerless, self-sufficient, immigrant community on the Mississippi River in the southeastern corner of the state. Not only were the winters brutally cold, but it was invaded by mosquitoes for two months in summer. The settlement had been named for the Pokegama Falls--which were later to be instrumental in the construction of the Itasca Paper Mill. Until 1891, when the town was incorporated, it was a lumberjack colony, and it was at this time that the production of paper succeeded logging as the chief industry. The manufacturing of paper brought with it the ever-present stench of bleach and the white smoke, blown crisply away by the winds from the plains. The village expanded rapidly in the 1890s, when the Central School (still standing) was built to tower over the wooden-cladded two- or three-story buildings.
It was a village barely distinguishable from many others in this part of the world, surrounded by pine and birch forests and deep blue lakes, which attracted huntsmen and fishermen. The settlement was built on the grid pattern with wide streets to take the logging wagons. The small railway station was at its very heart, and in 1914 most of the place, despite expansion, was still unpaved--but then, the population numbered under 2,500. An occasional gasoline pump stood in front of the wheelwrights' premises, and there were still blacksmiths. People shopped at the dry-goods stores and general stores for everything from a silk ribbon to a sack of corn. They were God-fearing folk, few of them going to the bars and fewer still to the brothels, a legacy of the lumber-camp days: but within memory the Gem movie house had assumed an unimagined importance, as a center for conviviality, vicarious excitement and as a focus of conversation.
On January 28, 1914, it was forced to acknowledge a custom-built rival, when the New Grand Theater opened, "to show 4,000 feet of fine film." The proprietors, Barlow and Bentz, had it constructed with a stage, enabling stock and vaudeville companies to appear there. The theater seated 450, and stood four-square on the main street of the town. On March 5, Mr. and Mrs. Gumm joined its staff, Frank as "singer and manager," while Ethel took charge of the musical arrangements. Fred Bentz operated the projector, happily leaving the bookings of the films and vaudeville acts to his enterprising new manager. Frank brought showmanship to this sleepy town, and the citizens of Grand Rapids took an instant liking to the young man and his wife, who were quickly recognized as model citizens: they attached themselves to the local Episcopalian church, where Ethel played the organ while Frank conducted the choir. They lived with the Aikens, whose large house could accommodate two more people with ease, and whose social prominence made their guests socially acceptable. Ethel ran a series of bridge parties, while Frank joined the local fire brigade. Sometimes Frank took his wife's place at the pit piano at the New Grand, and on occasion filled in when a touring act was late or failed to arrive altogether. As in most cinemas of that era, local would-be entertainers were encouraged to perform on "Amateur Night," and this was organized by the Gumms. The owners of the rival Gem responded by booking "a 15-installment spectacular," Lucille Love, and by ensuring that the press always referred to them as "two local lads," but business failed to quicken. In the summer, the New Grand announced itself as "the coolest place in town"; the Gem was shortly obliged to close.
In December Ethel's sister, Cevilla, replaced her as accompanist while the Gumms took a winter vacation, but Ethel became seriously ill and was taken to her parents' home to recuperate. On their return in February, the Grand Rapids Herald-Review noted: "that Mr. and Mrs. Gumm have lost none of their former popularity during their absence was evidenced by the large house that greeted their return and the enthusiastic reception of their songs and playing." In addition, Frank assured the paper that none of the towns he had seen on his trip "looked any better than Grand Rapids and that the chances are that he will hereafter be content to remain here."
He proved this by buying out Barlow's half-share in the New Grand two weeks later; and he and Ethel threw themselves into activities at the theater with renewed vigor. With the cooperation of local tradesmen, they organized a fashion show to publicize the latest styles for both men and women, and they appeared on stage in April in an act they had worked up themselves, "Jack and Virginia Lee, Sweet Southern Singers."
"Who are Jack and Virginia Lee?" teased the gossip column in the Herald-Review, which answered the question a few days later, after noting: "The entertainment given by Jack and Virginia Lee at the Grand Theater last Thursday and Friday evenings was one of the best and most highly appreciated singing acts ever witnessed here." Frank and Ethel had every reason to be content that they had chosen to live in Grand Rapids. They were an impressive couple. Frank, at 5 feet 11 inches, was a whole head taller than Ethel. He had a mane of dark hair, carefully brilliantined, while Ethel wore hers in small curls close to her head. The Gumms dazzled what passed there for the beau monde, which was delighted when it was announced that the young couple were to become parents.
Frank and Ethel moved from the Aikens' home into a rented house, and then into Hospital Apartments, which had the advantage of having a garden. In September 1915, a daughter was born, whom they christened Mary Jane. Two years later, on Independence Day, the family was increased by another daughter, Dorothy Virginia, always known as Virginia. In a short time, both little girls were conscripted into taking part in the various social and musical activities which their parents so much enjoyed.
The comings and goings of the Gumms are well recorded in the two local papers--especially the Itasca County Independent, which hired Frank to report on the social activities of Grand Rapids in March 1917. One of the first reports he filed, on March 24, reads as follows:
A surprise party was given at the home of Frank Gumm Tuesday evening, the occasion being the twenty (?) first birthday anniversary of Mr. Gumm. Mrs. Gumm had assembled some 16 young men friends of her husband and when Mr. Gumm came home from the show he found "some crowd" at the house. The evening was spent in cards and music, after which delicious "eats" were served.
In 1918, the family moved again; and in March 1919, Frank purchased the house on Hoffman Avenue which was to be Judy Garland's first home, and which she would remember as "a little white wooden house in a big garden." The house was moved in 1938, but in 1919 it stood on a corner site in the center of the town, a five-minute walk from the theater, three blocks west of the school and across the street from the railway station. Seen today, it is nondescript in an agreeable New England frame style, and much altered: the open porch with a balcony above, which the Gumms had, has since been incorporated into the parlor, a many-windowed, high-ceilinged room. Upstairs there are now three bedrooms, none of them large, and a small bathroom, which then made another bedroom. It is a house only just large enough for a family of four--plus Inga Mooren, a Swedish girl whose family lived on a farm twenty miles away, too far for her to travel back and forth daily to school. She lived with the Gumms, and in return for her board she looked after the house when Frank and Ethel went to the theater in the evening.
Inga almost certainly slept in the cottage, which has since joined the house on its present site. The arrangement was convenient for Ethel's family, who were almost continual visitors. Her parents and one or another of her several brothers and sisters were to be in Grand Rapids for periods of days or even weeks throughout the year--as often as Ethel herself, with or without the girls, was with her parents in Superior, or with her brother Jack's family in Duluth. It was extremely uncommon then to visit relatives so frequently when they lived some eighty or a hundred miles away. Ethel left Frank on his own so often, for short and long stretches, at least once a month, that it seems probable that the marriage was in difficulties almost from the beginning.
Although the Gumms continued to lead a normal social life, there was a tendency for Frank's evenings to be male-orientated, as he reported in the Independent:
Frank Gumm entertained on Saturday evening with a prettily appointed six o'clock stag dinner for the young men who were home for the Easter vacation from the university. Covers were laid for ten and Mrs. Gumm, assisted by Miss Katherine Gilbert, served a sumptuous three course dinner.
At the time Frank joined the Independent, he and Bentz opened a new theater and closed the New Grand. They retained the old name and decreased the seating to the more manageable 385. A seven-piece orchestra was installed in the pit for the opening attraction, Poor Little Pepina starring Mary Pickford. In 1918 they extended their activities to two nearby villages, taking on the leases of the Lyceum in Deer Park and the Eclipse in Coleraine. Frank was often absent on business trips to Minneapolis, Duluth and, most significantly, Eveleth, a small town some miles to the north.
About the time Virginia was born in 1917, Frank made the acquaintance of someone who was to be a major figure in Judy Garland's life: Marc Rabwin. His original name, which he changed at this period was Marcus Rabinowitz. His father, Frank, owned a cinema in Eveleth, which Marc, although only sixteen, helped to run. Frank Rabinowitz also held the local franchise for the W. W. Hodkinson Company, an agency for film distribution, and Marc had first met Frank Gumm on a business trip he made to Grand Rapids in order to persuade the New Grand to book some of the company's films. He had been warned by other film salesmen that the theater owner there was "nuts," constantly pacing the floor when they tried to talk to him, staring at them belligerently with his bulging eyes. Rabwin, who was planning a career in medicine, realized that Frank's manner suggested that he had a thyroid problem. Although the New Grand usually hired films from an exchange in Minneapolis, Rabwin managed to charm Frank sufficiently for him to book some Hodkinson movies.
Rabwin soon established a close friendship with both Frank and Ethel and eventually sold the New Grand his entire portfolio of films. When, at their invitation, he came to stay with the Gumms, Rabwin explained to Frank that he needed medication and saw to it that he was put on some pills which eventually cleared up the thyroid problem.
The friendship continued when Rabwin went on to study medicine at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, and in the winter of 1921, he was woken up in the middle of the night by Frank--a highly agitated Frank, pacing up and down and needing professional advice once more. Ethel was two months pregnant: she wanted an abortion, and Frank wanted his friend to sanction an operation which was then, while not uncommon, both illegal and dangerous. Frank maintained that the Gumms, with two growing girls, were a contented family with no desire for change; but a 200-mile drive across country suggests something darker, more desperate. He admitted that Ethel had even tried the accepted "home" methods of abortion. "She must have rolled down 19,000 flights of stairs, jumped off tables," was the way Garland put it. She claimed that never a day went by when Ethel did not take "great delight in telling rooms full of people" about her attempts to prevent the baby being born.
Rabwin came to believe that Ethel's unwillingness to have another child was that she thought that Frank was unfit to be a father because of his homosexuality. How long Ethel had known about her husband's proclivities is not known, but there had always been gossip. The figure he cut as a leading member of the community and the Episcopalians was at odds with the general concept of a homosexual, but Rabwin was certain that the matter was more than merely speculation and was an issue within the marriage.
Rabwin strongly counseled against abortion, and assured Frank that he would never regret having a third child. Despite considerable tension, the Gumms resigned themselves to the birth, and as they did so, they shared a conviction that the baby would be a boy. For all his bonhomie, Frank was a lonely man, and he looked forward to having a male companion in his female household. Ethel decided that she would raise a boy who would have all the considerable virtues of his father but none of his failings. Both husband and wife told everyone that the child would be a boy, and would be called after his father.
At 5:30 in the morning of June 10, 1922, in the local hospital, Ethel gave birth to another girl. The disappointment of her parents was perhaps the first element in that complex psychological pattern which was to contribute both to the greatness and the destruction of Judy Garland. The hoped-for "Frank" became Frances Ethel, and her baptism was noted in the Herald-Review of July 19.
Her activities, and those of the rest of the family, continued to be reported in both local newspapers, but nothing of significance appears until two years later, when Frances "Baby" Gumm made her public debut, singing at the annual style-show at the Itasca Dry Goods Store. Mary Jane and Virginia were wont to perform for their schoolfriends in the backyard or the garage, or at Ethel's bridge parties, and Frances was determined to follow in their footsteps. She seemed to know at that early age that she would become an entertainer, but there had been an evening in the late spring of 1924 when she positively craved it. Ethel had been sent to the hospital in Duluth for an operation to remove a goiter. It was the first time she had been separated from her children, so Frank brought them to the theater to take their minds off their mother's absence. He encouraged them to dress in their best to make these evenings special: and the first of these evenings proved a memorable one for them all.
A vaudeville act called the Blue Sisters had been engaged to support the picture. It consisted of three young girls--the eldest about twelve and the youngest five--and the Gumm girls were entranced. "Baby, especially, was all but uncontrollable," Virginia recalled. "She sat there, bouncing up and down, humming along." When the youngest Blue Sister started to sing, alone, the Gumms "could all see how this was really going to send Frances into a fit. And it did. She sat transfixed. When it was all over, she turned to Daddy and--I'll never forget it--said, `Can I do that, Daddy?'" Everyone laughed, but Virginia had no doubt that "even in her little two-year-old head, she already knew exactly what she wanted."
Her wishes were fulfilled in December, when it was announced that all three Gumm sisters would appear between shows at their father's cinema. The two older girls were accustomed to appearing at the Grand (as it was now generally called), but on this occasion they were to be an extra special Christmas attraction. The feature was Through the Back Door, a three-year-old Mary Pickford vehicle described in the Grand's advertisements, to disguise its age, as "One of the prettiest pictures she has ever appeared in"; supporting was Motor Mad, a two-reel comedy starring Lloyd Hamilton. When the Pickford film finished, Frank strode onto the stage to prolonged applause. When this died down, he said that it was always a pleasure to provide Grand Rapids with the finest entertainment on screen and stage, and concluded with his catch-phrase: "It pleases us to please you."
The curtains parted to reveal the three girls looking down at their mother in the pit. Ethel struck up, and Mary Jane and Virginia sang "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street," a song new to their repertoire. They did not sing with their accustomed elan, perhaps because they were uncertain whether or not little Frances would come in on key halfway through the first chorus, as planned. But Baby Gumm had no difficulty with the lyric, despite the fact that this was the first of the many songs she was to sing over the next dozen years which celebrated emotions she could not possibly comprehend. From the very first, she had a gift for putting across a song.
The two older girls did three more numbers quickly, in the midst of which they stood aside while Baby executed a nimble tap-dance. She reappeared after their exit to sing "Jingle Bells," accompanied by Ethel in the pit. She had a hand-bell, which she clanged once on every line of the song. The audience were delighted, and encouraged her to perform the song again, much to the surprise of her mother. Ethel started the song a third time, and the louder the audience laughed, the louder Baby sang and the more spirited grew her ringing of the bell. The audience was having a riotous time, roaring at the child so eagerly entertaining them; but it began to seem as if she would go on for ever. Frank eventually panicked, and ran down the aisle, signaling to Grandma Milne in the wings. She walked onstage, unceremoniously bundled Baby into her arms, and marched off to thunderous applause.
Backstage, Baby seemed uncertain whether or not to burst into tears, a scene Frank prevented by clasping her to his chest. He pushed Mary Jane and Virginia out to take their bows, and followed in their wake, carrying Baby. The house cheered and Baby rang her bell until the curtains closed.