The third of Judy Garland’s five husbands, Sid Luft was the one man in her life who stuck around. He was chiefly responsible for the final act of Judy’s meteoric career, producing her iconic, Oscar-nominated performance in A Star Is Born and expertly shaping her concert career. Previously unpublished, and only recently found, Sid Luft’s intimate autobiography tells their story. Their romance lasted Judy’s lifetime, despite the separations, the reconciliations, and the divorce. Under Luft’s management, Judy Garland came back, bigger than ever, building a singing career that rivaled Sinatra’s. However, Judy’s drug dependencies and suicidal tendencies put a tremendous strain on their relationship. Despite everything, Sid never stopped loving Judy and never forgave himself for not being able to ultimately save her from the demons that drove her to an early death.
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About the Author
Sid Luft was an amateur boxer, test pilot, Hollywood producer, and impresario. He was married to Judy Garland from 1952 to 1965. Randy L. Schmidt edited Judy Garland on Judy Garland and wrote Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. He lives in Denton, TX.
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Judy and I
My Life with Judy Garland
By Sid Luft
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Sid Luft Living Trust
All rights reserved.
New York was a scorcher. It was September, and the entire Eastern Seaboard was having a heatwave.
I'd returned to the city from Media, Pennsylvania, where I'd met with Sam Riddle, the owner of the great racehorse Man o' War. I'd been working for a month to put together a film about the near mythical golden-red horse, a post–World War I symbol of greatness like Babe Ruth or Gene Tunney. Man o' War had won the Lawrence Realization Stakes by as much as one hundred lengths. I'd been driven, in spite of the long odds on independent producers at the time, to make this Technicolor film. With two profit-making grade-B Monogram movies under my belt, I was eager to continue climbing the show-business mountain. I had no fear of heights.
Bob Agins, a lawyer I'd come to know during my not-yet-finalized divorce from the actress Lynn Bari, had accompanied me to Media. We needed script approval from Riddle before we could continue with the project. The screenplay had been written by W. R. Burnett, author of such megahits as Asphalt Jungle. We had high hopes.
However, Riddle had just nixed the Burnett script. It was the first of many vetoes. "It didn't happen this way!" was Riddle's favorite response.
As I ducked into the air-conditioned refuge of the 21 Club to meet my golf pals Jock and Neddie McLean for lunch, I was thinking maybe I should have just stayed in Los Angeles. I was early and the bar was half filled. I ordered a double martini with olive and cooled off while reading the Daily News.
Theater legend Billy Rose had devoted his entire column, Pitching Horseshoes, to Judy Garland. The column headline, LOVE LETTER TO A NATIONAL ASSET, was addressed to Judy at the Calvena Lodge in Lake Tahoe, where she was vacationing, and made reference to her recent "bout with the jim-jams." Rose extolled Judy's talent in a folksy story, telling how he'd recently wandered into her latest hit (and final film for MGM), Summer Stock. "A hundred minutes later I walked out of the projection room with a slaphappy grin on my face." He finished off the lengthy piece with this advice to Judy:
One thing more: Next time you're down in the dumps — if there has to be a next time — it might help you to remember that you're only feeling the way most of us feel a good part of the time. Unfortunately, we're in no position to ease your headache. You, on the other hand, through the medium of the neighborhood theatre, can do more than a million boxes of aspirin to ease ours.
Your devoted fan,
MGM had recently suspended the country's favorite daughter. I'd been aware of the press reports: Judy's attempt at suicide was considered unimportant, a bid for attention. I was all too familiar with the stress and strains of performers. I had a built-in reflex not to credit the press with accuracy.
* * *
You couldn't live in Hollywood, as I did, and not be aware of "little Judy Garland." In fact, our lives had crisscrossed a couple times over the years. On both occasions she sang, and I thought how talented she was.
I'd seen Judy out on the town several times, once with Louis B. Mayer at the Trocadero nightclub, another time with her mother and friends at Victor Hugo's, a popular supper club in the heart of Beverly Hills. But the first time we actually met was the day I visited my lover Eleanor Powell on the set of Broadway Melody of 1938. It turned out to be Judy's fifteenth birthday. We were introduced. I thought she was full of beans, but she seemed a child.
In 1940, exactly a year before Pearl Harbor, I married Marylou Simpson, a Los Angeles debutante and an aspiring actress. It was also the year Judy Garland's engagement to musician/composer David Rose was announced. "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" was a hit song, and Judy's rendition of the Chopin melody lifted by songwriter Harry Carroll seemed to be playing everywhere. Three MGM films starring Judy Garland were box office successes throughout the nation:Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, costarring Mickey Rooney; Strike Up the Band, directed by Busby Berkeley; and Little Nellie Kelly, in which Judy played both the child and the mother (George Murphy's wife). She was allowed to grow up in this film.
I understood it's not the content that's so important for an artist as much as how the artist uses it. That's the difference between a genius and somebody who has some talent. Judy was a good example of genius. She performed in ordinary story lines, but the one distinguishing element was her tremendous gift: she was a great lyric reader and had the natural ability to coordinate her dance skills with her acting and voice. There was a reason George and Ira Gershwin, as well as Irving Berlin, wrote songs especially for her.
The second time I met Judy was several years later, when I joined Peter Lawford at the Hillcrest bowling alley, near the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Judy was part of the gang. By then I was married to Lynn Bari and Judy to Vincente Minnelli. She wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, reflecting the juvenile image she projected to the public.
I was not at first attracted to her. Anita Loos said, "Gentlemen marry brunettes," which was certainly true in my case. When I fell in love I got married. I thought my wives sophisticated, glamorous types, not wholesome apple-pie girls. So Judy Garland was not an erotic fantasy. How could it occur to me our lives would in any way be connected? And yet some invisible cord was shortening with every contact, no matter how casual or distant the meeting.
* * *
The McLean brothers, whom I was meeting for lunch that day in September 1950, shuttled between Palm Beach, New York, and Hollywood. Eastern Seaboard playboys, they came from a wealthy family that had owned the Washington Post, among other assets. Their mother, Evalyn, was eccentric, famous for owning the Hope Diamond. Neddie and Jock were constantly attempting to interest their pal Henry Ford II in putting up money for one thing or another. The brothers smarted from Henry's refusals, as though someone had spanked them. Now, at the 21 Club over a London broil, they were attempting to persuade me to invest in a cemetery on Long Island. I told them, holding back the laughter, that maybe it was the way I grew up but the idea depressed me. Neddie and Jock seemed dejected by my negative response, but I suggested they keep me in mind for something else.
I proceeded to tell them about my deal, Man o' War. I would be meeting with Ted Law, a Texas oilman, in Saratoga the following week to shoot sample footage. Ted, who was my partner in Walfarms, our stable outside of Los Angeles, was also one of the investors in Man o' War. I'd arranged for jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Sam Renick to ride, and we were going to re-create the 1919 Sanford Stakes, an allegedly fixed race that Man o' War lost to the racehorse Upset. It was the only race that Man o' War ever lost. I held Neddie and Jock's interest through another martini, but I could see the idea of a racetrack movie didn't thrill them as much as a cemetery. We made a golf date for later on in the month and went our separate ways.
That Saturday night, I took a date to Billy Reed's Little Club in the East Fifties and ran smack into screenwriter Freddie Finklehoffe sipping daiquiris with the "national asset," Judy Garland. Oh, I thought, she's left Lake Tahoe. Judy looked very different from the last time we'd met in the Beverly Hills bowling alley. Freddie, who was a pal of mine, would have to say hello and introduce me to Judy. And Freddie could be extremely territorial.
I'd become drinking buddies with him as a result of a bet. We both used to hang out at Ciro's, an "in" watering hole on the Sunset Strip, but somehow we'd never talked to one another. Then one day as I was leaving for the Santa Anita track, Freddie asked if I'd place a bet for him. I did, and he won a considerable amount of money. Freddie was very impressed. By 1950 we'd shared a few adventures.
Harvard-educated, small, bookish, Freddie dressed in a sort of sloppy, Ivy League fashion as opposed to my Savile Row style. He covered his prematurely balding pate with a jauntily worn fedora, giving him a devil-may-care appearance. Freddie had worshipped Judy from the early MGM years, when he wrote and collaborated on many of her films, including Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, For Me and My Gal, Girl Crazy, and Meet Me in St. Louis.
Everyone who worked with Judy respected her talent, and most everyone, including Freddie, was a little in love with her. Judy could memorize a script in one read, dance after simply watching the choreography, and perform in front of the camera in one take. In those years her coworkers were in awe. Joe Pasternak, who produced Summer Stock, said, "Judy Garland half dead was better than anyone else."
At the moment Freddie was not happy. In the middle of a divorce from singer Ella Logan, he was actually going with a beautiful blonde, whom he eventually married. But for a long time he'd had a crush on Judy, whom he called "chocolate drop." Their relationship was more of a hallucination on Freddie's part, mesmerized as he was by Judy's talent. It was one of those mythical romances.
Shortly before I left for New York I'd been out drinking with Freddie in Los Angeles. Just as Judy was finished with MGM, her manager, Carlton Alsop, whom Judy called "Pa," was also leaving Hollywood, this time for good. His marriage to the actress Sylvia Sidney was ending, and as an ex-CIA man he was returning to Washington. Freddie knew Carlton was eager to sell his black Cadillac, and I wanted to buy it. So we went over to Carlton's house for a late drink. I paid Carltoncash for his Cadillac, "the black teardrop job," and he gave me the keys. There were other people around, enjoying themselves. At one point Carlton left the party room with a young woman. When it came time to go I looked around to say good-bye and wish Carlton luck, but we couldn't find him. Freddie and I left the house by way of the front door. On our way out I spotted Carlton under the dining room table making love to his date, a young woman who went on to marry a Heinz, of ketchup fame.
Alsop was a rangy man with longish, blond hair, a deep baritone voice, and a twinkle in his eye. He was an articulate person who seemed to be interested in producing films, although I never quite knew what Carlton did other than that he had personally managed Judy Garland in her later career at MGM. When I bought his Cadillac, I was unaware that the previous year he had been by Judy's side in Boston, during her hospitalization at the Peter Bent Brigham hospital, a wing of the Harvard Medical Center.
When I actually fell in love with Judy, I knew nothing of her medical history other than her recent problems at MGM. Apparently Judy had ignored her doctor's advice and left the hospital too soon. She was feeling so much better and was eager to return to work. She shot Summer Stock, but she hadn't confronted her substance abuse; right in the middle of work on her next film, Royal Wedding, she broke with MGM forever due to irreconcilable differences. Again, the rigors of staying "camera slim" became the excuse to return to medication — Judy's direct path to chaos. Only in rare situations was she ever able to acknowledge the toxic effect of pills on her nervous system.
At the Little Club in New York City, Freddie reluctantly invited me to sit down. I demurred and thanked him, explaining I was about to leave the club with my date. But I sensed a kind of electrical force coming from the small, voluptuous Garland. She was glowing like a ripened cherry in the smoke-filled martini atmosphere. Judy's brown-black eyes were made up to appear even larger, and they caught me in a kind of fierce, laughing eye contact. I noticed her hair was cut unconventionally short, like a boy's, creating a disarming contrast. The plunging neckline on her black cocktail dress revealed alabaster white skin, and she wore ruby red lipstick. I thought her lips were more beautiful than Hedy Lamarr's.
I remembered the reaction I had when I saw Judy in For Me and My Gal in 1942, costarring with Gene Kelly. She appeared glamorous to me for the first time, only to have MGM return her to the Miss Wholesome America image. Of course, there was a war on, and she was more valuable to the studio as a morale booster than as a sexpot. In Hollywood, sexpots were a dime a dozen.
Judy's eyes darted all over me, through me. I hovered at the table locked into some sort of unexpected mutual attraction, which left Freddie muttering under his breath. When I returned to my date I felt as though I'd been through something I didn't quite understand. Judy's eyes coming on, her sensual lips, the small sleek head, the round, alabaster breasts showing off, all of it a heady potion to swallow.
The next day Freddie called me at the Hotel Ritz Carlton, where I was staying. "Join us tonight?" Judy and several friends — all men, as it would turn out — were planning to hear Billy Daniels sing at the Riviera Club in New Jersey. Without hesitation I said, "Sure."
Freddie explained Judy was on her own, although she was still married to Vincente Minnelli. She was staying at the Hotel Carlyle along with two attendants and her four-year-old daughter, Liza. I said, "Isn't it strange you coauthored Meet Me in St. Louis, which Minnelli directed, now six years later Judy's left MGM, Vincente's preparing An American in Paris, and neither of you are involved in the production?"
"And Sid," came Freddie's response, "neither of us gives a fuck."
That night Judy's limo picked me up in front of the hotel. She looked as glamorous as she had the night before. The two of us carried on a banter that excluded everyone. It drove Freddie crazy. I'd attempt to include others in the conversation, but Judy would find a way to single me out. I could tell it was a game. Again, her eyes were seductively penetrating.
Later, I was to become conscious of her eyes in other ways. When our relationship eventually developed into a commitment, I could detect Judy's pill intake by their expression, the pupils changing like a cat's in the noonday sun. They would seem to cast long shadows as easily as the brilliant sparks that were flying over the table at the Riviera club. In the background there were the sound of altercations, disgruntled customers requiring "good" tables busily stuffing bills in the captain's pocket, but we only had eyes for each other. We'd already had our photographs taken by news photographers who waited at the door for celebrities.
Freddie was so jealous it was funny. He was warning Judy, "Watch out for this guy." He didn't have to worry. I was not going to run after Judy Garland, the big movie star who was a little cuckoo, a little exotic. But when I sat down next to her I thought, I'm going to help her. I don't know why I thought that. I saw her profile, and I caught a certain look in those eyes, so beautiful and yet so sad. My head was full of thoughts. It was, in any case, out of my hands. And it definitively was out of Freddie Finklehoffe's, because Judy had already taken aim.
Back in the hotel, I read the newspapers, smoked, and roamed about in my pajamas. I couldn't get Judy's image out of my mind. I kept seeing her small hands, the unpolished nails short and smooth, the better to run her fingers through her hair, which she frequently did. With tiny feet in very high heels, she was barely five feet tall. Her legs were very developed, shapely, and she had a rhythmic kind of walk. Her voice was melodic, with a hypnotic effect, just like when she performed. Not self-conscious either.
All of this would have been of no consequence had she not focused her attention so exclusively on me, and had I not been so taken in. She had cast a spell, no question. I was certainly not wishing for any kind of involvement. I was not rushing into anything except the door of my hotel room, anxious to leave my $300 custom-made shoes out in the hallway to be shined. I took a deep drag on a Chesterfield, slammed down a shot of Jack Daniels, and went to sleep.
Excerpted from Judy and I by Sid Luft. Copyright © 2017 Sid Luft Living Trust. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Randy L. Schmidt vii
Part I Manhattan, 1950 1
Part II The Boy from Bronxville 31
Part III Lost in the Stars 87
Part IV The Black Irish Witch 155
Part V On and Off the Road 375
Part VI Leopold and Loeb 393
Part VII End of the Rainbow 431