‘“Judy Garland Deans,” I said’* – Contemplations on Judy’s Death

I will preface this post by issuing a warning. The following is about death and the description of death. It may contain triggers – suicide, grief are some. There is an image of someone who is dead. It also describes the death of a beloved star – Judy Garland. So please, if you do not wish to read such words or see such images, do not continue on. I do care about the impact of my writing and thoughts – but while I will warn, I will not censor them.

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Reading a description of Judy Garland’s death, written by the person who found her – Judy’s last husband, Mickey Deans – was a tangibly life-affecting experience.

Like with any book I’d enjoyed reading thoroughly, I didn’t want it to end and so decelerated toward its close. But in the last few pages I, of course, knew what was coming. We know how this story ends. I was putting that off too. I thought I’d get upset and wanted to be prepared for it. But perhaps because I had put it off and because when I picked it up again it was just a couple of pages until the description of her death, it didn’t quite punch me how I’d thought it would. Yes, it was sad – what is sadder than finding the body of your loved one? Nothing, really. But I wasn’t racked with sobs as I’d expected. Instead I was fairly shocked at how detailed the description was and became morbidly fascinated.

And this is what has haunted me in the hours since reading that passage. I understand how thinking about Judy’s death and the way that she died can be upsetting to some fans. I also understand that this depiction and people writing and talking about the circumstances of her death can be disturbing and even angering. I get that it’s not every fan who will embrace every single aspect of who Judy was and what occurred. I respect that fully. However, what I do wish to explore – here in this piece of writing and as part of the whole For The Love Of Judy project – is that there are those of us who are interested in this and who are fascinated by it. It means something to us, it has a value. I am being open and honest here, not wishing to sidestep, divert or sugar-coat my interest and intrigue. I wanted to read the description of how she died and in fact, a page later, stopped, went back and reread it.

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I have always had a fascination with death. I grew up in a household where death – and in particular celebrity death – was a topic of conversation. We had books on it that I could flick through. The one pictured above I looked at constantly. As a child-fan I was interested in Marilyn Monroe’s death before I was interested in her life. And this intrigue has been a mainstay for me. One of my favourite photographs – as a piece of art, journalism, and as a fascinating artefact – is that of Evelyn McHale’s suicide, published in Life magazine in 1947. Like most people who view this photo, I am compelled to keep looking and contemplating what I am seeing. And I think about Evelyn, her life, her death and the legacy she left because a photography student happened to have been passing in the moments she jumped from the Empire State Building, and landed on a car below.

evelyn mchale

Judy’s death – and others – holds a similar fascination for me. But there is more. Because every single thing about Judy holds a fascination for me. It’s not just her death – her passing is part of the whole. Therefore, I don’t fixate just because of morbidity. I am interested because it is a part of her and a part of what we can know about her. Mickey’s telling of the discovery is an intimate sharing. We may read about her death in other biographies but none can have the same impact as that told by the person who firsthand knew every moment, every feeling, every reaction and every consequence of it. In his telling, of course, it is not just the description of the death of Judy Garland. It is very much his experience, his story, his life as well as her death.

Judy’s death is very sad. And it is undoubtedly a pitiful coda to her wonderful but tragic life and legend. It happened while her husband was oblivious and sleeping; she was on the toilet; it was a slow accidental overdose after so many deliberate attempts at ending her own life. I know why some will not want to dwell or even want me writing these words. They don’t need to read them, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. To deny what happened, what it was and meant, won’t make it untrue or remove the reality of it. The circumstances of Judy’s death also humanise a woman who did not enjoy being thought of as a legend. She would not – of course – have wanted to die that way or for the world to have thought of her in that way. But she also didn’t want the world to think of her as a drug addict, which she undoubtedly was. Sometimes removing a few details is removing the truth and that’s of no use to anyone.

Judy’s death is also grounding. It means a lot to some people to know these flaws and these details because it makes their lives make more sense. This information isn’t just about macabre curiosity. It is about life. It is about identification. It is about learning and avoiding similar fates.

Weep No More My Lady is a controversial book amongst fans. Some take issue over how quickly it was written and published and – seeing it as opportunistic – do not trust Deans’ version of events. The concept of ‘truth’ in biography and even autobiography is a sticky one, and when I began reading this memoir I decided to take it at face value as I experienced it. I understand that there are other stories that contradict this one. That occurs often in the retelling of someone’s life but I am not discussing the arguments of what ‘really happened’ here. How can we – the reader – know what is ‘truth’? Is it what we decide to believe? The version we prefer? The person we trust the most? It can be very personal. I reacted to the words on the page, words that described a situation and appeared very raw and honest to me as I read them.  I don’t know Mickey’s reasons for writing the book and if they were callous or caring. Sometimes doing something like writing a book is a way of processing and being able to deal with things that are too painful sitting there, in your head. It may have helped him to grieve. It may have been a purely financial incentive. Reading it didn’t feel like sensationalism, but a very real telling of events as they were experienced and understood by the person they were happening to. I am very glad he did write it; for it’s an insight we wouldn’t otherwise have of Judy and those last months. I’ve spoken to someone who worked with him and he told me Mickey was a lovely bloke and cared about her, did for her what a lot of people wouldn’t and at a time when she was sleeping on people’s couches and pretty much alone. Before and after her death, Mickey had only good things to say to my friend about Judy. So, in this book’s version of events, I love that she had Mickey in the end and that those last days were an optimistic, fairly secure time for her. It might not have lasted, just like the rest. It may have. We’ll never know. But I was glad to read that in those final days she felt loved, protected, supported, cared for. Those are the most important things in life, after all.

Judy and Mickey

*Mickey said these words to the police man who confirmed that his wife was dead and who asked for her full name. The police man responded ‘Oh my God. It can’t be’, because he hadn’t recognised her. Mickey said the constable nearly burst into tears at the realisation and resonance.

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