Personal memoirs about Judy by people who knew her are always going to be a juicier read for fans like me. You get a level of intimate knowing that is rarely there in a straight biography. You have deeper details, lengthier versions of stories, more of the everyday habits of the subject. And you get the author’s particular take on it. Sometimes this works for a book better than others. And, of course, it helps if the person telling their tale is a good writer. John Meyer’s Heartbreaker: a memoir of Judy Garland is an amazing Judy book on all counts.
Meyer was Judy’s boyfriend and fiancé from 18th October – 19th December 1968. The relationship ended when Meyer got the flu and then discovered that during his recovery, Judy – feeling abandoned – had become engaged to Mickey Deans.
It was interesting reading Heartbreaker after reading Deans’ book Weep No More My Lady. Deans had – perhaps unsurprisingly – not mentioned that when he met Judy and, in fact when he got engaged to her, she was already engaged to someone else. How Meyer treats Deans in his book is as fascinating as the omissions in Weep No More.
Perhaps, like me, the first thing you do when you get an auto/biog is flick to the pictures and look at them before you have read a word. I do this every time. It’s part of the joy of a new book. I then tend to refer back to the images as I’m reading a passage and remembering a photo connected to this time or that story. The photo that Meyer includes of Deans and Judy’s wedding has the caption: ‘Judy with Mickey Deans, the guy who replaced me. Supplied Judy with pills; under his supervision she OD’d and died. We nearly had a fistfight in London’. So Meyer’s opinion of Deans appears to be pretty clear from this titbit: he’s (again, perhaps not surprisingly) in the Anti-Mickey Camp. When I first read the caption, I should point out, I didn’t know about the overlap of two men’s relationships with Judy.
So when I read that, pretty much from the get-go of Meyer’s involvement with Judy, he was running this way and that going to every pharmacy in New York trying to refill her prescriptions, I’m thinking: Hmmmmm, wasn’t this supplying Judy with pills? Wasn’t it just pretty much good luck on Meyer’s part that he didn’t have to suffer through the death of his fiancée under his supervision?
But actually, by the time you come to the bit about Mickey and Judy, Meyer is eventually much more sympathetic towards Deans. At first he paints him as this cocky slob who moved in on Judy when John was ill and absent. But as he witnesses Mickey’s decline – the exhaustion, the bending to Judy’s whims, having to be the bearer of bad news as Judy pushes John further and further out of her professional life – Meyer completely empathises with what Deans is going through. He’s been there, and only a few weeks before. In fact, he actually writes of people blaming Mickey for Judy’s death: ‘just try living with her for a week or so, pal. Then come and tell me about supervising Judy. […] Christ, it could easily have happened to me. Easily’. Interesting that he chose the word ‘supervising’ here, and ‘under his supervision’ for the Deans photo caption…
So why the caption to the photo of Mickey and Judy? It seems a little catty in context to how he portrays the story in the actual book. Does Meyer know how a lot of Judy fans feel about Mickey? ie there is no one lower to the Good Judy Fans*. Does he know that most of us will look at the pictures first and then decide what kind of person John was in Judy’s life? If he hates Mickey, like the Good Fans do, does he think that they won’t be as sceptical about Meyer’s own story..?
What the caption did to me as a reader was it made me think, well, that’s not really fair. There was person after person in Judy’s life who could be accused of ‘supplying’ her with drugs, but what choice did they have? And this is the very story he himself tells. The only choice becomes hiding them from her, lying about it and then sometimes giving in. And the ‘OD’d under her supervision’ left me cold. How many of Judy’s husbands, lovers, children, assistants found her after a suicide attempt or accidental overdose? How ‘lucky’ were they that she was still alive? But Meyer sums up all of this himself in the end when he make his ‘there but for the grace’ etc statement that it could easily have happened to him.
It’s all about telling the tale and imagining how your tale is received by the reader and how it actually is received. I’ve learned that myself from writing about Judy and – no doubt – will learn again and again. Everyone has their own opinion. I just don’t happen think mine is the only one.
The stories of Judy and John and Judy and Mickey also raised another issue for me. And that is: for the Good Fans, Judy is never culpable in the tale. Judy is done to, never does. If Judy is depicted as being manipulative, demanding, unreasonable, even monstrous, it’s not taken by the Good Fans as a real, whole version of a human being but a Judy to be ignored and written off as ‘salacious’; an unwanted version of Judy.
I love Judy. I realise that Judy was wonderful and could be awful. I can only just about begin to imagine what life with Judy was like. And I get exhausted at just the thought. I’ve known people of the wonderful/awful type. Hell, aren’t we all capable of wonderful/awful ourselves? It’s more ‘real’ to acknowledge this than covering up and wanting only the Happy Judy, the Funny Judy, the Consummate Professional Judy. So I am absolutely full of love and respect when I say: in the stories of Judy and John and Judy and Mickey, what about Judy’s part in all this? What does this tell us about her? Because what is often concentrated on is the person telling the story – do we believe them? How can we blame it all on them? Interestingly, although I’ve heard mainly damning things said about Mickey, I
haven’t seen any have only once seen negative words against Meyer***. Is it because she didn’t die under his supervision? Why isn’t he read by Good Fans as an opportunist like Mickey? Is it merely because he waited just over a decade to tell his story, whereas Mickey is said to have signed the contract to the book deal on the day of Judy’s funeral? Is that it? Because when I’ve read these books, and particularly the Meyer one, Judy doesn’t come across that well. She’s the one using people. Using and discarding. There’s actually a lot more love and forgiveness in Mickey’s book than there is in Meyer’s (and that is NOT a criticism of either book). Perhaps it’s because Judy didn’t ‘leave’ Mickey. He wasn’t dumped like John was. Perhaps Mickey actually held back and depicted his wife in a much more flattering light than he might have done. Who knows though? As I say, there is no ‘truth’ here. But it does interest me that, as a Judy fan, you are not supposed to say one negative thing against her. You’re supposed to ignore all that. Either deny its existence or proclaim disinterest. I’m interested in the whole versions of Judy Garland. Yes the warts and all intrigues me and perhaps more than the rest (oh what a Bad Fan I am!). But leaving all the ‘bad’ stuff out, to me, is simply just bizarre. And while I understand that loving someone often means wanting to see them in the best light and feeling really defensive of them, I don’t get the denial. I just don’t get it.
There is much, much more to Heartbreaker than Meyer Vs Deans. This is perhaps the best Judy book I’ve read so far (ok, a tie with Boyt’s My Judy Garland Life). As I said, Meyer is a great writer.The absolute detail! He writes about every single day. With humour. And he writes a marvelous impression of her speaking voice. It’s just a great book.
And the CD. There is a lot to write about Heartbreaker (and the play that has been adapted from it). And I shall do so. Another time I will particularly focus on the recording that comes with the 2006 edition of the book because it is pertinent to this project. It is not just a chance to hear Judy riffing an anecdote, but the story is about her being accosted by dykes. So, like I say: pertinent to a project looking at the queerness** of Judy.
So get the book because it’s great and get the one with the CD because it’s of a rehearsal that Meyer recorded. They’d just met really, and here she is singing and talking and joking and it is an absolute DREAM.
And I started this post talking about how it feels to read a memoir over a biography: you feel closer to the subject because of the intimate knowledge being depicted. I, of course, know that this is a particular story, a specific take on a person. It’s not an autobiography: it’s someone telling us about someone else’s life. But even in autobiography the issue of ‘truth’ is a murky one. There is no ‘true story’. It doesn’t exist. There are different stories told by different people. I long ago left behind the idea that we get to ‘know’ a person through the stories told by others or even the stories they tell themselves. We may feel that we get a sense but these are versions, edited for impact. It is an angle, carefully chosen to reveal and enhance certain things, and to hide others. Even when we talk to each other about our own lives, we’re editing ourselves. We forget or misremember. We embellish for effect. We may even rewrite to give the version that we’d preferred to have happened.
What interests me in life stories is how they are told and how that makes us feel. I care less about the ‘truth’ in an auto/biography than I care about how the tale is told and whether I enjoy it. And that’s not about believing the fibbers or ignoring that some people have been chosen by Good Fans as more trustworthy than other parties. My approach comes from an acknowledgement that we as readers can’t know what is ‘true’ and what isn’t. We can’t know what actually happened. And if we decide we ‘know’ because we believe one story over another, trust one person and dismiss the other, we are editing and selecting and deciding our own version of a ‘truth’ we can’t possibly be a part of. Even one person’s memoir against another is their own individual experiences of that person. Do we ourselves not play different roles with each person we encounter? If several different people in your own life were to write memoirs about you, how would you be depicted in each different story?
So that’s my take on Judy books, and that’s how I approach them. I love a tale and I love retelling the tales myself and I will do so by saying ‘this happened’. Not because I believe it actually, really did or because for me it is the ‘truth’ of her, but because it enhances the story I am about to relate. And that makes it a better story than prefacing it with ‘this might have happened/was allegedly the case/is what this person said occurred but actually we’re not supposed to trust them when they say it did/totally must have happened because the teller is so pure of heart they wouldn’t lie about her, would they?
Now, let me tell you about the time that Judy Garland made John Meyer steal some poor guy’s hat…
Corinna Tomrley 2014
*In her book My Judy Garland Life, Susie Boyt writes about the Good Judy Fans and the Bad Judy Fans. From these categorisations, I would fall into the Bad Fans because Good Fans never talk about the dark parts of Judy’s life and personality. According to Boyt (or rather her observation of the dichotomies as depicted in the world of Judy fandom) Bad fans only enjoy the bad aspects. While I’ve encountered PLENTY of Good Fans – and can’t believe that they actually exist to the point of getting upset that I put a post-it on her door saying that she’d died there – I’ve never met a purely Bad Fan. All those who fall outside of the Good Fan category have been a bit more complex. I love many aspects of Judy. I feel I’m just being a bit more real and honest about her life in acknowledging and talking about the faults, the heartaches, the upsets, the tantrums, the drugs, the suicide attempts and her death. I may dwell on these aspects, but then that is a key part of this project. I shall write about Good and Bad Fans in depth another time. And to be fair to Boyt (who I shall also cover in depth elsewhere), she does say: ‘I am a good fan. Of course I am, but there is a little part of me that’s very bad’.
**By queerness I don’t mean that Judy ‘was gay’. Maybe she was a bit, who knows? (Again with the ‘truth’!) I mean queer in all its facets (and that’s why I love the term). I mean her appeal to queer people; I mean how she related to queer people; I mean how she is camp and queered. I will go into this in depth elsewhere because it is so central to the For The Love Of Judy project. Stay tuned.
***I originally wrote that I’d never seen/heard anything negative about Meyer from Judy fans. That was true at the time of writing. Since then I have seen – and was subsequently part of – a discussion about the book where there were scathing and damning things thrown at Meyer for writing it and for alleged stories he told. What made me join the discussion was that I had a very different experience of the book to that being portrayed by the commentators. And, actually, some of the things being relayed about stories in the book weren’t actually true. They appeared to be mis-remembered or unwittingly made up stories based on the readers’ impressions and opinions of the book and Meyer. I tried to point this out and restore some balance to the discussion. I was labelled a troll for my efforts. This is why I try not to engage with the Good Fans. They are generally not interested in diverse discussion and go for the attack at the whiff of another opinion, especially one that doesn’t paint Garland as Saint Judy. In the end, there’s little point in getting involved.
Judy sings John Meyer’s ‘I’d Like To Hate Myself In The Morning’ at The Talk of The Town, London, January 1969. This song is the reason they met.