Today is the 45th anniversary of Judy Garland’s death. Judy’s death is an integral part of the Judy Garland Legend. It was seen as inevitable, chasing her through her life via accidental overdoses and suicide attempts. The way the pills and traumas of her life wrecked her body, it was assumed to be only a matter of time before it gave in.
Still, this inevitable foreboding did not lessen the impact of her death. We had lost Dorothy. The World’s Greatest Entertainer was gone.
The coroner’s report stated that Judy had died of an ‘incautious self-overdose of barbiturates’: that is, she overdosed slowly, over a period of hours of taking too much. This wasn’t a deliberate suicide attempt of downing a fistful of pills in one go. Instead she took some, awoke, took some more to get back to sleep, woke up again, forgot or didn’t care how many she’d already taken and swallowed yet more. She’d done this time and time again, saved at the last minute, apologising. But that ‘luck’ was bound to run out. On this day, by the time she’d staggered to the bathroom – perhaps to take the last of them – her body was giving up and gave out.
Her remains were shipped from London to New York four days later and buried the next day. One of the most extraordinary tales of the lead up to her funeral was told to Marc Charbonnet by a man who, as a lad, had worked at Frank E Campbell’s Funeral home where Judy was interred. Read this story and get ready to be hit by wonder at the amazingly exhaustive detail of it all. Her husband, Mickey Deans, decided on a public viewing of the body for 48 hours leading up to the funeral. Thousands upon thousands of hysterically sad Garland fans lined the streets of New York to grab a last glance, for a few seconds, of their Judy.
Another integral piece of the Legend of Judy Garland’s Death is that her funeral was part of the powder keg that ignited the Stonewall Riots. Queer boys and drag queens, already at a low ebb mourning their diva queen, were finally pushed too far by a police raid. Some Stonewall veterans have been enraged by what they see as the ‘triviality’ of this claim and have said the funeral was neither here nor there, that they all cared more about where they would sleep or get their next meal than about some dead movie star. Others have said that Judy was well known in the Stonewall Inn – that is, because it had no liquor licence, all patrons were required to sign in as if it were a private club and the most common pseudonym was ‘Judy Garland’.
Whether or not Judy’s funeral was an ingredient of the uprising, the two are forever intertwined in queer history by this urban legend. As Jeff Weinstein so beautifully put it: ‘Judy was responsible for Stonewall, the way flowers are responsible for spring’.
And it seals in the queerness of Judy – her association with gays goes WAY back, it’s not some ironic camp reading from more current times. Of the thousands of people lined up for two days to view her body at the funeral home, most were gay men and some were gay women. To those present it seemed as if they were at the biggest gathering of gays that ever had been. The queers in the viewing line may or may not have been the patrons of the Stonewall Inn but they recognised each other from their gay underworld. They saw that their grief for Judy had brought them together and that they were legion.
(A clip from Nigel Finch’s sublime 1995 film, Stonewall)
Judy knew her audience was very queer. Liza Minnelli said that her mother once declared: ‘When I die I have visions of fags singing Over The Rainbow and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast’. Her other daughter, Lorna Luft, has said that Mama would have approved of the Stonewall riots – identifying with the disaffected and the bullied, Judy would have cheered that ‘they stood up for themselves’.
And so it was, 45 years ago, that Mickey Deans discovered his wife dead in their Belgravia home and the Judy Garland Legend – one that had been forming and mutating throughout her short life – took another turn. Judy the Tragic had reached her inevitable conclusion. And the Friends of Dorothy took her even further into our hearts; she had – after all – promised that there was a world of wonder and glorious Technicolor, over that rainbow.
Corinna Tomrley 2014