Adventures in Judyland

Or: What I learned from my two-year multimedia Garland project

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I didn’t quite know exactly what For The Love Of Judy would be. The kernel idea was a documentary, perhaps a performance as part of it. Then came the art and the writing. But it was its own animal – as art often is – dictating its own directions and outcomes.

It was around February 2014 that I began to get formulate the project. As I’ve mentioned before, I had the idea to do something around Judy and/or romantic pain singers, for years. I had been talking about the film for a while and when my life suddenly changed and I needed something to distract and focus me, it seemed like it was the perfect time for Judy.

I’ve been fascinated with Judy for decades. From girlhood for sure, very seriously for around 20 years. I found myself having a bit of an identity crisis. Actually, much more than a bit. In order to anchor myself I reached back to what had been a constant in my life: love of golden age Hollywood. And from there, quite naturally, I was led to the love of Judy.

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From the start I didn’t want to structure the thing, didn’t want to make it a concrete, planned out whatever. I didn’t want to pressure myself. It would be fun, it would not be ‘work’. In the end what it became was an actual, proverbial ‘journey’ for me, and a very profound experience. More prosaically what it became was this blog (as a place for writing, developing thoughts about Judy, analysis, and the related topics, interviews, and reviews), several art pieces (some coming out of whatever medium I was working in at the time, others a focus for discussion, such as the painting of Judy crying in this blog’s banner). Then there was the film.

I realized that a documentary (as wonderful as it would be) was too big a project for someone with no money and who would find getting funding very difficult if not impossible (with no recent track record, who would take that chance on lil ol’ me?). The same with the performance, which I thought would actually end up being much more costly and harder to do on the cheap or on a zero budget. But I definitely wanted a film element.

I hadn’t made films for twenty years. After I graduated film school I just never got around to it. I helped out on a couple of film projects in the months leading up to Fever Dream and got bitten by the bug again. Just like the overall 4TLOJ project I didn’t plan anything out, I just began to film. The narrative grew out of the footage and when it began to develop into a solid idea I filmed some more to hone it down. Then came the editing. Oh my, I love editing. When it came together I was as surprised as many were who saw it and told me that it was better than they imagined it would be. You don’t need to tell me! But I’m proud as all get out of that film.

I pretty immediately had an idea for a second film. I even began working on scenery and bought materials for costumes and props. But life again got in the way and I didn’t get around to doing it. I had figured it would bring the project to a close. I’d been working on it for two years and it had consumed a lot of my life. It was time to move on. And so it is. I do want to move on and do many other things. But because I really like the second film idea, and because there are countless topics that I wanted to write about but didn’t manage to, and I really would like to do that documentary one day, this isn’t the very end of For The Love Of Judy. I will probably return to it occasionally, and maybe knock out the odd thing that I post here if it seems relevant. But for now, this girl needs a break from the world of Garland.

Before I go on my Judy vacation, though, I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve learned since I immersed myself in all things Judy.

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Judy Garland is a fascinating and complex woman and there’s a never-ending Garland library
I read 13 books on her back to back. Two or three were books that had a chapter on her and I read that. One was partly a picture book but with a significant amount of text. But the rest were biographies and memoirs. And that was just a fraction of what is out there on her. To some who are familiar with research, 13 books on a topic is not unusual. Most people, however, looked at me as if I had a problem when I told them that I’d read 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 books on Judy Garland. Maybe it was an ‘issue’ or a necessary bit of therapy for me. But it was also more than that.

I honestly enjoyed it. There were two that were difficult reads because they were badly written. But that was part of what was fascinating; I could have done a thesis on different styles of biography writing. There was usually something in each book that was new. But even the repeated stories in each one weren’t boring. I pretty much skipped the childhood after a while as I wasn’t as interested in that after a couple of them. I developed favourite points in her life; it became interesting for me when she moved into young adulthood. Her complexities around sex and hopeless romantic tendencies were fascinating to read. How she was controlled by her mother, the studio, her husbands, and how she rebelled. Then of course, the later years. The memoirs I read were some of my favourites including those by Mickey Deans, John Meyer and Lorna Luft.

I am very open that I like to read the nitty gritty, the scandal, the rougher side of a star life. It makes them more human but, yes, I enjoy trash and gossip as much as the next queen. Sometimes I had to admit I didn’t like Judy when she behaved in certain ways. Especially when I read Lorna’s and what those kids went through. But I still loved her. This complexity spoke a lot to me and my own childhood and my relationship with my difficult mother. And to be honest there’s always been something about Judy that reminded me of her.

Watching and listening to Judy is an endless surge of joyousness; she evokes the most intense emotions
I already knew she was great, obvs. But as well as reading loads, I watched loads too. It was mainly TV ‘concerts’ – whether from the specials or her TV show. And it is these performances that are the ultimate for me. It’s pretty much what we have of her, outside of her films. And it’s her singing, live. There’s also the countless TV appearances on chat shows and other people’s shows that you can see on Youtube, including some that she did in the last few months of her life. As I’ve written, if someone asks what it is about her exactly that makes one a fan, sit that person down and show them any of the versions of By Myself. Or Battle Hymn Of The Republic. Or San Francisco. I stop breathing when I watch and listen to her. I laugh. I cry. I clap my hands in joy. I get intense goosebumps. I get hyper. I want to immediately stand up and sing. I want to watch her more and more. She is mesmerizing. Each gesture, each note, each outfit, each hairdo. She is simply compelling and there really is no one else like her.

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She makes you think about all kinds of stuff
As well as just contemplating things like what it was like to grow up a child performer from the age of 3 and go through the mill of MGM and the golden Hollywood era, experiencing Judy makes all kinds of emotions bubble to the surface. From evoking childhood experiences and horrors to just making you feel so very much all the time, Judy’s joy, cheek, chutzpah, pathos and pain were very contagious. This was a very emotional project, which was really exactly what I needed. It also meant that a lot of the time I couldn’t put into words what I was experiencing and I didn’t always capture it. Most of it was felt by me and that’s it. But I think it bleeds through in the work, overall. And who knows what’s in the gaps of art that the audience never really sees?

People love to talk about Judy and there are never ending sources of new information out there
Most of the time I got to a story or interview by chance. I would start out going in one direction and end up in another place entirely. But from that initial thought it was Judy who took me there. From an exclusive interview with Rosalyn Wilder who stood at the side of the stage of The Talk Of The Town in 1968, confiscating Judy’s pills, to revealing what was behind Douglas Kirkland’s haunting photograph ‘Judy Garland Shedding Tear’ by talking to his wife, to unveiling the love and respect behind the song Judy Garland by New York country-punk duo Frog; I found out new information and spoke to people who hadn’t told those stories before. And the responses I got to the blog posts by people leaving comments were always so grateful, appreciative, people wanted to tell me why she was important to them and discuss what I’d written. I didn’t expect that and they always come out of nowhere. Blog posting can feel like a shot in the dark; you can see stats that someone has clicked on a page but you never really know if someone’s read the thing. That is until they tell you they have and engage with the piece. I imagine that I’ll get responses and comments about it for as long as the blog remains live on the Internet. I love talking to you all about it, keep ‘em coming!

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The most vocal Judy Garland fans – The Good Fans – are, on the whole, bullying, troll-like, closed-minded and protective of a skewed, whitewashed idea of Judy Garland to the point of delusion
I know, right? That’s quite the provocative statement. But anyone who has published anything – be it in a hardcopy book-form, blog, play, article, comment on a fan page or forum – about Judy that has depicted her as something other than happy, funny, joyfilled and – well – pure, has come under attack from these fans. And these vary from subtle passive-aggression to full-on nasty trolling.

I expected some kind of reaction going in because I’ve been fascinated by, and studied, fan culture for decades. I know what it can be like. But I really didn’t expect quite the specific responses that I got. It was bewildering but in the end I just stopped engaging with it. It was a needless waste of energy, they weren’t interested in dialogue, there were plenty of people enjoying my work and so I focused on them. And as a result of the bullying I stopped sharing the exclusives I was getting on the Judy fans pages because these fans were more interested in slagging me off than in the information that I was presenting. Sadly, many people shared with me their own experience of being bullied and silenced by The Good Fans. These aren’t, actually, ‘good’ people.

I could write a whole book on how The Good Fans responded to my work and dissect it as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Heck, maybe I will one day. For now, I’ll give some highlights.

I posted the exclusive story behind Kirkland’s photo of Judy crying. The response? “I don’t like the title of your blog”. OK, but you couldn’t get beyond that to actually read and comment on this new information on one of the most written about women in the world that you’re a massive fan of? No? So what did people not like about the title of my blog? Oh they had lots to say about it.

The pervasive idea that Judy was ‘tragic’ or had a ‘tragic life’. Read any book on her and you cannot tell me that she didn’t have a very, very difficult life. Her childhood alone was pretty grueling, heartbreaking and at time downright horrific. And this resulted in an adulthood that was almost inevitably tumultuous, full of dramatic events, illness, self-harm and suicide attempts. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of celebrating Judy as a survivor of all this horror or as a complex, sometimes very difficult woman who was that way as a result of this hard life, there is complete denial. And so anyone attempting to discuss this in any way is shot down and shutdown.

The camp and the queer. Oh my. Despite the almost cliché that Judy is a gay icon, the suggestion that she had and has a lot of gay fans actually gets a lot of people’s back up. And the most fascinating thing is that some of these people who are very vocal about it are gay themselves. Is this self-loathing? Or is it just another example of anything ‘negative’ being rejected out of hand. That gay fans, Judy’s gay relationships or just the gay-adjacent words queer and camp are being seen as ‘negative’ and a problem here is very troubling. Not to mention pathetic and just fucking wrong. These Good Fans would harp on that Judy had plenty of straight fans; just look at her audiences! Children, women, families would go to her concerts. First of all, who’s to say that some of these people weren’t gay? But of course it is gay men who are the clichéd gay fans. But still, no one – NO ONE – is saying that her entire fanbase is full of poofs and queens and raging homos. There just happened and happens to be a lot of gay/queer people who are her fans. And this is interesting. There’s a lot about it that is important to queer fans. It means something. Why try and diminish that because it somehow doesn’t fit in with some purified version of a star persona? It just doesn’t make any sense. Apart from that fandom makes people unreasonable, illogical and hateful when it is in the extreme.

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I actually think that part of the negative response to this and my other exclusives was that I was an outsider and they were suspicious and mainly jealous of me. Again, bold statement right? But think about it. Why else would they dismiss and ignore the recollections of one of the most respected and glorious celebrity photographers who’s produced some of the most profound images of their idol?

Last example: I interviewed Rosalyn who had spent several days with Judy, experiencing her in all kinds of ways at a time when she was ill both physically and mentally. Judy was erratic and unreliable. This is well documented in records about the last years of her life and this was but 6 months before her death. Sure, I didn’t expect the fans to like the stories of Judy’s pill taking, being under the influence of drink and drugs and not turning up to perform. But what I didn’t expect was for Rosalyn’s experience to be dismissed outright. OK, they didn’t believe her. But they didn’t even believe she was there. Rosalyn Wilder was production assistant at The Talk Of The Town for twenty years. She had meticulous records of her time there. If they want evidence, get in touch with Rosalyn and she’ll show them the evidence that she was in that building on the nights when Judy did show up.

A Good Fan asked me if I had read Lorna Smith’s book Judy, With Love which documents her time as Judy’s dresser and Garland’s many visits to the UK over the years. I had and – although this is one of the ones I found hard to read because it was badly written – I consider it a very interesting source of details about this time. Judy’s connection to London (her many visits, living here at the end of the 50s with her then husband Sid Luft and her three children, living here at the end of her life and dying in her Chelsea mews cottage) had long fascinated me and I contemplated ‘Judy in London’ as a sub-project at one point. But why they mentioned Lorna Smith’s book was because Rosalyn didn’t appear in her account. Therefore – the logic went – she couldn’t have been there.

Now, the last thing that I want to do is to undermine the memories of a woman who did, indeed, spend a great deal of intimate time with Judy Garland. But I feel I must point something out in relation to the discrediting of Rosalyn Wilder’s account. Lorna Smith didn’t write just one book about Judy Garland; she would go on to write another. And this book is quite extraordinary. Entitled Judy Garland: My Life Over The Rainbow, Smith claims that this book is the result of Judy talking to her from beyond the grave.

As deeply fascinating as the very existence of such a thing is, I just found it astonishing that The Good Judy Fans were declaring that I should accept the account of a woman who believed the spirt of Judy Garland was dictating her memoirs to her over one who sat down with me and recalled her experience quite prosaically. I’ll just leave that there.

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And so, this is kind of the end of my journey into the queer, camp, tragic legend of Miss Garland. Well, it’s a pause at the very least. And I thank all who have been along for the ride, contributed, encouraged and gave me feedback. And I thank all those who will do so in the future.

I want to end this piece by returning to the start of my project. One of the first things I did was visit the house where Judy died on Cadogan Lane. I wrote about the experience for Civilian magazine and it got loads of attention and lots of warm feedback. I visited again and was overjoyed that my little postit had sparked a whole schlew of permanent dedication; notices, graffiti, there was even a bit on The One Show about it.

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Recently a fan, Mike Duncan, contacted me about the house. He’d been there many times over the years and when he googled the address he – like others – found my blog post (or more likely the Civilian article) about it. He told me he’d recently visited and unfortunately the building has finally been raised. When I was first researching into it there was a rumour that it was up for demolition but it turned out that this was a mistake; one of the nearby buildings was being knocked down and rebuilt instead. But no one who visited 4 Cadogan Lane in the past few years could deny that it was in a poor state. In comparison with every other building on that road, it was a real mess. Not only had it been gutted, it just looked like somewhere that needed a huge overhaul if not just to be torn down. Yes, it’s sad that it no longer exists – more care could have been taken of it and it would most likely still be there and a cute little desirable address if it had. And yes, a blue plaque really should be put up (the company is back in action again; write to them, start a petition. It can happen!) What is heartwarming, though, is that although the building is gone, the wood covering the garage door is still there. All the graffiti tributes that were written on it still remain. It’s as if the fans’ love lingers on even though the bricks and mortar are gone.

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And, somehow, this feels like a really fitting ending to this project, not to mention pretty symbolic. It’s tragic (that she died there, that it’s gone) and yet the fan love remains (and what’s more camp than the lyrics to Over The Rainbow and Star Is Born Judy doing jazz hands??). And I’ve had a ball going through all the emotions and adventures. Thanks, Judy, from one crazy, queer old broad to another.

Corinna Tomrley, London, 2016 

All art in this blog post by Corinna Tomrley, including a still from her 1997 film, Rainbow Kiss

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