Judy Garland’s life was filled of heartache, of that there’s no doubt, but biographer Anne Edwards was the first to blame society – specifically the Hollywood studio system – for the wealth of diseases that came to wrack, and ruin, Garland’s career. Edwards biography is dated, and can read like a recreation of every Garland performance, but the author’s love and sympathy for Garland shines through. Judy Garland: A Biography can be a dense read, but it’s worth it for a historical view of the start that – for the time – wasn’t popular.
Countless Garland biographies have portrayed the star as a tortured mess to a hopeless junkie; no portrayal is completely flattering. Author Anne Edwards was a former London neighbor of Garland’s and the first to write Garland’s biography from the perspective of “Eternal victim.” It’s a sad, albeit rote, interpretation that might not pack as big a wallop if you’ve read recent biographies. I did hope that the recent reprinting from Taylor Trade Publishing would include updated sections. (A sign of the times in which this was published is the reiteration of Garland’s work with “retarded” kids. Considering the taboo connotations of the word, I was surprised at that not being revised.)
The book follows Garland’s rise from her time as Baby Gumm to her eventual drug overdose; in between are multiple marriages, fluctuations in wealth and weight, and questions of what could have been. The little girl with the big voice lived in a cloud of guilt, believing that if she didn’t perform people would be upset with her. She respected her fans, concluding they were the only ones who unconditionally loved her, and developed a guilt complex when she couldn’t perform. It is the series of performances that, while interesting as a record of all the well-known places (including Carnegie Hall) Garland performed in, there’s only so many times you read about a performance set-list. Edwards attempts to create an intimate setting for audiences, but towards the end it becomes a repetitive series of “She sang…she hit the note…this song was sung.”
Edwards utilizes her first-hand perspective to do some heavy-hitting research into Garland’s life, and remains respectful to a fault. She never takes on an “I was there” approach or relies on her presence to sell facts. Throughout the 300 pages there’s only one scene where Garland and Edwards meet. It’s easy for an author to rely on moments “they remember” and Edwards could have done so; instead, she produces copious and thorough research (although I would have enjoyed her mentioning it from time to time). Edwards does tend to make assumptions that sound more in line with her personal thoughts, but it was never something I immediately questioned, and she did a decent job backing up questionable details. The back section of the book includes a bit of Garland’s poetry, which is fascinating to read. I agree with Edwards that Garland is no Emily Dickinson, but the plaintive poetry opens up the reader to Garland’s loneliness and romantic spirit that she continually sought in the various men she fell in with.
Judy Garland: A Biography has been analyzed and included in various later biographies, but it’s an interesting read from a historical standpoint. Coming out soon after Garland’s death, Anne Edwards doesn’t seek to bash or “expose” Garland. She portrays the actress as a sensitive soul who never got the chance to experience life; her constant control by men who plied her with pills to keep her moving from concert to movie and back is heart wrenching. It would be advisable to read this along with Lorna Luft’s later biography on her mother: Me and My Shadows.
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