Judy Garland is beloved to this day thanks to her iconic roles in movies such as Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star Is Born. But it was of course the actress’ performance as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz that truly launched her to worldwide fame. Apparently, though, Garland’s journey down the yellow brick road came at a tragic and disturbing cost.
Reportedly, Garland was pressured by unscrupulous studio executives about her appearance in her teens and beyond. But it’s said that on the set of The Wizard of Oz – when the star was 16 years old – the meddling reached a shocking new level. In fact, the actress’ experience shooting the wholesome fantasy may have damaged both her physical and mental health forever.
Having entered the world as Frances Gumm in 1922, Garland was railroaded into a showbiz career early on by her stage mom. First, she performed alongside siblings Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia in a vaudeville trio before landing a deal with MGM Studios aged just 13. Garland made her screen debut in 1936 musical short Every Sunday and shortly after impressed in Pigskin Parade.
After these early appearances, Garland’s career went from strength to strength. In 1937 she stole the show in Broadway Melody of 1938, and the following year she shone in Listen, Darling. But it was the star’s next role that would end up defining her: Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And the movie’s enormous success would lead to a string of other parts in similarly family-friendly vehicles.
Yet it was also shortly after Garland’s fame-making turn as Dorothy that she started to become just as renowned for her various personal struggles as her on-screen performances. For instance, in 1944 the actress notoriously split from musician David Rose after just three years of marriage. And she reportedly had two abortions during this period, too.
Then, in 1945, following a short liaison with married man Orson Welles, Garland walked down the aisle for a second time. She tied the knot with director Vincent Minnelli, and they welcomed daughter Liza nine months later. After just five years, however, Garland and Minnelli went their separate ways. But by this point, the singer’s mental health had seemingly started to suffer.
You see, Garland had reportedly experienced a breakdown in 1947 while shooting The Pirate with Fred Astaire. And yet despite having subsequently spent time in a medical institution, the actress had tried to take her own life a few months later. Sadly, though, this suicide attempt would not be the last.
After a two-week spell in a Massachusetts psychiatric facility, Garland had returned to work. She’d enjoyed roaring success with 1948’s Easter Parade before reuniting with Astaire on The Barkleys of Broadway. But the pair’s second team-up hadn’t proved as successful as the first. In fact, Garland had been dropped from her starring role during the early stages of filming due to the dependence on alcohol, sleeping pills and morphine that had allegedly caused her to miss numerous days on set.
Then, Garland was also made surplus to requirements in 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun, for which she’d been cast in the lead role of Annie Oakley. It’s said, you see, that the singer’s increasingly fractured relationship with director Busby Berkeley, her regular failure to show up for shoots and her battle with depression had led to Betty Hutton taking on the part instead.
But despite a subsequent lengthy stint at a Boston medical institution, Garland seemingly struggled to shake off her demons. Indeed, in an attempt to shed weight for 1950’s Summer Stock, the star allegedly caused numerous delays with her lack of punctuality. And after being fired from Royal Wedding for similar reasons, Garland reportedly tried to commit suicide again.
Then, in 1953 Garland allegedly put her safety and that of her family at risk in an alarming incident. According to the singer’s third husband, Sid Luft, she nearly set her house on fire after ingesting pills and falling asleep holding a lit cigarette. Thankfully, though, Luft managed to alert the fire services and get Garland and her two daughters out of the property in time.
The following year, Garland apparently sunk into a state of depression when she lost out on the Best Actress Oscar that she’d been heavily tipped to win. In fact, organizers had been so sure that the legend’s performance in A Star Is Born would earn her the coveted award that they’d sent a TV crew into the hospital room where she had given birth to son Joseph. But Grace Kelly ended up being victorious for her turn in The Country Girl.
And in 1959 Garland’s situation took another turn for the worse. Following a diagnosis of acute hepatitis, medics reportedly told the actress that her singing days were over and that she only had around half a decade to live. Yet instead of being devastated by such a prognosis, Garland, apparently, was relieved. She told LIFE magazine in 1961, “The pressure was off me for the first time in my life.”
But while Garland would outlive doctors’ expectations by several years, this period was still fraught with personal struggles for the star. In 1963, for instance, she filed for divorce from Luft, claiming that he’d been physically abusive on more than one occasion while drunk. Apparently, the producer had also forcefully tried to take away their kids.
In 1965 Garland said “I do” for a fourth time, wedding her tour promoter Mark Herron. But in just half a year the actress became a divorcée again. And it wasn’t an amicable split, either. Apparently, you see, the marriage had broken down due to claims that Herron had been violent with Garland. He insisted, however, that he had “only hit her in self-defense.”
Garland’s troubles were far from over, though. After the singer’s agent David Begelman allegedly stole a share of her pay, she found herself in significant financial difficulty. In fact, Garland wound up facing debts of a reported $500,000. And she subsequently put her home in Brentwood, California, on the market for a bargain price to recoup some of the money.
All was not lost, however. In March 1969 Garland became a married woman once again, making club manager Mickey Deans her fifth husband. But sadly, the star was in desperately ill health at the time. And just a few months later, she passed away at the age of 47. Garland’s lifeless body was discovered in her rented marital home in the London borough of Belgravia.
An inquest ruled that Garland had died as the result of an “incautious self-overdosage of barbiturates.” But the coroner maintained that this hadn’t been intentional and that there was no proof to suggest that the star had taken her own life. In fact, the autopsy report showed that rather than being ingested in one go, the drugs had actually built up in Garland’s system over a lengthy period.
That said, some believe that there were other contributing factors to Garland’s demise. An expert from the U.K., for instance, claimed that Garland’s passing had been inevitable due to her cirrhosis, although no signs of the disease were found in a follow-up investigation. And another specialist, Jason Payne-James, theorized that an eating disorder had also led to the Hollywood legend’s tragic fate.
To make matters more upsetting, Garland’s financial woes during her later years meant that the will that she’d drawn up eight years prior to her death couldn’t be honored. Plus, with assistance from Sinatra, daughter Liza had to work relentlessly to settle her mother’s many debts. A 1978 auction, which sold off many of Garland’s personal belongings, also helped to raise a significant sum.
Despite the numerous tragedies that Garland experienced in her lifetime, she seemingly refused to let them define her. The legend’s daughter Lorna told The Guardian in 1999, “We all have tragedies in our lives, but that does not make us tragic… [My mother] had great highs and great moments in her career. She also had great moments in her personal life. Yes, we lost her at 47 years old. That was tragic. But she was not a tragic figure.”
But it’s perhaps difficult to see Garland’s life as anything other than tragic, considering the abhorrent treatment that she allegedly received at the hands of those who were meant to look after her. In fact, it seems as though the actress was exploited from the moment that she first entered the movie industry. And it’s believed that it was the star’s most cherished film that most notably took its toll.
After all, many think that Garland’s problems with substance abuse stemmed from the drugs with which she and her fellow teen actors were allegedly plied during her early MGM days. Keen to make the most of its commodities, the studio often used to shoot movies back-to-back. And to ensure that their understandably tired talents were always ready for action, they reportedly used to give them stimulants and adrenaline.
But this in turn meant that the young stars had trouble getting to sleep. To combat this, the studio would apparently hand out sleeping pills and barbiturates – potentially dangerous sedative-hypnotics. Unsettlingly, this was a tactic that Garland was all too used to. It’s said, you see, that she and her sisters had been given pep pills by their mother while traveling up and down the country with their vaudeville act.
As a result, Garland became reliant on medication for much of her life. She told Cosmopolitan in 1951, “At times, I have been pretty much a walking advertisement for sleeping pills. Even though pills come on doctors’ prescriptions – as mine did – they can be a tremendous strain on the nervous system.”
And if pills weren’t bad enough, it’s said that Garland was mocked about her physical appearance by MGM’s sadistic boss Louis B. Mayer. Indeed, the studio head would call the actress his “little hunchback,” and he insisted on fitting prosthetics to her facial features. The teen was also ordered to stick to a punishing weight-loss plan.
In fact, Garland’s diet would sometimes consist of little more than caffeine, liquid foods and cigarettes. The story goes that some of Mayer’s employees would be tasked with watching the actress to ensure that she was adhering to the plan, too. And if she was discovered straying, she’d be castigated and sent to the doctor for insomnia-inducing diet pills.
Apparently, Mayer was also prone to getting touchy-feely with his young ingenue. It’s been said that the studio boss would grope Garland in his office, informing her as he cupped her chest that she “sang from the heart.” And according to biographer Gerald Clarke, the actress once remarked, “I often thought I was lucky I didn’t sing from another part of my anatomy.”
But things became even worse for Garland when she landed the part of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Seemingly unsatisfied by the star’s appearance, Mayer demanded that she don a bespoke corset to help reduce her curves. Meanwhile, the studio head also insisted on the 16-year-old’s breasts being taped flat.
By the sound of it, Garland didn’t get much support from her co-stars, either. In fact, some of Oz’s adult cast members apparently grew increasingly jealous of the attention that she was receiving and did their best to steal the limelight from her. One of her few allies turned out somewhat ironically to be the Wicked Witch of the West – a.k.a actress Margaret Hamilton.
According to a book penned by Garland’s third husband, Luft, the star was also molested by some of The Wizard of Oz’s munchkin actors. In Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland, he revealed, “They’d make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress… The men were 40 or more years old. They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small.”
Unfortunately, the phenomenal success of The Wizard of Oz only inspired Mayer to inflict even more rules and regulations. Referring to MGM’s treatment of both her and friend Mickey Rooney, Garland once explained to biographer Paul Donnelley, “They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted.”
Garland continued, “Then, they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills – [Rooney] sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then, after four hours, they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling, but it was a way of life for us.”
Even Garland’s love life was initially controlled by MGM. For instance, Mayer reportedly put pay to one particular budding romance with fellow actor Tyrone Power. And alongside Garland’s husband David Rose, the studio boss also allegedly encouraged the young actress to terminate a pregnancy at the end of 1942.
Presumably, Mayer believed that Garland’s innocent image would be irreparably damaged had she given birth to a child at the age of 20. But the termination seemingly haunted the actress until the day she died. The Hollywood legend reportedly once said, “I tried my damnedest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over, and I couldn’t; I just couldn’t.”
Of course, Garland’s life could have been different had she not suffered the heartbreak of losing her father, Frank, as an early teen. The actress reportedly once stated that his death was “the most terrible thing that happened to [her] in [her] life.” After all, Garland had enjoyed a close bond with her dad – a stark contrast to the troubled relationship that she had seemingly had with her mother.
According to Donnelley, Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall believed it was inevitable that Garland developed a substance abuse problem. Bacall said, “From childhood Judy was placed on drugs – to lose weight or to go to sleep or to wake up. And once you get hooked on pills… it obviously affected her.”
Garland’s ex-husband Luft was also convinced that she never stood a chance. He said in his book, “Feeding narcotics to children was a deep, dark secret known only to those at the studio and the government. When our relationship eventually developed into a commitment, I could detect Judy’s pill intake by her eyes, the pupils changing like a cat’s in the noonday sun.”
Perhaps inevitably, Garland’s two daughters also picked up on some of her damaging habits. Liza, for instance, has several unsuccessful marriages under her belt and has allegedly struggled with substance abuse over the years. Lorna, meanwhile, reportedly battled with cocaine addiction before checking into the Betty Ford Center.
But while Garland may be long gone, her legacy certainly lives on. And in 2019 the legendary star’s story was thrust back into the public eye once again thanks to biopic Judy. The movie, which is set in London in the late 1960s, sees Renée Zellweger step into Garland’s iconic shoes. Zellweger told Yahoo! Entertainment, “[The film] was just a celebration of [Garland] and her humanity and what a beautiful human being she was and the gifts that she gave to all of us with her generous nature.”