Interview with author Elliot Tiber

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Palm Trees on the HudsonElliot Tiber, born in 1935, is an interior designer, artist, memoirist, screenwriter, humorist, and activist. He studied at Hunter College in New York, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. His best-selling 2007 memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life (Square One Publishers), written with Tom Monte, was adapted as a movie of the same name by director Ang Lee. The film opened in the United States in August 2009. His follow-up prequel, Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating (Square One Publishers), was published in 2010. Tiber has also written and produced numerous award-winning plays and musical comedies. In New York, he has taught at the New School University, Hunter College, the New York Institute of Technology, and in Brussels at the American Library. His first novel, Rue Haute (Éditions Rossel), was published in French in 1975 and became a bestseller. In 1976, it was made into a French-language movie directed by his domestic partner, André Ernotte, and was an Academy Award semi-finalist for Best Foreign Film. The book was published in the United States by Avon Books in 1977 under the title High Street. As a humorist, Tiber has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS, CNBC, and 20/20, as well as on television shows in France, England, Tokyo, Moscow, and Berlin. He has also performed his standup one-man show, Woodstock Daddy, for clubs, theaters, and television. His quest for equal rights has led him to develop Gaystock ( Tiber’s passion for Judy Garland has accompanied him throughout his life. He saw her at Carnegie Hall in 1961, at the Palace in 1967, and met her in 1968. He was also present at the Stonewall riots in 1969, which many have proclaimed as the beginning of the gay rights movement. Described by The New York Times as a gay rights icon, Tiber currently resides in New York City and California.


What is your first memory of Judy Garland?

I first saw and fell in love with Judy in 1943 at a Brooklyn movie house called the Metro when I was just a boy. My mother used to schlep me to the movies every Tuesday for “Plate Night,” where the theater gave away a free dish. She didn’t care about keeping the dishes for us, though. Instead, she would just stick the plates in the window of my family’s housewares store the next day and sell them—she was clearly very sentimental about the cinema! Anyway, I’m sitting there in my seat and The Wizard of Oz comes on. This sweet little girl named Dorothy starts to sing “Over the Rainbow,” and I just about swooned! There was such a lost yet hopeful quality in that little girl’s voice, and I found kinship and comfort in it. To this day, I can’t see The Wizard of Oz—or pretty dinner plates, for that matter—without thinking of how Judy gave my heart an escape from that Brooklyn movie theater and my mad Russian momma.

You were present at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961. As a writer, if you were to sit down and write about being there that evening, what would be your first paragraph?

Well, first of all I am a writer—didn’t you know? [laughs] Secondly, I did sit down and write about being at the Carnegie Hall show back in April 1961—you can find my sparkling prose about that show on pages 82 to 85 of my book Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland, and Interior Decorating. And since I was laying down when I first wrote about that magical night back in 1961, I suppose I could now sit down and write about it again . . . but it’s going to cost you. Cash, no checks [smiles].

In Palm Trees on the Hudson, you write how Garland’s records were your “bridge over troubled water” during stressful moments in your life. Do you feel, on the other hand, that Garland can become an emotional crutch?

What’s wrong with needing something on which to lean and depend? I have only ever gathered strength and pleasure and courage from listening to Judy’s music over the years. Being gay in America still remains an incredible challenge—always has, in fact. I have known some very beautiful people—gay, lesbian, and also straight—who have further enjoyed their lives through the miracle that has always been Judy’s voice and the songs that she left us on all those records. But I have also known people over the years—especially young gays and lesbians—for whom Judy’s records may have saved them from hurting themselves or, in too many instances, even from killing themselves. I am going to be seventy-seven years old this year, and I still like to listen to Judy. Everybody should—she sings the truth of our lives.

Elliot Tiber
Author Photo: Payam Rahimian

Fans of your generation have related how they were passionate about Judy as early as The Wizard of Oz. That is, she hooked admirers well before the gay rights era. How do you account for that?

I can’t speak for every gay and lesbian person—we’re all different, you know—but I do know that many of us felt that Judy was the light in our lives. She took our black & white lives and turned them into wild and wonderful color—just as the film does when Dorothy wakes up in the Land of Oz. For me, though, Judy’s voice and her chaotic life seemed to echo my own feelings of yearning and wanderlust for a life “over the rainbow” where I didn’t feel judged, trapped, threatened, or beaten into a corner just for being me. Judy was like the voice in our own private closets, belting its way out.

In his very learned book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, Richard Dyer states that gay men are attracted to Judy Garland for three main reasons: her ordinariness, her androgyny, she was camp. Do you agree?

Not necessarily. I think that some gay men are attracted to Judy for those reasons, but it could just be that they like her music. While it is true that a large percentage of gay men love Judy, I have known straight men who loved her too. You have to remember that Judy Garland was an amazing entertainer, absolutely spellbinding in live performance. And despite her highs and lows, she always tried to give the audience every ounce of herself—sometimes to her own detriment. Maybe that’s another part of her appeal for gay men—her masochistic propensity for self-damage. Not that there’s anything wrong with sadomasochism—read chapter three in my first book, Taking Woodstock, to see what I mean. [laughs]

Could you describe your memories of seeing Judy at the Palace in 1967?

Hey, nobody’s going to buy my book if I tell all the good parts to you in this interview! OK, you’re being good so I’ll tell you [smiles]. She seemed a little weaker than I remember her being onstage back in 1961 at Carnegie Hall. But I had the pleasure of presenting her with a dozen white roses from the audience when she first appeared on the stage that night. To my delight, Judy accepted my gift and even handed one rose back to me. I kept that rose pressed in a book for many years afterward. She sang wonderfully that night—and when she did “Over the Rainbow,” I felt like that little Brooklyn boy again.

You met Judy in May 1968 in a rocambolesque scene you so wonderfully describe in your book. No one knew it then of course, but she had about a year to live. Did you sense that she was on borrowed time?

It felt like everyone was living on borrowed time back in 1968. The Vietnam horror was going full-throttle, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my fellow gay friends and I were still attacked and harassed by citizens and cops alike—we were scared. I remember how little Judy seemed—like a bird with an injured wing. But I have to say that, lost though she seemed in my brief meeting with her aboard a crazed birthday party cruise boat gone wrong, Judy still possessed that little spark of strength and hope with which you get through life. Looking back on it, though, I’m sure she must have been terribly lonely and troubled at the time. Ironically, so was I.

Were you surprised when she died?

Yes, it was a shock. I cried when I heard, and the funeral for Judy off Madison Avenue in New York City was a time when so many of us there just broke down and hugged each other. Judy was so young, only forty-seven at the time. Madonna just did the Super Bowl at age fifty-three, and she looks fantastic! When I think of how much more Judy could have done in her life, it still angers me.

Could anyone have saved Judy?

It’s always easy to wonder about that kind of thing after the fact. Ultimately, no one can save anyone else from their own problems. They have to sort it out for themselves. I find it sad that Judy was able to save so many other people—including me—through her music and her performances, but couldn’t save herself. Maybe if all of us try to help save each other from now on, it’ll be like we’re saving a piece of Judy too.

You were present at the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969. Do you feel it is accurate to say that some of the anger came out of anguish over the recent death of Judy, and that night was the beginning of the gay rights movement?

That’s absolutely correct. Yes, without a question, losing Judy was the final straw in what had become an intolerable situation for gays. We were all getting fed up anyway, but Judy’s death somehow triggered everything in all of us. We realized that there were more of us than cops outside the Stonewall—and strength comes with numbers. During that summer of 1969, the gay community lost a friend in Judy but made lots of new friends through the birth of Gay Liberation. Only a few weeks later, I saved the miraculous 1969 Woodstock Arts & Music Festival from near-cancellation up in Bethel, New York. Over a million people got together, gay and straight, for three days of peace and love and music—I still like to think that Judy was up in the stars, helping to make that all happen.

You have listened to a lot of Judy Garland records over the years. Which have marked you most, and why?

So many of her songs have stayed with me, but I think that “Over the Rainbow” and “Get Happy” remain favorites. One first filled me with wonder as a child, while “Get Happy” helped me keep my life on track in the fall of 1968. Then there’s always “The Man That Got Away,” which brings to mind memories of my late lover and friend Andre Ernotte . . . but that’s another story.

Many gay men think about Judy Garland every day. Is this odd?


Taking WoodstockDo you think the younger generation of gay men can “get” Judy Garland as well as those of your generation?

I hope so! Judy is a real education for what gay men continue to go through—her music, her films, and her own life can act as mirrors for what it is to be gay but also to be happy. Truthfully, lots of younger gay people nowadays seem so fed up with how boring and empty much of our pop culture is today. The only real highlight that I’ve noticed in the past few years has been Lady Gaga, who has been this amazing lightning bolt in the middle of it all. She reminds me of a Judy who finally figured herself out and was able to keep herself safe and strong. Her “Born This Way” Foundation will continue to be of tremendous help to all who have been bullied, especially those in the GLBT community. As I found Judy in my early life, I have found Gaga now in my later life. And I’m just gaga about Gaga . . . and wild about Harry!

Are there any things you don’t like about Garland?

Her absence.

Do you think that your passion about Judy Garland was a contributing reason for your becoming a writer?

Yes, but my passion for all things Judy has fed all elements of my life as a creative person. I have also been an artist all these years, in addition to being a writer and humorist. I used to write funny stories and do paintings when I was a little kid anyway, but Judy often acted as a steady muse for me in my younger years.

How has your love of Judy made you a better person?

My love of Judy over the years up to and including 1968 finally gave me the strength to love myself. Being able to finally love myself after decades of self-loathing—much of it reinforced by issues with my wicked-witch mother and cowardly-lion father—made me a better person. And for that, I will always love Judy . . .

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  1. Fascinating. I, too, was there at the Palace and again at Judy’s funeral. I was also there for Stonewall. I was on my way to do summer stock in Rhode Island.

    And yes, I do think of Judy every day — every day.

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