Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland. By Sid Luft, Foreword by Randy L. Schmidt. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2017. 465pp (hardcover). ISBN-10: 1613735839, ISBN-13: 978-1613735831. $30
I first met Sid Luft (1915–2005) in 1993 when he was taking the trash out of his modest Los Angeles apartment. I was there to interview him for my upcoming CD, Judy Garland à Paris, l’Olympia, 28 Octobre 1960 (Europe 1, RTE), a concert at which he had been present. Here was the man who married Judy Garland (1922-1969) in 1952 and whom Garland divorced in 1965, who had managed her career during most of that marriage (and beyond), and had been the producer on her comeback film, the 1954 A Star Is Born (Warner Bros.). Equally importantly, he had been the most long-lasting husband of Garland’s five. During those years, he had managed to control her intake of Benzedrine or speed, and Seconal, a powerful sedative, and get her onstage. It was a full-time job, for Garland, since the mid-1940s, was an addict who treated her pills as medication. They were all prescribed by her multiple doctors, so why call it an addiction, in Garland’s eyes? Luft was the guy who could watch over her career and “dolls,” as Jacqueline Susann described them in her bestseller, Valley of the Dolls (Bernard Geis, 1966), and it was a noble cause, however Don Quixotic. Most importantly, Luft deeply loved Garland. She was more a passion than a love. His devotion to her stemmed from that passion. It wasn’t fake or opportunism, but a real love that must not be doubted. Luft latched on to Garland as a husband, caregiver, and manager. “Sid Luft presents” would more and more be seen on concert programs and marquees. In that Garland was incapable of dealing with the business side of things, Luft stepped in to control her earnings. He was also supposed to pay her taxes. He didn’t. The result was that for the last two years of her life – she died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates – she was mostly living in hotels, borrowed apartments, and at friends. Although at the very end she was living in a modest rented Belgravia cottage in London through her earnings from her 1969 engagement at The Talk of the Town, previously she was homeless, and this was in large part due to Luft’s carelessness. He loved the races and tailored suits no end, and this penchant for spending Garland’s money was one of the causes of her downfall and death. In short, Luft has always been considered a mixed bag. Was he good or bad for her? The jury is still out. It may always be.
I recorded my 1993 interview with Luft, and large portions of it were published in the brochure of the Paris CD, released in 1994. During that interview, Luft let on that there was a story to tell about his and Garland’s relationship, but never let on that he had already attempted to get it on paper. To the surprise of many, in 2016, it was announced that Luft’s memoir was going to be published. The only problem was that the manuscript stopped in 1960, some nine years before Garland’s death, for the simple reason that Garland changed management in that year, thus distancing Luft from the day-to-day business aspects of her career. Furthermore, by 1960 it was clear that the Garland-Luft marriage was teetering, and she was looking to move on. In order to conclude the book, Randy L. Schmidt, editor of Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press, 2014) (see: Schulman, Lawrence. ARSC Journal [2014;45(2):214-217]), was contracted to write a foreword and put the memoir together. He contacted me to find out if I had any unpublished interviews with Luft. I told him about the tape I had, immediately got it transferred to CD, and sent it to him. The said interview was used to conclude the book. For full disclosure, Chicago Review Press allowed me to read the manuscript in October 2016, thus well before the February 1, 2017 publication date, in order to write a 2-sentence blurb for the back cover, which I did. I, thus, played a part in the completion of the new memoir but had no role in its elaboration, editing or fabrication.
Much has been written about the Garland-Luft relation. An influential figure in her life, he was controversial for a whole slew of reasons. They are not all pretty. Here are a couple.
Prescription pills are at the top of the list. In his memoir, Luft deftly remarks that “The fact is that she was married to the drugs before she met me, and she never really got divorced” (p. 410). Garland’s intake started in the mid-1940s when she was at MGM. In those years, they were considered more like vitamins that got you up to work and back down to sleep. Many actors took them; some, like Garland, got hooked. Garland would never ever get off the dope completely. She also never considered herself an addict. She was so addicted that she would have multiple doctors prescribe to her, at which time she would stash the stuff away. The situation in the 1940s was mild compared to the late 1960s, when she would appear incoherent in public. Songwriter and companion John Meyer once told me that by late 1968 when she got up – usually in mid-afternoon – her breakfast was vodka and Ritalin. She was killing herself slowly through the pills. She would try to get off them (Luft points out that she was drug-free for her April 23, 1961 Carnegie Hall concert) (p. 399), but never totally succeeded. Despite Luft’s efforts to control her intake, he never really succeeded. Judy Garland was a drug addict, and she never was fully clean. In Judy and I, Luft points out (p. 254) that despite his best efforts to limit her self-medication he had no choice but to allow her low doses in order to function. In that sense, Luft admits that he was as much an enabler (p. 276) as MGM, which also propped up their star with low-doses. This admission is shockingly true. It is to Luft’s credit that he is able to see the pattern so clearly. He was not blameless, and does not claim to be.
Money is another burning issue in this memoir. At the end of her life, after dozens of films, hundreds of radio and concert appearances, recordings, three television specials and a series, Garland was broke. When she died in 1969, she couldn’t even afford to be buried, something which had to wait a year before the funds could be found. Garland was an artist, and did not want to have to deal with money. Luft states, “Judy was never concerned about losing money. She didn’t care. She was not to be bothered about business; she wasn’t interested in investments, costs, payments, income. Like royalty, she didn’t carry an amount of money on her person, maybe just five dollars or so. I was unable to discuss financial matters of any sort with her. She simply refused” (p. 310). From the start of their marriage, Luft was entrusted with the family’s finances. By and large, Garland was the breadwinner, while Luft tried to get business projects off the ground, such as his unsuccessful Aerophonics project which would allow plane travelers to listen to music in stereo. Sid was also entrusted to pay the IRS. Luft sold the Holmby Hills house in 1961; in 1967, the IRS took possession of her Bel Air estate over back taxes. By the end of 1968, the legendary Judy Garland was destitute, and in large part blamed the mess on Luft. In the memoir, everyone but Luft is to blame for Garland’s ruin. This is an untenable position.
Was Luft good or bad for Garland? He certainly embodied the stability she needed during her most productive years at Capitol, that is between 1955 and 1961. Without his anchor, she would never have recorded Miss Show Business (1955), Judy (1956), Alone (1957), Judy in Love (1958), The Letter (1959), That’s Entertainment! (1960), and Judy at Carnegie Hall (1961). Nor would she have done the film A Star Is Born (1954) and its soundtrack. Still, what is disheartening in the Luft tome is how he focuses on the everyday weight of keeping Judy Garland afloat, without hardly ever considering her artistic contribution. For example, in his discussion about her recovery in early 1960 from her hospitalization for hepatitis, he never once mentions that during that period she recorded – in impeccable voice – Dory and André Previn’s “The Faraway Part of Town” for the Pepe soundtrack as well as the album That’s Entertainment! This artistic disconnect between Garland the vocalist and Luft the business guy is a major reason for the personal disconnect between them. This disconnect was to amplify after her death when, producer of various video and audio compilations, he sloppily put together releases that poorly reflected Garland’s work. That so little space is devoted to Garland the artist in his memoir is a reflection of that ignorance of her artistic importance to 20th-century American popular culture. In that sense, it could be said that Luft never “got” Garland. He was too in the day-to-day, which surely impeded him from seeing the larger artist.
Judy Garland’s short life was a long suicide. Sid Luft prolonged that life during the time of their marriage, but in the end, there was nothing to be done. He could not save her from herself; no one could. It is the complexity of the Garland-Luft relationship that makes this memoir eminently readable. Luft is compassionate and lucid, and his memoir is a no-frills, well-written account of the tragedy that was Garland’s doomed life. He states that “he knew her better” (p.402), that “I know that I did the best I could do, and it still wasn’t enough” (p. 449). These assessments are true. Some have said Luft was a pimp, a parasite; others have said that he was the only one Garland could rely on to reinvent herself professionally. He was no doubt somewhere in between. His gruesome accounts of certain incidents – notably, her bloody self-mutilations – are confirmed in Garland assistant Stevie Phillips’ recent memoir, Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me…: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, 2015). Luft’s assessment that Garland was “very mentally disturbed” (p. 435) also corroborates that of Christopher Finch, who in his biography Rainbow – The Stormy Life of Judy Garland (Grosset & Dunlap, 1975) states that by the late 1960s Garland might have had “some kind of brain damage,” that she might have been “certifiably insane” (p. 238). This sad story is brilliantly told by Luft in this punch-in-the-gut, straight-shooting memoir.
Judy and I has been admirably put together by Chicago Review Press, and includes a fascinating selection of rare photos of Garland and Luft, as well as a useful index. Randy L. Schmidt must also be congratulated for his fine job in preparing the incomplete manuscript for publication. As Schmidt recounts in his excellent foreword, Luft’s writings stopped in 1960, so Schmidt had to stitch together various archival documents, including my 1993 interview with Luft, in order to go to 1969, the year of Garland’s death. Luft therefore never wrote about how agents Freddie Fields and David Begelman stole from Garland in the early 1960s, but in Schmidt’s masterful recreation of the sordid affair (Part VI), he gives us a spellbinding description of a criminal machination which Luft never had the heart to write about himself.
I conclude by Luft’s own words about when he was a kid at camp: “It was at Camp Jened that I experienced my first thrill at being high up. The flag rope got stuck and we couldn’t lower it for taps in the evening, so I volunteered to shinny up the flagpole. I was in shorts and got chafed on the inside of my legs. I was proud of those burns. I looked down at the camp staff and the campers and realized I love it up there. The counselors rewarded me with a large bowl of chocolate ice cream, but I would have gladly gone up there for nothing” (p. 56). He later admits that “Judy was a great boost for the ego…” (p.176). Sid Luft had his 15 minutes in the spotlight during his 13-year marriage to Judy Garland, and it marked him forever. When I left Sid Luft on that afternoon in 1993, he made it a point to show me the Barcelona chairs from A Star Is Born that he recuperated after the making of the film. He also took me down to the garage to show me his Cadillac of past glory. Sid Luft, this “least worst man” as The Atlantic put it in their 2005 obituary, never again reached the heights he reached with Judy Garland. She left him time and time again, but Luft never left Garland. One could say he was addicted to her, and understood her as one addict does another. Their story is one of the great love stories of the 20th century. Reviewed by Lawrence Schulman
ARSC Journal Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 2017. ©Association for Recorded Sound Collections 2017. All rights reserved. Printed in USA. Republished at The Judy Room with permission.
This review was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of the ARSC Journal (Volume 48, No. 1). The paper edition of the ARSC Journal can be purchased at the ARSC Journal page (http://www.arsc-audio.org/journal.html) of the ARSC website (http://www.arsc-audio.org/index.php).