Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland

by Gerald Clarke

Published by Random House

510 pages, 2000 


Buy it online


 

 

 

 

Not So Happy

Reviewed by Monica Stark

 

The title of the controversial new Judy Garland biography by Gerald Clarke is a bit of a manic double entendre. It refers, of course, to the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song of that name that would become a bit of a signature for the performer. Perhaps even a mantra. However, as most people at all familiar with Judy Garland's life will know, it has a darker meaning, as well. While Garland spent her life trying to find happiness, it seems that -- except in small moments -- being happy was not something that was in her cards.

Born in 1922 and saddled with the unlovely moniker of Frances Ethel Gumm, the unwanted youngest daughter of vaudeville performers answered to "Baby" and "Babe" throughout her childhood. On stage with her sisters from the time she was two, "Baby Gumm" quickly outshone her less talented siblings.

As she grew older, Babe's voice leaped ahead of her body, developing remarkable timbre, resonance and richness. She thought, acted and looked like a small girl, but she sounded, increasingly and ever more astonishingly, like a woman. In the winter and spring of 1932, she was twice invited to sing at perhaps the last place a chanteuse of nine might have been expected -- the Cocoanut Grove, one of the movie colony's favorite hangouts.

Despite this early and well received debut, the young singer had many miles to travel before she would come near stardom. That this stardom was achieved at all is, according to Clarke, due in no small part to Garland's mother, the cold and driven Ethel Gumm. By Clarke's estimation, Gumm would stop at nothing to help Baby achieve this goal: she drove her daughter hard enough that observers noted that the most talented Gumm daughter was never permitted much of a childhood. From an early age, Clarke writes, Gumm would administer uppers to keep the girls on their feet and sleeping tablets to bring them down at night. "I've got to keep these girls going!" she'd say cheerily by way of explanation. And habits formed early are sometimes the very hardest ones to break.

The controversy around Get Happy has come through sources who dispute some of Clarke's "facts." The "dramatic proof" (as it says in the press material that accompanied the book) that both Garland's husband Vincente Minnelli as well as her father Frank Gumm were closet -- though practicing -- homosexuals as well as details of her affair with heartthrob Tyrone Power and the abortion both her mother and first husband, David Rose, insisted that she have. These items, and others, are convincingly -- if floridly -- presented by Clarke, who is also the author of the 1997 bestseller Capote, a biography of Truman Capote.

Get Happy truly isn't: the subject matter forbids it. Garland's life reads like a script for a bad TV movie of the week. The talented little girl who gets all the breaks... and none of them. And, of course, it all ends very badly.

Whether or not you buy the new material, Clarke's book is an absorbing, if depressing, journey through the life of a talented megastar who seems to have been destined to never -- forgive me -- get happy. | May 2000

 

Monica Stark is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor.