Today would have been Judy Garland’s 90th birthday. We take the opportunity to celebrate one of the first and biggest icons of the gay community. Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, MI, she only lived 47 years and spent 45 of them singing, dancing and acting. She received a Juvenile Academy Award and won a Golden Globe Award, Grammy Awards, and a Special Tony Award. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the remake of A Star is Born and for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg. She was the youngest recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures at the age of 39.
Judy performed vaudeville with her sisters in an act billed as the Gumm Sisters. They changed it to Garland (after a prominent critic) for more pizzazz. She was signed to MGM at the age of 13, getting her first big break working opposite Mickey Rooney in several Andy Hardy films. At 17, she starred in one of her most famous films, The Wizard of Oz. She continued in a number of musicals in the 40s, finding stardom but also facing weight problems and depression. She also married twice that decade, including Vincente Minelli, father of her daughter Liza. She suffered her first major breakdown in 1947 and attempted suicide soon after.
She made her first comeback in 1954 with the help of third husband Sid Luft. She returned to the stage and starred in another iconic role in the remake of A Star Is Born. She acted in a number of other movies into the early 60s. Her biggest triumph in her (relatively) later life was her 1961 show at Carnegie Hall, considered one of the finest performances in the venue. She married twice more after Luft and continued to battle depression and addiction. On June 22, 1969 she was found dead in her London apartment, apparently of an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.
Judy Garland is iconic in gay culture. Her performance as Dorothy is so pitch perfect and so resonates with people who feel trapped (read Kansas as closet), that Friend of Dorothy has been code for gay for decades. Her status is so significant that Wikipedia has an entire entry on Judy Garland as Gay Icon. She was larger than life, glamorous and tragic, married gay men, and loved spending time in gay bars. While never actively courting the gay community (such as it was before her death), she was accepting of gay men simply for who they were, something very rare in her generation. Legend also associates Garland with the Stonewall Riots which kicked off the gay rights movement. According to some stories, the gathering at the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969 was to watch her funeral on television. While some dispute this claim, it is just one more thread weaving the bright and tragic life of the legendary Judy into the rainbow flag.
Today is also the birthday of Maurice Sendak, who died last month at the age of 83.