Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
Meanwhile, the gossip columnists were having a field day. Years later I saw copies of newspaper headlines from this period claiming, “Luft Hits Judy; She Flees with Children.” Although the stories make me angry, I also have to laugh. The thought of my father hitting my mother is so ridiculous that I can only shake my head. On one occasion my dad, who outweighed my mom by a good eighty pounds, told a reporter in frustration, “If I’d actually tried to strangle her, don’t you think I’d have succeeded?” He was, after all, the guy who could do a military press with the Egyptian tumbler. On the other hand, my mother was more than capable of jumping all over my dad. She was a very physical person, and when she was angry, she’d come flying at him, all four feet eleven inches of her. She hit him hard more than once. She even told me that one time she’d gotten so mad at Vincente Minnelli for snoring that she’d grabbed a phone receiver and smashed him over the head to make him be quiet. My father beat my mother? Not a chance.
She, however, was a gifted actress, with a talent for staging scenes. She always played the victim of the piece, never the bad guy. It also didn’t hurt that she had press agents to publish
“reports” whenever she wanted. Anyone under the influence of the medication my mother took becomes manipulative, but when you add to that the fact that my mom was a great performer, you can imagine the result. At our house the result was a series of dramatic scenes staged in the adults’ end of the Mapleton house, and often leaked to the press by my mom’s press agent the next day. My mother would periodically hire armed guards to “defend her and the children” from my father during those months. These guys would be normal-looking men in suits that we kids assumed were just part of the usual huge Mapleton staff.
Emergencies were becoming more frequent at our house by then. One such emergency came when my mother fell asleep smoking in bed again. This fire was extinguished almost immediately, but my mother burned her hip rather badly and needed medical attention. The funny thing about this episode is that the guards called my dad and asked him to come over and take care of my mom. The staff had been calling him privately for help all along. By then even the guards knew what the real story was and consulted with my dad several times about how to handle things at Mapleton while he was out of the house.
After a few months of this chaos, my mom calmed down and the guards went home. Sid moved back in as though nothing had happened, and as far as Joey and I knew, nothing had. By that time my mother was growing increasingly ill and had started putting on weight. No one realized it at first, but she was in liver failure, and the “weight” was actually severe edema. A physician friend recognized the symptoms just in time, or she might have died. The doctors thought the problem might be alcohol-induced cirrhosis and ordered her to stop drinking, but it turned out to be hepatitis and alcohol wasn’t the main problem. Contrary to rumors, my mother never drank heavily; for her a cocktail glass was more a prop than anything else. Prescription medicine was her problem. We now know that the liver failure was probably the result of the interaction of barbiturates and alcohol in her system.
In spite of her tiny frame, my mother was amazingly strong physically. She came through her liver problems all right and returned home from the hospital. I was very relieved to see her, but not because I’d been afraid she’d die. We children hadn’t been told about her liver failure. My secret terror was that she was pregnant again (to me “fat” meant “baby”), and that when they’d “taken Mama to the hospital to rest,” this meant she was going to come home with another little Joey. It had taken me four years to get used to the first Joey; I was horrified at the thought of another one! To my immense relief, though, she returned home alone. She also came home in a wheelchair, but my parents were careful never to let me or Joe see her in it. They didn’t want to scare us. That was the other side of my mom’s talent. Just as she made up stories when she was mad at my dad, she also made up stories to keep me and Joe from being frightened. She was careful to look happy and healthy whenever we were around. Both of my parents worked hard to protect us from the unpleasant truths, and for many years they succeeded.
Things were still difficult behind the scenes, though, and my parents needed a way out. So they did the same thing my grandparents had done when life overwhelmed them; they packed up the family act and took it on the road, first around the U.S. and eventually to England, leaving Mapleton Drive behind forever.
At the time I knew nothing of the real reasons for the move. As far as I knew then, we’d moved to London because my mother was going to appear at the Palladium. The reality was that the entourage my parents were maintaining on Mapleton Drive had grown beyond their means. The expensive property, the nineteen-room house and the large staff needed to maintain it, the cars and the Hollywood-style entertaining; all these were sinking my parents further and further into a morass of debt. In England my parents could live much less expensively, and my father hoped that selling the Mapleton house would retire most of their debts. The neighborhood itself was changing, too. Bogart had died, and Betty Bacall
had sold their house and moved to New York, taking my best friend, Leslie, with her.
I didn’t know it then, but Mapleton Drive would soon become for me what Grand Rapids had been for my mother. My mother spent the first four years of her life in Minnesota in a big white house, happy and protected, and she would have preferred to stay there forever. Life seemed perfect to her, but it had grown far from perfect for her parents. When Frank and Ethel Gumm’s marriage began to fall apart, they tried to leave their problems behind in Grand Rapids and find peace in the Promised Land of California. My parents hoped for the same thing in England. Our journey was on a ship, not in an old Buick, but otherwise it was pretty much the same.
still remember the voyage to England. The ship was called the
and Joey and I had a wonderful time on board. There were all kinds of things for kids to do, games and movies and so forth, and a person to keep us busy all day. In the evenings we’d go walking around the decks with my mom and dad, and my dad would lift me up high so I could see the water. My mother would always say, “Don’t drop her!” and my father would look at her as if to say, “Of course, I’m not going to drop her.” I would look down at the water from the safety of my father’s arms and marvel at what I saw. So much water. Even though it was such a long way down, I was never afraid with my father holding me.
Ten days later we got to London, and not long after that my mom did her Palladium show. It was my first time inside the Palladium. That was exciting for me because I got to get up onstage one night in front of the whole audience with my brother and sister and my dad. I still remember looking down at that huge sea of faces. I wasn’t nervous, just excited, and proud to be up there with my beautiful and glamorous mother. At those moments she wasn’t the mother in the terry-cloth bathrobe I knew from the kitchen; she was the movie star, and I was the movie star’s daughter. Mama
even made my dad sing “Swanee” with her at the Palladium one night. I was in bed back at the hotel at the time, though; I wish I’d seen it. To say the least, my dad’s singing is not what had attracted my mom to him.
The plan was to stay in England for at least a few months while my mom made records and did concert tours there and in Europe. We settled into the only house on King’s Road in Chelsea, and for a year or so my parents found the peace they were looking for. Our house had been built at the turn of the century by Ellen Terry, the actress George Bernard Shaw was in love with, and we’d rented it from the great movie director, Sir Carol Reed. I loved that old house. It was cold and drafty in the winter, but we had space heaters for the rooms and plenty of eiderdown quilts for the beds. I used to love cuddling down on the couch under a quilt to watch TV with Mama and Joey and my dad. Liza had joined us, but she was fourteen by then, so she wasn’t really around that much. She was off being cool with her friends.
The school in England is the first school I really remember. It was called Lady Eden, and I liked it a lot. We wore uniforms like the ones you see in the English movies, blue pinafores with white blouses, little blue coats, blue stocking caps with pompoms on the end, and white tights or knee socks with black shoes. I still live in England part of each year, and I see the little girls go by on their way to Lady Eden wearing the exact outfit I used to wear. They still sell it at Harrods.
The classes at Lady Eden were very small, only ten or fifteen students to a room. They gave us each a cigar box to keep our things in, and my cigar box had cardboard cutouts of shillings, tuppence, and other English coins so I could learn the British monetary system. I never did learn it because I hated arithmetic, and I knew that if I learned the coins, I’d have to do arithmetic with the rest of the class. The school day was carefully structured. Each morning they lined us up and took us to Hyde Park to play. We were taught good manners and the proper way to use a knife and
fork, “proper” meaning “British,” which is very different from the American way. We’d have bangers and mash for lunch, with hot British mustard that made my nose run, and cake with custard sauce for dessert. I still love that English custard. Most kids tried to give it away.
I also remember the eye patches I used to wear, which certainly were not part of the regulation uniform. One of the curses of my existence for much of my childhood was sties. I would get huge ones on both eyelids, and they were very painful. The doctors had my parents put medication on them and cover my eyes with wet packs for hours sometimes. My mom was always great when I got my sties. She’d sit for hours holding me, tickling me, and keeping me entertained during the long periods of darkness. She rarely sang to me, but she’d tell me stories. When I was well enough to go back to school, she decorated the eye patches I had to wear with glitter and sequins and eyelashes. In fact, they looked so good that the school asked her to stop doing it after a while because all of the other kids wanted an eye patch like mine to wear.
The year in Chelsea was a wonderful time. My mom was healthier than she’d been in years, and with some time off and less pressure from fans when she went out, she could do a lot of things with us she couldn’t do at home. The British fans were much more polite in public than the American fans; they never approached you on the street or interrupted a family outing. At home in the U.S. my mother rarely went out in public with us, but in England she was much more relaxed. She would take us to Hyde Park to play and to Harrods to shop. She even walked us to school most days. Best of all, she took us to the theater. It was my introduction to the West End theater, and I got to see shows like
West Side Story
My mother would buy the cast albums and play them at home, so it was like taking the musical home with us afterward. Sometimes we really did get to take the show home because people like Georgia Brown and Lionel Bart would come over to visit. The whole year after I saw
Georgia Brown was my favorite
singer. I still remember watching the children dance onstage in
and thinking, “I want to do that.”
One of my most vivid memories is of going to see my first pantomime, a very old English theater tradition. It was at the Palladium, and that day they were doing
Most of the parts were played by men, as was the tradition. Halfway through the production the man who was playing one of the ugly stepsisters went behind a screen to change and suddenly burst into “Over the Rainbow” at the top of his lungs while he put on his gown for the Prince’s ball. Apparently someone had told him my mother was in the audience that afternoon. The audience broke up (they all knew my mom was there, too), and my mom nearly died laughing at this big homely man in drag singing her song (not the last time that would happen!). I was sitting on my mom’s lap, and I could feel her shaking with laughter. I was about eight at the time, and I didn’t get it. “What’s so funny?” I kept thinking. All these years later I remember that moment, and I smile.
The biggest theatrical event for me that year, though, wasn’t the pantomime. It was my appendicitis attack. I had gotten very sick with a high fever, and no one knew what was wrong with me. My mother got worried and told my father to call a doctor; what she asked him, in fact, was to call one of the queen’s doctors. A regular doctor wasn’t good enough for her little girl; she wanted a royal physician to see me.
My father thought she was being a bit dramatic. One of the
doctors? But my mother insisted that she wanted the best, and to her that meant going right to the top. After all, this was the woman who thought nothing of calling the President. So Queen Elizabeth’s doctor was summoned, and he found nothing seriously wrong with me. For some reason, my mother wasn’t so sure and thank God she wasn’t, or I wouldn’t be here today. She wanted a second opinion. My dad had heard that Lenny Bruce knew a doctor in London, so he called Lenny. When this doctor arrived, he
examined me briefly and said, “Get this child to a hospital
Her appendix is about to rupture.” So much for the queen’s physician.
My father wrapped me up in a blanket and carried me down to a waiting taxi. Everyone piled in, and they rushed me off to the hospital. My mom was trying to make an adventure of it so that I wouldn’t be scared, and at first I was having a good time. All the attention was on me, and it was all very exciting. For once I got to be the little drama queen, and I was enjoying every minute of it. Like mother, like daughter.
It wasn’t quite so much fun when we got to the hospital. No one had warned me that when we got there, I was going to have an operation. My first hint was when my mother started crying. They were wheeling me down the hall, and I remember handing the doll I was holding to my mom and saying, “Take care of her for me, Mommie. She lost her shoe.” My mother cradled the doll and started crying, and I began to notice that everybody looked pretty worried, even Dad and Liza. Maybe going to the hospital wasn’t such a good idea. When they wheeled me into the operating room and took the white cloth off the instrument tray, I could see that it was covered with needles and other sharp instruments. I definitely wasn’t having fun anymore; in fact, I was about to develop a lifelong phobia of needles. Finally, without any warning, they clapped a smelly mask over my face. I panicked and began struggling, scratching my face up pretty badly in the process. The mask was filled with ether, but nobody told me what was happening.