Read Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir Online

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

Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (4 page)

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
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Another time, when Mama was still very small, she got caught in the bangles on the pants of her harem costume while trying to do a quick costume change in the wings. When my aunts, who were right in the middle of a number onstage, glanced into the wings, there was Baby, stark naked, rolling around on the floor trying to kick the harem pants loose. It wasn’t the only time the Gumm Sisters finished their number shaking with laughter and beat a fast retreat offstage.

But mostly, there was a lot of hard work. Being on the road meant living out of a suitcase, missing play time and school events, and leaving their friends behind. While other children slept or played, my mother and her sisters worked. Every weekday there was practice after school. Weekends were taken up with lessons and performances. On Saturday mornings my mother had to get up at seven A.M. and have her hair washed and set in tight curlers, then get in the car for a two-hour drive to the city. Lunch was often a quick sandwich between practice sessions. When the girls went on the road, they often had to perform in dirty little dives for next to no money. They were attending to business at a time when most children are busy just being children. That was something my mother tried hard to protect me from.

But worst of all, somewhere along the line, Mama stopped feeling like a child and starting feeling like a commodity. She began to feel as if her only value was her ability to sing. As an adult she told friends that when she was a child, everyone was always
“winding me up to sing, and then putting me back in the closet when they were finished with me.” Even family friends introduced her as “Frances who can sing.” Singing was her job, and she rarely got time off, even as a child.

The whole situation was complicated by the fact that my grandmother was her manager, and often her agent. My grandmother’s motives in becoming Mama’s manager were good ones—she wanted to protect Mama, to carefully watch over her—but the fact remains that managers and agents promote “talent.” And in Hollywood, talent is a product, not a person. When a child has a career, it’s almost impossible for her parents to be parents first and managers second. And even if they find a way, it becomes impossible for their children to know whether they’re loved for themselves or for what they can do.

The saving grace for Mama was my grandfather. Whatever the chaos of their daily lives, Mama and her sisters always went back home to their dad. The family album shows a picture of a handsome, stylish young man with a mustache, a derby, a jaunty suit, and a diamond ring on his fourth finger. My grandfather was very handsome, and very charming, too, but that wasn’t why my mother loved him so much. She loved him because he was such a good father. He played with his girls, tossing them in the air, carrying them on his shoulders, playing in the snow with them. He sang and laughed with them. He held them on his lap at night and helped care for them when they were sick. Most of all, he was their advocate with their mother. He tried his best to give his girls a normal childhood, to see that they had time for school and play, time to just be kids. God knows he spoiled them, too.

Although the strife in my grandparents’ marriage caused a breach between Mama and my grandmother, it seemed to bring Mama and my grandfather closer. She loved him so much that she once listed her birthplace as Murfreesboro, Tennessee, because my grandfather was born there. The song she sang to close her TV show when I was a kid was one she said my grandfather wrote. I
never met my grandfather Gumm. He died years before I was born, yet in many ways he was one of the most important people in my life. He lived with us every day of my mother’s life, in her memory and in her heart.

I wonder if she ever looked at my father without comparing him to hers.

hen I drive with Jesse and Vanessa, my son and daughter, through the old Los Angeles theater district today, Baby Gumm and the
Meglin Kiddie Shows
she was featured in seem like part of another century to me. What was once one of the most glamorous sections of Los Angeles is now a rundown street filled with seedy stores displaying gawdy gowns that my mother’s most ardent cross-dressing fans wouldn’t be caught dead in. One five-block section of Broadway still houses the remains of the theaters my mother once performed in or went to on Saturday afternoons with her mother: The Orpheus is still in pretty decent shape, its battered old marquee advertising Madonna in
The Rialto is now a discount store (five shirts for $10), and the letters that announce the Loew’s State barely cling to the old brick building—its facade crumbled away under the shock of too many earthquakes.

Our parents’ lives always seem so long ago, so far removed from our own. It’s impossible to really comprehend that they were ever children, too. When I show Vanessa pictures of myself as a child, she smiles sweetly but uncomprehendingly. What does the little girl twirling in a television studio have to do with her mommy? The child in the picture is light-years away from Vanessa’s world. But our parents were children, not so long ago, and their lives continue to interlock with ours until the day we die, as my life will always be a part of my son’s and my daughter’s. I am aware of this every time I look at my little girl and see my mother’s face peering back at me, every time I see a picture from
The Wizard of Oz
or hear my mother’s young voice on an MGM recording. It’s remarkable, really, how much of our life begins before we’re even
born. When I look at my mother’s family, I’m amazed at the patterns that have been repeated in my life.

Generation after generation, we all seem to be born singing, to one degree or another. Childhood friends of my grandfather’s say he was always whistling or singing. As for me, I could always sing better than my friends, and I could always follow the line of a melody and reproduce it on my own. Both of my children have the same innate musical talent, my daughter to a remarkable degree. It’s strange indeed to consider how many of my mother’s best-known moments in film were a replay of her parents’ real-life experiences, from vaudeville to broken hearts.

Yet, in direct contradiction of each generation’s advice, we all seem to be wedded to show business. My grandfather fought long and hard to keep my mother from becoming a “professional kid.” Mama, in turn, always tried to talk us out of going into show business. “You’ll break my heart,” she’d tell us. “I don’t want to watch you go through what I went through.” Yet Liza and I both make our living singing, and as my mother did with me, I tell my own kids not to go into show business. But blessing or curse, we all seem driven to perform, in part because it’s all we really know how to do. When I was a little girl, the only TV show I could relate to was
I Love Lucy
because Ricky was a performer. The “normal” families might as well have been from Mars. I used to ask myself what on earth I would do if I couldn’t make a living in show business. I still don’t have an answer.

see other patterns, too: the women in our family can’t seem to stay away from musicians. My sister married one; I married two. My grandmother Ethel married a musician. So did both my maternal aunts, twice. So did my mother, the first time. I’m no different. My first great love as an adult was singer Barry Manilow, and I fell in love with him as much for his music as anything else. My ex-husband, Jake Hooker, was a rock guitarist. My husband, Colin Freeman, is an arranger-conductor.

There’s also the pattern of one family member serving as manager for another. Just as my grandmother managed her children’s careers, and my father managed my mother’s career, Jake managed mine. And just as it destroyed my grandmother’s and parents’ relationships, it caused problems for Jake and me too. Somehow none of us seems able to keep family and business separate.

Luckily, some good things got passed down, too. Just as my grandfather Frank was there for Mama, my father was always there for me, the port in every storm. Whether she realized it or not, my mother did just as well in picking a father for me as Grandma Ethel did picking a father for Mama.

Most important of all, my family passed on a lot of love. Whatever marital struggles we may have, we love our children fiercely. My grandparents had a hard time later in their marriage, just as my parents did, but they gave their kids a lot of love. They may not always have done the right thing for their kids, but it wasn’t because they didn’t love them. I always knew my mother loved me, loved us, more than anything else in life. Everything I know about being a good mother to my children I learned from her.

Did our parents love us? Damn right they did. That’s another family tradition.

wonder sometimes what would have happened to us all if Mama had just stayed Baby Frances Gumm, daughter of Frank and Ethel Gumm of Lancaster. But she didn’t. She became Judy Garland. She became a legend.

Collection of the author

Mama when she was still Baby Gumm.


Judy, Judy, Judy

ecently my seven-year-old daughter and I took an afternoon walk. It was one of those crisp, clear winter days that are so rare in Los Angeles, and we were enjoying the exercise after being cooped up in our house by the rain. As we strolled down Rodeo Drive, window-shopping as we went, we noticed a new shop—one of those Franklin Mint stores. I was looking in the window at one of the displays when I was startled by Vanessa’s voice asking me, “Mama, isn’t that Grandma?”

I turned to look where Vanessa’s finger was pointing, and there to my right was a display of
Wizard of
0{ memorabilia, with my mother memorialized in a series of porcelain figures. Caught off guard, I thought, “Here we go again,” as I told Vanessa that yes, that was her grandmother.

It is strange being the daughter of a screen icon, especially one who died so young. As one of a very small group of celebrities’ children, I am reminded daily of my mother’s life—and, of course, her death. When most people lose a loved parent, they go through a process of grief and bereavement and then move on with their lives. When your parent is a public idol, you never really have a chance to lay that parent to rest. I was painfully reminded of that reality when my friend Diana, Princess of Wales, died recently in a
car accident. I understand as few people can what her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. I’m still approached in public places by strangers who grab my hand or even my shoulders, sometimes with tears in their eyes, and offer their condolences as if my mother died last week instead of almost thirty years ago. To them, my mother will never really die. To them, my mother will always be a wide-eyed little girl in blue gingham holding her dog.

No child thinks of her mother as a legend. However famous parents may be in the eyes of the world, they remain “Mama” or “Daddy” to their children. My mother wasn’t just my mom, though; she was Judy Garland—“our Judy” to legions of her fans. That reality affected my life long before I was old enough to understand it. It will affect my children’s lives as well.

one of this might ever have happened if my grandfather Frank had had his way. Much as he loved show business, he wasn’t at all sure that becoming a “star” would be the best thing for my mother. For him, vaudeville was a family business, something the whole family could do together. After all, “Jack and Virginia Lee” had always been a family act. Until she was nearly twelve, my mother performed with her sisters, which was how she liked it. It was one thing to be Baby Gumm, youngest and cutest of the three Gumm Sisters, strutting her stuff while her sisters harmonized in the background. It was quite another to climb up onstage alone, without her sisters next to her and her parents in the front row. Like it or not, though, my mother was headed for stardom.

A lot of things began pushing my mom into the limelight. The first was simply the effect of time. Mama’s sisters grew up. Being so many years older, Aunt Suzy and Aunt Jimmy inevitably grew out of the sister act. Like every other teenager, they wanted to date, go to dances with boys, and, eventually, to get married. Suzy, the oldest, was the first to marry. Jimmy would soon follow.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
4.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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