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 (6 page)

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

I don’t think anybody knew at the time what a phenomenon
would turn out to be. How could they? That innocence is part of the charm of the movie. MGM knew it was special, and they hoped it would be a success. But they had no way of knowing it would become an annual television event, part of every American’s childhood.

Nineteen thirty-nine was a huge turning point for my family.
The Wizard of Oz
premiered, and my mother became immortal. She was only seventeen, but she would never have a private life again. From then on she had to leave the U.S. if she wanted to be left alone in public. She couldn’t go shopping anymore; she couldn’t even walk down the street without being mobbed. She was no longer simply a teenage girl; she had become an icon.

Mama and Mickey Rooney flew to New York to do promos for
Babes in Arms
and for the first time in her life, my mother was literally mobbed. Thousands of people surged around her, screaming, wanting to touch her, to be near “Dorothy” everywhere she went. It was both exciting and terrifying, and it never stopped. When she died thirty years later, it was still going on.

The crowds weren’t the only things that started to overwhelm her. The money started pouring in, with MGM continually raising Mama’s salary. That sounds wonderful, but what does a teenager know about handling such large amounts of money? My grandmother didn’t know how to handle it, either, so both Mama and Grandma were surrounded by financial advisers who gave them
conflicting advice. My mom gave Grandma money to build a house, and Ethel had a “movie star” house built on pricey Stone Canyon Drive, with a huge suite for Mama upstairs and plenty of room for Ethel’s new husband, my aunt Jimmy (who was divorced from her first husband and back home by then), my cousin Judalein, and a whole staff of servants that neither my mom nor my grandmother knew how to manage. The number of servants, advisers, and managers of various types kept growing, and with them my mother’s expenses. It was a pattern that continued for the rest of her life. She was never able to live within her income.

It was during this same time that she encountered the monster that would eventually take her life. Much as she struggled with the pressures of finances, fame, and job demands all her life, she could have withstood these if she hadn’t developed a dependency on what she later called her “crutches.” The year
The Wizard of 0{
was made, the year she turned sweet sixteen, my mother was given her first dose of Benzedrine by the studio that had made her a star.

It seemed innocent enough at the time. No one in those days, certainly not the studio doctors prescribing them, had any idea what they were doing when they began administering amphetamines to their personnel. Nowadays we are all familiar with the dangers of these powerfully addictive stimulants, but nobody knew the risks in 1938. In those days Benzedrine was the new wonder drug, the brainchild of a Nobel Prize—winning scientist. Combined with phenobarbitol, also believed to be safe at first, these wildly popular little pills were considered small miracles in the diet industry. They curbed your appetite, made weight control painless, and filled you with energy, all at the same time. What could be better? Most of MGM was taking them, especially the creative heads. Monitored by studio doctors, the pills seemed to be a safe and efficient way to keep actors looking good and productions moving on schedule.

When studio doctors gave the new wonder drugs to my mother, my grandmother didn’t object. After all, she reasoned, if
the doctor said they were safe for Judy, they must be all right. At first everything seemed fine; Mama lost weight and had plenty of “pep” in the morning when she got up for an early shoot. After all she was working very hard: in 1940—41, for example, she starred in six films, cut eighteen singles for Decca, and did forty radio appearances. After a few weeks, it started getting hard for my mom to go to sleep at night, so it was back to the studio doctor for more advice—and more pills.

The second miracle drug of the late thirties was the sleeping pill. It was also considered completely safe at prescribed levels, a harmless way to get “a good night of restful sleep,” as the ads promised. Naturally, the studio doctor prescribed more “harmless” pills to help my mother get to sleep at night. Every night my grandmother would give her one at bedtime, and for a while they seemed to work beautifully.

It seems unbelievable now that it could all have been so innocent, but that’s because we look back on those days with knowledge that makes the continual pill-popping seem sinister. It wasn’t like that at the time. Even as late as the fifties, family movies had characters casually suggesting a family member take a “diet pill” or “sleeping pill” to correct some minor problem.

Even back then, though, it was soon apparent that the pills weren’t good for my mom. My mother had what we now call a genetic predisposition to chemical dependency. Almost from the beginning she craved more and more of “her medicine” to help her feel well. A few weeks into Mama’s first course of medicine, my grandmother became concerned and asked the doctors to stop giving my mom the pills. For a while they did stop, but my mom couldn’t seem to do without them, so the doctors finally allowed her to take carefully regulated doses.

In fact, though, they couldn’t regulate her doses. No matter how careful everyone was, my mom always seemed to get her hands on more medicine than was good for her. My aunt Jimmy told me she used to catch my mom sewing pills into the seams of
her dresses. Jimmy told my grandmother about it, and after that Grandma and Aunt Jimmy would go through Mama’s clothes regularly, checking the seams and hems for pills. Her costumers had to do the same thing. My mom would hide Benzedrine pills in her costumes and behind the furniture in her dressing room. By the time she was seventeen, my mom was already a seasoned pro at hiding medicine so she could stockpile it for later use. Nobody, according to Aunt Jimmy, could figure out where my mother was getting it all. Mama didn’t realize the seriousness of what she was doing; to her, it was as harmless as hiding candy, which she’d done when she first came to MGM.

It’s no wonder that my mother suffered her first “nervous collapse” on the
publicity tour. She went from six months of work on
to a five-week tour of several shows a day. Her body was struggling to adjust to puberty and to a chemical overload at the same time, and the result was an emotional roller coaster. She was too exhausted and overwhelmed on
The Wizard of Oz
tour to enjoy her new star status. She was still just a kid, and too much was happening too soon.

Her age, of course, was the other problem. My mom was still a kid, but she wasn’t a child, and everyone kept treating her like one. The Oscar she received the next year for
was a special “Juvenile Oscar” (like the one Shirley Temple got), yet by then my mother was three months shy of eighteen. In public she was supposed to look like “little Dorothy,” even though they’d had to tape her breasts flat when they’d made the movie the year before. Back at the studio she was making pictures, usually with Mickey Rooney, where she always seemed to play a Plain Jane girl-next-door several years younger than her real age. She hated it. My dad says my mother never completely got over feeling like that Plain Jane kid she played on screen. There she was, surrounded by glamorous blonde beauties like Lana Turner who were only a few years older than she was, yet my mom was costumed in little cotton
dresses and given a scrubbed ingenue look. It was galling, and depressing.

So naturally she rebelled, first off the studio lot and eventually on it. My mother had always hated being controlled. She was sick and tired of being Baby Gumm. With her hormones in high gear and an air of defiance, she began dating older men. Mama had been falling in love pretty regularly since she met Mickey Rooney at eight years old, but now she was dating men ten or fifteen years her senior, beginning with bandleader Artie Shaw.

Finally she took the ultimate step toward independence. In 1941, shortly after her nineteenth birthday, my mother married bandleader and composer David Rose, who was already past thirty at the time. They were together only about a year before my mom filed for divorce. I never met David Rose; he was ancient history to me, since he and my mom had separated a decade before I was born. Mama always spoke of him positively when his name did come up, though. She told me he was “a very nice man,” but that she’d been too young when she married him, and they really weren’t suited to one another. I’ve always thought she married David to assert her independence and escape my grandmother’s control. I also suspect she was sick to death of being treated like “little Dorothy” by everyone around her. When you’re eighteen, it isn’t much fun to be treated as if you were twelve, even if everyone does think you’re cute.

After David Rose, she fell madly in love with Joe Mankiewicz, the screenwriter, but the studio was very upset by the age difference between them, and broke up the romance. Joe’s son, Tom Mankiewicz, is a friend of mine. A couple of years ago he jokingly said, “Just think, Lorna, you and I might have been brother and sister.” My mother was still playing a kid on screen, but off the lot she was a woman.

Marrying and divorcing so young did achieve one thing for my mom. For the first time in her life, she could make some decisions for herself. This included the chance to date anybody she
wanted. My mother loved to go out—the fun, the flirting, the excitement of it all. It made her happy. And when a man started to make her unhappy, when she felt it was all falling apart, she learned how to “cut men off at the ankles,” as our old friend Kay Thompson put it. My mother could “dump” a man with a vengeance when she wanted to. I know; I watched her do it many times. She wasn’t “little Dorothy” anymore. For better or worse, she’d grown up, and she was ready to make her own decisions—and her own mistakes.

Meanwhile, her relationship with MGM had begun to mimic her love life—off and on, breaking up and getting back together, love and hate. Along with the personal changes in her life, Mama had gone through a lot of professional changes by then. In the old days she’d been protected as a performer, first by her parents and later by trusted friends like Roger Edens, who were her protectors as well as her mentors. By now, though, she’d taken her life into her own hands, and she didn’t always show the best judgment. Over the years she put herself into the hands of “professionals,” Hollywood agents and managers who were often more interested in her financial worth than her well-being. She was now a valuable “property”; everyone had a lot riding on her success, and she couldn’t afford to fail. She also couldn’t afford to quit.

She felt the pressure. She would feel it for the rest of her life.

The result was disastrous where MGM was concerned. Each film became harder for her to do. She started having problems with directors, missing studio calls (sometimes for a week at a time), having anxiety attacks, and hiding in her dressing room for hours, afraid to face a camera. She became obsessed with her weight, which had always been hard for her to control. Now she panicked at the thought of gaining weight and not being able to lose it. The result was huge weight swings, from plump to anorexic, which began to destroy her health. No one understood eating disorders in those days, but Mama came dangerously close to developing one.

It wasn’t only the pressure that had begun getting to her,
either. By that time her “happy pills” were controlling much of her life. It had become apparent, even to her, that the pills were hurting her. When she realized this, Mama tried to quit taking them. She quit cold turkey several times and went through a series of hospitalizations, trying to get healthy and shake her dependence on her “medicine.” That was long before the Betty Ford Center, though, and no one really understood the detoxification process. So every time she put on too much weight, or couldn’t make her morning makeup call because of exhaustion, or desperately needed sleep, she’d end up going back on the pills “just until this movie’s finished.” Eventually she became trapped in a vicious cycle, unable to function with or without her “medication.” Looking back at her films, I can’t believe the contrast between the glowing young ingenue on camera and the sick woman off camera. That she survived at all is remarkable.

It was on the set of one of those films,
Meet Me in St. Louis,
that Mama fell in love with her second husband, Vincente Minnelli. Like David Rose, Vincente was a lot older than my mother. Also like David, Vincente was very talented in his own right. In 1945 Vincente and my mother got married, and a year later my sister, Liza, was born. For a while everything seemed okay. Mama was able to stay off pills for most of her pregnancy, and the thrill of becoming a mother kept her mind off her professional problems for a while. But soon enough things started falling apart again.

First there was the postpartum depression. My mom suffered severe postpartums with all of us. It didn’t help that once again she’d married a kind but distant man who was absorbed in his work. Complicating everything were the pills. My mother had put on a lot of weight during the pregnancy and had to lose it rapidly so she could complete
The Pirate,
with Gene Kelly. Back on the pills she lost so much weight, so quickly, that she was sickly and bone thin for most of the shooting. She began making suicide threats, something Vincente had no idea how to handle. The result was another trip to a private sanitarium to “rest.”

As usual, my mother bounced back. In fact, she used to tell us funny and ridiculous stories about her time in the sanitarium. She loved to tell the story of a walk she’d taken across its lawn one dark night with a nurse. My mom kept tripping and falling down, but when she mentioned it to the nurse, the nurse told her she was just dizzy; there was nothing on the lawn. But when the sun came up the next morning and my mom looked out her bungalow window, she saw croquet wickets all over the grass where they’d been walking the night before. She’d been tripping over the wires in the dark. I don’t know if the story was true, but it made us laugh when she told it, and my mother always laughed the hardest of us all. The nurse brought Liza to see Mama regularly at the sanitarium, and all in all my mom emerged in good enough health to make
Easter Parade
a few months later.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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