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 (7 page)

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For a while everything seemed okay, but then the destructive cycle began all over, this time complicated by the fact that her marriage to Vincente was falling apart. Once again she had married a talented but unsuitable man, an intellectual and “aesthete” who was wrapped up in his work and emotionally unavailable. My mother needed someone who would be wrapped up in her. Contrary to the stories that have been printed, the breakup had nothing to do with Vincente’s sexual preference. I’ve often wondered where the stories that Vincente was bisexual got started, because men seemed to be the last thing on his mind when I knew him. The Vincente I remember had a roving eye and a weakness for beautiful women, several of whom he married. Granted, one marriage might be a cover, but three? I heard plenty of whispers about the women Vincente dated when I was growing up, but never a hint that he was bisexual. My sister, Liza, passionately resents the suggestion that her father had a secret gay life.

My mother was ready for a change. The question for her was, if not Vincente and MGM, then what? She’d been under contract to MGM since she was a child. For fifteen years her life had consisted of movies and publicity tours; MGM had been her workplace,
her school, and in a sense, her second home. Leaving was frightening, yet staying had become impossible.

The stress and exhaustion of the constant filming she’d been required to do since she was fourteen had taken their toll. By the time my mom was twenty-two, she had made nineteen films for MGM in a period of nine years. These days actors rarely make more than one film a year, even when they’re in demand, because of the exhausting schedule. Filming means getting up at four every morning to be at the studio by five A.M. for makeup. My mom would shoot all day, rarely leaving the studio before eight P.M. That meant a full fourteen hours of acting, singing, and dancing before she even left for home. By the time she ate and went to bed, there were only a few hours for her to sleep before the whole routine started all over again. Those were the days before child labor laws controlled conditions for child actors, so my mother had had to maintain a schedule few adults could survive. She was so sick and exhausted that they had to replace her with Betty Hutton in
Annie Get Your Gun.
In the old rushes of the film, which were never shown at the time, my mom is bone thin, with dark circles under her eyes. She was in such bad shape during
Summer Stock,
her last film at MGM (with Gene Kelly), that she had trouble standing up sometimes. No wonder she came to rely on her medication just to get out of bed in the morning.

Her marriage was also over in all but name, as far as she was concerned. My mother and Vincente had tried and failed to make the relationship work, to the sadness of both. Only my sister held them together by that time. Privately, my mom had already told friends that the marriage was finished. She and Vincente were deeply in debt; physically and emotionally, she was at a low ebb.

There are several stories about what happened next. The common myth is that MGM simply fired my mother. The reality is considerably more complicated. MGM did suspend her for failing to appear on the set again; she got a telegram notifying her of the
suspension on June 17, 1950. Two days later she locked herself in the bathroom at home, broke a decorative bottle, and scratched her throat. Then, according to Vincente, she unlocked the door and let him in. She hadn’t cut herself deeply enough to cause serious injury, but there was a lot of blood because of the wound’s location, and Vincente was terrified. Friends bundled her up, took her to another house (she and Vincente kept two homes), and met the doctor there. Vincente stayed behind with Liza and tried to keep the incident a secret. As usual, though, the story was leaked to the press, and in no time every paper in town carried headlines about my mother’s “suicide” attempt.

My mother was in desperate need of a way out. She spoke privately to our old family friends Marc and Marcella Rabwin and asked Dr. Rabwin to help her. She’d always loved New York. She thought moving to New York and doing some Broadway shows might be the answer to her unhappiness. She and Marc talked the situation over, and at Mama’s request, he went privately to L.B. Mayer and asked him to cancel my mother’s contract, which legally had two years left. In a sense the request was only a formality, since both the studio and my mother knew her situation there had reached a stalemate. L.B. agreed. He also agreed to cancel my mom’s debt to MGM ($9,000 she’d borrowed against her future salary to pay for her last rest cure).

Three months after her suspension and “suicide” attempt, on September 29, 1950, MGM officially terminated Judy Garland. It was a painful parting for everyone involved.

My mother rarely talked to me about her MGM years. Who could blame her? One thing I do know, though, is that she loved L.B. Mayer to the end of her life. Much has been made of the legend that MGM used my mother and tossed her aside. In the last years of her life, as chemical addiction ate away at her memory and her consciousness, she sometimes fed those rumors herself. In the decade after she left Metro, though, she never blamed L.B. for what had happened to her. She always spoke lovingly of him to us
children and to my father. It was L.B. Mayer who paid for my mother’s hospitalizations when she became ill during her years at MGM, even when it was clear she might never be able to make another movie for him. My father passionately asserts that L.B. loved my mother and wanted to help her get well, and that my mother always told him this herself. Years after she left Metro, my dad had breakfast with L.B. and an MGM attorney, and they still spoke of my mom with love and respect.

It’s true that the studio started my mother on amphetamines, but once they found out about the pills’ effects, MGM did everything they could to get her free of them. They not only provided my mother with doctors, therapists, and several “rest stays” in hospitals; they put the studio police to work figuring out where she was getting the pills. Years afterward Aunt Jimmy told me that everybody at MGM tried to keep my mother’s medication problem under control, from Mama’s costumer to my grandmother to the police. It was useless. My mother sought escape in the pills and was determined to have them. It makes a much better story to say that MGM was an evil kingdom and L.B. a sinister figure, but it simply isn’t true. L.B. himself took the same kind of pills they gave my mother; as far as that goes, half the truck drivers in America took those same pills to stay awake, and half their wives took them to lose weight.

Ignorance, not evil, began the process that destroyed my mother’s life. If she had been born two decades later, after the dangers of amphetamines were recognized, she would be alive today. She tried to stop many times, from 1943 to 1968, but she didn’t have access to the kind of information that’s available today. They knew how to dry you out, but they didn’t know anything about aftercare. There was never enough time, because the legend was taking over the woman, and she always had to get back to work.

M
y mother was never Norma Desmond, endlessly rerunning her old movies. She rarely talked about the films she’d done when she was young. The one exception was
The Wizard of
0{. Like everyone else in America, our family watched it on television every year. The only difference between our family and others was that we always watched it with Dorothy—except the first time.

I vividly remember my first encounter with the film. My parents were in New York that week, and we children were at home in Los Angeles with our nanny. I was about seven at the time; my little brother, Joey, was only four. When our nanny learned
Wizard
was going to be shown on television that night, she thought Joey and I would want to see Mama’s movie, so she let us stay up late. Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to the nanny that the film can be frightening to young children. As Joe and I watched the monkeys fly across the TV screen, our nanny cheerfully pointed out to us that Dorothy, the girl on TV, was actually our mother wearing a costume.

Mama? That was Mama? We leaned closer. Sure enough, the girl on the screen had Mama’s eyes. I panicked. Joey began to cry. Mama was being carried off by bad monkeys? Were the monkeys the ones who took her to New York? Joe and I both began to sob with terror. In spite of the nanny’s best efforts to calm us, we became more and more distraught. At the height of all this hysteria, the phone rang. It was Mama. She’d just realized the movie was airing that night, and when it occurred to her we might be watching at home, she knew we’d be scared. She had the nanny put both Joe and me on the phone and kept reassuring us that she was all right, that the monkeys didn’t take her to New York. I felt a little better, but Joe kept crying and asking Mama when she was coming home. We didn’t really feel comfortable until she was home again so we could see for ourselves that the monkeys hadn’t hurt her.

For years afterward, my mother wouldn’t let us watch the movie without her. The annual televising of
The Wizard of 0{
became a special family occasion at our house. Mama would cuddle
up on the couch with me and my brother and watch the film with us. When Liza was there (instead of at her father’s), Mama would dress us up in matching “sister” dresses for the occasion. Then, while the whole family munched on popcorn, my mother would tell us about making the picture. She told us how they achieved effects like the tornado and the flying monkeys. She also told us what it was like to be on the set: how Jack Haley, Sr., had to lie on a board during breaks because he couldn’t sit down in his Tin Man’s costume, how some of the male Munchkins were always leering at her, how bad Toto’s breath was, and how nice Margaret Hamilton was. I remember her telling us that the studio served the cast lunch on the set after the first few weeks of filming. She said that when Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Ray Bolger went to eat in the studio commissary, they would pull off only enough of their costumes to eat comfortably. The problem was that the leftover adhesive still hung from their skin like strings of mucus, especially when Bert Lahr pulled off bits of the lion makeup. The result was so disgusting that everyone in the cafeteria complained. After enough complaints, lunch was served to them on the set.

Despite my original scare, I came to love the movie. It became my brother’s and my favorite picture.
The Wizard of Oz
was an amazing achievement for its time, and I am very, very proud of it. I still watch it when it comes on television; only now I watch with my children, just a few feet away from my mother’s portrait, which sits on a shelf, along with a replica of her ruby slipper, in my living room. My daughter, Vanessa, calls the slipper the “Dorothy shoe.” One of the original movie posters, with her grandmother’s face, hangs in Vanessa’s room. Vanessa does have a pair of “Dorothy shoes” of her own. My mother would love it.

M
y mother entered the “magic gates” of MGM when she was only a child. She was twenty-eight when she walked out of those studio gates the last time, but she’d already lived several lifetimes.

Leaving MGM wasn’t her only parting in 1950. Although they
remained legally married for another year, my mother and Vincente were parting, too. They lived in the same house for a few more weeks that November, but they both knew the marriage was over. When she left Los Angeles to spend a few weeks in New York that fall, she already considered herself a free woman.

It’s been forty-eight years since my mother walked out of her second marriage. She had no way of knowing when she left for New York that my dad would be there and what that would mean in her life.

One thing is certain. The day my father met Mama, he walked into a tornado of his own. Oh, they were a pair. Not exactly Romeo and Juliet or Tracy and Hepburn, but one of the great couples nevertheless.

Collection of the author

With my mother and father on the set of
A Star Is Born.

CHAPTER 3

A Star Is Born

M
y mother’s presence fills my father’s house. Almost thirty years after her death, he still speaks of her as if she might walk into the room at any minute. His expression changes from mischievous to tender to heartbreakingly sad, for my mother was all of those things. The emotions flit across his face like a series of frames from a movie projector. Endlessly charming, occasionally belligerent, my dad, the self-styled “Hollywood tough guy,” speaks of my mother with the humor and passion of a true romantic, Bogie’s screen image come to life. In the midst of a sardonic little anecdote about Mama having “one of her fits,” he will suddenly look directly into someone’s eyes and say, “We loved each other, you know. I loved her, not the legend, the woman. Do you understand what that means?” And just as suddenly, the passion recedes, and he finishes his story. For him, the past is more a place than a time; his mind is the boundary that encloses a territory of the heart he can visit at will. For him, my mother is still alive there.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
6.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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