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 (8 page)

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
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My dad recently turned eighty-one, but he remembers the day he met my mother as if it were yesterday. Late one night she was eating dinner with a male friend in Billy Reed’s Little Club in New York when my dad walked in. She had just recently been terminated by MGM and was in New York to recover and have a good
time. My dad knew my mom’s friend, and when he went over to the table to say hello, the friend introduced Sid to my mother. My father’s a good-looking man, and my mother was one to notice. That night she simply smiled sweetly and, a bit absentmindedly, said hello. With that one word it was all over for my father.

He can still describe that moment with absolute clarity, as if it were frozen in time. My mother was wearing a gold coat, a black dress, and a little pillbox hat. Her hair was cut short, and her big dark eyes glowed in the dim light of the club. But it’s my mother’s voice he remembers the most. That voice, that wonderful voice of hers, so unique even in speaking. That simple “hello,” as my father tells it, wasn’t only Mama’s voice speaking. “When you met her, she’d say, ‘hello,’ and you’d fall down. The voice would kill you. In a sense, you would drop dead every time she talked to you. When she talked, the voice was Dorothy and
Meet Me in St. Louis
and
Easter Parade
and a whole string of movies going through your head. It was this mystique she had, like magic.” All these years later—after eleven years of marriage, and a messy divorce, and all the pain—he still remembers the magic.

My mother was so beautiful, even more than you could see on the screen. She had the most incredible skin I’ve ever seen. It was like delicate porcelain, so fine and translucent you could see the veins if you looked closely enough. I longed to look like her instead of like my father when I was a kid. I used to sit on her dressing table when I was six or seven and watch her put on her makeup. I would stare at her while she put on her lipstick, leaning in real close so I could see, and she’d try not to laugh at me because she didn’t want to smear her lipstick. She had tiny little feet that were wide from dancing all those years, and great legs, and the most wonderfully expressive hands. My father loved her hands. My mother was just so beautiful. She was a movie star.

Dad had met her briefly many years before, he said, when he was working as an extra in a Nelson Eddy movie. Wearing a soldier costume, he’d been introduced to Mama on the set one day. It wasn’t until that night in New York, though, that the two of them really
met. Dad had just separated from his second wife, and my mom had just separated from Vincente. The evening after they met at the club, Fred Finklehoffe called her and told her Sid wanted to take her out. The two of them went out that night, and the night after that, and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.

If opposites attract, it’s no wonder my parents fell for each other. God knows, my dad was nothing like the other men my mother had known. Her first two husbands were gentle, artistic types, and most of the men she had dated before my dad were either musicians, directors, or performers. They all treated her like a lady. They were all gentlemen.

Sid Luft, on the other hand, was no gentleman. He was a weight lifter. He was a former test pilot. He was a gambler. He was a guy. He’s still one of those old-time Hollywood guys.

When I was a kid, his best friend was Humphrey Bogart. Dad still loves to tell how he first met Bogie. The story pretty much sums up both of them. When he and my mother first moved to Beverly Hills—two years after they met, right after I was born—they went to a party together at Irving “Swifty” Lazar’s house. Nobody in the Beverly Hills A-crowd really knew my dad yet. Bogie liked to think of himself as the chief rooster in the neighborhood, and he wasn’t happy when he learned my dad was moving in two doors down. Early that evening Bogie swaggered up to my dad and said, “So you’re Sid Luft? I hear you’re a tough guy.”

Dad said, “You’re right. I am.”

They started talking, and after a few minutes Bogie said, “You know, you’d better behave yourself, Sid.”

Dad replied, “Oh, I do, do I?” They were both squaring off like a couple of bucks by that time. Then Dad said, “Would you like to meet my wife?”

“Not really.”

My dad turned and shouted across the room, “Hey, Judy! Over here.”

As Mama walked toward them, my dad picked Bogie up and
held him tightly in both arms, the way you would carry a child to bed. Now, keep in mind that Bogie was a small man, “a little shrimp of a guy,” as my father describes him.

When my mom got there, Dad turned to her and said, “Honey, have you met our new neighbor?” He was still holding Bogie tightly in both arms. Bogart was so angry by then that he was purple, but all he could do was sputter and let out a string of cuss words because try as he might, he couldn’t get loose from my father’s grip.

My mother said, poker-faced, “How are you, Mr. Bogart? I’m Judy.” She shook Bogart’s hand and walked away again while my dad still stood there, holding Bogie in his arms. By then the whole room was watching and laughing. A minute or two later my dad gently set Bogart back down on his feet and just stood there, waiting to see what Bogart would do next. Bogie just stared up at my father for a moment, too angry to say a word; then all of a sudden Bogie started laughing, and Dad started laughing, too. After that they were the best of friends. Now there were two tough guys on the block, Humphrey Bogart and my father.

Dad had grown up in an upscale New York neighborhood where he and his sister were the only Jewish kids on the block, and he’d sometimes come home to anti-Semitic graffiti. Even though the family was well-off financially, my dad always had to fight to survive in the social scheme. He had an eccentric, strong-willed Russian mother who designed clothes but would rather spend her time at the track than in a tearoom. Dad had an eye for the ladies and for a good piece of horseflesh. He was a self-described “tough little son of a bitch.” He’d had to be. Nobody thought he was right for my mother—except Mama.

My dad was also a lady-killer, as charming as they come. Lady actors were nothing new to him, either, so when he started to going out with Mama, he had some idea of what he was getting into. He’d gotten involved in producing B movies when he came to California, and he’d dated a lot of movie stars—Hedy Lamarr, Gene Tierney, Eleanor Powell—a whole string of beauties. By the time he met my mother, he’d already been married twice, the second time to
American actress Lynn Bari. It wasn’t as if he suddenly went from dating Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to dating a “Star.” He knew about actors—the egos, the neuroses. He’d also heard about my mother’s track record with men. His heart might have heard Dorothy saying hello, but his head knew exactly what he was getting into.

For my mother, though, Sid Luft was something else again. She’d never really known anyone like him. He was handsome, of course, a real hunk who knew how to carry himself. But it wasn’t just that. Mama had known a lot of handsome men, and she’d usually had her pick of them. My dad was different. He was bluff and straightforward; he tackled problems straight on. If somebody bothered my mother, if somebody said something about her that he didn’t like, he’d turn around and just deck them. If too many Hollywood types hung around, bothering my mother, he’d tell them to get out.

Most amazing of all, he would say no to my mother. No one but my mother’s mentor, Roger Edens, had ever really done that before, and Roger was a father-figure, not a lover. My mother was used to having everyone cater to her, including her sisters. She knew how to throw a tantrum. When my mom was little, according to my aunt Jimmy, she would lie on the floor and scream until she got her way. She wasn’t neurotic back then, Jimmy said, just spoiled. But when Mama tried that kind of thing with my dad, he’d tell her to sit down and shut up. This was something completely new to my mother, and in a way, nice, and sort of charming. My father didn’t flatter my mother and cater to her the way everyone else did, and she liked it. She trusted him. You can’t trust people who are always flattering you. They usually want something. My dad didn’t want anything. She could trust him. He made her feel secure.

It was a good thing my dad could handle her, too, because my mother drove most men crazy. Even for my father, being with my mother was a struggle.

Early in their relationship, my dad learned the hard way what could happen if he made my mom angry. A few months after he met my mother, my dad got a call from his old high school
sweetheart. He hadn’t seen her since she’d gotten married years before. Now she was divorced, and she wanted to see him again, to talk about old times and see if there was still anything between them. It meant flying to Denver, where she lived. Dad knew my mother would have a fit about his seeing an old girlfriend, so he decided not to tell her right away. His plan was to meet with his former girlfriend, see how it went, and tell my mother only if it looked as if he wanted to pursue the old relationship. If it all came to nothing, there would be no reason to mention it. After all, he and my mother had made no commitments at that point, and he didn’t want to face her wrath for nothing.

His plan seemed foolproof. Dad had a business associate in Oklahoma, so he told my mom he was flying to Tulsa to talk to his associate about a horse, and he took a plane to Oklahoma. When he got to the airport there, he bought another ticket, this time to Denver, without telling anyone. His high school sweetheart met him at the airport, and they spent the evening together. So far, so good.

But when he returned to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning, there was a long distance call waiting for him. He was astonished, since no one but his old girlfriend knew where he was. He took the call, and it was Mama. She pleasantly reminded him that she was expecting him to attend a party in L.A. the next night to meet her California friends, and asked him what time his plane would arrive in Los Angeles, so she could pick him up at the airport. Floored, he managed to mumble the flight information before hanging up. How on earth had she known where he was? He hadn’t told a soul.

Simple. The FBI had found him. When you’re Judy Garland and you want something, you just pick up a phone and call somebody. Anybody. My mom wanted to find my dad, so she just picked up the phone and made a person-to-person call to J. Edgar Hoover (whom she’d never met) and asked him to find Sid Luft, right away. Mr. Hoover did. Years later she just picked up the phone and called President Kennedy to ask his advice on how to handle the
personnel on her television show. None of this seemed unusual to her. That’s simply what you did when you were Judy Garland.

The brush with the FBI was a real eye-opener for my father, part of his education as Judy Garland’s “man.” Lesson number one: Never kid a kidder, especially when that kidder is one of the greatest actors who ever lived. My father was an amateur when it came to lying. He didn’t do it often, and when he did, my mother always knew. My mom, on the other hand, was a professional. She’d been trained since childhood by the best directors in Hollywood. She could outact—and outlie—anyone she knew. You couldn’t fool my mother because whatever you tried to do, she’d done before and done better. She hadn’t believed my father’s Tulsa story for a minute. My dad had tried to get one by her, and she’d busted him. He flew to Los Angeles that day a wiser man.

Clearly, my mother took their relationship seriously. From then on my parents were officially a couple. When my mother’s separation from Vincente Minnelli became official about the same time, she went public about her relationship with my dad.

The press didn’t like it one bit. Sid Luft? With Judy Garland? No, no, no. He didn’t fit their image; he didn’t fit anyone’s image of whom my mother should be with. The press didn’t like him, and he sure didn’t like them. He had no use for columnists, and he wouldn’t cater to their demands. It was the beginning of a lot of bad press for my dad.

Meanwhile, my mother was trying to remake her career. Ever since the MGM disaster she had struggled professionally. With the help of her friends she’d done a few radio appearances with old friends like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. But for the most part, she was adrift in her career. Still, she had to keep performing. It was not only financially necessary; for her it was emotionally necessary. Performing was her life. She’d been doing it since she was two years old. She couldn’t live without performing, didn’t want to. If she went too long without working, she’d be climbing the walls.

So she continued to search for a way to keep doing what she
loved best. Friends had suggested she try the concert circuit, but she was uncertain. She hadn’t really toured since her vaudeville days as a Gumm Sister. The promotional tours she’d done for MGM had, for the most part, been nightmares. The huge crowds, the pushing and the screaming, the fear of failing before a live audience; all these things made her hesitate to tackle the concert circuit. But she had to do something, and movies seemed neither possible nor desirable. So she wavered.

That’s where my dad came in.

When Mama finally confided her business troubles to him, my dad was emphatic. He thought a concert tour was “a hell of a good idea.” On a concert tour she could sleep all day if she wanted; she could get as chubby as she wanted, too, and no one would care. After all, weren’t some of the greatest concert singers overweight? She wouldn’t need to starve herself and live on diet pills as she had for her films, and she wouldn’t have to drag herself out of bed at dawn, starved for stimulants. Of course she should do it, he told her. It would be wonderful. She could reinvent herself in another country, another setting. She could put behind her all the unhappiness and bad press from her MGM days.

She took Dad’s advice. Scared but excited, she went to England and prepared to open at the London Palladium. She wanted my dad to go with her for moral support, but at first he refused. He had business concerns of his own, and besides, he wasn’t sure it was a good idea for him to be too closely involved in her business dealings. She had managers for that. That plan lasted about two weeks. A few days after Mama left, Dottie Ponedel, a makeup woman and close friend from her MGM days, called my dad and suggested that he come over to London because it “would mean a lot to Judy.” Two days later Dottie called again from London.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
4.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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