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
My dad finally gave in. After all, the FBI might show up at his front door next! He flew to London, arriving the day before the Palladium opening. From then on, there was no going back for my
father. Ready or not, he would be involved in “Judy’s business” for the rest of her life.
A lot of people have criticized my dad for that. They have implied that he got involved in my mother’s business because he wanted to ride on her coattails, take advantage of her fame. Nothing could be farther from the truth. One of the results of her studio upbringing was that she got used to having everything done for her when she was a teenager, and she kept those habits in her adult life. My mother and Vincente were in debt when they separated; they hadn’t been able to pay the taxes on their homes. Financially, my father was much better off before he married my mother. Dad came from an affluent family, and by the time he met my mom, he had produced several B movies and invested in thoroughbred horses with Prince Aly Khan.
The most hurtful part of the accusations against my father is the widespread notion that his gambling ruined my mother financially. Once he married my mother and became a target for photographers and curiosity-seekers, he stopped going to the betting windows at the track himself. He wanted to remain anonymous, so he would give the money to his close friend and business partner, Vern Alves. Dad would write down the bets he wanted Vern to place, give the money to Vern in cash ahead of time, and have Vern place the bet at the track. Vern would also collect the cash if the horse won and give the money to my dad afterward. Dad would give him a percentage for placing the bet. This was the system Dad and Vern used during my childhood years in Beverly Hills. Vern still gets angry at the allegations that my dad gambled away all the family money. Vern says that he knows exactly what happened during those years because he handled the money personally, and that my dad used his winnings to pay the house mortgage and other expenses. According to Vern, Dad was always hoping his winnings would be enough to carry the family through the latest emergency. Compared to her years at MGM, my mother didn’t work that much
when I was small, and there was never enough money to support the lifestyle she was used to.
My father was my mother’s protector, financially and in every other way. He wanted to take care of Mama. He loved her, he wanted to help her, and in those days he was still under the illusion that he could solve all her problems if he just tried hard enough. As for managing her, he didn’t really have much of a choice. Mama demanded it of him. All her life people had been managing things for her. To my mom, taking care of her was part of loving her.
Besides, nobody said no to my mother for long. What Mama wanted, Mama eventually got, especially where my dad was concerned.
So from then on, my parents were in it together—planning, traveling together through Scotland and then Europe. It was romantic, and they had the time of their lives. When she was happy, Mama was more fun than anybody, and they had a grand time. Onstage my mother was a phenomenon, and offstage she was almost as exciting. My father had fallen for her hook, line, and sinker. After Mama, everyone else was dull by comparison.
Once the Palladium opening was behind her, my mom knew that she’d found her place professionally once again. She loved being out under the lights, singing to all those people. At MGM she’d played to a soundstage full of crew members and recording machines. Now she was singing to a live audience once again, people who laughed and cried and were mesmerized by her presence. It was astonishing, like being two years old again and singing “Jingle Bells” to delighted applause. For my mother, it was more exciting, and more addictive, than any medicine. Mama loved her audiences; she came alive in front of them. And now, instead of her parents applauding wildly in the front row, there was my father, cheering her on from the wings.
It was wonderful. It was magic. It was the rebirth of a legend.
When they returned to the U.S. at the end of the tour, my dad searched for ways to keep the magic going. It was my dad who
conceived the idea of my mom opening at the Palace. A vaudeville mecca in its heyday, the old Palace Theater in New York City was the ideal venue for a former Gumm Sister. My dad found the building rundown and threadbare; he and the promoters refurbished the old landmark, restoring it once again to its former splendor. In 1951 the theater was reopened by my mother, restored, like the Palace, to her glory days. No one who was there that night has ever forgotten it. It became a part of theater history.
From then on there was no stopping my parents professionally. My dad got my mom booked at concert halls, and that same year the two of them formed Transcona Enterprises, their own corporation. My father had begun negotiating for the film rights to
A Star Is Born.
He planned to produce it himself, with the backing of Jack Warner and Warner Brothers. It was a perfect vehicle for my mother. The film would play into the public’s perception of her crises, and by exploiting the rumors—the headlines about pills and suicide—put them to rest. More important, it would give my mother the great acting role she’d always longed for. Best of all, my parents would use their own production company. For the first time in her career, my mother would have control over one of her films. She was thrilled, hoping the trauma of her last years at MGM would soon be a thing of the past.
It seemed like the perfect plan, and it almost was. My father hired Vern Alves as his production assistant, and Transcona started preproduction for the movie. Then something happened that put a kink in their perfect plan. A big kink.
My mother discovered she was pregnant with me.
rowing up, I had no idea that I was already on the way when my parents got married. It was just not the kind of thing your parents told you in the 1950s. I must have been seventeen or eighteen before the truth dawned on me. I knew when my parents’ wedding anniversary was, and of course, I knew when my birthday was, but I had never done the math. It had never occurred to me.
I found out about my own conception years later from a book about my mother. By then I knew better than to believe most of what people wrote about my mother, so I decided to ask my dad. It was a memorable conversation. It went something like this:
: Dad, can I ask you a question?
: Was Mama pregnant with me when you got married?
: (long pause) Where’d you hear that?
: In this book.
: (longer pause) Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean anything. I mean, well, you know, we were planning on getting married, anyway. . . .
And that was the end of that conversation. My dad couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. Just the fact that I’d asked the question scared him to death. Contrary to his image, my dad is a pretty traditional guy. He was embarrassed to tell his daughter that he’d gotten her mom pregnant before they were married. More important, he didn’t want me to think that he and Mama had to get married. He didn’t want me to be hurt, to feel that they hadn’t wanted me.
So my parents planned their wedding. They couldn’t afford to wait very long, and they didn’t want the press to find out and turn the wedding into a media circus. They decided to get married privately at a friend’s ranch in Las Vegas. Using their real names, Frances Gumm Minnelli and Michael S. Luft, they had a friend get the license from a local justice of the peace. On June 8, 1952, they drove out to their friends’ ranch and got married in a private ceremony. Not exactly the dream wedding most people would imagine for Judy Garland, but to my father, it might as well have been. Mama, he says, looked beautiful. His face still lights up when he talks about it.
Soon after Louella Parsons ran a headline reading “Judy’s
Secret Marriage Revealed.” The bookmakers in Vegas sold odds on how long the marriage would last: six months was the guess, five years at the outside. It’s not surprising. The press didn’t like my dad, and my mother’s marital track record wasn’t that great, either. But my parents beat the odds. Maybe they didn’t exactly live happily ever after, but with Dad, Mama came closer than she did with anyone else. They truly loved each other. I’m not sure the world ever figured that out.
My poor sister found out about the marriage the hard way—on television. Liza already knew Sid. Since my mother traveled a lot, Liza lived with Vincente much of the time, but she and her nanny sometimes visited Mama and Sid. Liza liked my dad pretty well, but she didn’t want our mother to marry him. A few weeks earlier my mom had asked Liza if she wanted her to marry Sid, and Liza had said, “But what about Daddy?” Like all kids of divorced parents, Liza still hoped her parents would get back together, even though that was clearly out of the question. When she and her father heard the news, Liza was hurt. Mama had married another man besides Daddy, and she’d done it without even telling Liza. It was a lot for a six-year-old to accept.
Things got better for everyone after the wedding. My parents moved into a house on Mapleton Drive in Beverly Hills and settled down to stay, at least for the time being. They hired a nurse and a full staff of servants, and Liza divided her time between my parents’ home and Vincente’s. They were a family now, and my mother was happy and excited about the pregnancy. All of this made up for a lot to my sister. So when Mama asked Liza to call my father “Papa Sid,” Liza did it willingly. My dad, for his part, happily accepted the role of stepfather. Liza was a part of my mother, and that was enough for him.
Mama’s relationship with my sister, in fact, was one of the things that had most attracted him to my mother. He knew that my mother was used to being the star, the center of attention. He also knew she had a daughter, but he didn’t see her with Liza until he
and my mother had been together for a while. When he finally got to see Mama and Liza together, he was amazed to see the change that came over my mother. Instead of being the prima donna, with Liza my mother became the tender and loving parent. My sister was the center of Mama’s universe; she looked at Liza with such love. When Liza was with her, my mother put her own needs second. My dad was surprised and touched. It was a good omen for him.
When Mama got pregnant with me, he pictured a little girl of his own, a little girl that Mama would look at the same way she looked at Liza. My dad already had a son, Johnny, from his marriage to Lynn Bari, so he hoped for a girl this time around. Johnny lived with his mother and visited now and then, but this baby would be special because Judy was her mother. Even if the timing was a little off, my dad was looking forward to my birth. After all, he teased my mother, any child of his was bound to be a “tough little son of a bitch,” even if she was a little shrimp of a girl like Mama. My mother just laughed at him.
Neither of my parents regretted having to postpone their movie. They were waiting for their own little star to be born—me.
The biggest problem, though, wasn’t the timing. It was my mother’s medication. She was thirty and had been taking varying amounts of Benzedrine and sleeping pills now since she was sixteen. Although the medicine was prescribed by physicians, my mother had never been able to limit herself to an appropriate dose for long. She always ended up taking more than was good for her. After fourteen years with chemicals in her bloodstream, her body had become dependent on them to function. To withdraw abruptly would be not only traumatic but dangerous for her. Worried about its effect on me, she had tried to cut back on her medication during pregnancy, but it was a constant struggle for her. Going off it completely wasn’t an option, either, since the shock might even trigger a miscarriage
With this in mind, Dr. Dietrich (the doctor who delivered me) decided to put Mama in the hospital three weeks before I was due
to make sure she took care of herself. The doctor conferred with my dad and Vern Alves, and the three of them decided Vern would serve as my mother’s companion at the hospital during her “incarceration,” as Dr. Dietrich referred to it. Vern still chuckles when he recalls Dr. Dietrich’s choice of words.
My mother agreed to the arrangement calmly enough, but instead of joyfully looking forward to my birth, my mother began systematically preparing for her own death. In spite of the doctor’s assurances that she was perfectly healthy, my mom told Vern privately that she knew she was going to die giving birth. There was no medical reason to believe this, but as Vern says, “Judy was so fatalistic that she believed any plane she got on was doomed to crash.” Convinced that doom awaited her, my mother decided to have one last party before she went into the hospital to die in childbirth.
As soon as Dr. Dietrich gave her a date to enter the hospital, Mama began planning her “farewell party.” She had a beautiful velvet dress made for the occasion, and invited the entire A-crowd to their home on Mapleton Drive the night before she entered the hospital. Vern says my mom looked beautiful that night, in spite of her size (all the women in my family get huge with pregnancy). It was a glamorous, glittering evening. Roger Edens played the piano while my mother sang to all their assembled friends. Frank Sinatra sang, George Burns and Gracie Allen did a few jokes, and at the end of the evening my mother went from person to person, solemnly bidding them a “final farewell.” Vern says he and my dad just looked at each other and rolled their eyes as the leave-taking ritual continued. Nobody had quite the flair for the dramatic my mom had.
Dad and Vern checked my mom into St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica the next day, and Vern settled in as full-time attendant. St. John’s is a private Catholic hospital less than a mile from the beach in Santa Monica. They hoped my mother would have more privacy there than she’d had at Cedars Sinai, where Liza
had been born. Mama did not enjoy her “incarceration.” She was uncomfortable and irritable, especially without her usual medication to calm her nerves. She badgered Vern into bringing her “special ginger ale,” a bottle of ginger ale with a drop of vodka. When he couldn’t stand the nagging any longer, he would put a tiny amount of alcohol into the ginger ale and give it to her. He didn’t like doing it, but he hoped it would appease her enough to keep her from trying to sneak in medication. She was irritable with my father, too. When he came to visit her, she would pick a fight and throw him out of her room, telling him she never wanted to see him again. Then half an hour later, she would turn to Vern and say, “Where’s that Sid Luft? Where is that man?” Vern would have to call my dad to come back, and the whole routine would start over again. My mother, Vern says, was “very challenging.”