The Life of Judy Garland

By Gerald Clarke

Random House. 510 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by Louis Bayard

Many of us, even if we refuse to admit it, have a niche for Judy Garland -- some space in our cultural memory where that warm, throbbing contralto connects with us in a way no other voice does. For me, it's the scene near the end of "Meet Me in St. Louis" where she consoles a desolate Margaret O'Brien with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It's a song that, despite all subsequent efforts to squeeze joy from it, clings defiantly to its own vein of melancholy, and no one mined that vein quite like Judy Garland.

Watching this radiant, emotive young woman, we may find it hard to disentwine the sorrow in her voice from the sorrow that dogged her life -- dogged it, in fact, from its earliest days. Born to a mismatched couple of aspiring vaudevillians, Baby Frances Gumm came with a desire to please and talent to burn, assets that were quickly recognized and exploited by her fiercely ambitious mother. Ethel Gumm wouldn't stop until her youngest daughter was a star -- even if it meant giving the child amphetamines and sleeping pills to keep her going. So it was that well before she was Judy Garland, well before she was cake-walking down the Yellow Brick Road, Baby Gumm was an addict, and no amount of fame or love could change that.

The challenge, of course, faced by any Judy Garland biography -- even one as shapely and thoughtful as Gerald Clarke's Get Happy -- is the sheer, numbing familiarity of its subject matter. We've been over this rainbow a lot -- and under and around it, too. We've memorized the transition from dewy ingenue to Hollywood flame-out to revitalized concert star to wobbly diva. We've heard about the marriages (two of them to gay men), the suicide attempts (most of them half-hearted), the dizzying, pill-fueled personality transformations. We know she could be the best company in the world -- "the funniest woman I have ever met," actor Dirk Bogarde called her -- and also a drug-addled, knife-flinging termagant.

This, in short, is one of the best-documented implosions in pop-culture history. So what does Clarke, the author of a bestselling biography of Truman Capote, bring to the crowd of morticians that has spent the last 30 years picking apart Garland's corpus?

Narrative skill, for one thing. Clarke has plundered archives and shaken plenty of sources from trees, but unlike many of his predecessors, he doesn't feel the need to tell us everything he's learned. This is a special blessing when it comes to Garland's life: One drugged stupor can take the place of many. Clarke understands that stories are defined as much by what's left out as by what's included, and so Get Happy is readable in a way that more exhaustive Garland exegeses aren't.

Clarke is especially fine at setting scenes -- the bucolic Grand Rapids landscape where Garland began life, the weirdly insular MGM backlot where she came of age -- and he's good, too, at sparking life into unsavory characters like Louis B. Mayer and producer Arthur Freed. He errs, perhaps, only when he tries to pump mythic air into his subject -- when, for instance, he informs us that the people leaving a Garland concert "had participated in an incantation, a rite more ancient than the pyramids themselves." Clarke has squeezed in a few too many quotations from Milton, a few too many words like "rutilant" and "scandent," and to what effect? No amount of high-culture lacquer can gloss

over the fact that Judy Garland was simply a very sick woman with very large gifts.

From today's vantage point, it's tempting to speculate what marvels modern pharmacology might have wrought with her. I suspect that even the most sophisticated antidepressant regime would never have satisfied her primary addiction, which was not to men or pills but to the massed love of strangers. As Clarke writes, "She needed her audience more than it needed her. She was happy -- `truly, truly happy,' to use her own words -- only when she was onstage." This, paradoxically, is what makes watching some of her final performances such an ordeal. You stare at that hungry mouth, those flurrying, dissociated hands, and you realize there's nothing you could do that would possibly satiate her. And you wonder if maybe her death at the age of 47 wasn't the next best thing to mercy -- a way of stopping before the applause could.

Louis Bayard, author of the novel "Fool's Errand," writes frequently on film.