So you’ve watched all the Judy Garland movies, you’re a huge Wizard of Oz fan, and you know all about her on-screen life. But how much do you know about the real woman behind the movie sets and the glamor of Hollywood? Life for the famous icon wasn’t all happy songs and dances. In fact, there were times when the Wicked Witch of the West would have been a preferable alternative. Garland’s life off screen was a stark contrast to her sunny public image.
Even from a young age, the Gumm family — that’s Garland’s real surname — were beset with tragedy and scandal. In 1926, when Judy was just four, allegations started swirling like a tornado around her father, Frank. It was a very different time, so when rumors circulated that he was involved in relations with young men, it caused outrage. His forced unhappiness ruined his relationship with his wife Ethel which, in turn, emotionally scarred their children, Garland included.
Garland would later inform newspaper The New York Times, “As I recall, my parents were separating and getting back together all the time. It was very hard for me to understand those things and, of course, I remember clearly the fear I had of those separations.” Ethel tried to distract herself by pouring her passion into her children’s future as their momager, but it turned out such misspent attention did more harm than good: it sent Garland down a very dangerous road.
Carrot and stick
Well, it was actually more like a forced push, and Garland’s mother was the one doing the shoving. Even during her early career, Ethel forced her daughter to perform, and used the stick more than the carrot. In 1967 Garland told Barbara Walter, “[Mother] would sort of stand in the wings when I was a little girl, and if I didn't feel good, if I was sick to my tummy, she’d say, ‘You get out and sing or I’ll wrap you around the bedpost and break you off short!’ So, I’d go out and sing.”
And so Garland began to equate her worth with acting. In the years to come she said, “The only time I felt wanted when I was a kid was when I was on stage, performing.” Things only got worse for the young actress when she got her big break and signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). At the tender age of 13, it constantly ridiculed Garland for her appearance — which was never good enough — and Louis B. Mayer even called her his “little hunchback” because of her stooped posture.