If 1969 was the year that forever changed American culture, then 2019 has been the year we escaped our existential dread by looking back to that nascent era. We’ve reflected on the 50th anniversaries of Woodstock, the moon landing and the Stonewall uprising. Intertwined with all these moments was a less commemorated but still significant shift in our cultural landscape: the tragic death of Frances Ethel Gumm, known to the world as Judy Garland, whose life was cut short by a drug overdose on June 22, 1969, at the age of 47.
Although her death symbolized the cold curtain call for the glamorous golden age of Hollywood, her legacy as a legend of the screen and a gay icon has endured. This fall’s feature film Judy starring Renée Zellweger dives into Garland’s final run of concerts in London in early 1969, just months before her death. A new documentary, Sid & Judy, examines her rocky relationship with her third husband, Sid Luft. And a pair of her famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz is carefully preserved at the Smithsonian. But back in her birthplace of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, many more artifacts are housed at the community-run Judy Garland Museum, whose biggest claim to fame is the overnight theft of a pair of ruby slippers back in 2005. (With the dramatic flair of one of Garland’s campiest film roles, the shoes were recovered by the FBI in a sting operation in 2018.)
Her late-career struggles and her death are well documented, but what about the rest of her life? The timing couldn’t be more perfect to reconsider Garland’s early days, so I ventured back to where it all began. Back before she took up her stage name. Back before she faced the pressures of fame. And back before her never-ending tango with, as biographer John Fricke puts it, “husbands and hospitals, prescriptions and problems.”
Considered alongside the strip malls and fast-food restaurants that populate Grand Rapids, Garland’s childhood home — a picturesque two-story white clapboard house — looks like someone picked it up and dropped it there, because someone did just that. But no tornadoes were involved. Instead, the structure was carefully raised onto a flatbed truck and moved down the street to a quieter location where it could better be preserved.
Next to the house is a small museum, and inside that museum a few dozen fans from across the country have gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of Garland’s passing and her remarkable life. Many of the attendees have converged upon this same spot every year since 1995, when the museum opened, and the annual festival has the feel of a tight-knit family reunion. As the hardcore among them face off in rounds of trivia, I pay the 10 bucks for a tour, eager to connect the actress I know from her famous films with the child who emerged from this place.
Oddly enough, the tour begins with Garland’s death. The artifacts and placards are loosely arranged in reverse chronological order, so right away I’m confronted with her saddest truth: her drug use, fueled by ceaseless expectations from her Hollywood studio and aided by the medical industry’s poor understanding of barbiturates in the thirties and forties.
The only place to go from there is up, through artifacts from her numerous films, like a blue gingham dress and the horse-drawn carriage from The Wizard of Oz as well as a leather-bound script from A Star Is Born. A photograph shows her charming Clark Gable with a performance at his birthday party in 1936, when she was just a teen.
As the exhibit winds its way out of the museum and into her childhood home, the photos of Judy are replaced with photos of young Frances then with photos of Baby, the toddler who loved to sing and dance. Floorboards creak underfoot as I pad gingerly over to the staircase landing leading up from the living room, the site of her first rehearsals with her older sisters for their vaudeville show.
It’s hard not to feel a chill while reading a quote from Garland about the time she spent here: “I do remember it was terribly happy — and possibly the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life.” But could a child who started performing publicly at the tender age of 2 truly remember a carefree time back before it all began?
That’s the question I pose to biographer John Fricke, who is commanding the attention of a group of festival attendees, most of whom he knows by name. He’s breathless as he recounts the staggering breadth of work Garland created throughout her career, which spanned nearly 45 of her 47 years on this planet. More than 30 feature films. Nearly 100 singles and a dozen full-length albums. And literally thousands of live performances, including her first at age 2, when she eagerly sang “Jingle Bells” six times in a row at her father’s theater right here in Grand Rapids.
“Did she remember it?” he responds to my query. “Absolutely. She could look at a script once and know it. She could hear a song once and sing it back to you, note perfect. Her mind registered things, and she retained them.”
Entranced by her early memories of her birthplace, Garland would return to Grand Rapids when she was 15. She was already a star at that point, having signed to MGM two years prior, and was on the cusp of becoming a global icon with her role as Dorothy Gale. While on a whirlwind promotional tour in March 1938, she convinced the studio to route her through Minnesota so she could visit her hometown.
“She wanted to see her hometown, house and school,” Fricke explains. “There was a party in her honor. One of the kids felt badly for her because they had some wonderful dessert that Judy wasn’t allowed to eat. But everyone grudgingly said how friendly, unspoiled and down-to-earth she was. They would have been happy if she was elitist so they could have complained about it. But she was such a people pleaser and such a giving human being.”
Although her time in Grand Rapids was such a small slice of her life, Fricke asserts that the influence of growing up in a small Minnesota town is evident throughout her body of work. “That friendly, neighborly, everybody-talked-to-everybody atmosphere that was the foundation of small-town life was the foundation of her persona: outgoing, friendly, but also very shy,” he explains. “I don’t think there’s any question that that sensibility pervaded all those ‘girls next door’ she played in movies.”
After visiting the museum, I can’t help but wonder if, like Garland’s own happiness, her legacy all hinges on this white clapboard house on this little plot of land in Grand Rapids. The Smithsonian may have the best protocol for preserving her ruby slippers for future generations, but what about all the rest of it? To get to the core of someone’s life requires more than archivists, white gloves and climate-controlled vaults. Maybe the real answers lie between the creaking floorboards of that house, on the staircase landing where fans have worn away the finish trying to dance in the same spot as Baby Gumm.
A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to raise money to repair the home’s rotting window frames and its peeling siding, but there is still magic inside. Time stands still in the Gumms’ old living room, as if trying to stop Baby from running down the hallway toward all that lie ahead. And upstairs, a tattered teddy bear in overalls sits perched in a crib, awaiting her return. Perhaps Garland herself captured it best: “For such a mixed-up life later,” she said in 1960, reflecting on her Grand Rapids beginnings, “it started out beautifully.”