At home in a Judy way of be­ing

Jonathan Keates

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE story of Judy Gar­land is a mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ple of the truth that life im­i­tates art. Things surely would have been dif­fer­ent had she stuck to be­ing Frances Ethel Gumm of Grand Rapids, Min­nesota.

As it was, the tra­jec­tory of her life un­der the stage name she as­sumed at the age of 12 as part of a trav­el­ling vaude­ville act had a blighted glam­our more ap­pro­pri­ate to verismo opera than to the cin­ema screen. Com­plete with an abu­sive fa­ther and drunken mother, five mar­riages, abor­tion and at­tempted sui­cide, the en­tire sce­nario tran­scended the wildest as­pi­ra­tions of melo­drama. The irony of a drug over­dose car­ry­ing off The Wizard of Oz’s cute lit­tle Dorothy, mas­cot of can-do Amer­ica, of­fered a fi­nal ghastly flour­ish to the story.

Death brought Gar­land a more de­pend­able and con­tin­u­ous ac­claim than she had en­joyed as a liv­ing celebrity. Her self-de­struc­tive lone­li­ness had al­ready gained her a large fol­low­ing among ho­mo­sex­u­als, who el­e­vated her posthu­mously to gay icon sta­tus. Other fans, such as Susie Boyt, who was just five months old when Judy died, em­barked on a life­long in­ti­macy with the star, re­ly­ing on her ca­pac­ity to in­spire as muse, pa­tron or al­ter ego, and defin­ing ex­is­tence by their em­pa­thy with her splen­dours and mis­eries.

My Judy Gar­land Life chron­i­cles this kind of bizarre but wholly au­then­tic-seem­ing re­la­tion­ship. Boyt is at pains to es­tab­lish her­self as be­ing em­phat­i­cally un­like Judy in al­most ev­ery way. That her fa­ther is Lu­cian Freud seems to have prompted a re­ac­tive crav­ing for or­di­nar­i­ness. She is fond of wash­ing up, once worked in a shop, tried to please her teach­ers, won de­port­ment badges at school and is ev­i­dently ( without mak­ing too much of a fuss about it) an ex­cel­lent wife and mother.

Be­yond this anti-type, formed from ev­ery­thing that, at first glance, Gar­land was not, lies a less emo­tion­ally re­strained per­sona, ex­trav­a­gantly re­spon­sive to the woman who is both her heroine and in some sense her longde­sired sweet­heart.

The book is es­sen­tially an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy viewed through the prism of Gar­land-wor­ship.

‘‘ Judy makes me feel ex­traor­di­nary things,’’ Boyt de­clares. ‘‘ She al­lows me to view the world in a way that I like, but scarcely dare. She’s not a prob­lem I wish to solve and nor am I.’’

She sets up a sup­posed en­counter with her in a dryclean­ers, along the lines of Henry James’s story, In the Cage , at the same time imag­in­ing a meet­ing in a sana­to­rium be­tween the dam­aged star and drink-sod­den US poet John Ber­ry­man, an episode that Boyt, an ex­pe­ri­enced nov­el­ist, deftly fash­ions into a short story.

She has fun dress­ing up in Judy’s leop­ard­skin hat and muff, and vis­its the grave in Westch­ester, New York, where her friend, Marc, cleans the tomb­stone with vodka in hon­our of the might­i­est lady of our time. Her yearn­ing for Judy be­comes a dress cut on the bias, which sparkles, glossy and se­quinned un­der lights pink and am­ber.

In all its ar­dour and spon­tane­ity, My Judy Gar­land Life is one of this year’s most orig­i­nal books. Mer­ci­fully, we do not need to share Boyt’s ado­ra­tion, or in­deed to give a rap for Judy, liv­ing or dead, to en­joy its in­sights, han­ker­ings and rev­e­la­tions.

As a record of the sort of bor­rowed world few of its read­ers are likely to have en­tered with such wide-eyed in­ten­sity it ap­pears uniquely mem­o­rable.

The Spec­ta­tor

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