Being Judy’s daughter
Actress-singer Lorna Luft has spent a lifetime coping with being the daughter of Hollywood diva Judy Garland. Performing her mother’s best-known songs has helped, she tells Paul Lester
OU MAY not have heard of Lorna Luft’s father, Sidney Luft, a Jewish former amateur boxer and small-time movie hustler, but you might have heard of her mother, an American singer-actress of Irish and Scottish parentage who just happened to be one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century, the Hollywood star Judy Garland.
As tortured as she was talented, Garland died almost 40 years ago from an accidental drug overdose. It was not an easy life. And it has not been easy for her youngest daughter Lorna, a singer and actress, to live with the burden of memory and myth that come with being the child of a legend (not to mention having Frank Sinatra as your godfather).
“Lisa Marie Presley, Natalie Cole, my best friend Luci Arnaz [daughter of comedienne Lucille Ball], even Princes William and Harry, all of us have a legend as a mother or father and are reminded every day that they’re not here any more,” says Luft.
She sounds every inch a tough-talking Jewish-American woman, even though her father, she says, “despised organised religion”.
“We’re all card-carrying members of a great club. But it’s hard. The good news is that all of us in the club have movies and TV and news footage that are comforting to us. But then there’s the downside — newspapers bringing up negative stories or people who never knew them writing books, disgruntled ex-employees… But we’ve been passed a torch. I have a responsibility to keep the memory of my mother alive.”
On Luft’s new album, Songs My Mother Taught Me, co-produced by husband Colin Freeman and former lover Barry Manilow, she pays vocal tribute to many Garland classics, from Hello Bluebird to Over The Rainbow, the latter recently having topped the Recording Industry Association of America’s Songs of the Century list. “It’s also [ X Factor judge] Simon Cowell’s favourite song of all time,” adds Luft, proudly.
It has taken a long time for her to be able to make the album. “I was too scared of it,” she admits, “too uncomfortable with my legacy. It’s been a painful process. I could only have made this record now. Then” — she refers to the aftermath of her mother’s death and the giant shadow it cast over the ensuing decades — “it would have been too difficult. It’s devastating to lose a parent at any age. It never gets better, it gets different. When they’re so famous, you’re constantly reminded that they’re not here. What age did I escape the shadow? I never did, and I don’t want to. The shadow’s always going to be with me.
“Making this album has helped,” she adds. “It’s a celebration. Who else should have done it? Everybody’s done Judy Garland songs. But if anybody has the right to do it, I do.”
Luft’s problems with drugs and her excessive lifestyle, though less well documented than her mother’s, are a matter of record, although whether or not her waywardness in the ’70s and ’80s was a result of the Garland effect remains unclear. But did turning 50 (she is 55 this month) make things easier for her,
Ymake her more accepting of her past? “Yeah, well, turning 50 didn’t freak me out,” she says. “Turning 30 did, because I felt like I couldn’t screw up any more. Being 50 is great, you come into your own and you reach your comfort zone. This is who I am. I’m reconciled with my past and The Legacy and I’m able to enjoy it.
“But I did a lot of crazy things in my twenties. I spent my time at Studio 54 [ the notorious New York club]. There were lots of drugs and alcohol — it was the ’70s! It was pre-Aids — we all spun out of control. It was madness. Do I regret it? No. I had a blast. But eventually I got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and I’ve been sober for 23 years. I stopped when it stopped being fun.”
It helped that, in the early ’80s, she started a family. Her children, Jesse (born in 1984) and Vanessa (born in September 1990), from her first marriage to Jewish musician and artist manager Jake Hooker, are Garland’s only grandchildren.
Jesse discovered that his grandmother had overdosed on drugs while playing a game of Trivial Pursuit — it was the answer to one of the questions. He was naturally extremely shocked. Since then, Luft has been determined to be honest about the pitfalls of fame and the temptations of the modern world.
“My kids know that I know absolutely everything,” she says. “The other day, I was in the car with Vanessa and I said something about crystal meth, and she said: ‘You know about that?’ I said: ‘Not only do I know about it, but I probably did it myself.’
“But, I also say to them: ‘Just because I did it, that doesn’t make it right.’ Because I know what the effects of drugs and alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates, are on the nervous system and brain cells,” she adds. Luft uses this knowledge as a key speaker for the American-based abuse-prevention body, the Council on Alcohol & Drugs.
Having forensically investigated her mother’s life and death for her 1998 autobiography, Me And My Shadows: A Family Memoir, she is also under no illusions about Garland’s tragic life.
“She was taken advantage of,” she says, “and that’s sad and overwhelming when you’ve got nobody on your side. Her mother [Luft’s grandmother, Ethel Marion Milne] was a nightmare — she liked the big houses and the lifestyle, and she wasn’t going to say: ‘Don’t do this.’ But she [Garland] became a product. They gave her amphetamines at 14, to cut her appetite and make her work harder. By the time she was 37, she’d made 39 movies, done 500 radio shows and 1,200 concerts. Has it changed? No: look at Britney Spears, look at Lindsey Lohan. All these girls spinning out of control. Where are their parents?”
Her mother’s life was a torrid psychodrama that should make Spears and Lohan stop and think. She was also, says Luft, “the original American Idol”.
But what would Simon Cowell have made of her on the show, had she turned up for an audition? “Well, I think she would have gotten a record deal,” she says with wry understatement. “She was a genius.” Songs My Mother Taught Me is out now on First Night Records. Lorna Luft will be touring in the UK from January
Lorna Luft ( top) can smile now after coming to terms with being the daughter of a Hollywood legend. Above: Luft ( right) aged 12 in 1964 with her mother Judy Garland, brother Joseph, and half-sister Liza Minnelli