Post Mortem December 2005

The Least Worst Man

Sidney Luft (1915-2005)

Sid Luft was the nearest Judy Garland came to the man that didn't get away. By the end the nights were bitter, the star had lost her glitter, but he was hanging in there. The longest-lasting of her five husbands, he played Mister Judy Garland from 1952 to 1965—or half her adult life, if one can call it that. Unlike his predecessor, he was not "musical," in either the artistic or the euphemistic sense; unlike his successor, he was not voraciously gay. A scrappy, gravelly little guy known as One-Punch Luft, he was an all but unique figure: a rare friend of Judy who wasn't a friend of Dorothy. And as a result, folks can't figure out what he saw in her. For a long time the received wisdom was that he was a sleazy opportunist who'd hitched himself to her coattails and then milked her as long as he could. Yet insofar as there was a second act to Garland's career, he was its impresario: A Star Is Born, the great Capitol albums, Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium, the TV specials and weekly variety show that got closer than anything to the real Judy—all these are from the Luft years.

In fact, he was making headlines long before he met his alleged meal ticket: "Boy, 12, Walking Arsenal" reported his hometown paper back in Westchester County. In those days it wasn't the easiest neighborhood for a Jew, which is why young Sid was packing heat at a tender age. At the local rink an older kid whacked him with a hockey stick and barked, "Hey, Jew, get off the ice!" So he took boxing lessons and lifted weights to the point where at age sixteen he could walk up the stairs on the palms of his hands.

That proved less useful in Hollywood, where even the tough guys condescended to him. Once, at a party at Ira Gershwin's, he began an observation with the words "Culturally speaking …" Humphrey Bogart cut in: "What right do you have to say 'culturally speaking'? You weren't really exposed to much culture as a young man, were you?" Warming to this theme, Bogie said, "I lived on Park Avenue, my father was a doctor, my mother was an artist, so if I say 'culturally speaking,' people will take it to be the truth. But you, Sid?"

"That does it," said Sid. "Let's take this outside!"

Bogart put on his glasses. "You wouldn't hit an old man, would you?"

If he never quite fit in in Hollywood, he spent a lifetime not quite fitting in anywhere else, either. Boxer, brawler, boozer, businessman, and good at all but the last of those, Luft had been in California since the thirties, save for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, for which he volunteered after the outbreak of war—that is, well before Pearl Harbor. His timing was rarely that good: a perpetually failing entrepreneur, he got most of his good ideas too soon or too late, and the rest of the time he mooched along on the fringes of glamour. By the end of the forties he'd started and folded a custom car company and been a test pilot, a nondescript talent agent, the producer of a couple of B movies with the elderly child stars Jackie Cooper and Jackie Coogan, and the husband of a Hollywood starlet, Lynn Bari. After seven years the starlet divorced him on grounds of cruelty, because he had a habit of leaving the house at six to buy the evening paper and coming back with it in the wee small hours.

By that point, Judy Garland had gone to Oz and back, been Andy Hardy's sweetheart and Fred Astaire's dance partner, married a top bandleader (David Rose) and a top movie director (Vincente Minnelli). Luft wasn't a top anything. As one gossip columnist put it, "So Sid Luft is what a girl finds over the rainbow?" They were the perfect couple: her career had self-detonated and his never ignited.

As their daughter, Lorna Luft, tells it, they met at Billy Reed's Little Club in New York, where Judy was dining with a friend, Freddie Finklehoffe. Sid never forgot the moment. She was wearing a gold coat, a black dress, and a pillbox hat, and she had him at "Hello." "When you met her, she'd say, 'hello,' and you'd fall down. The voice would kill you. In a sense, you would drop dead every time she talked to you." Which is what her date would have preferred. "Get lost," Finklehoffe told Luft. But Luft didn't, not for fifteen years.

"I love Judy," he said when they married. "I want to protect her from the trauma she once knew. I don't want her to be bewildered or hurt again. I want her to have happiness." And for a while she did. There were two Judy Garlands: The first was the moonfaced little girl who got swept up by that Kansas twister and did the show right here in the barn for as many years as MGM could strap her breasts down and do whatever else was needed to keep the child star a child. That Garland was gone long before 1950, when Metro finally fired her. The second Judy went straight from Andy Hardy's barn to premature middle age, and emerged as the most dynamic stage presence since Al Jolson: a ballad singer whose taste in songs was second only to Sinatra's, a great comedienne, and a rueful raconteuse. That was Luft's gift to the rest of us.

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