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The Queen Is Dead

Illustration by Daniel Brown

Once a gay icon, Judy Garland has become an embarrassment

by Michael Joseph Gross

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

ONE bright day last summer on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Afrodite, a bald black drag queen with a silver stud in one nostril and big, muscular hairless legs, strode toward me, her eyes locked on the dust jacket of the book I was carrying: Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend (1992), by David Shipman. "Judy Garland?" She sniffed imperiously. "You big queen."

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Homosexuality and Biology," by Chandler Burr (March, 1993)
An introduction to a muddled and sometimes contentious world of scientific research -- one whose findings, now as tentative as they are suggestive, may someday shed light on the sexual orientation of everyone.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Fallen Beauty" (November 10, 1999)
The poet Mark Doty discusses his new memoir, Firebird, and his coming of age into queerness and art.

Politics & Prose: "The Last Refuge of the American Bigot," by Jack Beatty (October 21, 1998)
As the media searches for the roots of anti-gay violence, it should scrutinize its own coverage.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Judy Garland: The Live Performances
A fan Web site devoted to Judy Garland's life and work during her "concert years." Includes a timeline of events in Garland's life, photographs, information about upcoming Garland events and Garland-related television programming.

The Judy Garland Showcase
A fan site, with archives of articles and photographs, a biography, and a filmography.

The Judy List
"Spreading JUDYism on the net since 1996." Regular updates on the latest Judy Garland news, and an e-mail discussion group.

CBC Infoculture Interview: Gay Community's Love Affair with Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz
A CBC online interview with two Canadian media professionals exploring the importance of the connection between Garland and the gay community.

Judy on the Web: An Online Guide to All Things Judy
This fan site features multimedia (including sound clips and screensavers) as well as links to other Judy Garland sites and fan clubs.

The Judy Garland Database
An extensive site dedicated to Judy Garland's career, including information for fans as well as several photographs and a collection of her unpublished poetry.

The Judy Garland Museum
The Web site of the Garland Museum, located in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Offers information both about the museum and about Garland's life, including childhood photos, an online giftshop, a virtual tour of the museum, and more.

The Judy Room
Information about Judy Garland and her life, and photos of an impressive collection of Garland memorabilia (literally filling an entire room).

The Ruby Slippers Fan Club
Photos of ruby slippers, information on how to purchase or make one's own, "ruby slipper games," a Judy Garland slide show, and more.

Judy Garland's Songs
A collection of Judy Garland's songs which can be heard with RealPlayer.

"Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad," by Jerry Lisker (July 6, 1969)
An article that appeared in The New York Post a week after the Stonewall Inn riots. Posted by the GLB News.

No one had ever called me a big queen before, and to my surprise, I kind of liked it. Such sissifying slaps carry historical punch for a gay man today. They mark him with the effeminacy that in previous generations was integral to the popular image of gay men -- witty, frowsy, fussy old queens who memorized every minute of All About Eve and poured their hearts into antiques and opera and, perhaps most damnably of all, Judy Garland.

Blatant effeminacy last seems to have been widely acceptable in (white, urban, middle-class) gay culture in the late 1960s, a time memorialized in Mart Crowley's 1968 play The Boys in the Band, which depicted the quip-lashed anguish and emotionally destructive conditions of life in the closet with unprecedented candor. Judy Garland's status as a mascot for that generation of gay men is signaled early on in the dialogue of Crowley's play ("What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?" "A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation"), and the play's title is lifted from the dialogue of Garland's 1954 film A Star Is Born.

Some observers of gay life in the sixties go so far as to argue that Garland's death sparked the modern gay-rights movement; the Stonewall riots occurred in Manhattan's West Village just hours after her funeral, in New York in June of 1969. It's a provocative coincidence, but most scholars deny any causal relationship between the events. (Garland did have a loyal following among patrons of the Stonewall Inn. As Charles Kaiser explains in The Gay Metropolis [1997], the bar had no liquor license; it passed itself off as a bottle club, requiring all its so-called members to sign in at the door. Many used pseudonyms, of which "Judy Garland" was among the most popular.)

After Stonewall, gay stereotypes got butch: out went the queens and in came the clones -- hypermasculine, moustachioed men whose big muscles, Levis, and work boots became premium symbols of gay identity. In the 1980s and early 1990s the AIDS epidemic again made vulnerability and other traditionally feminine traits more acceptable in gay culture; but when the crisis abated, the testosterone flowed again. Perhaps the most theatrical demonstration of this resurgent masculinity is the ascendance of circuit parties -- bacchic all-night revels rippling wall-to-wall with world-class physiques.

Coming out in the past ten to fifteen years has been considerably eased by the mainstream culture's speedy incorporation of gay life (Will and Grace, Andrew Sullivan, Vermont). As a result, gay men in this generation are mostly indifferent to the faux tragedy and flamboyant exoticism of camp, and to old-time gay icons like Judy Garland. We have fetishized a flamboyant normalcy, exemplified by the frat-boy chic of Bruce Weber's slyly homoerotic ad campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch. Young gay men today just want to be regular guys -- with better-than-average bodies.

It's easy to see why gay men might want to forget queeny stereotypes, particularly the stereotype of the Judy queen. In the late 1960s, when the mainstream media rarely acknowledged the existence of homosexuality, articles about Judy Garland sometimes functioned as vehicles for the aggressive derision of gay men. Time, in its August 18, 1967, review of Garland's final engagement at New York's Palace Theatre, observed, "A disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings ['Over the Rainbow']." In the same article Time quoted psychiatrists' interpretations of the gay-Garland connection. One offered that "Judy was beaten up by life, embattled and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her."

William Goldman described the final night of that Palace run in Esquire. He had seen "a young boy, maybe twenty-one, maybe less ... staring up at her and wringing his hands. He cannot and will not stop with his hands, even though his constant wringing pressure has forced the skin to burst. He holds a handkerchief as he continues to stare up at her and wring his hands and bleed." Goldman also gave readers some yuks by eavesdropping on straight men in the audience that night: "Tonight," says one married man to another, "no one goes to the men's room."

Perhaps the darkest dig at the gay-Garland connection came from Mel Torme, in The Other Side of the Rainbow, his 1970 memoir about working on The Judy Garland Show for CBS. Torme, who observed that it was "a rule, not an exception," that studio audiences for the show were "heavily populated" with "Odd Fellows," also repeated the remark of an unidentified "someone" who exclaimed, "Judy? Yeah, she's the Queen of the Fags!"

This is ugly stuff, and yet most gay writers have been equally harsh in their treatment of the subject. Gay love for Judy Garland is most often explained by slinging around stereotypes about the masochism of diva worship -- an approach exemplified by Daniel Harris in The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (1997). Harris argues that gay men's worship of divas, of which Garland is his primary example, is a pathology issuing from "the almost universal homosexual experience of ostracism and insecurity," which ultimately leads to "the aestheticism of maladjustment, the gay man's exploitation of cinematic visions of Hollywood grandeur to elevate himself above his antagonistic surroundings." Harris continues,

The answer to the proverbial question "why did gay men like Judy Garland so much?" is that they liked, not her, so much as her audience, the hordes of other gay men who gathered in her name to hear her poignant renditions of old torch songs that reduced sniffling queens to floods of self-pitying tears.

The specter of these "sniffling queens" wallowing in the campy show of Garland's melodramatic, drug-dazed last years has relegated her to a marginal place in gay culture today. Most surviving tributes are either kitschy (she occasionally pops up on greeting cards and T-shirts, and ad campaigns for gay travel agencies sometimes recycle the ruby-slippers motif in their promotional materials) or coarse ("Judy Garland Park," officially named Schuylkill Park, is a well-known outdoor cruising area in Philadelphia; a "Judy Garland Memorial Forest" of similar repute stands on Fire Island).

Strained Evasions

GARLAND'S popularity in the culture at large is perpetually nourished by a stream of high-end products that preserve or pay homage to her work: more than half the episodes of Garland's television variety show were recently issued on DVD. An uncut recording of the famous Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1961, including stage patter and applause never previously released, was issued this spring. A new biography, Gerald Clarke's Get Happy, was published this past March. A television movie based on Me and My Shadows, Lorna Luft's 1998 memoir of growing up as Garland's daughter, will be broadcast by ABC next season, with Judy Davis starring as Garland. And Garland's third and fourth husbands, Sid Luft and Mark Herron, are rumored to be at work on their own books about her.

Such events give succor to the few who brave on as Judy queens today. Yet even those who admit to admiring Garland temper their enthusiasm. The film director John Waters recently told me that he thinks the gay-Garland connection is "an embarrassing topic." (To put Waters's embarrassment in perspective: he makes movies whose characters have included a sphincter that sings.) "I mean, I do love her," he said, "but if a reporter were coming to my home, I wouldn't have Judy Garland playing. They'd think maybe upstairs I had a room devoted to her." Waters also said, "A gay man loving Judy could almost be like a black person watching a minstrel show" -- a joke that suggests the degree of hostility, anger, and fear with which many gay men view this stereotype.

Presumably, hard-core gay Garland fans -- including men who make a living as experts on her career -- would be best qualified to talk about the connection between their love for her and their love for men. But they avoid the topic. "Judy sang for humanity," one asserts. Another says, "I've talked to gay men who are crazy about Judy, but I've also talked to a lot who are not." A third writes, "I feel the main reason that gay men love Judy Garland is for the same reason that straight men love her (indeed, why ANY human being would love her), because she is simply the most talented artist the world has ever known, and possibly ever will know." Given the ridicule that Judy queens have suffered over the years, a certain amount of defensiveness is to be expected. Yet the combined force of all these strained evasions renders one question about gay men who love Garland more compelling than the rest: Why are they afraid?

Lonelier and Tougher

GARLAND embodied many of the paradoxical emotional states that gay men commonly experience while coming out: vulnerability and strength, sincerity and duplicity, self-consciousness and abandon, adolescence and maturity. The role of Dorothy alone could have secured her place in gay mythology -- the lonely, misunderstood small-town kid who has a great adventure in a wild new world where fabulous friends appear to help her on her way, and where no sorrow can overwhelm her. For many gay men, Garland was also a mother figure. The playwright Charles Busch recalls his boyhood, saying, "I remember watching her with her children on television -- she was presented as a kind of Auntie Mame at that point -- and I remember thinking, wouldn't it be great to have a mom like that. She was so affectionate and fun, and she sang." Most crucially, and most simply, Garland recognized our existence. Gay men knew that she knew they loved her. In her last movie, I Could Go On Singing (1963), she even gave homosexuals in the audience a wink. "I've already drunk enough coffee to float Fire Island," she says in a throwaway line near the end of the film. To gay men in that closeted time the flicker of recognition must have seemed like a bolt of lightning.

Excavating the gay-Garland connection should begin, however, with considering how Garland stands out from other movie divas who have been glorified in gay culture. Mae West, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford were self-sufficient and strong, on and off the screen; they moved with easy invincibility both inside and outside the bedroom. Although Garland is often counted among these women, she does not quite fit. Their strength was thoroughly self-assertive; hers was self-effacing. Beginning as the supportive, long-suffering, asexual foil for Mickey Rooney's adolescent adventures, she grew into a concert performer whose every appearance cried out, as the film director Stanley Kramer observed, "Here is my heart, break it."

To be sure, the woman did not know when to stop. Garland's concert performances were so intimate and unguarded that listeners believed she was singing for them individually. Jerry Lewis is quoted in Judy Garland (1974), by Anne Edwards, as having said, "People of all kinds, with worries and problems and heartaches, go to see her; and they identify with her.... The stout women in the audience identify with her, and the people who remember their own unhappy childhoods identify with her. All the people whose insides have been torn out by misery identify with her, and she is singing for all of them. In a way, she's singing with a hundred voices."

The most famous of Garland's signature songs either expose her loneliness and vulnerability ("The Man That Got Away," "Over the Rainbow") or trumpet a delirious confidence in love ("The Trolley Song," "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"). Yet even the love songs are fraught with Garland's sexless self-effacement: they describe a feverish experience of loving in which reciprocity is almost beside the point. (Compare this with the chutzpah of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, singers who have been crowned Garland's heirs; they carry themselves as if the whole world were created to provide wind beneath their wings.)

The high points of Garland's concerts coupled a song of the first kind with one of the second, for a one-two punch that felt listeners' pain and then carried them beyond it. For example, imagine yourself a gay man at her 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, your heart breaking as she sings "The Man That Got Away," whose lament for unrequited love perfectly describes your fear of growing old alone, because your relationships are so often short-lived, because you cannot live your love in public: "The road gets rougher / It's lonelier and tougher / With hope you burn up / Tomorrow he might turn up." Then, your eyes still stinging with tears, you watch her tiny frame fill with preternatural confidence. She reaches out to pick you up and set you down in the promised land, a place where you will never be lonely again. "San Francisco" begins in a mood so light and silly that the audience breaks into laughter at the very first phrase. Garland vamps through the first chorus, and then her pace slows, her intonation broadens, and you fly: "Saaaan Fraaan-cisco / When I arrive, I really come alive / And you will laugh to see me / Perpendicular, hangin' on a cable car."

You might think she knows your heart. You might even think she loves you.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


Michael Joseph Gross lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is writing a book about celebrity and the politics of identity.

Illustrations by Daniel Brown.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Queen Is Dead - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 62-70.