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.
He got her back into movies, too, producing her comeback picture, A Star Is Born, the story of a rising young star and a fading self-destructive one, with an actress who'd been both all but simultaneously. At the end, with her husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), having taken his one-way walk into the sea, a teary Vicki Lester (Garland) takes the microphone and announces, "Hello, everybody … This is … Mrs. Norman Maine." She got an Oscar nomination for the role, and if she'd won, she'd have been more than happy to start her acceptance speech with "This is Mrs. Sidney Luft." But she was pregnant with her son, Joey, and on Oscar night she was in the maternity ward with a camera crew parked outside. They weren't needed; and as Grace Kelly went up to accept her award for The Country Girl, Luft looked at the TV technicians dismantling their equipment and told his wife, "Baby, fuck the Academy Awards, you've got yours in the incubator."