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.

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."

The sweet talk didn't last. Every star is fleeced by hangers-on to one degree or another. If you're a celebrity prone to erratic behavior and no-shows and "health problems," it's worse, because at any one time you've got half a dozen contractual disputes and suits and countersuits or something going on. The Lufts had money problems from day one and always needed the next deal to pay off the mess hanging over from the last deal. For the first half of their marriage Sid was Judy's business manager, and thus got the blame. For the second half he handed it off to others and then found himself on the outside as everyone else bled her dry. The best at it was David Begelman, a peerless Hollywood embezzler who eventually blew his brains out.

Meanwhile, between bust-ups and reconciliations, Judy was finding consolation elsewhere. She'd go round to Sinatra's pad and hector Frank into having sex with her. He would plan a quiet night sitting in his orange mohair sweater reading Bennett Cerf, only to look down and find Judy trying to pull his pants off. One night her TV producer, Bill Colleran, was at her place watching the show when he noticed her hand on his crotch. "I can't," he protested quaintly. "I'm married." Judy flounced across the room and sighed, "Nobody wants to fuck the legend."

Sid Luft did. But as the "reconciliations" grew shorter and the gaps between longer, he became a Hollywood synonym for "loser." Bob Hope worked him into an Oscar act, as merely the latest variation on Hope's standard emcee's gag ("Welcome to the Academy Awards—or, as it's known at my house, Passover"). On Oscar night in 1962 Hope closed the show with "There'll be a victory celebration at the International Ballroom at the Hilton Hotel. I'll be there at a special table with Sid Luft and Eddie Fisher."

Back in 1943, when he was a test pilot for Douglas, Luft took one of the first A-20s on a ferry flight to Daggett, California. On his final approach a fuelline fitting broke. He got the plane down but, with the left engine on fire, had to crawl out through the flames. He got most of the way before realizing he was caught in the leg straps of his harness. Hanging out the cockpit upside down, he had to crawl back inside the burning plane to free his feet from the straps. In the final years of his marriage to Garland he must have occasionally felt he was reliving that moment on an endless loop: he'd try to exit but would snag on something and have to crawl back in to get burned all over again.

In the end the security guards threw him out of the house. Judy took the kids to London and married a guy named Mark Herron. He recommended a young pianist named Peter Allen to Judy, and Judy in turn pressed Allen on her daughter Liza. Herron carried on a sexual relationship with Allen during their respective marriages to Judy and Liza. One is all for being broad-minded and sophisticated about these things, and Peter Allen was certainly a fetching young Aussie hunk back in those days; but measured only by careless damage to others, Sid Luft can stake a plausible claim to being the least worst man in Judy Garland's life.

He remained in Hollywood, and though no ship ever quite came in, he stayed afloat. A couple of years ago one of my colleagues at the Telegraph in London, Michael Shelden, asked him how he did it. "Well," said Sid, "I made money on horses and—oh, yeah—I once helped a guy try to sell Indonesia an air force."

Easier than managing Judy, I'd bet.

He proved the canniest steward of her legacy. The TV specials and weekly shows are out on DVD, and A Star Is Born has been lavishly restored with the half hour Jack Warner cut out, and watching them you can almost forget the camp grotesquerie that the Garland story has dwindled down to in the hands of Liza and David Gest. Like daughter, like mother; Judy is alleged to have assaulted Sid, but he didn't sue over it. And so history repeats itself. If Judy's decline was a tragedy, Liza's is a farce. Which, when you think about it, is even sadder.

Like many men about town in swingin' London, Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver!, was reported on his death to have been "romantically linked to Judy Garland," a lovely formulation that tells you exactly where his real interests lay. But Sid Luft really was romantically linked to Judy, and never quite severed his affections. "She was only five foot tall—just a shrimp of a girl, really—but she had a very sensuous body and, up close, her skin was like porcelain, pure white. I was crazy about her. She had incredibly kissable lips … You don't fall out of love with somebody like her."