Judy Garland's Daughter Discusses Star's Pioneering Embrace of LGBT Audience
In an interview, Lorna Luft also argued the outpouring of grief following the 'Wizard of Oz' star's death was "emotionally connected" to the Stonewall riots one day later.
Under the bright New York City summer sun and among the abundant flowers at the Flatiron rooftop eatery Serra by Bierra, Lorna Luft is nursing an iced tea and talking about the legacy of her famous mother. “She really championed everybody,” she says of Judy Garland in between sips. “She championed the message of decency and hope. I mean, she recorded ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ the song of the century about hope that’s become an anthem for so many people.”
It was exactly 50 years ago this past June 22 when Garland, just 47, died in London and sent a shock wave through global culture. She was a pillar of entertainment since her teenage years as a star of films and musicals (among them, of course, the iconic The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born), and in her later years was regarded as the consummate performer of her generation (she was the first woman to win the album of the year Grammy for Judy at Carnegie Hall, a performance widely regarded as one of the most iconic in show business history). Then, a mere week after Garland’s untimely death, a community she’d been irrevocably linked to experienced their own shock wave.
It was only a mile from where Luft is speaking to Billboard in Manhattan where the Stonewall Uprising occurred on June 28, 1969, serving as a flashpoint in the fight for LGBTQ rights that arguably kicked off the modern movement and changed the face of the community forever. “I’ve seen so much chatter on social media and in news articles talking about Stonewall, and often they dismiss the Judy Garland connection,” says John Fricke, an expert on Garland’s legend and author of multiple books on her (including 2011’s Judy: A Legendary Film Career) as well as the Oz film itself. “What that proves to me is that they know a lot about sociology, but they don’t know a damn thing about Judy Garland’s audiences.”
Luft — who was born in 1952 and whose father was Garland’s second husband, the producer Sidney Luft — was taught the virtues of equality by her world-famous mother. “Don’t forget, she grew up in the studios and they encompassed every single type of person, from black artists to gay people who were closeted and had to be,” Luft explains. “That’s what I was taught from a very young age. I never understood how you can’t understand another person. And if you don’t, listen to what they say, listen to their feelings, and listen to what they have to tell you.” Luft, whose brother is Joey Luft and half-sister is Liza Minnelli, stresses it was an ideal Garland held that didn’t come easily. “The younger audiences don’t understand that 50 years ago, it was illegal to be gay. They don’t get that. They don’t understand that you were arrested for holding hands with someone of the same sex. Or if you were caught in a certain club who catered to the gay community, you were taken to jail in a paddy wagon.”
As for why Garland was so taken with the gay community, and them with her, Fricke says the legend’s LGBTQ stature is an honest facet of both her public and private life. “She was the kind of performer who said, 'This is who I am, this is what I do, and this is what I’m all about,' and those attributes were very appealing to those who couldn’t be open and declare what they’re all about,” he muses. Adds Luft, “At the time, nobody was taking a risk [to speak out about social injustice] because they were terrified. They were owned by studios or record companies and were scared to do anything that was controversial, diverse or political. When my mother went out and campaigned for [John F.] Kennedy in 1960, up until then you didn’t see celebrities do all that.” It’s a concept that extends to Garland’s famous sentiment about her gay audience in 1967, saying, “For so many years I’ve been misquoted and treated rather brutally by the press, I’ll be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated.”
“The arts in general always had a gay nucleus, especially when it comes to hyper enthusiasm,” notes Fricke. “Judy commanded this because of her own indomitability.” He is referring to the consistent narrative of Garland as a tragic figure. Garland did grapple with financial issues, in addition to a much-reported struggle with prescription pills. But Luft and Fricke dispute the idea that the story of Garland’s life and legacy is a sad one. “Until the day she died, she was the epitome of the idea of ‘never say die,'" says Fricke. “That gets lost in the idea that Judy’s fans loved to suffer with her. No. I saw three concerts as a teenager and I have never been in any theater anywhere where there was so much joy.”
With a connection to her gay audience in place, perhaps it was a cosmic twist of fate that Garland would die the week of Stonewall, forever linking the fans to their idol. While how much of an impact her passing had on the uprising at the Christopher Street bar is up for contention. Fricke, a lifelong Judy fan, still remembers, at 19, driving back to his home in Milwaukee from a Wizard of Oz convention that late June day: “We put on the radio, and we heard, ‘And here’s the news: Judy Garland…,' but he didn’t have to go on. When you’re at the top of the news, something happened bigger than a comeback or collapse.” The media instantly picked up the story, with the public clamoring for every detail about the legend’s death. “She died on Sunday the 22nd, the papers were full of it on the 23rd, on the 24th there was news about the autopsy, and by the 25th they had the autopsy, then there was the wake,” recalls Fricke.
The wake itself, that June 26, became the stuff of legend, with at least 15,000 people paying Garland homage after her body was flown from England to New York’s Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, which stayed open all night to accommodate the overflow of mourners. The funeral was June 27. It was only one day later that the Stonewall Riots would kick off. “When I talk to people who were there at Stonewall, they more or less expressed the fact that everybody was aware of her death that night,” says Fricke. “Though, some make a point of saying, ‘We weren't out there marching for Judy that night, but there was certainly that sense of loss.'”
Luft, who was in a period of deep grief upon the death of her mother, didn’t personally learn about Stonewall until some time later. Since then, she’s heard first-hand that at least some of the rioters credit Garland’s death as a spark. “I think it has gone into myth about my mother’s death and Stonewall, but what’s true and honest is that it was emotionally connected,” she says. “As far as what I’ve been told by people who were there. It had been building up and building up, and finally on that night, when [the police] went into bust the bar, they actually stood up and said 'no more.' She would have loved that.”
In the half-century since Garland’s death, Luft has helped carry on her mother’s legacy. In honor of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, Luft last year released a book detailing the story behind Garland’s 1954 original dubbed A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away. When it comes to the new version, Luft has nothing but praise. “They paid homage to in the movie and I thanked them for that,” says Luft, who said Gaga told her she loved Garland, with Luft even tagging along with Cooper and Gaga to both Oscar parties and the film’s premiere. “They even honored her at the premiere, with Gaga was sitting in the same seat that Judy sat at. Bradley Cooper couldn’t have been more gracious about my mother." As for the upcoming Garland film dubbed Judy starring Renée Zellweger, Luft has less praise. “They never came to me or any of us for any of our input,” she says. “So I don’t know anything about it.”
Aside from a busy schedule onstage (she is slated to perform selections from the Great American Songbook, including her mother’s classic tracks, at New York’s Feinstein’s/54 Below in August), Luft is also carrying the torch of the fight for equality in honor of Garland. Not only is she going to be on the official Stonewall Float during New York’s Pride parade, she’s also on the board of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, which sends gay men and women to rural parts of America to help those who struggle with coming out. “Yes, we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. People are not acting the way my mother wanted people to act 50 years ago, which is 'just be decent to one another.' I think that I carry that message for not only myself but my children and grandchildren.”
As for Fricke, despite Garland passing a half-century ago, his calendar is jam-packed with speaking engagements regarding both the icon and Oz. “What does Judy mean to me? I wish you could see me smiling right now,” he says. “She was an encouraging rallying kind of force. No matter what they do or say about you or claim about you, you get up and get out there again and keep giving the best you’ve got to give.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes through Garland’s legacy, both as an icon in American culture and to LGBTQ fans. “My mother couldn’t bear bigotry and hatred and anything that was not fair,” says Luft. “I’ve always been incredibly grateful to the LGBTQ community for taking her legacy and keeping it alive and not letting it fade out or go into myth. They have kept it in the forefront, and I think it’s fantastic. I am incredibly grateful.”
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.