MEDIA 2008



Judy Garland’s ‘other daughter’ Lorna Luft celebrates her mother’s legacy with a new album and tribute show. She spoke with Katrina Fox.

“I have spent much of my adult life flinching with pain as I tried to pull out the threads that bound the shadows of my past to me.”

So wrote Lorna Luft in her 1998 memoir, Me and My Shadows, a touching yet revealing portrayal of the later years of the phenomenon that was Judy Garland. In the book, Luft provides a glimpse into her childhood with a famous, affectionate mother who loved her children dearly but whose mental and physical health was seriously compromised by years of prescription drug abuse, which began when she starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the age of 17.

Luft – Judy’s second-born from her third marriage to producer Sid Luft – describes a happy early childhood that later becomes filled with “high drama” – from a penniless Judy threatening to jump out the window of a hotel if the manager didn’t let the family stay there for free, to her accidental overdoses and attention-seeking suicide attempts. Even though she was still only a young teenager, Luft took on the responsibility of looking after Judy in the final years of her life; her mind and body by now had been ravaged by almost 30 years of ingesting doses of amphetamines and barbiturates way beyond the recommended daily limit.

She’s the first to admit it’s not easy being the child of a legend. And when you’re constantly introduced as Judy’s ‘other daughter’ or ‘Liza [Minnelli]’s sister’, it can be frustrating.

“It’s very, very difficult because something is going to walk into the room before you do, something is going to leave before you do, and guess what? You didn’t ask for this, so it’s something you have to learn how to handle yourself. Some of us run away from it, some of us don’t embrace it and some of us turn round and make friends with it on our own time,”

Luft tells SX from London on the eve of her trip to Sydney to promote her new album, Songs My Mother Taught Me (produced by her husband Colin Freeman and Barry Manilow), and perform some of them in a one-off concert.“

I’ve made friends with the ghost; I’ve embraced it,” she says when asked how she feels about the shadows of her past nowadays. “I’ve been grateful and I’m very at peace with my legacy.”

Luft, 56, has enjoyed a successful career in show business. She’s starred on Broadway, in national and international tours of musicals including Guys and Dolls, appeared on TV shows The Judy Garland Show, The Nanny and Murder She Wrote, and played the part of Pink Lady ‘Paulette Rebchuck’ in the camp classic film Grease 2. And like her mother and sister, she enjoys a loyal following from the gay community, perhaps as much for her unequivocal support of equal rights, including same-sex marriage, as for her talent.

“At the end of the day we’re human beings and if we don’t treat each other with respect and dignity and the same way we want to be treated, then we haven’t done anything and we haven’t learned anything and we’re regressing backwards and becoming just an ignorant and frightened and scared community and I refuse to live like that; I refuse to have people treated like that,” she says.

It’s not all just words either – Luft has been involved in US-based queer rights organisation Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for a long time and will take part in this year’s Mardi Gras Parade as a goodwill ambassador for the group.

But don’t ask her why her mother is such a huge gay icon, or about the people – many of whom were gay men – who surrounded Judy in her last years, whom Luft calls the ‘The Garland Freaks’.

“Some people like to prey upon people who are not healthy enough to say ‘I don’t want to be around you’,” she asserts. “They like to be around celebrities because it makes them feel like celebrities. But there are people out there who really regard my mother as their own and it’s very weird for me because they start telling me about her and what she was like and I think, ‘Where were you? Were you there? Did I miss you in a corner?’ I’ve been asked this question for many, many years about what the connection is between my mother and the gay community and there’s no answer because everyone has their own answer.”

And what of the oft-reported rift with her sister? “You know, so many people are interested in our relationship and to be honest it baffles both of us because it’s like, we’re sisters – we’re going to have good days, we’re going to have bad days, we’re going to have a normal relationship,” she says. “We’ve decided to keep that part of our lives really, really quiet and not talk about it.” When asked if the sisters might ever tour together, she replies, “It could happen, yes.”

In the meantime, Judy’s ‘other daughter’ is doing quite nicely on her own.

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14 FEBRUARY 2008

One of the world's most famous and celebrated entertainers, Judy Garland, died almost 40 years ago of an accidental drug overdose. She was 47. For her daughter, the singer and actor Lorna Luft, fantasy and fact have collided ever since in publications dissecting the Hollywood legend.

No sooner was Garland found dead in the bathroom of her rented house in Chelsea, London, in 1969 than torrid accounts of her life came off the conveyor belt. Biographies hastily appeared, many written by authors claiming inside knowledge or purporting to be close family friends.

Luft, who fastidiously investigated her mother's life and death in her 1998 autobiography Me And My Shadows: A Family Memoir, wasn't the least bit interested in hagiography or censorship. "When I wrote Me And My Shadows, people asked me if it was cathartic but no it wasn't," Luft says. "There was a finality about it because I was able to say, 'Read this, I have answered all the questions [that] I've ever been asked about Judy Garland'. There's something like 30 books written by people about my mum and none of them ever came to my house. I simply told my story and how my family affected me. I never expected it [the memoir] to become a mini-series but I was very proud of making that."

Luft is on the tail-end of a tour of Britain with her show Songs My Mother Taught Me - a concert version of her recent album bearing the same name co-produced by her musician husband, Colin Freeman, and long-time friend Barry Manilow. Her voice is warm, full and effortlessly commanding as she interprets classic songs written for Garland, including Rock-A-Bye Your Baby, Come Rain Or Come Shine, Follow The Yellow Brick Road, The Trolley Song and, of course, Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

Unlike her exuberant half-sister Liza Minnelli, Luft resisted performing the repertoire because she felt uncomfortable about her legacy. "There was that sense of not being known for you and trying to put your own footprints in the sand … I did some crazy things in my 20s to stamp my own ground; I even dyed my hair purple once … You only really begin to discover your parents when you're 40; their frailties, flaws and the hard things you learn to forgive but don't forget."

Buoyed by the acclaim for her album and shows, Luft is enjoying the responsibility of keeping her mother's memory and music alive. "The stars lined up when we made the album and Barry [Manilow] was the taskmaster … He knows that when you do a show for a long time you can go on auto pilot, but he demanded a performance from me as though I was singing the songs for the first time."

The night before this interview the entertainer performed Songs My Mother Taught Me in a theatre in Wales. "It was bitterly cold. I felt like smashing the piano in pieces and using it as firewood." She brightens when reminded of her forthcoming trip to Sydney for a concert this month and for Mardi Gras where the temperature will be considerably warmer. A short season in April is on the cards.

Luft has starred in many Broadway musicals, including Neil Simon's Promises, Promises when she was 19, Snoopy, Little Shop Of Horrors, Mame, Gypsy and Guys & Dolls. Recently she featured in White Christmas: The Musical at the Edinburgh Playhouse co-starring Australia's Craig McLachlan. Luft was last in Sydney in 2002 to sing at a gala for the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute hosted by the former US president Bill Clinton. After the formalities she took her place on a Mardi Gras float trailed by 30 Judy Garland lookalikes singing Get Happy. "That was surreal," she deadpans.

Though an infrequent visitor to these shores the singer has close connections with several Australian identities, including Hugh Jackman, who played her brother-in-law Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, and Judy Davis, who starred as her mother in the Emmy Award-winning Me And My Shadows. "I love her [Davis] and we became friends. She's an extraordinary person and is absolutely fearless as an actor. It's like watching a football player as they back up and back up, their heel hits the ground and they kick a goal … The idea [of playing Garland] scared the hell out of her but she didn't do some horrible impersonation. She embodied her and it was amazing. It helped that she came in with a clean slate, and Cate Blanchett exhibits similarly fearless traits in the way she plays Bob Dylan [in the film I'm Not There].

"The thing about Cate Blanchett and Judy Davis is that they are talented, gifted and very smart, and that's what Dylan and my mother were. These women have that same genius."

Luft's abiding memory of her mother, an American of Irish and Scottish parentage, has little to do with music. "I always remember her sense of humour. There is this myth of Judy Garland being a tragic figure. Sure, she had tragedy in her life but she wasn't tragic. Lucille Ball insisted that she herself wasn't funny but that her writers were, and came out with the line, 'Judy Garland makes me look like a mortician' … You

know, what you have to remember is that this was my mum, the most important person to me when growing up and you owe it to tell the truth."

Luft has two children, Jesse and Vanessa, from her first marriage. She takes pride in family, and in being honest and open no matter how painful the situation. When Jesse was seven he was playing Trivial Pursuit at school and found out that his grandmother had overdosed on drugs. "I got a phone call from him sobbing and I said, 'Sweetheart, let's talk about the word drugs. We grow up in America and are told that drugs can kill and yet we go to the drug store - we're the only country in the world that uses that word, and words assume different meanings.' I explained it to him that way and he understood," she says.

"The term drug overdose always has horrible connotations, then they say accidental as though you're not being smart and don't ask questions. But in America we live in a complete drug culture. The TV is full of drug companies pushing things - take this, take that, we are told. They list the side effects, almost so awful as to be comical but people still take the drugs … I would never comment on how Heath Ledger passed away and my heart is broken for his mother, father, sister, daughter and Michelle [Williams]. We should remember Heath Ledger for making us feel and love the characters he played. That was his gift and we don't need to know the rest."

In Luft's own life and career she has avoided many of the hazards of celebrity and credits her family with keeping her feet planted firmly on the ground. If only, she surmises, her famous Beverly Hills neighbour didn't attract so much attention. "I live right below Britney Spears and it means I live 24 hours with chaos. There are between 20 and 30 car loads of paparazzi in the street and me and my neighbours have had enough.

"The paps won't move their cars; they are abusive and despicable. When she [Spears] was taken to hospital, there were helicopters and police cars. … I don't feel sorry for her but I feel sad for her kids. She has to take responsibility now."

Luft says that at the height of Garland's fame there were no photographers jumping out of bushes or tail-gating celebrities. "'There's no line in the sand any more; no respect. That's what my mother would have hated."

Lorna Luft performs at the Factory Theatre, Alexandria, on February 29. Bookings 95503666. for more information.

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