Liza Minnelli seeks to break a family legacy of drug and alcohol abuse

By Gioia Diliberto
August 06, 1984 12:00 PM

Heads turn like pages in a songbook as Liza Minnelli strolls into the visitors lounge at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “Hi, I’m Liza,” she says cheerfully, shaking hands with surprised patients and their guests at the private alcohol and drug treatment clinic 15 miles outside Palm Springs. Wearing no makeup and dressed in a red-and-white cap, red jacket and black pants, she moves through the group with poise, sipping tea and chatting in front of a stone fireplace.

Four days before, on July 11, an exhausted and depressed Liza had dropped out of The Rink, the Broadway show in which she shared star billing with Chita Rivera. And on July 13 at the urging of close friend Elizabeth Taylor—a patient this past year at Betty Ford—Liza voluntarily checked into the Center, admitting through her publicist that she had become dependent on Valium and alcohol.

Liza’s tailspin and its causes struck close friends and fans as a tragic mirror of the life of her mother, Judy Garland. Mercurial Judy, rated by some music buffs as the most electric ballad and jazz belter ever, became one of Hollywood’s 10 top-drawing stars with The Wizard of Oz at age 17 in 1939. Five husbands, half a dozen comebacks and innumerable booze and pill-popping binges later, Judy died at age 47 from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969.

Says a lifelong friend of Liza’s who grew up with her in Beverly Hills, “She’s living her mother’s career all over again—being the biggest star in show business, peaking out in films, the weird marriages, the pills, the booze.”

Liza’s roller coaster, with its giddy ups and devastating downs, started fast and roared to the outer limits of fame. At 19, she became the youngest performer ever to win a Tony with her 1965 performance in Flora, the Red Menace. She got an Academy Award nomination in 1969 for The Sterile Cuckoo and then took a best-actress Oscar with Cabaret in 1972. Along the way she bloomed into a live-concert sensation with the same kind of high-voltage audience rapport that Judy had generated—and many of the same cravings.

A relentless performer, she has never learned to come offstage. “She’s always on,” says Las Vegas musical director Dick Palombi, with whom she has often worked. “She can’t relax,” adds Dallas-based producer Tony Zoppi. “She worked with sore throats and high temperatures. She’d do two shows a night and then find some small club and do some more.” Says another friend, “She slugs away because she has her own demons. The applause from the audience helps exorcise those demons.”

But Liza seemed to need other kinds of help with the demons. She always liked a party, running with such princes of the night as Halston and Andy Warhol, not passing up many drinks as she made the rounds. When her 1967 first marriage to singer Peter Allen quickly began going sour, it was obvious to Liza’s playmates that she was entering some kind of private hell. Several hot but unhappy romances with Desi Arnaz Jr., Peter Sellers and, later, Martin Scorsese didn’t help. And her 1974 marriage to producer Jack Haley Jr. seemed to worsen the problem. “It took a drink to get her out of bed in the morning,” says an acquaintance, “and she’d drink straight stuff the rest of the day.” The Valium habit may have started at the same time.

Some claim Liza got into other drugs. “She was completely out of control,” says one friend. “She couldn’t take just one drink, nor could she hold down on the other things.” Whether it was indeed alcohol and Valium or something else she was taking, Liza’s career started to slide. She never scored another success in a movie after Cabaret.

She worked in the last film done by her director-father, Vincente Minnelli, in 1976, but the movie, A Matter of Time, was so bad no major studio would touch it. And Liza herself sank into such terrible shape after the filming of her forgettable role in Arthur in 1980-81 that a publicist for the movie claims “they couldn’t send her out on press tour.”

By that time she had married for the third time, to handsome stage manager and sculptor Mark Gero, by whom she was determined to have her first child. However, after she miscarried in December 1979 she seemed to start turning away from Gero, and now the word is that marriage No. 3 is “all but dead. She had this dream about starting a family,” says a man close to Liza, “and it’s not happening. The compatibility ended, and when Liza turns off, she turns off like a clock.”

Through it all Liza the trouper kept slugging, driving herself on tour, never missing a show or shooting session, no matter how bad a shape she seemed to be in. She hung on through the first six months of The Rink, despite the frustrations of mixed reviews and a role that really cast Liza as second banana to Chita Rivera. Then three months ago Liza did what for her had always been the unthinkable: She started missing performances, 14 of them altogether.

Her first reason was flu. Then she pleaded injuries from a minor taxicab accident. Finally on July 11, after a late dinner in a restaurant with her friend Barry Landau, Liza complained that her neck hurt. Landau took Liza to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, where doctors examined a cyst that had been troubling her and operated immediately to remove it, calling for a biopsy.

“Liza panicked at the word biopsy,” says Landau. Apparently she was convinced she had cancer. The cyst was benign, but Liza couldn’t shake her fears, which another friend speculates were really “drug jitters. She was acting paranoid.” Two days later Liza’s half sister, Lorna Luft, took her on a plane west and helped Liza check into the Center.

At Betty Ford, Liza follows the same routine as every other patient—up at 6:30 a.m. in her dormitory room to make her own bed, then a cafeteria breakfast, a session of meditation and a long walk around the lush grounds. The rest of the day she is busy with exercise classes, therapy sessions and alcohol counseling. So far her visitors have been restricted mostly to Lorna, friend Pam Lewis, stepfather Sid Luft and Liz Taylor, but she has been deluged with supportive get-well telegrams from Dudley Moore, Al Pacino, Bob Fosse, Sammy Davis Jr., Chita Rivera and dozens of other stars.

Liza has canceled a scheduled August appearance at the International Red Cross benefit in Monte Carlo, and neither she nor her doctors have projected the length of her stay at the Center. Early reports, however, are optimistic. “She’s starting to perk up,” says Luft.

Yet some of Liza’s closest chums fear the good cheer is just one more act, and that Liza is indeed living out the Garland legacy, in the words of one, “through to the finish—right in front of everyone’s eyes.” Not everyone agrees. Insists another friend, “People always compared Liza to Judy. But I don’t see her ending up like Judy at all. Liza will be fine.”