How Judy Garland’s Struggle with Food and Need to Stay 'Camera Slim' Fueled Her Drug Addiction
In his new memoir published after his death, Judy Garland's ex-husband Sid Luft details the pressures the late star was under to stay thin — and how she used drugs to cope with them
Judy Garland was just 16 when she starred in her breakout role, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. At just 4 feet, 11½ inches, Garland had a cute, girl-next-door charm helped set her apart from her glamorous contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner. But with success would come the need to maintain her youthful looks and thin frame — pressures from Hollywood studio MGM that would fuel the legendary songstress’ drug abuse and eventually lead to her death.
Now, more than four decades after an accidental drug overdose took her life at age 47, a new memoir about the late star pulls back the curtain on Garland’s demons. The book — Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland – is crafted from notes that Sid Luft, the third of Garland’s five husbands, left unfinished before his 2005 death.
Though they met when Garland was 15, they began dating 14 years later — when Garland was married to director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she had daughter Liza Minnelli. Out of work and recently hospitalized after a suicide attempt, Garland was at one of her lowest lows. But still, Luft felt “an electrical force.”
Though he knew she was troubled, he felt protective – and fell hard.
Throughout their 13-year marriage, Luft (who would go on to be her manager) said he saw himself as a martyr — the only one who could save Garland from her drug abuse.
But Garland’s drug habit was believed to be an effort to numb her inner insecurities, particularly regarding her weight. Told by studio executives she had to watch her figure, she would often go to extremes to lose any extra pounds. When she was filming 1950’s Summer Stock, for example, Luft said she stopped eating altogether. She was also reportedly just 80 pounds while making 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars.
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Luft wrote that her entire life had been dominated by the constant pressure to be “camera-slim.”
“Most of her teen and adult life, she had been on either Benzedrine or a diet or both,” he wrote, explaining how Garland attempted to manage her weight. “Unlike other actresses, she could not successfully camouflage extra weight, especially because she was dancing and singing in revealing costumes. Just 4 feet 11½ inches, she could be underweight and still appear heavy or out of proportion onscreen.”
Garland’s love for food didn’t help. Luft detailed her fondness for hearty meals — chowing down on comfort foods like spaghetti, and eventually alcohol.
Hoping to help Garland revive her career, Luft wrote that he tried to encourage her to watch what she ate. At times, she listened — but other times it became a point of contention between the two.
“‘Feel better if I ate oats and hay?’ ” she allegedly shot back to him once, when he suggested she eat an apple instead of spaghetti.
At one point, he told her, “‘You must cut out all the hot fudge sundaes you adore, no more PJ’s cheeseburgers, blood rare. Forget heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy … No more fettuccine Alfredo.’ ” he wrote. “Judy was staring at me with her huge saucer eyes … ‘No Alfredo,’ she echoed. ‘I might not be able to go on.’ ”
Adding to the pressure surrounding food, the press often grilled Garland about her weight. In an interview in 1951, Luft wrote that she told reporters “I may be awfully fat, but I feel good.” (She was actually pregnant, and would later have an abortion).
While performing her famed Two-A-Day show at New York’s Palace Theatre in Nov. 1951, Luft wrote that Garland sought the help of Dr. Udall Salmon, “a fashionable Park Avenue diet doctor,” who “helped women lose pounds with pills.” The medication is believed to be the cause of her collapse during the show — and what landed her in LeRoy Sanitarium.
Eventually, she agreed to go on a diet with Luft — without pills. By the time Two-A-Day‘s run ended in June 1952, she had dropped from a size 14 to a size 6.
But stopping the pills for good ultimately wouldn’t be that easy.
Luft said he didn’t initially realize the extent of her drug problems, but they nearly took her life many times. One day, he got a call that Garland had cut her throat with a razor blade and was unresponsive in their bathroom. Doctors transfused her and stitched her up right there. When she woke the next morning, she turned back to food.
“The miracle was that Judy awakened the next morning with a desire to eat,” he wrote. ” ‘Hi darling, is everything all right?’ The bandage around her throat didn’t inhibit my little darling from throwing back a trencherman’s breakfast of eggs, pancakes, sausage and toast with extra marmalade.”
Luft and Garland, who married in 1952, were living “virtually separate lives” a decade later. He said the constant struggle to diet caused her to descend further and drove them further apart. “If I were to show concern, she’d abruptly tell me to ‘f— off.’ ” he wrote.
Despite having two children together — Lorna and Joey Luft — they divorced in 1965. A year later, she was completely broke — her new managers having embezzled large sums from her. She died in 1969 from an accidental overdose.
“She couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds,” he wrote. “She was totally burned out. Destroyed. I couldn’t save her.”