Frances Ethel Gumm,
aka Judy Garland
Paternal 26th cousin, 3x removed.
Discovering that I was related to one of the 20th century's great screen, stage and musical legends was a bit of a surprise for this writer. While I was busy filling in my many distant cousins on my family tree, I came across the surname "Gumm" which I instantly recognized as Judy Garland's real surname. I followed the lineage and quickly discovered a cousin who I have "known" all my life.
My relationship to Judy and her sisters is through her paternal lineage and is quite distant. Our common ancestor is King Henry II (Plantagenet). King Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine is the line that I descend from while Judy and her family descend through King Henry's other wife (he had several!), Ida of Tosny.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, she was the youngest daughter of Ethel Milne and Frank Gumm. Frances, or Judy as she would be known, was born in Grand Rapids Minnesota. Ethel and Frank were vaudevillians who had settled in Minnesota to run a theatre that featured vaudeville acts. In addition to Frances, the Gumm's had 2 other daughters, Mary Jane "Suzanne" and Dorothy Virginia "Jimmie".
As daughters of former vaudeville actors, the 3 sisters were exposed to show business at an early age and together their act was known as The Gumm Sisters. The sisters started performing at their father's theatre in Minnesota and continued doing so for a few years. Judy's introduction to show business came at the tender age of 2.
In June of 1926, the family relocated from Minnesota to Lancaster, California where Frank purchased another theater. After moving to California, Ethel worked to get her 3 daughters into motion pictures.
All 3 Gumm sisters enrolled in dance school in 1928 and, through this school, they made their onscreen debut in 1929 in a short called The Big Revue. In the film the Gumm Sisters performed a song and dance routine. In 1930, the Gumm Sisters appeared in 2 more shorts produced by Vitaphone, one of which included Judy's debut solo performance. The Gumm sisters appeared in a few more shorts, with their last film together being an MGM Technicolor short released in 1935 called La Fiesta de Santa Barbara.
In late 1934 the Gumm Sisters had changed their name to the Garland Sisters. Frances then changed her name to Judy shortly after and thus the star that we all know today as "Judy Garland" was born.
In August, 1935, the Garland Sisters as they were now known, broke up when Suzanne (Mary Jane, who had changed her name) left for Reno and married musician Lee Kahn. This left only Judy and her remaining sister Jimmie (Dorothy Virginia) together. The next month, in September, 1935, Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Studios, asked songwriter Burton Lane to go see the Garland Sister's act which was playing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Lane was to report back to Mayer on the Garland Sisters, which he did, and a few days later, Judy and her father were at MGM for an unscheduled audition.
Judy performed the song "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart!" as well as a Yiddish song, "Eli, Eli" which she had sung in her vaudeville act. The studio signed Judy on the spot. Judy was 13.
Small in stature - Judy was 4 feet, 11.5 inches tall - and more cute than classically beautiful at this age, Judy was self-conscious of her looks. While at MGM, Judy attended school with other young actresses - Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and another distant cousin of this writer, Elizabeth Taylor (my 10th cousin and no relation to Judy). These other girls were, even at a young age, typical "beauties". Judy had yet to blossom into the beautiful woman that she would become. Comments made by Louis B. Mayer didn't help - he referred to Judy as his "little hunchback." Maybe Mr. Mayer should have stood in front of a mirror himself before making derogatory comments about other's appearances - money does not make one automatically attractive, Mr. Mayer!
On November 16th, 1935, Judy lost her father Frank, after he became ill with meningitis and died a day after being hospitalized. The loss of her father devastated the young Judy. Frank Gumm was only 49. Judy was 13.
Judy would be cast in small parts until she was paired with Mickey Rooney in a series of "backyard musicals". Judy was then cast in the 4th of a series of "Andy Hardy" movies and the studio had a winning duo on their hands.
Some of you may have heard how the "studio system" worked back in the early days of Hollywood. The studios weren't just your employer, they practically "owned" any actor that they had under contract. They controlled your life, your look, who you dated, where you were seen, and whether you worked or not. They could even "rent" actors out to other studios, and even if the actor was cast in a blockbuster movie, they were paid according to their contract.
Judy's contract days with MGM were no different. The studio "owned" her. In later years Judy told the press that MGM was constantly prescribing her, and other young actors, amphetamines and barbiturates in order to stay awake, go to sleep and keep up their energy for their hectic pace of making one film after another. Judy's co-star, Mickey Rooney, denied this fact after Judy's death years later.
The studio also demanded that Judy constantly diet, even though her weight was well within reasonable levels. When Judy ordered a regular dinner, the studio served her a bowl of soup and a plate of plain lettuce. The demands on Judy's physical and mental condition at this time may have planted the seeds for her future self-image and barbiturate problems. Even after becoming what could only be labelled as a "super star", Judy was still plagued by issues of self-doubt, something which we all know can have devastating results.
In 1938, Judy was cast in her most iconic role, that of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, based on the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by L. Frank Baum (yet another cousin of this author - see L. Frank Baum's separate page for more details). This writer would find it hard to believe that anyone would not instantly recognize the character of Dorothy, as played by Judy Garland, or not have seen the movie The Wizard of Oz. Even when I used to spend time in China, where western films have not always had a wide release, the people I spoke to knew about this movie, and of course, Judy Garland.
The Wizard of Oz was not Judy's only major film role, of course, but it has become synonymous with the actor to this day. She went on to make other films in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's. Judy appeared in the 2nd remake of "A Star is Born" in 1954, produced by her and her husband, Sid Luft, and it was launched with critical acclaim and movie goers loved it. High production costs and overruns however, meant that the film made no money, so Judy and Sid did not see the anticipated profit from the film. To add insult to injury, the Best Actress Academy Award which was expected to be Judy's went to Grace Kelly instead. Judy had just given birth to her son, Joseph (Joey) Luft and a camera crew was in her hospital room ready for her acceptance speech.
Judy was married a total of 5 times. Her first husband was musician David Rose (ex-husband of Martha Raye) and she married him in 1941 when she was 19. They divorced in 1944. During their marriage, Judy became pregnant, a pregnancy that Rose and Judy's mother, Ethel, insisted she terminate through an illegal abortion (an all too common thing with young actresses back then).
Judy's second husband was director Vincente Minnelli and the couple married in 1945. Vincente was 20 years older than Garland at the time of their marriage. The marriage took place in June with Louis B. Mayer giving away the bridge. In August of 1945 Judy was pregnant. In March, 1946, their daughter Liza Minnelli was born (another legend in her own well deserved right!). After the birth of Liza, Judy was bedridden for weeks, quite possibly due to postpartum depression. Almost a year after the birth of her daughter, Judy returned to work, only to have that cut short by a nervous breakdown which resulted in Judy being treated at two different psychiatric clinics to help her.
Judy and Vincente's marriage deteriorated rapidly, for many different reported problems, none of which this author wishes to go into. They separated in 1949 and the divorce was finalized in 1950.
With the end of her marriage to Minnelli, Judy was released by the studio.
Judy's next marriage was to Sidney Luft, a man who she had known since the late 1930's. Sid Luft had been divorced and was at the time married when he and Judy reconnected toward the end of Judy's marriage to Vincente. Sid took over as Judy's manager and began planning a rejuvenation of her career. They married in 1952 and later that year their daughter Lorna was born, In 1955, they welcomed a son, Joey to their family. The marriage lasted 13 years - the longest of any of Garland's marriages. They divorced in 1965.
Judy's next marriage was to Mark Herron, an actor and tour manager. The couple wed in 1965 in Las Vegas. Within only 5 months of their marriage, Judy and Mark separated and formally divorced in 1967. Herron went on to a 30-year relationship with actor Henry Brandon.
Judy's final marriage came in March, 1969 when she married Mickey Deans, a man 12 years younger than Judy. Judy's marriage to Mickey ended with her untimely death from an accidental overdose. The date was June 22nd, 1969. Judy died only 12 days after her 47th birthday.
Despite Judy's super star status, dozens of movies, a career that spanned decades, mismanagement of her money left her in horrible financial shape at the time of her death. Although she had earned millions, her estate was worth only $40,000.00 when she died. The money had been mismanaged and misappropriated by her managers and staff, and when combined with her generosity toward others, she was left with very little. At one point Judy had previously been forced to sell her Brentwood, California home in order to try and get out from under the debt that she was in.
Since discovering that Judy Garland was a distant relative of mine, I have spent a lot of time reading and researching as much as I could about this Hollywood superstar. Separating fact from fiction isn't always easy, but I have come to the conclusion that the star who brought so much happiness and laughter into the lives of millions deserved better than she received. Tales of abuse of celebrities by studios still come down today, but hopefully the events of the past couple of years will give ALL celebrities - and anyone else who is abused by an employer - the courage and the voice to speak out and get help. The same goes for alcohol, substance abuse and mental health issues. Since Judy's death, the world has taken great strides to drag this issues out of the dark and place them front and center in the daylight. Perhaps if Judy had felt that there were people out there to help her, she would have lived a much longer, happier life...and just imagine the joy should would have brought to the world.
Frances Ethel Gumm - Judy Garland - a distant cousin of mine, and one that truly deserves a place in history. Thank you, Judy, for the joy that you have brought into the lives of millions of people and continue to do to this day.