Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Garland was the youngest child of Ethel Marion (née Milne; November 17, 1893 – January 5, 1953) and Francis Avent “Frank” Gumm (March 20, 1886 – November 17, 1935). Her parents were vaudevillians who settled in Grand Rapids to run a movie theatre that featured vaudeville acts. Named after both her parents and baptized at a local Episcopal church, “Baby” (as she was called by her parents and sisters) shared her family’s flair for song and dance. Her first appearance came at the age of two-and-a-half when she joined her two older sisters, Mary Jane “Suzy/Suzanne” Gumm (1915–1964) and Dorothy Virginia “Jimmie” Gumm (1917–1977), on the stage of her father’s movie theater during a Christmas show and sang a chorus of “Jingle Bells”. Accompanied by their mother on piano, The Gumm Sisters performed there for the next few years. Following rumors that Frank Gumm had made sexual advances towards male ushers, the family relocated to Lancaster, California in June 1926. Frank purchased and operated another theater in Lancaster, and Ethel, acting as their manager, began working to get her daughters into motion pictures. Garland attended Hollywood High School and later graduated from University High School (Los Angeles, California).
In 1938, aged 16, she was cast in the main role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film based on the children’s book by L. Frank Baum. In this film, she sang the song with which she would forever be identified, “Over the Rainbow.” Although producers Arthur Freed and Mervyn LeRoy had wanted her from the start, studio chief Mayer tried first to borrow Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox, but they declined. Deanna Durbin was then asked but was unavailable, resulting in Garland being cast. Garland was initially outfitted in a blonde wig for the part, but Freed and LeRoy decided against it shortly into filming. Her blue gingham dress was chosen for its blurring effect on her figure. Shooting commenced on October 13, 1938, and was completed on March 16, 1939, with a final cost of more than US$2 million. With the conclusion of filming, MGM kept Garland busy with promotional tours and the shooting of Babes in Arms, directed by Busby Berkeley. She and Rooney were sent on a cross-country promotional tour, culminating in the August 17 New York City premiere at the Capitol Theater, which included a five-show-a-day appearance schedule for the two stars. The Wizard of Oz was a tremendous critical success, though its high budget and promotions costs of an estimated US$4 million, coupled with the lower revenue generated by children’s tickets, meant that the film did not make a profit until it was rereleased in the 1940s. At the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony, Garland received an Academy Juvenile Award for her performances in 1939, including The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms. Following this recognition, she became one of MGM’s most bankable stars.
In 1940, she starred in three films: Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, Strike Up the Band, and Little Nellie Kelly. In the latter, she played her first adult role, a dual role of both mother and daughter. Little Nellie Kelly was purchased from George M. Cohan as a vehicle for her to display both her audience-appeal and her physical appearance. The role was a challenge for her, requiring the use of an accent, her first adult kiss, and the only death-scene of her career. The success of these three films and a further three films in 1941, secured her position at MGM as a major property. During this time, Garland experienced her first serious adult romances. The first was with bandleader Artie Shaw. She was deeply devoted to him and was devastated in early 1940 when he eloped with Lana Turner. Garland began a relationship with musician David Rose, and on her 18th birthday he gave her an engagement ring. The studio intervened because he was still married at the time to actress and singer Martha Raye. They agreed to wait a year to allow for his divorce to become final and were wed on July 27, 1941. Garland, who had aborted her pregnancy by him in 1942, agreed to a trial separation in January 1943, and they divorced in 1944. She was noticeably thinner in her next film, For Me and My Gal, alongside Gene Kelly in his first screen appearance. She was top billed in the credits for the first time and effectively made the transition from teenage-star to adult actress.
At the age of 21, she was given the “glamour treatment” in Presenting Lily Mars, in which she was dressed in “grown-up” gowns. Her lightened hair was also pulled up in a stylish fashion. However, no matter how glamorous or beautiful she appeared onscreen or in photographs, she was never confident in her appearance and never escaped the “girl-next-door” image which had been created for her. One of Garland’s most successful films for MGM was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), in which she introduced three standards: “The Trolley Song”, “The Boy Next Door”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Vincente Minnelli was assigned to direct, and he requested that makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel be assigned to Garland. Ponedel refined her appearance in several ways, including extending and reshaping her eyebrows, changing her hairline, modifying her lip line and removing her nose discs and dental caps. She appreciated the results so much that Ponedel was written into her contract for all her remaining pictures at MGM. During the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, after some initial conflict between them, Garland and Minnelli entered into a relationship. They were married June 15, 1945, and on March 12, 1946, daughter Liza was born. In 1951, they divorced. The Clock (1945) was her first straight dramatic film, opposite Robert Walker. Though the film was critically praised and earned a profit, most movie fans expected her to sing. It would be many years before she acted again in a nonsinging dramatic role. Garland’s other famous films of the 1940s include The Harvey Girls (1946), in which she introduced the Academy Award-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”, and The Pirate (1948).
During filming for The Pirate in April 1947, Garland suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a private sanitarium. She was able to complete filming, but in July she undertook her first suicide attempt, making minor cuts to her wrist with a broken glass. During this period, she spent two weeks in treatment at the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Following her work on The Pirate, she completed three more films for MGM: Easter Parade (in which she danced with Fred Astaire), In the Good Old Summertime, and her final film with MGM, Summer Stock. Because of her psychological condition, Garland was unable to complete a series of films. During the filming of The Barkleys of Broadway, she was taking prescription sleeping medication along with illicitly obtained pills containing morphine. It was around this time that she also developed a serious problem with alcohol. These, in combination with migraine headaches, led her to miss several shooting days in a row. After being advised by her doctor that she would only be able to work in four-to-five-day increments with extended rest periods between, MGM executive Arthur Freed made the decision to suspend her on July 18, 1948. She was replaced by Ginger Rogers. Garland was cast in the film-adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun in the title role of Annie Oakley. She was nervous at the prospect of taking on a role strongly identified with Ethel Merman, anxious about appearing in an unglamorous part after breaking from juvenile parts for several years, and disturbed by her treatment at the hands of director Busby Berkeley. Berkeley was staging all the musical numbers, and was severe with Garland’s lack of effort, attitude and enthusiasm. She complained to Louis B. Mayer, trying to have Berkeley fired from the feature. She began arriving late to the set and sometimes failed to appear. She was suspended from the picture on May 10, 1949, and was replaced by Betty Hutton, who stepped in performing all the musical routines as staged by Berkeley. Garland was next cast in the film Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire after June Allyson became pregnant in 1950. She again failed to report to the set on multiple occasions, and the studio suspended her contract on June 17, 1950. She was replaced by Jane Powell. Reputable biographies following her death stated that after this latest dismissal, she slightly grazed her neck with a broken glass, requiring only a Band-Aid, but at the time, the public was informed that a despondent Garland had slashed her throat. “All I could see ahead was more confusion,” Garland later said of this suicide attempt. “I wanted to black out the future as well as the past. I wanted to hurt myself and everyone who had hurt me.”
Garland filmed a musical remake of the film A Star is Born for Warner Bros. in 1954. Garland and Sidney Luft, her then-husband, produced the film through their production company, Transcona Enterprises, while Warner Bros. supplied the funds, production facilities, and crew. Directed by George Cukor and costarring James Mason, it was a large undertaking to which she initially fully dedicated herself. As shooting progressed, however, she began making the same pleas of illness which she had so often made during her final films at MGM. Production delays led to cost overruns and angry confrontations with Warner Bros. head Jack Warner. Principal photography wrapped on March 17, 1954. At Luft’s suggestion, the “Born in a Trunk” medley was filmed as a showcase for her and inserted over director Cukor’s objections, who feared the additional length would lead to cuts in other areas. It was completed on July 29. Upon its September 29, 1954 world-premiere, the film was met with tremendous critical and popular acclaim. Before its release, it was edited at the instruction of Jack Warner; theater operators, concerned that they were losing money because they were only able to run the film for three or four shows per day instead of five or six, pressured the studio to make additional reductions. About 30 minutes of footage were cut, sparking outrage among critics and filmgoers. A Star is Born ended up losing money, and the secure financial position Garland had expected from the profits did not materialize. Transcona made no more films with Warner. Garland was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and in the run-up to the 27th Academy Awards, was generally expected to win. She could not attend the ceremony because she had just given birth to her son, Joseph Luft, so a television crew was in her hospital room with cameras and wires to broadcast her anticipated acceptance speech. The Oscar was won, however, by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954). The camera crew was packing up before Kelly could even reach the stage. Groucho Marx sent her a telegram after the awards ceremony, declaring her loss “the biggest robbery since Brinks.” TIME magazine labeled her performance as “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.” Garland won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the role. Garland’s films after A Star Is Born included Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) (for which she was Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Supporting Actress), the animated feature Gay Purr-ee (1962), and A Child Is Waiting (1963) with Burt Lancaster. Her final film was I Could Go On Singing (1963), costarring Dirk Bogarde.
With the demise of her television series, Garland returned to the stage. Most notably, she performed at the London Palladium with her then 18-year-old daughter Liza Minnelli in November 1964. The concert, which was also shown on the British television network ITV, was one of her final appearances at the venue. She made guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. Garland guest-hosted an episode of The Hollywood Palace with Vic Damone. She was invited back for a second episode in 1966 with Van Johnson as her guest. Issues with Garland’s behavior ended her Hollywood Palace guest appearances.
A 1964 tour of Australia was largely disastrous. Garland’s first concert in Sydney, held in the Sydney Stadium because no concert hall could accommodate the crowds who wanted to see her, went well and received positive reviews. Her second performance, in Melbourne, started an hour late. The crowd of 7,000, angered by her tardiness and believing her to be drunk, booed and heckled her, and she fled the stage after just 45 minutes. She later characterized the Melbourne crowd as “brutish.” A second concert in Sydney was uneventful but the Melbourne appearance garnered her significant bad press. Some of that bad press was deflected by the announcement of a near fatal episode of pleurisy. Garland’s tour promoter Mark Herron announced that they had married aboard a freighter off the coast of Hong Kong; however, she was not legally divorced from Luft at the time the ceremony was performed. The divorce became final on May 19, 1965, and she and Herron did not legally marry until November 14, 1965; they separated six months later. In February 1967, Garland was cast as Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls for 20th Century Fox. During the filming, she missed rehearsals and was fired in April, replaced by Susan Hayward. Her prerecording of the song “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” survived, along with her wardrobe tests. Returning to the stage, Garland made her last appearances at New York’s Palace Theatre in July, a 16-show stand, performing with her children Lorna and Joey Luft. She wore a sequined pantsuit on stage for this tour, which was part of the original wardrobe for her character in Valley of the Dolls. By early 1969, Garland’s health had deteriorated. She performed in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub for a five-week run and made her last concert appearance in Copenhagen during March 1969. She married her fifth and final husband, musician Mickey Deans, at Chelsea Register Office, London, on March 15, 1969, her divorce from Herron having been finalized on February 11.
On June 22, 1969, Garland was found dead by Deans in the bathroom of their rented house at 4 Cadogan Lane in Chelsea, London. At the subsequent inquest, coroner Gavin Thursdon stated that the cause of death was “an incautious self-overdose” of barbiturates; her blood contained the equivalent of ten 1.5-grain (97 mg) Seconal capsules. Thursdon stressed that the overdose had been unintentional and that there was no evidence to suggest she had committed suicide. Her autopsy showed that there was no inflammation of her stomach lining and no drug residue there, which indicated that the drug had been ingested over a long period of time, rather than in one dose. Her death certificate stated that her death had been “accidental”. Even so, a British specialist who had attended her autopsy said she had been living on borrowed time owing to cirrhosis. She had turned 47 just twelve days before her death. Her Wizard of Oz costar Ray Bolger commented at her funeral, “She just plain wore out.” After her body had been embalmed by Desmond Henley, Deans took Garland’s remains to New York City on June 26, where an estimated 20,000 people lined up for hours at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan to pay their respects. On June 27, James Mason gave a eulogy at the funeral, an Episcopal service led by the Rev. Peter A. Delaney of St Marylebone Parish Church, London, who had officiated at her marriage to Deans. The public and press were barred. She was interred in a crypt in the community mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York.
- June, 10, 1922
- Grand Rapids, Minnesota
- June, 22, 1969
- United Kingdom
- Chelsea, London
Cause of Death
- barbiturate overdose
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery
- Hollywood, California