On this day in 1961, so fifty years ago today, Carnegie Hall saw a comeback performance so magnificent that it immediately became the stuff of legend. The legend still endures. The performer in question was Judy Garland and in order to understand just what she pulled off that night, you need to know a little bit about what was going on just prior to the performance of a lifetime.
Even if you know nothing else about Judy Garland, chances are you do know that she had an incredible voice and was a woman whose life was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol problems heading toward tragedy. The period preceding this appearance was no exception. Less than a year and a half previously, in December 1959, Judy was lying in the New York Doctors Hospital. When healthy she weighed about 100lb (Judy was a tiny wee thing of 4’11”), now she was 180lb, swollen with fluid, her liver compromised, her body shutting down. Doctors were sure she was not going to make it. But, somehow, after having 20 quarts of fluid drained from her body, she pulled through, but was told that she could never work again. Hmm.
She did rest for the first half of 1960, she lived in London, away from Hollywood and most temptations, but as the year wore on she became enthused by the idea of singing again. Her then husband, Sid Luft, had been the (mis)guiding force behind her career, but decided he didn’t want to do it any longer; she needed an agent. Enter Freddie Fields, a rising star in the world of agents and one in search of a superstar. He and Judy were a match made in heaven. Fields and his partner David Begleman put together a grand plan for Garland. This was something she’d never had before, her career had been something that happened or didn’t happen according to circumstances out of her control; Fields and Begleman knew that for her to be at her best, she had to feel that she had some control. The first part of the plan was to re-establish her as a credible and reliable artist, which meant touring, showing up on time, giving good concert. She did this and was, for the most part, pretty sober if a little plumper than audiences remembered her. She was giving great concert and the buzz around her was growing.
However, it’s important to remember that prior to this tour, Judy Garland’s career was as dead as she had nearly been in the New York hospital. Very few cared, very few professionals were prepared to put up with her; she was trouble with a capital T. She still had a record label (Capitol), but they were about through with her and it took Freddie Fields basically begging Alan Livingstone (label head) for him to finally relent and agree to a recording of the Carnegie Hall concert.
Enough of the lead-up. Here’s what happened on the night. Curtain up was at 8.30pm, but the crowds started gathering long before then. Many of them were the gay men who loved her then and love her now, but the crowd was also full of a large number of the great and good that night: Richard Burton, Mike Nichols, Roddy McDowell, Ethel Merman, Benny Goodman, Rock Hudson, Harold Arlen and Leonard Bernstein to name but a few. Judy kept the crowd waiting, it was nearly 9pm before the overture started and later still when she herself appeared on the stage. And then it started. Here are the comments from a few of the people who were there on that night.
Mike Nichols: “Everybody loved Judy Garland and I liked her, but I wasn’t obsessed with her.Then she comes out and she’s like on fire
from the first moment. You just thought, Holy shit! What is this? I don’t remember what she sang when. I just remember that our jaws dropped, because she seemed to be singing the songs for the first time, which of course was her gift anyway. We kept clutching each other and gasping and cheering and yelling and carrying on.”
Donald Smith, a fan: “The audience were like holy rollers – it was like a revival meeting … There was some actress – I cannot think of her name; [maybe] Myrna Loy, maybe Constance Bennett. I was in a box, and I looked down and saw her standing on her seat – I coul see these gorgeous evening slippers – yelling, ‘Go, baby, go!'”
Lorna Luft: “The one thing I remember is that when you’re 8, adults are supposed to act like adults. They are not supposed to jump out of their chairs, screaming, yelling, running towards the stage. They’re supposed to be in control. There they were, all dressed up in tuxedos, going nuts.”
Other flashes from the night are a glimpse of Leonard Bernstein bouncing up and down in his seat, the stage being stormed, Judy laughing and joking with the audience and singing and singing and singing. Telling the crowd she’d sing everything and they’d stay there all night. When the show finally finished over a thousand fans waited outside for her, none of them wanting the night to end. It was a triumph, but it was more than that. It was a celebration of song and love and joy. The live album went straight to no.1 and stayed there for 13 weeks; it has never been out of print since. Judy was back with a night that was called, just slightly hyperbolically, “probably the greatest evening in show business history.” Of course she wasn’t back for good. That would be almost too much to ask for, but after years of getting lost and going nowhere, she came back on that night and reminded them of who she was and why they loved her. No one who was there on that night will ever forget the sweet, delicious thrill of it all.
Here’s a small taster of what carried the whole audience away:
Today was the birthday of the remarkable Lee Miller.
Lee (born Elizabeth) was a stunningly beautiful woman who moved outside of her beauty to demonstrate that she was also an incredible talent. She began modelling in the 1920s after she was discovered by Condé Nast himself (he saved her from being run over). For a couple of years she was in high demand by designers, manufacturers and the best photographers as well. They didn’t have super models in the 1920s, but if they had, there would only have been one: Lee.
In 1929, at the age of 22, she threw it all in and moved to Paris with the intention of becoming an apprentice to Man Ray. He wasn’t at all keen at first, but eventually she became his assistant, his lover and his muse. During her time with him she became involved with the surrealist movement, developed her own style and was acknowledged as a photographer in her own right. She left Paris in 1932 and returned to New York where she set up her own studio. For the next seven years, before the outbreak of WWII, Miller lived in NY, married and moved to Cairo, separated and moved to London with her lover and future husband Ronald Penrose. At the outbreak of the war, her friends and family begged her to return to the US, but Lee being Lee not only refused she signed up to be Vogue’s official war photographer.
She photographed the Blitz and then in 1942 she was teamed with David E Scherman, a Life magazine photographer. They were in France just after D-Day, at the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau and the battle for Alsace, among many other locations and events. Lee saw the war in all its horror and most of that horror never really left her. After the war she drank heavily and suffered from clinical depression. Clearly, she was suffering from PTSD, but that wasn’t recognised at the time, so she just had to get through it or not. She continued to take photos for Vogue for about two years, but going back to fashion and celebrities after the war
didn’t feel right and she soon stopped. Although she did take photos in the second part of her life, she was never again the photographer she had been and instead turned her talents to cooking.
It was her son who conserved her photography. Miller herself, during her lifetime, did little to promote her own work. Since her death in 1977, Tony, her son, has written a biography of her and devoted himself to creating an archive of her work and ensuring that everyone knows who Lee Miller was.
Who was she? A beautiful woman, a talented woman, a brave woman, a loving mother, a fine cook. I also think she was a woman who could have achieved more – not that her achievements are small – if she’d had the right treatment after the war. All those decades of photographs that never were is our loss. Happy birthday Lee Miller, I wish I were half the woman you were.