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On Stevie Phillips’ Memoir: Judy + Liza et. al.

On Stevie Phillips’ Memoir: Judy + Liza et. al.

Film

Even by Hollywood standards, the majesty and misery of Judy Garland’s short life were extreme, marked by operatic intensity and an epic series of (mostly) public peaks and valleys.  The Judy Garland story arc remains the gold standard of show business tragedy—created pill by pill, song by song, trope by trope—to which all other show business tragedies should forever be compared.  It simply has everything.  There has been a huge canon of written material in the 45-plus years since Garland’s death, some by those who bore witness (Mel Tormé, Lorna Luft) and some by well-intentioned but delusional Garland apologists who, for reasons of their own, ask us to believe only what was good and leave anything negative out of the narrative.   Those keepers of the myth, whom I refer to derisively as the “Judy police,” are like the climate change deniers of show business.   To them Garland is Dorothy Gale, a symbol of innocence, an entertainer possessing preternatural gifts and the ultimate victim.  But to the apologists Garland was not a manipulative, self-centered, bisexual, lying drug addict.  Where’s the fun (or truth) in that?

Because so much time has passed, I was quite surprised to learn that there is someone out there with a first-hand story that has never been told, but there is.  Her name is Stevie Phillips and her narrative cuts right through the revisionist bullshit and gets at something far more interesting: a portrait of Garland filled with contradictions and flaws that actually restores Judy’s humanity at the same it relates some terrible things she did.  On June 2, St. Martin’s Press publishes Phillips’ Judy + Liza + Robert + Freddie + David + Sue + Me, and trust me, her memoir is much more deftly crafted than its cumbersome title.

Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli

Facts are facts, but “the truth” is mutable and can be shaped into whatever narrative we want to tell ourselves to survive.  People who worship idols have their own peculiar psychology and, therefore, will not brook anything that deviates from their truth, facts be damned.  As any reasonable person not invested in whitewashing the facts well knows (thankfully this includes Stevie Phillips), Judy Garland was nothing if not a study in contradictions: troubled and gifted beyond all measure; a supremely self-centered child-woman who, paradoxically, seemed to lack an actual self; a funny, quick-witted woman who made the world cry for a living.  Why deny a great tortured artist the complexity that defined her?

Stevie Phillips began her career in the early 1960s when, as a young woman, she went to work for two of the most important and famous agents in New York, Freddie Fields and David Begelman, (in the case of Begelman, that should be “infamous”).  Their star client was Judy Garland who, being Garland, was simultaneously the most gifted person in the industry and the client from hell.  Phillips soon found herself stuck with a Sisyphean task: being Judy Garland’s day-to-day person.  It seems fun at first, but it can kill you.  Phillips reveals personal information about Garland’s sexuality where others have only speculated.  She also relates the bizarre and crazy details of Judy’s final big comeback before beginning the final descent.

Let me say this preemptively to any Judy apologists who might question the veracity of Phillips’ story: I believe her because it also happened to me.  If you work for a star it is generally some version of the same story, and having worked in the entertainment business for so many years I can say with complete confidence that there is no awful thing you can imagine that does not actually happen in the parallel universe of celebrity.  I too rode in cars with stars and basically lived “just outside the spotlight” for most of my life.  This is the main theme of Stargayzing and of my own experience.   Young people beware!  Though hugely exciting at first, living inside a star’s narcissism is very noisy, hard to breathe and you will soon lose the ability to hear your own voice.  Working with stars is almost always a Faustian deal.  I understand, as Phillips perceptively notes, how childhood trauma breeds pathological ambition; how you get roped into abusive relationships with bosses who you both love and hate; how it gets so blurry that you don’t know where their life ends and yours begins.  It doesn’t matter whether it is Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, or Michael Jackson, it’s always the “Judy Garland story.”

Stevie Phillips enters the Garland narrative in its tawdry, final act, when even Judy apologists struggle to manipulate the facts.  By that time, Judy Garland (the person), was a sad, lonely lady with advanced addiction issues struggling to make a living and blaming everyone else for her troubles (reference the late night drunken autobiography tapes for proof).  This is classic addict stuff.  According to Phillips, who survived the psychodrama of being Judy’s de-facto personal assistant to become a highly regarded talent manager and film producer with a long list of credits, (hence the book’s clunky title), life with Judy in the early-1960s made for a pretty harrowing coming-of-age story.  For the rest of us, it just makes for compelling reading.

Phillips communicates both the good and the bad with great empathy and respect and refreshing regard for the facts.  This will, no doubt, piss some people off.  But here’s the thing: it’s 2015 and unless you’re a TCM junkie or a gay man over 40, nobody cares anymore.  The piano bars are gone and young, assimilated gay men have no need for the Judy Garland victim narrative.  I’m told that the gays no longer automatically receive a commemorative copy of Judy at Carnegie Hall upon coming out.  How times have changed.  Think of it this way: in this era of reduced attention spans, reality TV, and auto-tuned singers who are really talentless strippers, Phillips’ salacious stories are Judy’s best chance for continued survival with millennial homosexuals.  Sadly, to many of them Garland’s singing sounds like Jeanette MacDonald did to us: formal, fussy, arcane, corny.  Don’t believe me?  Try playing “The Trolley Song” for a young gay kid who isn’t into Broadway: total disconnect.  They grew up listening to Britney Spears and that, my friends, is what we’re up against.  This is very sad indeed, but part and parcel to why I am now a writer and no longer a record executive.  After a bizarre life of achievement, the demographics are against the Garland legacy, which may now actually depend on not obfuscating the facts so Judy can remain America’s symbol of innocence.  Toward that end, the Garland estate should send Stevie Phillips flowers and a note of gratitude.

Stevie Phillips, Liza Minnelli
Stevie w/Liza, mid-1970s

After Garland’s death, Phillips, who clearly had the stomach for this sort of thing, became a first-tier manager and producer herself, whose star clients were Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford, whom Phillips represented during their biggest years.  There is some great post-Garland material in the book as well (we all must give Liza tremendous credit for her incredible survival instincts but, let’s face it, handling Liza might not be described as a walk in the park), but it’s the Garland stuff that resonates most.

In the end, this is Stevie Phillips’ story, expressed with humor and a surprising amount of humility for a Hollywood power broker.  Some may not want to believe that, say, Judy Garland accidentally lit herself on fire and Phillips had to “put her out,” and what that conflagration might say about who Judy Garland really was, but it’s Stevie’s narrative and it belongs to her.  We are all free to draw our own conclusions.

Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me is available for order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book sellers nationwide.

A version of this piece appeared in Huffington Post.

You may also enjoy:

How a 45-Minute Visit with Michael Jackson Led to Years of Nightmares

What Really Killed Whitney Houston? On the Mainstream Media’s Cover-up of the Star’s Sexuality: “The Greatest Love of All”

 

More Judy Garland:

October 6, 1963: CBS Broadcasts The Judy Garland Show Featuring Barbra Streisand

Torch Song Elegy, Volume 1: “The Man That Got Away”—How The Loss of a Generation of Gay Men Affected Our Ears as Well as Our Hearts

More Liza Minnelli:

D.I.Y. Minnelli! The Liza Box is Completely Restored for 2013

Finally, “(Kick, Ball,) Change” We Can Believe In! The Argument for a Liza Minnelli Presidency

Stargayzing Mix Tape: The Most Unbelievable Cover Songs of All-Time! #5: Liza Minnelli AND Luciano Pavarotti’s Version of “New York, New York”

11 Comments

  1. John
    June 4, 2015 at 1:39 pm
    Reply

    Bought it on your recommendation. OMG! Can’t put it down.

    • David Munk
      June 4, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      Try saying that on one of the Facebook fan pages. You’ll be publicly stoned!

  2. Rick
    June 12, 2015 at 6:07 am
    Reply

    Gee that’s a well-written wraparound review David. You bring up some fascinating points.

    I had a good laugh re Garland apologists. I’ve recently become persona non grata within the Peggy Lee “community” for praising James Gavin’s bio of same. I thought we’d left Rabid Protection of Dead Divas behind – as a symptom of gay mental health issues which need not be aired publicly – but the crazy lives on, and flares up from time to time. Let’s not forget something like “Leave Britney Alone!” (I do have a strictly-policed dating rule: gay boys must be discouraged from ever mentioning divas. It tends to distract them from getting on with things, as they say.)

    If childhood trauma breeds pathological ambition, then psychologist Pamela Stevenson’s assertion that the psyche experiences fame as trauma necessarily suggests a compounded mess of a human being put on the pedestal of stardom. We can admire the innate gifts and hard work of an artist, but reasonably it has to stop there for the rest of us. I can enjoy gawking at a wreck on the highway as much as any man, but hell I wouldn’t want to get too close.

    With that in mind, I’ll keep an eye out for Stevie Phillip’s book!

    • David Munk
      June 14, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Rick,

      Perceptive thoughts and much appreciated. I’ll have to check out Pamela Stevenson’s work as this is much more about the fan’s psychology than anything Stevie Phillips (or I) could write about an artist. I was much the same way as these folks when I was an adolescent; before I developed the ability to think critically and for myself.

      Stay in touch. I love your input.

      David

  3. Rick
    June 17, 2015 at 3:07 am
    Reply

    Thanks for the kind words David – I appreciate your writing because it evokes a narrative. Critical thinking invariably opens more doors than it closes, and as far as I’m concerned that’s what makes interesting reading.

    There’s something sad about the arrested development of adult fandomania. Seems to me like a prison which keeps reality out.

    But I wish I’d photographed the many diva shrines I came across as a young bachelor around town. Coupled with some choice insights from the resident priests, it’d make a perfect Stargayzing feature!

    Keep up the good work!

    • David Munk
      June 17, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      Speaking of which, please let me know if you’d like to contribute something. You can email me outside of the comment section and we could spitball some ideas. I love the way you write.

      David

  4. Scott
    June 17, 2015 at 10:33 pm
    Reply

    Excellent article! So very true about the hagiographers out there who try so hard to deify her that her humanity gets lost.

    I love Judy Garland’s amazing talent. That voice. Those performances. But let’s face it, she was human. A human who had an upbringing and adolescence that none of us will ever fully comprehend or relate to. Does that take away from the talent or her brilliance? No. She’s still the best.

    Sad that the “nasties” out there have to vilify everyone who doesn’t pray at the Judy altar. They’re so immersed in their little bubbles of discussion groups that they can’t see the real world to save their lives. But, it’s been like that for decades. I doubt it’s going to get any better.

    Anyway, thanks for the well written and informed article.

    • David Munk
      June 21, 2015 at 7:57 pm

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for checking in and sharing your thoughts. I’ve actually been quite surprised at the tone of some of the FB fan sites, particularly “The Judy Garland Experience,” which would appear to function more like a clique of nasty 8th grade girls than an adult forum for the exchange of ideas. When they finished lashing out at me, they started attacking each other. A rather stunning example of the bilious intersection where celebrity worship meets internet trolling. As my great grandmother would reply when I’d ask her where in Russia we came from, “It’s a terrible place David, you shouldn’t know from it!”

    • Scott
      June 24, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      Thank you!

      Wow. I wish I could say I’m surprised at your experience, but I’m not. I’m sorry for anyone who’s had to go through that. Those people are poison, wrapped in idolatry, parading around as “fans.” They give the rest of us a bad name. At least they’re living up to the negative reputation they’ve created for themselves.

      Social media brings out the crazies more than ever before. They end up clustered together in little covens of groups. It’s an aspect of fandom (any fandom, not just Garland) that is fascinating to watch – from afar (I learned that the hard way). It’s been like that forever. The only difference is now there are so many more mentally unstable people who come out of the woodwork because they have a tool (social media) to be heard. In the old days, one had to be in the clusters of fan groups in the big cities to experience this crap. And crap it is. Don’t try reasoning with these people. And God forbid you disagree on something, especially if you disagree with one of their gods. They will come after you like villagers with pitchforks and fire going after Frankenstein.

      Check out my blog series: “The Judy Garland Wars – or – how I survived the wacky world of Judy Garland fandom.” I address this fairly new aspect of fandom, my experiences (good and bad) with the Garfans and Garfreaks, and a lot more: http://judygarlandnews.com/the-judy-garland-wars/

      Before getting online, I had never seen such negative behavior around the worship of a deceased performer who herself brought happiness and joy to the world. It appears their sense of self-worth is so wrapped up in the hollow acceptance that get online, they’ve subsequently lost all connection to the real world. That’s painfully obvious when looking at their actions (both in public and in their not-as-private-as-they-think shenanigans). It stands to reason that when anyone lives on social media the way they do, 24/7, it’s bound to create a warped sense of reality, or in some cases a complete loss of reality.

      I haven’t read Phillips’ book, so I can’t say anything about it outside of the articles I’ve read. Unlike this group of 8th grade girls (as you so aptly put it), I form my final opinion after actually reading (or listening to or watching) the work in question. I recently read a “review” on Amazon by one of these people. The person stated they hadn’t bought or experienced the product, but still gave it a bad review. Why? Well, that’s what they were told to do by the others in their little group. Very sad.

      Anyway! Keep up the great work, and don’t bother with the crazies.

      🙂

    • David Munk
      June 27, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Hi Scott,

      Thank you for taking the time to check in and reassure me. I have to admit, it was a rather strange experience getting sucked in to their craziness in an attempt to reason with them. And I didn’t even write the book, I just wrote about it! What a weird, warped clique they are. The strangest part is that nobody really cares anymore. Only a psychologist could figure out what the hell is going on with them because as a group they seem to have completely lost the ability to think critically and independently (I won’t go into the notion of reviewing a book they haven’t read).

      I look forward to checking out your link at my soonest opportunity. How can I thank you enough for taking the time to say something encouraging?

      Sincerely,

      David

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