Manuel Betancourt, on what Judy Garland meant to the women that listened to her.
As soon as I sat down to write about Judy Garland I knew I’d be entering into a conversation that’s been going on for decades. The avid fandom Garland inspires is almost as legendary as the star herself. Years before the world caught Beatlemania—and decades before self-anointed “stans” would dub themselves Swifties, Lambies, Little Monsters and the like—Judy fans epitomized a kind of devotion that was hard to put into words without sounding hyperbolic.
Writing about the ravenous fan base that emerged alongside Garland’s concert era (“the Garland cult” as it was unofficially dubbed), biographer Anne Edwards explains that the singer had tapped into the nation’s rejects (“the men and women who had never been accepted as they were”): Judy’s incredible comeback(s), she writes, “caused them to rise up and at any cost to reach her, to let her know she was not alone, that they would protect her, that they understood, that they accepted her for herself and perceived her need for both a dialogue and an outstretched hand.” Gay men were at the forefront of that community of misfits, happy to have found in Garland a performer whose tragedy and resilience (like their own) went hand in hand.
Those “boys in the tight trousers,” her “ever-present little bluebirds” as Time magazine euphemistically referred to them at the time (William Goldman was not so kind, outright talking about the “flutter of fags” that filled up Garland’s closing night at The Palace in 1967), were drawn to Garland precisely because she spoke their language. This image of Garland’s gay fans is central to my book’s engagement with Judy at Carnegie Hall. But the Garland fandom doesn’t consist solely of gay men fawning over the legendary diva, finding inner strength in her own glittering resilience. As Susie Boyt illustrates in her memoir My Judy Garland Life, the way women look up to and find solace in Judy is just as fascinating an instantiation of how keenly the young girl with the big voice projected an image that many around the world could identify with. Always teetering between grace and awkwardness, between the sublime and the tragic, she was a star who felt tailor-made for anyone who felt not quite at home in their own body.
Moreover, while gay male fans have long been an easy entrypoint through which to examine Judy’s own queer appeal (see: the appropriation of expressions like “friends of Dorothy” and “best Judy” within the queer community), Ann Pellegrini’s academic article “Unnatural Affinities: Me and Judy at the Lesbian Bar” tackles head on, for example, what it means to connect with Garland as a woman coming into her queerness.
“I started devouring Judy bios at an ‘unnaturally’ early age,” she confesses, her own tomboyness finding a fixture in Judy’s characters on screen and her off-screen persona. “Her struggle with the ‘wrong’ body resonated with my own sense of being not quite at home in my own—except when I was onstage. This is one of the points at which I queerly connect with Judy.” If one of the things that made Judy so appropriable for gay men was her in-betweenness, she wonders, “why does her position in between not also make her the perfect girl for me?”
The question is rhetorical. The reason why Judy resonates all these years later and why Judy at Carnegie Hall remains such a perfect encapsulation of her appeal is that, no matter what she was singing, it always felt like she was singing it just to you, whether you were a gay boy swooning over Dorothy, a little girl who looked up to Esther in her trolley, or a young queer woman finding in Garland’s on-screen persona someone equally alluring and comforting.
Intrigued by the relationship Judy had with her fans? Check out Manuel’s book to learn more about Garland’s cult following.