Iconic singer. Larger-than-life movie and TV star. Tragically vulnerable Hollywood legend. To her legions of fans, followers and biographers, Judy Garland was all of those things.
But to her children, she was someone else entirely. “Yes, she had tragedies in her life, but she wasn’t tragic,” observes Judy’s middle child, Lorna Luft, 68. And her youngest, Joey Luft, 66, agrees: “I remember having a lot of fun with her when we were alone.”
Indeed, despite her fabled drive to succeed and her heartbreaking struggle with addiction, Judy was a different person — with different priorities — when she was alone with Lorna, Joey and, of course, her eldest, Liza Minnelli, 75, who followed most closely in her footsteps. “One of the biggest misconceptions about my mama is that she didn’t provide me with a happy childhood,” Liza says. “There were highs and lows, for sure, but I can say I was very happy.”
From the start, Liza loved spending time with her mother, whom she remembers as “very funny,” and “incredibly intelligent.” Despite their adventurous lifestyle (which included living in New York City’s Plaza hotel for a time), Liza says Judy was “protective and very strict.” And young Liza was protective as well. When Judy was feeling down, the 5-year-old could sense it and would tickle her in order to lift her spirits.
That sense of kinship only grew as Liza entered her teenage years. As the child of two Hollywood A-listers (her dad was famed director Vincente Minnelli), Liza was constantly changing schools and found it difficult to maintain friendships. But Judy filled that gap. “My fondest memory of my mama was the conversations we had,” the two-time Oscar winner shares. “As a teenager, I became her best friend and confidante. We would laugh and talk for hours.”
During those conversations, Judy was patient, kind and supportive. Though Liza recalls that “Mama got angry at [fans and press] for asking me questions about her,” she never took that anger out on her daughter. And when Liza decided to follow in Judy’s footsteps as an entertainer, Judy was encouraging from the get-go — even letting her steal the spotlight as a frequent guest star on The Judy Garland Show.
Performing with her mother, Liza experienced for the first time the difference between Judy Garland’s public persona and the woman she knew and loved. “It was the strangest feeling,” Liza remembers. “One minute, I was on stage with my mother, the next moment, I was on stage with Judy Garland. One minute, she smiled at me, the next minute, she was like the lioness that owned the stage.”
In private, though, Judy was always Mama. And while Liza was heartbroken by her 1969 death, at 46, of a barbiturate overdose, Liza still feels her mother’s calming presence. “When I call on her, she’s there,” she shares. “And I call on her a lot.”