Judy Garland-again? Is there really anyone left who still gives two hoots in Oz about her sad life and squalid death? You had better believe it. Thirty-one years after America's first lady of victimhood popped her last pill, the publication of Gerald Clarke's Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (Little, Brown; 510 pages) has been greeted by enough hoopla to elect a Senator, including a monthlong Turner Classic Movies marathon and the reissue on 24-karat-gold audiophile CDs of Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, which is to the Cult of Dorothy what Are You Experienced? is to air guitarists.
But aren't we all tired of pitying Judy? Not just yet. Thanks to candid interviews with hitherto-silent sources, plus a peek at a previously unpublished memoir by Garland herself, the author of Capote has miraculously contrived to tell the old, old story-the uppers and downers, the stage mother from hell, the lascivious studio execs and malevolent managers, the boyfriends (and girlfriends) and gay husbands (and father)-with a freshness and factual clarity that scarcely seem possible. This is the Garland bio to read if you're reading only one.
The fearful ups and downs of Judy Garland's life are ideally suited to the horror-show style of biography Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed "pathography." But though Clarke is frank, you never feel he is piling up sordid details just for fun. He suffers with her every time she repeats the cycle of "a brilliant start, several years of spectacular success-and then disaster" that marked her career from beginning to end.
The only thing missing from Get Happy is a serious discussion of Garland's musicianship. "I never heard anybody sing ... just the way you do," an amazed James Mason tells her in A Star Is Born. Truer words were never scripted. Dumpy and unglamorous, she acted the way Frank Sinatra did, as an intuitive extension of the complex persona she had first painstakingly built up with her voice alone. When Hollywood finally slammed its doors in her drug-raddled face, she moved into concert halls and sang her way back to superstardom. An ideal biography would have had something memorable to say about that molten mezzo voice and the shrewd musical mind behind it.
In every other way, though, Get Happy is an exemplary attempt to answer the unanswerable question: Why could she never plug the jagged hole in her heart? Much of her appeal lies in our inability to explain away her bottomless neediness. "You can write down everything Lana Turner ever thought and felt and meant, and then put the pencil down," claimed Garland amour Joe Mankiewicz (the director and screenwriter of All About Eve). "That's it, a closed book. But I don't think anybody's going to close the book on Judy Garland." Not even Gerald Clarke-but he comes close.