With Judy at the Pump Room, 1967.
Though my acquaintance with Judy Garland was a brief one, it was powerful in a lot of ways… an experience I’ll never forget.
My first glimpse of the legend came in the spring of 1967. It was late in the afternoon and there had been a big rainstorm in Chicago. The basement of the Ambassador East Hotel was flooded and the elevators weren’t working. Judy was staying in the penthouse.
The assistant manager came running through the lobby, breathlessly saying, “She’s coming! And she’s hungry.” Judy arrived soon after, wearing a big hat with which she had just descended sixteen flights of stairs. After being seated in Booth One of the Pump Room, she couldn’t help but laugh about the whole experience, like a kid who’d just been allowed to do something totally out of the ordinary for a change. She was in Chicago on her way from Los Angeles to New York, having just been fired from the upcoming movie Valley of the Dolls.
A few months later, in the fall of 1967, she was back at the Pump Room again, having just completed her opening night at the Civic Opera House here in the city. Her voice was just a whisper of what it once was, but audiences everywhere still went wild every time she opened her mouth. The unspoken questions always lingered though:
“Will she make it?”
“Will she even show up, let alone perform?”
She was a legend whose reputation had followed her everywhere, along with her fame. And now history and expectation mingled in a sort of frenzied way whenever people thought of her. Sadness and admiration mixed with an undeniable affection and produced a hope that her tomorrows would be better than her todays. It’s hard to explain. But there wasn’t another performer alive who could generate those kinds of feelings from an audience.
That evening, I struck up the band as she walked into the room, playing all the songs she was known for. She wasn’t in Booth One that night, simply because there were too many people who wanted to sit with her. Instead, she was seated at a long table in the center of the room… along with every newspaper columnist in town.
She sent a note to the bandstand later that evening, thanking me for remembering her songs.
“What happiness you are bringing me tonight,” it said.
It is a memento I shall always cherish.
The next evening, Judy was back at the same table, with just as many people. Sid Luft, her ex-husband, was managing the tour, and was with her every night. So was Bobby Cole, her conductor. When things wound-down around 1:00 AM, I was invited up to Judy’s suite along with a few other people. She wanted us to hear her new recording – Judy at the Palace – which had just been released earlier that day.
The hallway outside of her suite smelled like a flower shop, the fragrance growing ever-stronger as we approached. And once inside, it was like a scene from Al Capone’s funeral! Every flower in Chicago had to have been collected and sent to her suite! There were stacks of letters and telegrams all over the place.
She walked over to the phonograph and put on her new record, then took a seat on the floor and invited us to join her. When the music started to play, I was curious about her own reaction to the recording. She never said a word, but her expression said she was aware she’d sounded better in the past. The record was from her Palace Theater concert a month before; her voice was nowhere what it used to be… and you could tell she knew it.
What struck me most as the evening wore on was how tiny she was, how frail she looked. With the dark circles around her eyes, she seemed so tired. At around 2:30 in the morning, it was as though a bell went off that everyone heard but me. Sid left and returned to his room, then Bobby Cole stood up and said he was tired. Before long, the only person who remained was me.
I’d figure out much later that her ex-husband and conductor kept her company each morning on the road, as she couldn’t bear to be alone. And me? Without any advance agreement, I was the relief… for tonight at least. I was completely in awe of her, and loving every minute of it.
“Stay and have a drink with me, Stanley,” she pleaded, sounding so much like a little girl when she said it. “I’m not even close to tired yet.”
“Oh my God!” I thought. “What am I going to talk about?” Then I spotted a little spinet piano in the corner of her suite, sat down, and started to play. She lit up a cigarette and took a big puff, sat down beside me, and started to sing. They were soft, whispered melodies, perfectly in tune. It was beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there beside her, the legend singing so intimately to me. I was entranced.
“If only she’d sound that way on her recording,” I thought, but studios weren’t big on recording whispering those days. I’d give anything today to have a tape of the way she sang that night.
No sooner would I finish one song than she’d chime in, “Stanley, do you know this Gershwin or Irving Berlin song?” I eventually figured out that music was a refuge for her, that music stilled whatever demons roamed within. I was never more grateful than I was that night to have learned all those songs so many years before.
People ask me if she was drinking all the time, if there were drugs and so on. Well, the truth is, there were watered-down vodka and tonics; she always had a drink ready, but was never drunk. As far as the drugs are concerned, I really don’t know for sure. But she had to be on something, as she would disappear into the bathroom pretty often and was always filled with a sort of nervous energy.
Next week in Classic Chicago Stanley Paul and Judy Garland: a duo in the gossip columns.