Judy Garland: The Cost of Oz

Judy Garland has been immortalised in each film she starred in. The Wizard of Oz is one story that will stay as long as film itself. Though, her own story is a cautionary one.

A true star was born on June 10, 1922. She was born Frances Ethel Gumm, but it’s Judy Garland the world calls her. Born into a vaudeville family, to parents who considered having an alleyway abortion due to already having two children, she was immediately shown the stage.

“The only time I felt wanted as a kid was when I was on stage, performing,” Garland told TV Radio Mirror in 1963. “The stage was my only friend, the only place where I felt alive and comfortable and safe.”

Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz
Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd

The following are little-known facts that surround the legend, and paint a picture very few would like to inhabit.

Her Last Farewell

Having tragically passed away in London on June 22, 1969, her body was embalmed and brought to America, where she was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in New York. Despite the tragedy of her sudden death at only 47, her debts followed her and her family.

It was her daughter, Liza Minnelli, who had to pay off her debts by working alongside her mother’s close friend, Frank SinatraOnly nine years later, in 1978, a sale of some of her belongings finally settled the matter of her inheritance and financial troubles and gave her, in death, the repose that she never could find while alive.

The Coroner’s Report

Garland’s coroner revealed that it was her long-time addiction to barbiturates (what she called her ‘bolts and jolts’) that slowly poisoned her to death. The autopsy showed that she hadn’t taken the anxiolytics and anticonvulsants all at once, but over the years, and this build-up of barbiturates eventually produced an overdose.

The same pills her own mother made her take from just 10 years old. 

Allegations of Garland’s suicide/accidental death

Having just turned 47 years old and at the end of her life, Garland was mentally and physically exhausted. The cause of her death led many to think it was suicide. If not suicide, then accidental. Suffering from bulimia her whole adult life, her obituary declared that she “suffered from hepatitis, exhaustion, kidney ailments, nervous breakdowns, near-fatal drug reactions, overweight, underweight and injuries suffered in falls.”

The pills she’d been taking since childhood, along with what MGM forced her to take whilst filming The Wizard of Oz, instigated the process of her body breaking itself down.

Financial hardship

After having to sell their own house for a low price in order to make some money, she was still being used by her agents. The embezzlement of her earnings by Freddie Fields and David Begelma, were her main concern. Due to the embezzlement, as well as her natural generosity to both friends and family, her finances were almost gone.

However, financial relief came for Garland with a twenty-seven-show contract at the New York’s Palace Theatre. As she owned 75% of the revenue, the last show alone produced over $200,000 for the artist.

Unable to pay her taxes from 1951 on, it wasn’t until the performance that the money was taken from her. On that same last night, a group of IRS agents were waiting for her backstage. They immediately took away most of this income as payment for her debts with the government agency.

Four marriages and leaving one more

Amongst this abuse, her parters did not support her, or provide the love that she craved. Her third husband, Sid Luft, forced her to get an abortion during her youth to maintain her public image as a young girl. In 1963, she divorced him. Her fourth husband whom she married in 1965, Mark Herron, would abuse her physically, though he maintains it was self-defence.

Her last marriage was to Mickey Deans, a nightclub owner. It was Deans who would find the star dead in her bathroom only months later.

Mental Health

The drugs forced on her, the criticism from family, Hollywood and reporters alike, all culminated in the deterioration of her mental health. The tortured artist had been suffering from depression for most of her life. She’d been in psychiatric treatment at just 18 years old. She had also suffered three nervous breakdowns by the age of 23.

It was also during her third marriage to Luft that she attempted suicide no less than 20 times. It was this tragic mental decline that was, along with her drug abuse, the leading cause of her passing. The glitz and success most only dream of couldn’t save Garland. Similar to Elvis Presley, they were the first of any kind to experience the ‘success’ they did. And felt the weight more than any other.


We remember her name fondly, hum to a song she made legendary, or merely think of Dorothy’s shoes. We remember them because Judy Garland made them immortal. Her young age, abuse or mental decline didn’t stop her. As she will now live forever in her films, it’s her legacy we should honour.

Her story is a cautionary tale of abuse, but one that needs to be told. Judy Garland will never be forgotten.