Gemini Twins Jack Kennedy and Judy Garland

Actor Judy Garland and President John F. Kennedy at a June 10, 1960 breakfast fundraiser days before he won the Democratic nomination.

She made much of the fact that they were both born under the same astrological sign. He did not. Making them both typical of Gemini duality.

No matter when they were born, however, it’s not hard to see the factual and mythical commonalities of President John F. Kennedy (born May 29, 1917) and actor Judy Garland (born June 10, 1922) and why a close bond was quickly and tightly struck between them. Even those who didn’t like them personally or agree with them publicly admitted that Jack and Judy had a bright mind, quick wit, hunger for adventure. Both thrived on meeting diverse people and were drawn to new ideas. Each had no hesitation in challenging the status quo of their professions, empowered by their youthful fame and tremendous popularity among people of all ages.

Judy Garland laughing with her friend Peter Lawford in the late 1940s after they co-starred in Easter Parade.

They first met at a New York party following the premier of Garland’s 1954 film A Star is Born, the meeting arranged by her friend and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford, a British actor. Lawford and Garland had co-starred in the film Easter Parade (1948) and through the 50s, to the 1960 presidential election campaign and then into the Kennedy Administration, the actor served as the personal link between the President and his many filmland friends, including “Rat Pack” members like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, as well as women like Marilyn Monroe, Shirley McLaine, dubbed the Kennedys’ “brother-in-Lawford” by Sinatra. In truth, however, the one personality with whom the emotionally guarded JFK felt he could relate and to whom he remained genuinely engaged with as a personal friend was Garland.

Garland and Stevenson. (LA Times)

Six years later, Judy Garland joined a roster of A-list Hollywood stars at a July 10 1960 one-hundred-dollar-a-plate breakfast for the National Democratic Party the day before its presidential convention opened in Los Angeles.

Before he won the nomination, Garland has strongly committed to JFK’s candidacy.

All of the leading contenders were in attendance, including Stuart Symington, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson, no candidate having won the nomination in those days when conventions still served that purpose. Judy Garland, however, was all out for Jack Kennedy, telling a reporter, “He’s magnetic, he’s tough, he’s mature.”

In this compilation of news clips of the events preceding the 1960 Democratic Convention, Garland can be glimpsed seated beside Senate Majority Lyndon B. Johnson, who was nominated at the convention as JFK’s Vice President.

In October, Garland did her part for Kennedy, campaigning for him in Europe, where she attended a Wiesbaden, Germany rally on behalf of the campaign’s Overseas Committee for Contacting Absentee Voters.

Garland performs for US troops in Germany encouraging them to vote by absentee ballot.

In Frankfurt, she admonished U.S. troops stationed there, “Senator Kennedy says, and I agree with him, that the important thing is for absentee Americans to vote one way or the other. Let’s get out the vote,” and then couldn’t help adding her decidedly impolitic political loyalties: “Of course, the main reason I came here is to get votes for ‘my man’.”

Wearing her large JFK for President button.

Garland was in London, on Election Night, attending a party at the Savoy Hotel hosted by the U.S. Ambassador who’d been appointed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. The actor tweaked him a bit, but wearing a giant JFK campaign button to the party. The next morning, she placed a trans-Atlantic call to Jack. Despite his having just won the presidency and inherited the weight of the world, he eagerly took her call.

Jack and Judy soon saw a lot of each other. During the first summer of his presidency, in 1961, she rented a Hyannis Port home just down the road from the First Family and was often invited over for visits, once losing her step after enjoying too many of the deceptively potent lime daiquiris preferred by the President.

Judy also visited Jack in the White House on three occasions. The first time came after she played in Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C.

On her second visit, in 1962, Judy Garland took a cigarette break – against the Oval Office desk of her pal the President. Actor Danny Kaye and presidential aide Dave Powers stand at right.

She and her husband, producer Sidney Luft also visited the President in the White House in early April 1961, invited by Attorney General Robert Kennedy with whom they were visiting at his home in northern Virginia. I hope it isn’t like my last visit. It was the day America and Italy went to war. Franklin D. Roosevelt was pretty busy.” Asked if she met “the First Lady” of the country, Garland quipped in reference to the President’s popular four-year old daughter, “No – Caroline was away.” All of her joking failed to cover what proved to be an emotional experience for her, entering the White House and realizing that a personal friend was President of the United States. She admitted on Jack Paar’s late-night television talk show that she became so overwhelmed with pride in Kennedy, she began to sob, adding with self-deprecation, “It was my biggest moment, my best scene and I blew it.”

A year and a half later, on November 28, 1962, Garland returned to the White House. This time she came with fellow actors Danny Kaye and Carol Burnett to pose for some publicity photos with JFK in the Oval Office to promote a dinner fundraiser to take place a week late.

The fundraiser was a benefit for the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, established by the President’s family to help raise awareness about mental retardation, stimulate new research on the debility and encourage those coping with a mentally retard family member to begin to do so without shame. At the time, the Kennedys had only just then disclosed that the President’s adult sister Rosemary was mentally retarded.

Garland and Lancaster in A Child is Waiting (1962)

The event led off with the Washington premier of the drama, A Child is Waiting, in which Garland played an overly empathetic teacher of retarded children while co-star Burt Lancaster played a hard-nosed school administrator. Variety called it “a poignant, provocative, revealing dramatization.”

Although President Kennedy had been a 22 year old at the time Garland’s most famous role as “Dorothy Gale from Kansas,” in MGM’s Technicolor version of the Frank L. Baum fantasy novel, The Wizard of Oz (1939), the memory of it lingered with him. He found his mood instantly lifted whenever he heard the opening notes of its trademark musical theme, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” On at least two known occasions, President Kennedy just picked up the phone to reach his famous friend and ask that she sing her signature song for him. “Just the first eight bars,” he insisted.

Garland in her famous role from the Wizard of Oz. President Kennedy often asked her to sing for him the first eight bars of the film’s famous song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Likewise, in the spring of 1963, Garland felt free to interrupt him in the Oval Office, asking his advice as she endured conflicts with CBS-TV executives as they began pre-production on what would be the network’s weekly variety program, The Judy Garland Show. Nor was she above putting her connection to the most powerful man on earth to good use. On May 29, 1963, during contentious negotiating with the show’s producer Norman Jewison, Garland picked up a phone and asked for “the president.” Jewison assumed she meant the CBS President. He was floored when, as she conducted her call with him in the room he realized she meant the USA President. Judy was just calling Jack for his birthday and again he asked that she sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” for him.

The President showed a rare sensitivity to the weekly battles the actor had to fight to turn out an episode and remarkable empathy with her nervous anxiety about whether she would prove successful. Without anyone suggesting he do so, President Kennedy dashed off a note to be sent as a telegram to her after The Judy Garland Show premiered in September of 1963: “Congratulations on a wonderful show last night. Know it will be a big hit in the coming season.” Nor did Kennedy stop there, sending a subsequent telegram, re-assuring Garland that he and Jackie tuned in every week: “We have changed our dinner at the White House so we can watch your show.”

Garland with the President, Carol Burnett and Danny Kaye, in the Oval Office, November 1962.

More darkly, both succumbed to a belief of their era that not only condoned a reliance on prescription drugs but encouraged it, resulting in their both taking reckless risks with high stakes – including their health Kennedy lived in perpetual pain due to his injured back and in the 1950s and early 1960’s his professional medical advisors largely treated it with cortisone and other powerful pain killers, rather than building muscle strength. He also took unregulated amphetamine injections from an irresponsible administrator whose professional credentials were unreliable. Some contend that the back brace Kennedy was wearing on November 22 1963 in Dallas prevented his ducking down before the fatal second of three gunshots killed him at age 46 years old.

Hearing that her friend had been assassinated, Garland first ran to the nearby home of Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia Kennedy, the President’s sister to be with them. Although invited to attend the President’s funeral in Washington, Garland was unable to get the time off from CBS, busy rehearsing the fourteenth episode of her show. Scheduled for airing on December 13, 1963, Garland hoped to close the show by singing a medley of patriotic songs, to honor her friend. CBS prevented it, according to executive Mort Lindsay, feeling “it was too heavy or political.” Garland did persist, however, in singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and many entertainment historians contend it is among her finest performances:

Less than five years later, Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a prescription drug overdose, having first been plied with them by film studio advisers when she was a teenager. She had just turned 47 years old.

Judy Garland with candidate Kennedy, 1960.(Bernie Abrahmson)

Despite nearly half a century having passed since Kennedy and Garland have been gone and endless books, dramatizations and documentaries about their deficiencies and weaknesses, both retain a mythological place in the popular imagination, central characters in that idealized Jet Age from 1957 to 1963. The need to believe mere mortals like Jack and Judy were somehow larger than life seems to consistently obscure the fact that the vision of the Kennedy Administration as an enchanted Camelot is as much a romantization of reality as was the land of Oz.


Categories: Hollywood & The White House, The Kennedys

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11 replies »

  1. Carl, fascinating! Who else but you can weave these tales?

  2. Very nice Carl. Judy was one of my favorites. Just a note though, her husband was Sidney Luft not Sidney Lumet.

  3. Lovely, just plain lovely. Thanks Carl.

  4. (My apologies if U rec’d 2x responses my PC “snatched” my 1st attempt).

    I just happen to be reading Darwin Porter’s book on The Kennedys. He makes Kitty Kelly read like old Lady’s Home Journal!. I have read a slew of books re Jack & Jackie, so I can’t say Porter is coming up with all new material but he does have pleanty to diss about. I am surprised at your description of Judy being a real and platonic friend of Pres. Kennedy’s. He was so stoic and “disciplined, in contrast to her nervousness/acting-out behavior. Pres. Kennedy comes across
    as a hero to me, for suffering serious illness & chronic pain. It seems he knew how to handle his booze/drugs well. According to memoirs I’ve read, he never came across as being the slightest bit
    buzzed . Judy, on the other hand, always seemed to be getting disciplined by her studios. That poor lady was put on the Primrose Path of Poppys at a very young age by the very people who
    sought to punish her deviance. Judy started her mornings at MGM with speedy Wheaties & was
    snuggled into bed w/barbiturats chased down with a goblet of champaign.

    I would love to read a biography or narrative on Dr. Feelgood, aka Max Jacobson. I have read that
    Bobby Kennedy had a more traditional view on drugs, be they for real pain or recreation. He wanted to lower the boom on Jacobson, he suspected mischief from Max at the outset. He was very much in favor of the President getting physical therapy & blding muscle, as you put it. Who knows how many other presidents took narcotics? As I read deeper into Darwin-Porter bk, I have
    to wonder when Pres. Kennedy had time to be President with such a full calendar of women?

    Thanks again, Carl for giving us another fascinating back-stage pass to Camelot. For sure JFK’s
    aborted term of the Presidency was not all wine & roses, maybe wine & poppys would be more accurate. I do think, Jack & Jackie were very ambiant people who loved to entertain. They
    also embraced higher forms of culture; no President since Kennedy would show the slightest
    interest in Pablos Casals, or of importing the Mona Lisa for an American showing. Our world
    was more at peace in early 60′s, so Kennedy did not face the heavy burdens of his other peers.
    (exception being Bay of Pigs/and Missel crisis.) We can only guess at how he might have handled
    more serious situations. I like to think it was not all darkness. Based on Jackie’s Oral History
    accounts, she was very much in love with her husband One aide who served Clinton’s admin as
    well as Kennedy’s mentioned how tempermental & difficult Hillary could be; he contrasted the obvious tension between those two & Jack/Jackie. He noted how happy & peaceful JFK
    appeared to be, when he stepped off the private staircase. He was certain Jackie really did
    provide her husband respite from the toils of the Oval Office, she had told one reporter she felt
    her role was to provide a happy tranquil home for her husband & family. She seemed to practice
    what she preached. I did get a real laugh when I heard one of the anchorman broadcasting from
    Mrs. Kennedy’s funeral, that her favorite 1st Lady was Bess Truman! I picture Bess as being
    one cranky lady not the least bit impressed with WH or the role of First Family.

  5. Hi Carl,

    Finally able to access this again!

    Really interesting. I never knew whether Judy’s Kennedy connection was genuine or just sort of built up by her or her fans/biographers. What an interesting duo they make!

    Take care,

    Jake

  6. Brilliant as ever! Thank you for taking us on this amazing journey. And I would like to take this opportunity to say that I’ve been a huge fan of yours for over 15 years. Thank you so much Carl, for everything you have given us. Cheers from Brazil! :)

  7. Wow, what a beautiful piece. Thank you so much for this. As Frank Sinatra said, “The rest of us will be forgotten, never Judy.”
    Wonderfully written. Thank you again.

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