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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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