Judy Garland and Noël Coward Let Loose

In this excerpt from Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters, two of the greatest showbiz legends ever talk about the agony, the ecstasy, and the wilted lettuce of a life in the spotlight.



JG: Do you really mean that, darling? What do you mean?

NC: Well, my dear, the race is to the swift. In our profession the thing that counts is survival. Survival. It’s comparatively easy, if you have talent, to be a success. But what is terribly difficult is to hold it, to maintain it over a period of years. You see, nowadays, when everything is promotion and the smallest understudy has a personal manager and an agent rooting for her and a seven-year contract with somebody, they don’t take the time to learn their jobs. Then after their first success they run into difficulty — they have personal problems. And when public performers allow personal problems to interfere with their public performances, they are bores.

JG: Yes, and if they’re haunted and miserable off stage, they are still bores. Because they are entertainers, and entertainers receive so much approval and love — and for heaven’s sake, that’s what we’re all looking for, approval and love. And they receive it every night and in every way. If they are good, they receive adoration, applause ...

NC: Applause, cheers, flowers.

JG: And if they insist on leaving the stage and going — Well, I did this for many years. I was the most awful bore. I went offstage and I’d go into my own little mood and remember all the miserable things and how tragic it was — and it wasn’t tragic at all, really. I was just a plain bore. And I think anybody who clings to this tragic pose is a poseur — a phony.

NC: Self-pity.

JG: It’s self-pity, and there’s nothing more boring than self-pity.

NC: And it’s a very great temptation — particularly when you’re a star and you know that you have an enormous amount of responsibility, you are liable to fall into the trap of self-pity. If somebody doesn’t please you or something goes wrong, you fall into the trap — you make a scene, which is quite unnecessary. If you’re an ordinary human being working in an office every day, you wouldn’t behave like that. No, an entertainer has to watch his legend and see that he stays clear and simple.

JG: But you’ve always done this, Noël. Now, I’ve known you for years. You’ve always done this. You are a terribly wise man who in spite of many facets of talent and brilliance and so forth has kept your mind in complete order and your emotions in order. You have great style and great taste. Weren’t you ever inclined to fall into a sort of self-pity?

NC: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

JG: Oh, good. It makes me feel much better, because I really did it for a long time.

NC: After all, Judy, darling, I’m much older than you.

JG: Not much anymore, darling. Nobody is.

NC: I’ve been in the theater fifty-one years, and all my early years were spent in understudying, in touring companies and everything. But then I had my first successes, and they came when I was terribly young. I was only in my early twenties. The Vortex opened in London on my twenty-fifth birthday. After that I went through a dangerous phase. Suddenly everything I did became a great success. I didn’t realize what danger I was in. I had made this meteoric rise, I had five plays running, I was the belle of the ball—and they got sick of it. And I got careless. I thought it was easy to be a success, and it’s never easy.

JG: No. No, it never is.

NC: I wrote one or two things that weren’t so good. And at the age of twenty-seven I found myself booed off the stage by the public on an opening night, and outside the stage door someone spat at me. That was a shock. It didn’t hurt me, though. I was rather grateful for the bitter experience, for being shown I wasn’t quite as clever as I thought I was.

JG: You were grateful to the public?

NC: Yes, they judge what they see — and it’s up to me to make them see what I want them to see. Now, for instance, last night [the Boston opening of Noël Coward’s new play, Sail Away] they came into that theater and they got a first impression. I had everything on my side. I had an extremely good cast, very good orchestra, wonderful choreography —

JG: And very good music and very good material, darling.

NC: Which I’m very proud of. But what was wrong with it — and I know this — was, there are certain moments when it needs tightening. There are certain numbers that occur here when they should occur there. The first part of the play goes too long without an up number. There are a whole lot of lines that might have been hilariously funny but didn’t get over, and with two good audiences. So now those lines will be cut, that’s what.

JG: Gosh, I didn’t — I may sound stupid, but I don’t remember a good line that anybody missed.

NC: There wasn’t a good line that anybody missed. It was the bad lines. (He laughs.)

JG: I don’t remember a bad line.

NC: Tonight I shall sit in that theater with my secretary and make a note of every line I’m going to cut, and I should think there’ll be over fifty. I’ve already cut four scenes and three big numbers.