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: My God, you’re a pro! And that’s what’s important. You have to know how to make people feel how you want them to feel. That’s the challenge. That part that I took in Judgment at Nuremberg is a wonderful, wonderful role. It will probably last only about eight minutes on the screen, but what happens in those eight minutes is important, and it was challenging. The whole feeling was challenging — Stanley Kramer, the director, and Spencer Tracy, and a great script. I’ve always wanted to work with Stanley Kramer. I have a great admiration for him. Why does an actress take a part like that? Because the correct people are involved. Much more important than billing and starring.

NC: Billing and starring are the two most boring words in the lexicon. As long as when you’re up there you do it right.

JG: You were certainly the star last night [at a party for cast and friends after the opening of Sail Away].

NC: Thank you, darling. There were far too many people there. But I was slightly proud that they had taken that picture of me looking like a very old bull moose and put it up in place of the portrait of George Washington. In Boston, of all places! Considering the Boston Tea Party, this was really very kind of them. I imagine they’ve forgiven us for that now.

JG: (laughing): At least you’ve been forgiven.

NC: I was absolutely exhausted. I’ve been working frightfully hard these last few weeks — we had been rehearsing during the day — and then opening night. The first night is always an ordeal. However successful you are, you’re always nervous that first night. But it went wonderfully and I was very happy. I came back to the hotel, washed my face and hands, had a drink and then I thought, Now, this must be done properly because everybody is coming to the party. It’s my turn to give a performance — at midnight. Then you came. And you stopped being Judy and became Judy Garland. And I was no more Noël. I was Noël Coward, debonair, witty, charming and ...

JG: ... and I was Dorothy Adorable.

NC: And you were just Dorothy Adorable, and we smiled and we took the show. And there we both were, together with a lot of people who stood around waiting for us to be charming and clever and entertaining. We were such good sorts. My dear, going on being such good sorts in public for a long time is very wearing, because we weren’t feeling really in good sorts at all. What we wanted to do is get away and ...

JG: and put on some slacks and sprawl out on the floor.

NC: ... put on some — take off our shoes and have a drink and discuss show business. That’s what is really interesting. In all the concerts I did for the troops during the war, the only thing I dreaded was the party given after the show by the commanding officer. I might have done five concerts in a day in the heat of Burma, but the officers would still expect me to come to their party. And then, after giving me a couple of drinks to help me relax, they would come out with it: “How about giving us a few numbers?” You want to clobber them. You’re dead. But you say yes.

JG: You do it. You do it.

NC: You do it. And you go home screaming.

JG: I’m getting so [old] I wonder why I do it anymore. But I still do. I suppose it’s something we never —

NC: We’re show people.

JG: I suppose. Once in London, I remember, I was invited to a party. First I had to do some recording, and it took hours. I had five or six recordings, and you know that means doing them over and over — and I sing terribly loud. It was late, and I called and said I’d be late for the party. When I finally arrived, I found that everybody had already eaten and just the leftovers were still on the table — you know, awful bits of cold ham and wilted lettuce. I was so hungry that when the hostess brought me a miserable looking plate, I started eating. “Now,” she said, “Kay [Thompson] is at the piano, and everybody’s been waiting for you to sing.” I said, “I’ve just been singing for five hours, you know” But what could I do? Kay and I sang for another three hours. Then we went home on our hands and knees. Just so tired. But the people really were standing like statues and they had been there all evening.

NC: They get it for nothing. Getting it for nothing. They say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could persuade her to sing?” That’s all right. That’s fine. But what is irritating is to be taken for granted, when they expect you to perform come hell or high water. With or without an accompanist, whether or not you’ve just finished working, you are expected to sing. And as soon as you start — everybody starts to talk.

JG: Oh, darling, they don’t do that to you too!

NC: I’ll tell you one little story that happened during the war. I came back to Cairo after a long, hot day entertaining in one hospital after another, and I found a message saying King Farouk was giving a party that evening and would I please come? So I obediently had a shower and got into a white dinner jacket and went off to one of the most boring social affairs imaginable. My eye caught a very nasty-looking upright piano, and I thought, Hello, hello — this is it! And King Farouk, covered in medals, came up and asked me very courteously, “Mr. Coward, would you sing us a few songs?” I thought it discourteous to say that I don’t like playing for myself while I sing, so I agreed. I went to the piano and sang a number and everyone was fairly attentive but restless. Then I started on “Night and Day” — I can play it well and I’ve got a good arrangement. And I did the drip-drip-drip of the raindrops and all the rest, with everyone quiet except King Farouk, who was busy impressing the lady next to him. He was so rude that I lost my temper. So I got to the chorus and sang, “In the roaring traffic’s boom” and then I went, “In the SILENCE!” He stopped dead, and there was a terrible hush, and then I continued blithely, “of my lonely room, I think of you.”

JG: (laughing): Lovely!

NC: In the old days, when we entertainers were considered rogues and vagabonds and we weren’t received socially—which of course saved us an enormous amount of boredom — we were bloody well paid for performing. We might be shown in through the servants’ quarters, but that was all right. You’d sing your song and get five hundred quid for it.

JG: When I was at Metro — I don’t think I was much over twelve years old, and they didn’t know what to do with me because they wanted you either five years old or eighteen, with nothing in between. Well, I was in between, and so was little Deanna Durbin, and they didn’t know what to do with us. So we just went to school every day and wandered around the lot. Whenever the important stars had parties, though, they called the casting office and said “Bring those two kids.” We would be taken over and we would wait with the servants until they called us into the drawing room, where we would perform. We never got five hundred quid, though. We got a dish of ice cream — and it would always be melted.

NC: But I’m talking about the ... the big stars now — not kids. In the old days the big stars were common trash, however big the star.

JG: With certain groups I still feel that I’m being taken up as a kind of — you know, sort of, oh, it’s fun with Judy Garland. She’s fun! She sings! You feel you’re being used as a kind of foolish court jester who’ll be dropped next season when the newest property comes in.

NC: Oh, yes, and after you’ve done your number, darling, without any rehearsal and no lighting and no rest, someone says, “My, doesn’t he look old.”

JG: (laughing): Or fat.

NC: But, of course, it is no use ever expecting society to understand about show business or entertainers because they never do, do they?