Every time Judy went out on stage and did a concert, she gave 100% of herself. To watch her do that, to watch that talent and the expression of feelings that was so deeply felt in every song that she rendered and to watch the audience respond to that was magic–it was absolutely magical every time Judy was on the stage.
ON THE ROAD WITH
AN INTERVIEW WITH
BY ALEX NAGORSKI
It’s no secret that Judy Garland’s life was filled with more tragedies than rainbows.
But in her fascinating new memoir, Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me, Garland’s former manager and chaperone, Stevie Phillips, paints a jaw-dropping portrait of the Hollywood icon unlike any of the countless before it. Detailing her life on the road with Garland as she attempted to aid America’s former sweetheart into rehabilitating her image and resurrecting her career, Phillips quickly became both witness and victim to the shocking, sad, and painful behavior that would not long after result in Garland’s death.
The tell-all (which also goes into detail about Phillips’ relationship with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli) is a gripping and jarring look at the crippling effects of addiction and fame through the eyes of someone who was brought down by it from the sidelines. I chatted with Phillips, now 78, about her experiences with Judy, the woman behind the myth, how Liza inadvertently changed her life, finding new sources of inspiration, and more.
NAGORSKI: To start off, why did you wait until now to tell your stories and publish this book?
PHILLIPS: You have to put a lot of distance between yourself and events like that after they take place. Over the years, I found that my response to them was constantly changing and when it got to a point that it didn’t change anymore, I started. Then I wondered about whether or not I should write the book or not. I put it down half a dozen times, and each time I put it down, it was a year, or two, or five. And I guess between starting it and two years ago, I finally finished.
You grew up idolizing Judy Garland. Then, you spent four years as the manager of her comeback tour and her 24/7 babysitter. When did she stop being someone you looked up to and instead became someone completely different?
Right away. When I saw how incredibly addicted she was, how incredibly needy she was, how incredibly sad she was, I recognized that this was immediately not the person I fell in love with on the screen. This was somebody else entirely. And while I wanted to love her, it was very hard. She put me through my paces and it was all out of the pain she was in, and the pain she was in was continually exacerbated by the amount of drugs that she took.
The book is full of harrowing stories about your experiences with Judy – like when she set the nightgown she was wearing on fire, when she slit her wrists in front of you while smiling, when she molested you in the back of a car, and when she came after you with a knife, to name a few. When you think back on all the time you spent together, what would you say was a moment that defined the relationship you two had?
Well, the one that I think of first always is the vacation that we took in the Caribbean. Because when the boat was being hurled around like a key in a maelstrom, I really thought I was going to lose my life. I really thought it was over. When I think about it now, I say to myself, “My god, what did you let yourself in for?” Of course, going on that vacation, I had no idea what was coming, but it was an awful moment because unlike all the others, I could not control it. Once, Judy fell in Las Vegas and she was bleeding on the floor. I could get control of that. I could get a doctor, I could get her help, and could do what I needed to. When we were in the Plaza Hotel and she lit a fire, I could deal with that. But when we were on the boat, it was completely out of my control and that was beyond awful.
Do you have any positive memories of working with Judy or did the sheer chaos of the job prevent that?
Oh no, it didn’t prevent that from happening at all. I have absolutely wonderful memories. Every time she went out on stage and did a concert, she gave 100 percent of herself. To watch her do that, to watch that talent and the expression of feelings that was so deeply felt in every song that she rendered and to watch the audience respond to that was magic. It was absolutely magical every time she was on the stage. And I think back on that and think to myself, “What an extraordinarily talented person she was.” Which makes the tragedy all the greater. And I can think as well about being called out on the stage to sing with her, and as terrified as I was – and I was absolutely – when I think back on it now, I think to myself, “Whoa, how many people did that happen to?” You know? It was extraordinary.
At one point, you found a doctor who was able to give you placebo replacements of all of Judy’s Ritalin. Did you notice any behavioral differences when she would take these in place of the real pills?
I know this is absolutely ridiculous, but there were no changes. I noticed nothing. Nothing was different.
You wrote that Judy “became my teacher” in that she clarified for you “how to” and “how not to” live. Can you elaborate a bit on this please?
Sure. First of all, I understood as I dealt with the situations that I faced that I had the brains, if not entirely the stomach, to cope. And the more experience that I had in front of me, the more I understood that I knew what tools were at my disposal. My brains, my efficiency, my ability to organize. And I took advantage of all those things more and more and more. I was able to take control of the situation with a certain amount of experience that allowed me to know upfront, “Oh, you can handle this.” It was the armor that she provided me to face the world. It was very quickly gained because the alternative was that she might die and I couldn’t let that happen.
Speaking of that, many times in the book, you mention that you were scared that Judy might actually kill herself under your watch and that you would be to blame. How were you able to separate those anxieties and guilty feelings to continue doing your job?
I guess the point is that when you find yourself in a situation that is just so awful, those thoughts are quickly banished by doing what you have to do. You don’t think about “maybe she could die on my watch” until it’s all over and you’re wondering about the next one and hoping that it doesn’t come. But when you’re in the moment, you’re totally there, you’re doing what you have to and nothing enters your mind except “do this, do this, do that. This is what’s next.”
At one point, you wonder whether singing or being in love was more important to Judy. Did writing this memoir answer that question for you in any way?
I think that being in love was. I think that being needed and being adored … now a good part of that came from the audience to be sure. To try and minimize that just isn’t valid. She got a lot of love from the audience and it was important to her. But the love of a man was so necessary. That was one-on-one, that was close at hand. I can’t in any way minimize the importance of that. There was a center of Judy that just didn’t exist. It was like fifty percent of her was missing, and that fifty percent had to be supplied by the love of somebody close to her, somebody who adored her. And that was a man. Unfortunately she picked the wrong men.
Right, and you wrote that sometimes the reason her behavior was so drastic was to get the attention of these men.
Yes. David Begelman was a pig. I don’t know what to say besides that. He was awful.
Are you still able to watch any of Judy’s films or listen to any of her records and enjoy them purely as a fan? Or was her enormous talent too tainted by your experiences with her?
Sometimes I’m able to do that and appreciate it all over again. I can be channel-surfing and see a film that she was in and think to myself, “My god, she was glorious.” It was such a superb talent. There was nothing that she couldn’t do. But sometimes I can’t. I guess it depends on the mood I’m in or on other things that are going on in the day. Sometimes I can listen to her sing and know that her voice could wrap itself around a note and just do amazing things. It had a different timber than any other voice that I’ve ever heard and it was miraculous. And sometimes I will hear that voice talking into a microphone and I just say, “Oh no, I can’t do this, forget it.”
How do you respond to some critics who may say that it’s exploitative to publish this book when Judy is no longer around to defend herself?
It hurts. First of all, the book is about my journey and I was anxious to write about addiction. I know that there are authorities on addiction and I’m not one of them, but I am one whose life was completely impacted by hers and by many other people’s in show business. And it finally brought me down. I know how many people it taints to be around an addicted person. It radiates out – it’s the family members, it’s the friends, it’s the professionals that work. One person can hurt, easily I’m sure, the lives of twenty-five surrounding. Or maybe it’s fifty or even one hundred. In Judy’s case, it was lots and lots of people. And I wanted to write about my journey. It’s my book. It’s not a book about her, it’s a book about what happened to me.
Some of your other clients included Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Al Pacino, and Robert Redford. Who was the biggest picnic to work with in comparison to the traumatic experiences you had gone through with Judy?
I loved working with Robert Redford. People called him “Ordinary Bob” but he was very far from ordinary. He was smart, he was funny, he had great ideas and he had great creative reach. He introduced me to things that I hadn’t thought about or done before. As I wrote about in the book, the greatest gift was the West. I started living in Colorado part time. I learned how to ski. I became a good skier because of him and became very close to challenging him. I became a hiker, a mountain climber, and at the end of the book, I climb Kilimanjaro for my 60th birthday. I wanted to prove that if I could do that at 60, I could stay in show business. And so I have.
That’s incredible. After you left working with Judy, you became an agent at Creative Management Agency, where Liza Minnelli became your first client. You launched her career but found yourself out of a job when she suddenly dropped you without any explanation. How did you react to this shocking decision?
I was so shocked that I could do nothing. I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. It was humiliating. Even though I was an agent with a big reputation, I couldn’t go elsewhere because I couldn’t bring Liza along with me. I couldn’t go back to where I’d been earning a big salary because Mickey Rudin made it clear that somebody else would now be representing her. I was paralyzed. But one never knows where opportunity is coming from and an opportunity came to my door that I never expected and that I did not write about in the book because it was not relevant.
Lola Redford had a consumer advocacy group that I was a member of. She brought in various speakers from time to time to talk about clean and green, and amongst the speakers, she brought in a solar architect. Since I was very into environmental issues, this guy intrigued me. He was doing a solar experiment on the Lower East Side, and working on it turned out to be one of the most exciting and proudest things I ever did in my life.
The project on the Lower East Side was called the “Sweat Equity Project,” where you put in your sweat and you got equity. It had, prior to it being gutted, been a crack house. It was 1977 and addiction was rampant in that part of town. When Travis Price, the solar architect that I got intrigued with, went to the foreman and said, “I’d like to put solar in this building,” the foreman said, “Sure. You can put solar panels on the roof.” And Travis did that, including a windmill. I was just a do-gooder who was following him and banging drywall into the walls during the day. But Travis, who was a solar genius, did something that had never been tried: he reversed the Consolidated Edison meter, and fed the excess power generated by the solar back into the system, charging kind of at the same rate they were charging the people in the building.
Well, that year, there was a blackout in New York City. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember that, Alex, but there wasn’t a light on; not a traffic light, not a light in the house, not a light anywhere. And that was exactly when the New York Times decided to sue Travis, and it was on the front page of the paper because Consolidated Edison had a fit. It so happened that Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General of the United States, was flying over New York and landing at Kennedy, and saw one light on on the lower East Side. He read the article in the New York Times and decided to defend Travis and the little company he and I put together called Sun Harvester. We won, and as a result of that, it became a statutory law across the United States that if you generate alternative energy and feed it back into your local utilities grid, you can charge that company the same rates they charge you. It is now the law, and Sun Harvester is written up in most architectural 101 books. I’m very proud of that.
I can imagine! Professionally, what did you find to be the biggest differences between Judy and Liza?
Judy’s voice was unique. Liza was a great entertainer but – and of course, so was Judy – but Judy’s voice was just different. Judy had great instincts about herself, what made a fine performance, what she should look like, what the arrangement should be like. She knew right down to every last little detail that impacted on her and on her stardom. She really understood. Liza was not there. Liza was not that defined an entertainer.
You found a new sense of purpose when you saw a musical production at the Actors’ Studio, which inspired you to become a producer, starting with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. From your producing career, what show are you most proud to have been a part of?
Oh, definitely The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. That show was just so much fun to do. And I loved the message. When people heard that there is a show called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, they thought they were going to see some kind of smutty thing – but it was a political show about hypocrisy. I just loved the message. I’m very political, I watch a lot of news, I have strong political positions, and that may have been the start of it.
Just to wrap up, were you pleased with the results of this past Sunday’s Tony Awards?
I was thrilled that Tommy Tune, to whom I gave the first opportunity as a director, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. There was nobody that deserved it more. He’s a gem. He’s wonderful to work with. I adored the experience and I’m very fond of him. As to the others – there were shows that I favored more than others. Not all my first choices won, but I thought that having the two hosts was fun. I thought that they were cute and fun together. And by the end of the show I was so tired, I fell asleep.