From beyond the grave, a gay man recalls high times with Judy Garland and bygone Hollywood glamour
“Under the Rainbow: An Intimate Memoir of Judy Garland, Rock Hudson & My Life in Old Hollywood,” by John Carlyle. (Carroll & Graf, 2006) 344 pp., $26.95.
In the annals of Hollywood history, John Carlyle (1931-2003) would’ve normally rated barely a footnote. Carlyle’s chief claim to fame stems from being one of Judy Garland’s later confidantes and paramours even though he was gay, but that never stopped Judy.
“My Garland times, the most heightened hours and, God knows, the heterosexual heights of my life, began in earnest when I took Judy to bed,” he recalls. “Or was it the other way around for a lady who was accustomed to conquest?”
By this point in her life, Garland’s clout had diminished. She veered between the drugs Ritalin and Seconal, and partied away the frequently sleepless nights. The possibility of Carlyle’s waking up to her dead body was a very real one.
“I mean this to be my story, not Judy Garland’s,” he writes. “But she sure as hell made a dent.”
Although he pursued an acting career for most of his life, a self-conscious stiffness hindered Carlyle in his early years. Only in middle age and beyond did he have much of a career, mostly in theatrical roles. Most of Carlyle’s TV and movie appearances were bit parts. But, as Carlyle readily acknowledges, he headed to Hollywood to be a star, not an actor. And initially, he lacked the thick skin necessary for such a profession. Henry Willson, the notorious kingmaker agent best known for producing Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, took Carlyle on as a client, and the two remained friends until Willson’s sad end in 1978.
Ironically, Carlyle’s brushes with movie greatness mainly ended up on the cutting room floor. A scene from “A Star Is Born” suffered that fate, but the shoot marked the beginning of his friendship with Garland. Then he got cast as one of the young toughs in “Rebel Without a Cause,” but nerves got the better of his performance, and he was dismissed. Fortunately, a trust fund and some wise property investments sustain Carlyle when his chosen avocation did not.
As Chris Freeman notes in his introduction, “John Carlyle’s is a story of the one who didn’t make it, but his story is more complicated and much more interesting than that.”
Despite an over-reliance on pills and booze for several decades, Carlyle solidified a reputation as a wit and good friend. Through his “fringe benefits” of befriending many Hollywood actors and actresses of the time, readers gain a first-hand look at the last vestiges of a Hollywood now long-gone and deeply mourned by those few who survived to remember it.
Stately and occasionally baroque, Carlyle’s writing style masterfully evokes the “sweaters and cocktails” era, when being gay meant “dignity and good taste, not shirtless boys and tweakers.”
Undoubtedly some readers will find it overly mannered and might despair of Carlyle’s continual returns to his dysfunctional Baltimore society family, his lingering details of his many pet cats and a seemingly unfathomable fascination with actress Joan Fontaine.
Unquestionably, the chapters detailing Carlyle’s times with Judy Garland are the highlight of “Under the Rainbow.” Although frequently exasperating and draining, Judy blazes like a beacon from these pages, drawing all manner of people to her inner flame, which guttered and died far too young, after far too much self-abuse. He relishes the highs and lows of their times together, sweeping the reader along in the emotional roller-coaster ride.
There are other unexpected celebrity encounters: like an audition for the aged Mae West, sharing the stage with Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis on the dinner theatre circuit, and watching writer/heavy drinker Dorothy Parker pass out in a neighbor’s shrubbery while walking her dog. Unfortunately these spicy anecdotes are the exception. Far too many pages are devoted to trivial details that people outside Carlyle’s family and inner circle of friends won’t care about. Other sections would’ve benefited from more judicious editing.
However, even during the book’s clumsiest moments, Carlyle’s skill as a raconteur shines through, permeating the pages with a pungent, wry sense of humor that this narrative could’ve used more of. For instance, his first stepmother (with older, pugilistic stepson in tow), “materialized as if by black magic on my father’s arm when I was three.”
Much later on, after attending a disagreeable acquaintance’s funeral, he notes, “His ashes were scattered around a rose bush in the garden outside the chapel. Surely it died instantly.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, February 9, 2007.