04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Garland's neediness wore her children down
ASK LORNA LUFT WHAT IT'S LIKE being the child of a cultural icon, and she describes a scene three years ago with her then 4-year-old daughter. She and Vanessa were watching TV when a Geraldo segment came on about men who dress as women. Luft dove for the remote control, but too late. "Isn't that Grandma?" Vanessa wanted to know.
"Imagine that," says Luft, sitting in her Coldwater Canyon home in L.A. "You're with your daughter, trying to push two dalmatians off your lap, and there on the television set are two men, one dressed as your sister and the other as your mother. Welcome to my life."
Luft, 45, shares her story of that life in Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (Pocket Books), scheduled to be an ABC miniseries next year. The biggest shadow, of course, is cast by Luft's mother, Judy Garland, the beloved singer and actress whose penchant for domestic chaos swept through her children's lives like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. In unsentimental but heartfelt prose, Luft describes a childhood torn apart by Garland's steady descent into the prescription-drug habit that ended her life in 1969. Luft details her own addiction to cocaine and touches on the battles against addiction waged by both her little brother Joey, 43, now a photographer in the San Fernando Valley, and her older half-sister Liza Minnelli, 52. (Luft is estranged from Minnelli, whom she describes as being involved in "self-destructive behavior.") But Garland—and the myths surrounding her—remain her principal focus. "People would love my mother to be unloved and tragic, but she wasn't," says Luft, who sees her mother rather as the victim of a disease—her addiction—which began at 16 when an MGM doctor first gave her amphetamines to control her weight and give her energy. "No one could have saved her but herself," she says. "I should know—I almost killed myself trying."
Still, Luft remembers the early years in Beverly Hills as idyllic. Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, lived two doors down the street, and Frank Sinatra was always on hand for a party. Yet even then the household was in trouble. Garland went through money like water, says her daughter, forcing her husband, producer Sid Luft, to take out second and third mortgages and leading to fierce arguments that Judy leaked to the press, painting Sid as the bad guy. She was "a gifted actress with a talent for staging scenes," says Luft.
In 1960 the family left for England, where Judy was a sensation at the London Palladium. But driven by money trouble, Garland soon returned for a grueling concert tour that Luft says helped destroy her health. Nine-year-old Lorna was enrolled in public school in Manhattan, where she was put in a class for slow learners and forced to read Dr. Seuss. "To this day," says Luft, who has been diagnosed as dyslexic, "I panic at cold readings."
Back in Hollywood, Judy and Sid divorced in 1965, by which time Garland was already in an advanced stage of decline. Garland took uppers during the day and downers at night, says her daughter, becoming easily and often enraged and even starting fires to get attention. In 1952, just weeks after Lorna was born, she had attempted suicide; in 1955 she tried again, following Joey's birth. "By the time she died, she'd had her stomach pumped so many times it's a wonder she had one left," Luft writes.
By 1967, Judy, Lorna and Joey were back in Manhattan and broke. They moved from place to place, and once, Luft says, she was called home from school to find her mother sitting on a window ledge high above the street. "Are you all right?" Luft asked. "I'm fine, honey," Garland replied. "We can't pay the hotel bill, so I'm threatening to jump out the window."
Finally, in August 1968, Luft, then 16, went to live with Joey and her father in California. (Her brother had left New York after a furious Garland threw a knife at him.) Ten months later she was told of a radio report that her mother had died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Luft is sure Garland hadn't meant to kill herself. All her previous suicide attempts, says Luft, "were cries for help and attention."
In fact, Luft's own life often sounds like a muffled cry for help. She has toured as a singer and was a regular on the series Trapper John, M.D. in 1985, but her career has never really taken wing. She started using cocaine in the '70s and was virtually addicted by the mid-'70s when she met musician Jake Hooker, whose drinking problems, Luft says, mirrored her addiction. She married Hooker—with whom she has two children, Jesse, now 13, and Vanessa, 7—in 1977, and they divorced in 1992, nine years after she kicked her own habit with help from the Betty Ford Center. In 1996 she wed music director Colin Freeman, 31, and feels she is finally in control of her life.
"The most important thing I realized at the Ford Center," she says, "was how to forgive." After years of guilt and resentment, she says she is no longer angry at herself—or at Garland. "You realize it is not your fault. It wasn't her fault. In the end, none of us had the strength to help her."
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles