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The Sociological Approach, Part 2: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday

Updated: Aug 29

Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by Cecilia Burtis of Tiffin, Ohio, who earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Miami University in 2018. See also Part 1.

In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.

Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.

Otherwise they were quite different. Garland was white, middle-class, and a longtime user of pills—amphetamines and barbiturates, “pep” pills and sleeping pills. She was never arrested for her drug use, although it was an open secret that she abused prescription medicine, and rumored that she also used heroin.

Holiday was black, born to a poor family, and used primarily marijuana (considered a narcotic) and heroin—highly criminalized substances in the 1940s and 1950s. She was arrested at least three times for drug possession, and was continually persecuted by drug enforcement agents.

The National Institutes of Health calls the years 1923-1965 the “classic era” of narcotics control: “classic” referring to simple, rigid, consistent, and highly punitive enforcement. It was this era in which these women’s respective careers took place, and their very different experiences with the media and law enforcement owe much to the punitive laws of the era.

Garland, the child singer-turned-movie-star, was most known for her iconic turn as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Living her life in the public eye from the time she was 12 years old, Garland’s lifelong struggle with alcohol, drugs, mental illness, and suicide attempts converged to create her as a tragic, misguided star gone astray. Garland’s first encounter with drug addiction was when she was just fifteen years old, and in the midst of a punishing work schedule demanded by her contract with MGM studios. Early in her career, Garland began taking Benzedrine (an amphetamine) and Seconal (a barbiturate). It was not uncommon for stars to use drugs to keep up with the exacting demands of Hollywood; as one biographer writes, “At the time, very few people were aware that diet pills contained amphetamines, and every star in Hollywood who was inclined to be overweight was taking them.”

Many biographers, and even Garland herself, have maintained that prescription drug abuse was an entrenched practice in Hollywood; that in fact, many of the drugs administered came directly from the studio doctors. Some believe that Garland’s drug consumption was ordered directly by the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer himself. Garland was introduced to a variety of drugs by the MGM studio doctors. In an interview with McCall’s magazine, she recalled that she and her co-stars were continuously medicated by the studio to keep up with filming:

They’d gives us pep pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out cold with sleeping pills – Mickey [Rooney] sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then after four hours they’d wake us and give us the pep-up pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling, but it was a way of life for us.

Louella Parsons, a gossip columnist, eventually commented on the matter, saying, “I do not blame Hollywood for what happened to Judy Garland, but it can only have happened in Hollywood.”

Although a commonly known part of Judy’s life, her long history of drug abuse was not reflected in her media coverage, which portrayed a very different version of her life. During Judy Garland’s rise to fame, her public image was carefully cultivated to reveal nothing but a carefree, innocent, girl-next-door persona. Even after she was let go from MGM for health reasons, she cultivated this image, vehemently denying any allegations of addiction. Later, in response to a newspaper that reported her struggle with drugs, she personally responded to the article, saying,

My health is fine. As I write this, I’ve just returned from a vacation in Sun Valley and Lake Tahoe. I’m suntanned, I weigh 110 pounds, and my outlook on things is joyful and optimistic.

In fact, she had just returned from a stay in a sanatorium to break drug and alcohol dependencies, and would attempt to commit suicide shortly after the article was written, but Garland maintained a carefully manicured public image, and journalists permitted it.

Garland was never prosecuted for her drug use, given primarily that amphetamines were not then understood to cause dependency. At the time, amphetamines were a doctor’s drug of choice for narcolepsy, minor depression, weight loss, or general mental and emotional distress. Although the 1940s and 1950s began to show a high number of cases of users entering psychosis, the drugs were used continually well into the 1960s. Garland’s addiction may have been scandalous, but it was not a criminal offense. Even when she was known to be in a drug treatment center, newspapers would report her as “in a hospital for rest cure.”

Judy Garland in a 1954 film still; Billie Holiday in a 1951 film still

Garland died in 1969 from an overdose of barbiturates. She was 47. The media coverage of her death, in comparison to Holiday, is fascinating. The newspapers report her death as “the final act in a tormented life,” “the singer who found torment, despair and loneliness ‘over the rainbow.’” However, a tone of blame or intrigue is absent from the newspaper articles that address her death. Although they highlight her use of drugs and alcohol, one article continued, “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was a deliberate action. And there is no question of alcoholism.” The New York Times followed with, “The greatest shock about her death was that there was no shock. One simply wondered how she survived as long as she did.”

Holiday was granted no such clemency. The jazz singer, whose first record was released in 1933, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore and started using drugs early in life. Unlike Garland, Holiday used marijuana and heroin, causing her to be tangled in the punitive policies and aggressive policing of the 1950s. Biographers believe that though she had started smoking marijuana early in life, it was in 1941, and through her then-boyfriend Jimmy Monroe who introduced her to heroin.1 She would continue to use heroin for much of her life, and would serve as an illuminating example of the intensity with which narcotics were policed.

Holiday, a known drug user, was closely monitored by the FBI for much of her life. She was of particular interest to the federal and state narcotics agents because of her status and their public anti-drug campaign. As her FBI file states, “Because of the importance of Holiday, it has been the policy of [the] bureau to discredit individuals of this caliber using narcotics, because of their notoriety it (sic) offered excuses to minor users.”

Holiday was closely monitored by federal informants, who wanted to arrest her to send a message to “minor users” that no one, not even celebrities, were above the law. They wanted to arrest her for more internal reasons as well; as one observer noted, “there was a rivalry between the narcotics squad of the New York Police Department and Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and between the police and the FBI, partly because when a cop made an arrest the feds often got the credit.”

These police pressures, combined with Holiday’s increasingly consumptive use of heroin, led to her well-publicized 1949 arrest in San Francisco. Holiday and her manager were arrested in their apartment by narcotics agents who raided their rooms. According to the FBI file, “Holiday was intercepted by supervisor —- as she attempted to destroy makeshift opium pipe and bindle of opium in the toilet bowl of her room.” The men who made the arrest were federal agents, but the state of California was heavily involved, as they had “requested the assistance of San Francisco police department in conducting this raid because of the more liberal state laws covering search and seizures.” She had just recently been released from a 10-month jail sentence after a previous arrest for drug addiction, but was later acquitted by municipal court. However, she lost her “cabaret card” for New York City (the permit that allowed her to work in institutions where liquor was served) and consequently performed more frequently in California.

Billie struggled with addiction to heroin for most of her life, and treatments were only short term solutions to deep-seated habits. She fell seriously ill in 1959, and died in New York Metropolitan Hospital at the age of 44. She actually died under arrest in the hospital, having been arrested on a narcotics charge after a nurse saw white powder on her face. In contrast to Garland’s post-mortem news coverage, Holiday’s narcotics-related death was much more derisively viewed. As the Desert Sun noted, she “fell into the throes of narcotics addiction … began drinking heavily after she beat the narcotics habit and neglected her health.” Time magazine ran just two sentences:

Died. Billie Holiday, 44, Negro blues singer, whose husky, melancholy voice reflected the tragedy of her own life; in Manhattan. Born of indigent teenagers, schooled in a Baltimore brothel, she stubbornly nursed her resentment, poured it out in songs that reached their height of popularity in the early ’40s — Billie’s Blues, The Man I Love, above all, Strange Fruit, a description of a Negro lynching in the South — succumbed to the dope addiction which dogged her to the end.

Holiday’s death was less directly correlated to drug use (in fact, the cause of death was heart and lung failure, not overdose), yet, unlike Garland, her passing was marked much more by sentiments of blame and self-harm. Garland’s passing was marked by pages and pages of obituaries; Holiday’s, by short items in the bottom corners of newspapers. Perhaps this is due to their differences in fame – after all, Garland was much more of a household name. However, given the way that addiction was viewed and judged at the time, it seems likely that these differences in public reaction were due to the substances being used by each woman. Holiday’s narcotics use stirred federal attention and a desire to bring her down as an example to the rest of the country. Garland, though pitied for her addiction, drew no such reaction. Factors such as race, socioeconomic level, and fame are at play here as well; but at the core are two very similar women, who were oppositely affected by the public policies and demands of the time.

#Hollywood #Sociology #JudyGarland #Womenshistory #BillieHoliday

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