Legendary Judy Garland dies of an accidental overdose

By Tim Purtell
Updated June 17, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was a sad end for one of this century’s most remarkable performers. On the morning of June 22, 1969, singer and actress Judy Garland was found dead in her London home, sitting stiffly in her bathroom. Though only 47, she had become a frail, haunted-looking figure. The official cause of death was an accidental overdose of barbiturates; the truth may be that, after a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, and emotional stress, her body had simply worn out.

Described by writer Budd Schulberg as “a little Mozart of song and dance,” Garland thrilled millions in her tumultuous 42-year career. She won a special Oscar at 17 for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and became a box office favorite in the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney from 1938 to 1941. With her second husband, director Vincente Minnelli, she made the enchanting Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as well as The Clock (1945) and The Pirate (1948). When her movie career faded in the ’50s — despite an Oscar nomination for 1954’s A Star Is Born — she came back, again and again, in live performances that daughter Liza Minnelli called an “orgy of emotion”: Her big voice came straight from the soul. But The Judy Garland Show was canceled after one season on TV in 1964, and her life was increasingly overshadowed by the public spectacle of drug overdoses, suicide attempts, and custody battles. Finally abandoned by her long-loyal entourage, she was reduced to sleeping on Liza’s friends’ apartment floors.

An engagement at London’s Talk of the Town in early 1969 tragically confirmed her decline. When a disoriented Judy struggled through her signature song, “Over the Rainbow,” the audience pelted her with bread sticks and cigarette butts. Garland sought solace that year in a fifth marriage to nightclub owner Mickey Deans, who was arranging a small European tour for her at the time of her death.

The funeral was her final sellout. More than 18,000 people — from elderly women to members of her fervent gay following — stood in line at a Manhattan funeral home to view her body in a glass-topped coffin surrounded by yellow chrysanthemums and daisies. One of the mourners, a blind salesman, summed up her impact: “I used to sit for hours by the radio and listen to her singing. It sounded like she was singing for me.”

The performer who made millions, mostly for others, died millions in debt. She lies in a modest mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y., far from the Hollywood where she found so much fame and unhappiness.

June 22, 1969
Author Philip Roth scored a double: Portnoy’s Complaint topped the best-seller list and Goodbye, Columbus was a big-screen hit. The Beatles’ “Get Back” was the No. 1 song, while Hee Haw guffawed on television.