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New Film Stirs Memories of Judy

Posted on October 18 2019

By Carleton Varney- Special to The Palm Beach Daily News

In the 1960s as a young decorator in New York office of Dorothy Draper & Co., I had the opportunity to decorate an apartment for the late, great Judy Garland. It was a hotel apartment in Manhattan on the 18th floor on East 52nd Street.

It just happens that at the time, we also were engaged in designing an apartment in the same building — but on the 15th floor — for another star, Broadway legend Ethel Merman. When I think back to the contrast in personalities and decorating wishes of the two ladies I can only say: Vive la différence. But more about that in a moment.

I was excited recently to see the new Renée Zellweger film “Judy” — and what a great evening it was. Zellweger is more than superb in the role as the iconic actress and singer, and I recommend the film heartily. As you may know, it tells the story of one of America’s major talents, from her birth to her girlhood, when she is used for financial gain by her mother, and on to her years at the MGM studio, run by Louis B. Mayer, a man not likely to go down in history as a nice guy.

Zellweger should be nominated — and win — the Academy Award for her poignant portrayal of the “Over the Rainbow” star. Her look is right on. It’s amazing what Hollywood makeup artists and hairstylists can do. Watching Zellweger, I couldn’t help but think of Judy and the decoration of her Manhattan apartment way back when.

While Miss Merman wanted sparkly red, white and blue in her homes (I decorated three for her), Miss Garland was more sedate, preferring sunshine yellow walls, white trim and carpeting of spring green. (Entertainer Tony Cointreau visited both stars in their apartments and describes his visits in his book from a few years past, “Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa ... and Me: My Improbable Journey from Châteaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta.” If you’re looking for a good read, I recommend it.)

The first time I met Judy, she was in a white terrycloth robe and sans makeup. It was an early morning, perhaps 10 o’clock, introductory meeting in her hotel suite and a meeting I shall always remember. How could I forget? Meeting a woman sans makeup was unusual, to say the least.

If you remember back when “Valley of the Dolls” came out as a movie, the two leading roles were widely seen as being based on the personalities of Judy and Ethel. The Judy role was played by Patty Duke and the Ethel one by Susan Hayward — and what a contrast between the two. Ethel was a big personality and way out there, while Judy was far more internal, an inward-looking woman with many desires for love. The movie, of course, was based on the bestseller by the late Jacqueline Susann. She was a friend of Miss Merman — or was, until she lost that friendship, for good reasons.

I think of the many film versions of “A Star is Born.” Judy performed the leading role in the first remake, in 1954. I have seen all the versions — Janet Gaynor, Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga also played the lead. Maybe I am just single-minded, but of all four leading ladies, my favorite was Judy. After you see Zellweger’s performance in “Judy,” I hope you can go back to the Hollywood archives and watch Judy’s version of “A Star is Born.” It’s magical.

I also recall Miss Garland’s memorable performance in 1950′s “Summer Stock,” when she sang those iconic lyrics: “Shout hallelujah, come on, get happy!” She could very well have been singing about the yellow walls we chose for her Manhattan apartment. It’s such a happy color, and one that you might consider for a starring role in your own home.

2 comments

  • Wendy: October 28, 2019

    Fascinating article – I really enjoyed reading it ! How wonderful to have known these ladies AND decorated their homes – was trying to picture New York back in those days !! So exciting !! Thank you for a really interesting read- I can just picture the wonderful colors in Miss Garlands home !!!

  • H. Spencer Kipe: October 28, 2019

    I love you comments about the personalities
    of Judy and Ethel..
    We love your fabrics and pillows..We
    also love 18th century furniture. We
    remember the fabrics you provided for
    Kindel’s National Trust collection which
    we sold at our furniture store (Valley Furniture
    Sop) in New Jersey. Those fabrics were
    flamboyant and particularly spectacular on
    the Varney tight backed sofa we displayed.
    Many reorders came in beautiful damasks!

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