Celebrating Judy Garland’s Birthday with Her Friend and Confidante, Dottie Ponedel
Judy Garland and Dottie Ponedel always found time for laughs on set.
Today marks the 96th anniversary of the birth of Judy Garland, by any measure one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever seen, whether it was on an MGM soundstage, in a recording studio, or on a concert stage. So much has been written about Garland since her death in 1969, but how much of it is accurate?
I had the pleasure over the past few years of working on a book with Meredith Ponedel about her aunt, make-up artist Dottie Ponedel, who was a true pioneer for women make-up artists in the old studio system. About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars includes many stories Dottie left behind about her amazing life. As a young woman in the early 1920s, she made the trek from Chicago to Los Angeles, unexpectedly finding her way into the burgeoning silent movie industry, first as an extra, and eventually as an actress and dance double for many of the early movies’ biggest stars, from Mabel Normand to Greta Garbo, and finally, through luck and chance, becoming one of the most renowned and sought-after make-up artists of her day. She was responsible for creating Marlene Dietrich’s iconic look in the early 1930s, and also worked closely with other great stars including Carole Lombard, Joan Blondell, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, Gail Patrick, Frances Dee, and many others, often developing lifelong friendships with them.
But of all the stars Dottie worked with, no one was more important to her than the legendary Judy Garland. She worked with Judy on every film the star made at MGM beginning with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and, in the process, became her closest friend, confidante, and surrogate mother.
In fact, it was Dottie’s feelings about the stream of salacious books and articles that came out about her dear friend following Garland’s death in 1969 at the age of 47 that convinced her that she needed to get her own stories down to set the record straight. As she explains here:
Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to.
Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland. All of these people who have written about Judy ought to drop dead, because there is no truth to anything they’ve said. They are just trying to make a dollar on her even though she’s gone. But to me, Judy is not dead, she will always live and these people who write about her, even her husbands, never knew Judy like I did. They write that Louis B. Mayer watched her food, which is a lie, because I’m the one who ordered her food and we had big lunches. Steaks, egg salad, anything Judy wanted, we had. And as far as taking marijuana, dope, the needle, or anything that these people wrote about, it’s a goddamn lie as the only thing Judy would take was Benzedrine if she had a hard day. She would also take a sleeping pill, but who hasn’t? The only needle I ever saw go into Judy’s arm was glucose from the doctor because the studio insisted that she be there but Judy was pretty tired and didn’t want to eat. The glucose seemed to pep her up.
I wish Judy were here to put a libel suit on these S.O.B.’s. Those who were close to Judy knew that she was one of the greatest comediennes of all time. She would stretch her mouth with both thumbs and cross her eyes and say, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, am I not the most beautiful of them all?”
Oh, we had such wonderful times during those years, so many happy times. I miss the rings of the telephone during the night, at two, three, or four in the morning. That’s when Judy would be walking up and down from one room to another and would call me and say, “Are you asleep Dottie?” I used to wish I could get a good night’s sleep, but what could you do with Judy—you just had to talk to her. I never regret what I went through with Judy and I would do it all over again, hitting the high spots and low spots of her life, her marriages and her babies, her opening nights, the cries and laughter that came from her, and how she shared this home of mine.
Dottie and Judy began their relationship in the make-up room but became lifelong friends and confidantes.
Dottie was brought onto Meet Me in St. Louis by Vincente Minnelli who admired Dottie’s make-up expertise, and she immediately discarded many of the techniques the studio had been using on Judy. All agreed that under Dottie’s deft hands, Judy never looked more beautiful in her first adult role. Here Ponedel explains her relationship with the star, that veered between mother and daughter and two best girlfriends on a series of crazy adventures.
I knew that Judy was worming herself right into my heart when she said to me, “You know, Dottie, I’ve been looking for something like you for a long time.” I knew what she meant. She was looking for that love she never got.
Don’t forget Judy was on the stage at three. Judy and I became like mother and daughter. She once said to me, “How does it feel to be indispensable?” I said, “There is no such thing as being indispensable. There is always somebody to take your place.”
But not in the case of Judy Garland. There was nobody to follow this girl. When God dished out talent, she got way more than her share. Judy could take an audience and twist it and turn it, stand them up on their ear and the crowds would holler for more.
I used to love going with Judy to the recording studio at MGM to listen to her pre-record her songs for a picture. After finishing a song, Judy would come over to me. She could always tell by the look in my eye whether she hit the top or not. It got to the point where Johnny Green, the orchestra conductor, would look over at me as if to say, “Is that okay?” or, “Can she do better?” But often when she sang her heart out on those numbers, the whole orchestra would be up on its feet applauding her over and over. Sometimes I’d see our producer, Arthur Freed, in the corner with tears falling right down on his cheeks. Oh boy, Judy moved everyone in that recording room.
Dottie relates in detail in the book the fun she and Judy had during the making of many great MGM movies, at home at Dottie’s or the Minnellis’ house, and on promotional trips to New York and to London. Though she loved Judy with everything she had, she also was quite honest in describing some of Judy’s challenges.
The studio worked Judy like a horse. If Arthur Freed wasn’t ready with a new picture for Judy, Joe Pasternak was. These were two of the biggest producers of musicals at MGM and they kept Judy riding on a treadmill. If she wasn’t shooting, she was rehearsing or learning new songs or dances, they had her going all the time.
It’s a wonder she didn’t jump out of her skin but being Judy, with a constitution made of steel, she was equal to the task. I don’t think anybody could turn out as many pictures as Judy did for MGM. She made millions for them and wound up penniless. But that was mostly because she had no head for business. Judy never knew the value of a dollar. That’s why everybody took advantage of her. She never knew where her money was going. I tried to sit her down with pencil and paper and show her figures of what she should have been able to save that year but Judy looked up at me and said, “Dottie, I’ll always be able to make a dollar so what’s the use of worrying?”
I said, “Judy, you know if I could get part of Mae West’s brain and part of Paulette Goddard’s brain and put them into your brain, you could be President of the United States. Because Miss West and Miss Goddard could turn this land of ours into a Shangri-La if they had a mind to. Judy, if you were as smart as Paulette you’d have a couple million under your belt by now.”
Dottie stayed with Judy throughout all the ups and downs of her MGM career. Unfortunately, shortly after Judy left the studio, Dottie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was unable to continue in her craft. However, she remained close friends with Garland until the end of her life. In the Epilogue to the book, Meredith Ponedel, who knew Judy quite well as a child, recounts the tragic day when they learned of Garland’s death.
It’s hard not to speculate what Garland’s premature death deprived us of in terms of the work she might have done in her later years. That she was a phenomenal singer and actress was never in question. I’m grateful that Dottie’s book also reveals in the clearest possible way what a fabulous, loyal, and devoted friend she was as well.
Happy Birthday, Judy.
Dottie and Judy on the set of The Harvey Girls (1946) just before shooting the scene featuring that year’s Academy Award winner for Best Song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
— Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.
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