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Fame Drain

[whitespace] book cover Miserable Munchkin: In daughter Lorna Luft's book 'Me and My Shadows,' life with mom Judy Garland was no Oz.

The best memoirs by celebrities' kids are full of dish, not depth

By Jenn Shreve

I was around 10 years old when my mother handed me a copy of Mommy Dearest. It was a strange gift for a mother to give a daughter. Perhaps, with me on the brink of puberty and ensuing teenage rebellion, she wanted to not-so-subtly remind me that I was damn lucky to have such a nice mom--call it fodder for future mother-daughter scrimmages.

I devoured Christina Crawford's reminisces. Like all children, I fantasized about what it would be like to live a movie-star existence. When I finished the book, I took comfort in my unglamorous, middle-class life.

This is the reason we read child-of-celebrity memoirs, isn't it? It's not about the kids, but the stars. We want dirt on the pretty people's faces, to see these gleaming stars under public-bathroom fluorescent lighting--brought down to our humble level. Lower still. And who better to do it than the rich and famous' own flesh-and-blood?

When it comes to scandalous tales from behind the gated Beverly Hills castles, Lorna Luft's new memoir, Me and My Shadows, does not disappoint. It's no grand secret that Luft's mother, Judy Garland, was one strung-out, fucked-up little munchkin. Luft walks us through the ordeal that was Garland's life firsthand, tossing in tidbits about the Bogarts' dysfunctional marriage, details from Rat Pack parties and even a passionate defense of her deceased friend Dodi Fayed for good measure.

Life with Luft's own Mommy dearest was pretty awful. From Garland's postpartum depression-inspired suicide attempt following Luft's birth to her intake of "between 50 and 100 mg. of Ritalin a day--two to four times the maximum dosage--along with Benzedrine capsules, and a heavy mix of barbiturates to make her sleep afterward," life with Judy was no Oz. One recollection is particularly harrowing. Following a brawl between Garland and one of her husbands, Luft wakes to find this: "I looked around the room. There was blood everywhere--on the floor, the furniture, everything. The half-darkened room had an overwhelming smell of cigarettes and liquor and blood, all mixed together. I'll never forget that smell.

"At twelve years old," Luft later recalls," I would become my mother's keeper." Fortunately it doesn't last long. Garland died when Luft was 16, and the second half of the book recounts Luft's own struggles to be famous like mom, not an easy or pleasant task when you're billed as "JUDY GARLAND'S DAUGHTER! LIZA MINNELLI'S SISTER!" Not to mention Luft's addiction to cocaine, failed marriage, and party life with the Rolling Stones and the Studio 54 crowd.

Unfortunately, Luft didn't inherit the charisma gene that led her mother and half-sister down the yellow-brick road to stardom, and it shows in her writing. Luft alternates between cheesy pep talk--"My dad was a regular Paul Bunyan"--to soupy, self-help pabulum she picked up at the Betty Ford Clinic, where she admitted her sister. "If there's one thing I learned at the Betty Ford Center, it's that it doesn't matter whether or not your mother is a Hollywood legend."

Well, actually, it does matter, because nobody would publish a book about Lorna Luft's life if her mother had been anyone other than Judy Garland. With Me and My Shadows, Luft joins a long list of tragic memoirs: Mommy Dearest; Stephen Bogart's Bogart: In Search of My Father, in which he vents his anger at the father who died when he was only 8; Going My Own Way, Gary Crosby's diatribe against his father; Nancy Davis' The Way I See It; and the list goes on.

Children of celebrities are notoriously screwed up. Look no further than Marlon Brando's children--one dead by suicide, the other in jail for murder--for proof of this. But while a parent's fame clearly plays a leading role in messing up the kids, those same kids are all too willing to use that fame to get back at their folks or, perhaps, grab the spotlight for themselves.

Peter Fonda, too, is the child of a legend. In his new memoir, Don't Tell Dad, Fonda creates a legend of his own, separate from that of Henry Fonda. Despite the book's title, the elder Fonda takes second stage to Peter.

Of course all the dreadful revelations are there too. Fonda Sr. and his wife Frances Seymour (Jane and Peter's mother), obsessed with Peter's weight (he was unusually thin), at one point take him in to have his rectum checked for tapeworms, an incident that leads to decades of anal-rape nightmares. His beloved dog becomes a burden to move, so they simply put it to sleep. When Peter's mother commits suicide, Henry Fonda lies to his son about how she dies. He is also cool and often unavailable: Fonda recalls "a constant sense of searching for my parents as I learned to crawl, then walk."

Like Luft, Fonda follows his father's footsteps, becoming an actor, neglecting his own fatherly duties. But his career succeeds and he moves beyond his father's imposing shadow. Whereas Luft's reminiscences of Studio 54 and hangin' with the Rolling Stones are darkened with regret and cheapened by constant reminders of just who her mother was, Fonda (who wrote his hefty 498-page book without a ghost writer) invites you to enjoy spending time with Salvador Dali and Dennis Hopper. He, too, has some self-help-tinged regrets, but he reserves them for the end of the book, instead of slathering them over his memories like ketchup on a hot dog.

Unfortunately, the overall effect of Fonda's book is, well, boring. It's better written than Luft's, the substance of both author and text is more weighty, but if it's dish and the bringing low of the mighty we want from our idols' children, then Fonda disappoints. He's too healthy, too normal. Sure, we want these kids to turn out OK, but we don't necessarily want to read about it. What made Mommy Dearest and Luft's book such fun reads is the obvious dysfunction, the unhealed bitterness evident in every line.

Nevertheless, the pained-child-of-famed-person phenomenon is a timeless tale. Today, with the Monica-Clinton scandal, what juicy memoir will glowing Chelsea belch up one day? And poor Rumer Glenn, Scout Larue and Tullulah Belle! What bestsellers will they write on their narcissist, Republican parents Demi Moore and Bruce Willis? What of Madonna's poor child, Lourdes, already unwillingly spread across the pages of Vanity Fair like the marketing ploy she is? What will she have to say when media saint Mom is a withering hag? Aren't we all just dying for Frances Bean, fruit of Kurt and Courtney's heroin-laced loins, to put pen to paper? Michael Jackson's cursed offspring? Lord, I can hardly wait for these kids to grow up, go into therapy, hire ghost writers and find publishers.

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From the June 29-July 12, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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