Surrender Dorothy

On June 10, 2006, just in time for her birthday, Judy Garland appeared on a U.S. stamp.

I always think of Judy at that time of year, when the rainbow flags unfurl and the gay pride floats come down the street with their glamor-girl boys and near-nude leathermen. Hyperreal spectaculars that would not be out of place in the Emerald City — or Munchkinland!

“Are you a friend of Dorothy?” soldiers asked each other during World War II, using this code phrase to signal that they were gay. It was only a matter of time before the brass caught wind of it, without quite understanding its significance. In a dither that reds and homos were sneaking into their ranks, the military spent $250,000 to find out who this diabolic den-mother of the GI homos was. Yet even the nelliest civilian could have told them.

She was, of course, our Judy. The gal who fell from a star called Kansas. So tenderly young in The Wizard of Oz, yet already empowered by that penetrating cry in her voice.

We need only hear her tearful call of Toto! Toto! as her terrier is bicycled away in the clutches of Miss Gulch to get that old chill, the heartachy twang of childhood injustice.

It was a surprise then — yet strangely fitting — that the 2006 postage stamp depicted not Oz’s Judy, but rather what became of her: the rakish elfwoman of A Star is Born, thinned out, hair slicked, a dazed flatness to the pupils, as if she were still not looking into this world but somewhere out there. Behind the moon. Beyond the rain.

In the Alice in Wonderland world of quantum physics, a particle can exist in two places at one time. So it is on this stamp. We find the atomic Judy existing in simultaneous forms: forever the Dorothy of childhood, plump, calfish, sincere; but also the wry Judy of Carnegie Hall. On Gay Pride day, it’s always the hopeful Dorothy who shines a bit stronger and commands my thoughts.

Judy was 16 when she made The Wizard of Oz, and it fixed her in the imagination with finality. The film is barely ten minutes old when this finished Judy appears, set up in one quick stroke by the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, particularly in the intelligent and committed way she sings it.

Everything in the scene is oatmeal brown. Judy settles into a haystack, moon eyes searching the sky. For a moment the woodwinds glisten with the hint of rain. Then out it comes, carried on her young voice: A sweet, melancholy melody that gives The Wizard of Oz the thing that makes it so great — a living, beating heart.

Sophisticated in style (unlike, say, the easy sing-song of Someday My Prince Will Come, a contemporary 1930’s ‘kid’s” theme from Snow White), Over the Rainbow would be sung by the actress until the day she died from a sleeping-pill overdose at 47. Along the way the lyrics picked up the stormy, ironic subtext of her life. Even after her death, it remained so electric with Judy psychodrama that it became the banner anthem of the gay movement.