The address may seem swanky (just around the corner from Gucci, Chanel, Hermes and the like) and the lane it stands on full of the cutest mews cottages, but Judy Garland’s last abode is a sad little thing. Being a simply massive Judy fan I’d been meaning to go and see her house since moving to London. So when I heard it was being demolished, the pilgrimage took an urgent turn. It appears the news of its demise was misinformation – planning permission has been given to tear down two other houses on the lane, but not Judy’s – but the prefab-looking shack where Judy spent her last few months looks like it should be razed.
In 1969, 4 Cadogan Lane SW1 was home to Mr and Mrs Mickey Deans. And it was there that Hollywood uber-legend, Judy Garland, died, suffering heart failure after her tiny, frail body finally gave out from too many pills. Judy’s husband Mickey awoke to find her dead on the toilet. These facts make some Judy fans wince. They make others – like me – even more fascinated with this enthralling woman.
I’d seen pictures online of the house and knew that it was very basic. But I was not prepared for its current shabby condition, the effect of its juxtaposition with the sweet and impressive buildings surrounding it, or the overwhelming emotions that would envelop me as I walked from Knightsbridge tube towards my destination.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised: I know that Judy Garland always moves me. I hear her sing and I swoon; I watch her on the screen and I’m enraptured. A few years ago someone asked me what it was about her that I loved – they didn’t get it. I just couldn’t put it into words. I didn’t get why people could experience her and not feel exactly the same sense of awe, wonder, fascination and sweet pathos. When I first saw Liza Minnelli in concert, I’d expected to be wowed, but the immediate thought I had when this wonderful-in-her-own-right woman stepped onto the stage was: “That’s Judy DNA right there. And I’m breathing the same air.”
It is as difficult to put into words the feelings I had when I walked to her house, saw it for the first time and stood outside it for about an hour or so. I’d told myself it was just a house. That if it was going to be razed, it was just bricks. That countless other people would have lived there since her death, and numerous alterations would mean that little of ‘her’ remained in its physicality – whatever that might mean anyway. But there was something very tangible about the place. Its simplicity and its state of disrepair was a central part of this feeling. It suited, in a way, the tiny stature she’d shrunk down to, its decrepit state matching the sad physical decline of Judy’s last years, months and days. This simple dwelling was in perverse contrast to her enormous talent, legend and legacy. But at the same time it echoed the down-to-earth persona that was the flipside of her hyper-stardom – the ironic “normalcy” that queer academic Richard Dyer has argued makes her so attractive to the LGBT community.
It suited, in a way, the tiny stature she’d shrunk down to, its decrepit state matching the sad physical decline of Judy’s last years, months and days
Yet it was more than that. It was imagining Judy walking in and out of the door, down the lane, maybe to the shops. It was thinking of what happened to her inside, in that bathroom. It was being reminded of pictures of her and Mickey standing in the doorway as I stood on the apparently unchanged paving slabs. It was spooky, sad and quite lovely.
I’d been there a while when I noticed a gap at the side of the curtain on the front window. I looked in to see that the entire inside had been gutted. There were piles of rubble everywhere, heaps of new timber stacked up. This little, odd house is being renovated after all. I’d love to get inside and I’m investigating the possibility. Judy and her aura is the topic of a project I’ve had in mind for years – a performance and a film exploring the appeal of her tragic-camp legend. My trip to her last home was a fitting start to this project.
As I stood staring at her doorway, I realised that so many people would pass this way and never know its history. The blue plaque company is no more and so there is little chance of a sign being erected to inform people that this was once Dorothy’s house. So I used the only thing I had on me – a very temporary marker indeed, but seemingly fitting for both the occasion and the impermanence of the abode. I wrote a small post-it and stuck it to the brass number 4 on the wall of the doorway: “Judy Garland lived and died here.” I felt that it would be worth it if just one person saw that note and stopped to consider the gravitas of this crappy, falling-down little house. C