Judy Garland's Casket Handles
by Marc Charbonnet
One morning I received a telephone call from a man who had looked me up on the internet. He said he had some items that had once belonged to Judy Garland that I might be interested in. He described the objects as "handles."
"What kind?" I asked "Door handles? Suitcase? Ping pong?" There was a slight pause. As I was rattling my brain for other types of handles to offer as an option, with "CB radio?" being the only other choice I could think of on the spot, he interrupted...
"They were the handles to her casket."
We arranged to meet for lunch at Blair's Steak House that afternoon. When we sat down at a table in the center of the restaurant, he removed a package from his bag and placed two casket handles on the table. They had been painted black, and were very worn.
"I have to begin by telling you a little bit about how I came to work at Campbell's." he said.
I knew that Campbell's funeral home was the most exclusive funeral home in New York at the time of Judy Garland's death, and was where her widely-attended services were held before she was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery.
"I was a young man of 21 years old at the time," he started, "I was going to school in New York. Now, I was born and raised upstate in Buffalo, I'd never been to Manhattan. So as you can imagine I knew very little about the big city."
"So one morning I was walking down Madison Avenue, and at one point I looked up and saw a sign that said ‘Funeral Home.’ Now... I needed a job when I graduated, so I walked in and went up to the woman who was the receptionist and said, 'Hello. I'm in school and I'd like to apply for a job.' The woman looked up at me from her desk without moving her head, and with a pursed smile and slight chuckle she said, 'my dear young man, do you know where you are?' Totally missing her gibe, I answered 'Well the sign outside says funeral home.' She put her pen down and replied loudly, 'my dear boy, you're in the Tiffany's of the funeral business!' And I said, 'what's Tiffany?' That's how naive I was. So she looked down at her desk again and, dropping her fake smile, she said flatly 'I'm sorry we don't hire anyone without experience, at least a minimum of 10 to 15 years in the business. And we're not hiring anybody now.' and then she just kept looking down at her writing."
"Maybe you should have looked in the window for a few minutes first while eating a croissant and a coffee from a paper bag." I added.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, go on."
"OK, so with that I was about to walk out. But suddenly across the lobby walks Teddy Thorne, the director of Campbell's funeral home at the time. Now it turns out he was from upstate New York too, and he recognized my accent, and he said 'Hey kid! What are you doing here?' I said I was looking for a job. And he said, 'You know where you are?' So I said, 'the woman tells me I'm in Tiffany's.' He laughed really loudly, and said 'I get a kick out of ya kid. I'm gonna give you a job!' and I got hired. So when I graduated school I went to work there - and that's how I got started. I became the personal page and assistant to the manager of Campbell's. He immediately took a liking to me because I followed orders to the 't' and never varied or questioned anything."
Suddenly the waiter approached our table, and rather hurriedly told us the day's specials, as the restaurant was getting rather packed. We both ordered large iced teas.
"Ok. So what did all this lead to?" I asked him as I squeezed a lemon wedge into my glass.
"So anyway," he went on, "I had been working there for about four or five months already, when one night at about 8:00, the director came into the funeral home. First of all he's never there at 8:00 at night, so that was odd right off the bat. He walks up to me, takes ten dollars out of his pocket he says 'Take this, go get a nice steak dinner and then go home. Change into your best suit and come back here at 11:00.' Well, being the good soldier I was I didn't say why? Or where? Or what for? I mean it was a little strange. And so I literally went out and had a steak dinner with the ten dollars, went home, got dressed and came back at 11:00 at night."
"Well, I arrive back at Campbell's at 11:00 at night, and I see that there's a hearse there, and also a New York City police car, and also Teddy is standing there. So the hearse driver, the director and I got in the hearse. We pull away from the funeral home and follow the police car, which appears to be leaving Manhattan. Keep in mind I don't ask questions...I have no idea what's going on at this time, I mean it's pretty late at night! This is strange, and doesn't seem within the realm of duties of the assistant to the manager of a funeral home. So after riding a while I realize we are driving out to Kennedy airport. OK, so we get there and then we hook up with a Port Authority police car. Now we’ve got one in the front of us and one in the back, and I still don't know what's going on. And we start driving all through the airport, but not any way that I have ever seen before. All of a sudden I see blue flickering lights on either side of the vehicle, and I realize we're actually out on the runway! Now I've never done anything like that, I mean I've barely ever been on a plane before, and I'm thinking, 'my God, what are we doing out here?'"
"I wondered if he was going to fly me off to some undisclosed location or something!"
"Oh..." I said, suddenly snapping back to the restaurant we were in. I looked to my left and noticed that an elderly woman sitting at the table to my left was staring right at me, smiling. She had on a Margaret Thatcher wig, a beige corduroy blazer over a white silk blouse, and super-thick glasses that magnified her eyeballs - which were set dead center right into mine. I just couldn't look away from her gaze, so I said, "Hi!"
"You can't get a steak dinner in New York for ten dollars anymore!" she loudly crooned with a friendly face, interrupting my friend's story.
I looked back at my friend.
"You can't get a steak dinner in New York for ten dollars in this town anymore! That's for sure!" she repeated, waiting for anyone to respond. "I'm sorry I just couldn't help but overhear!" she then added.
I looked over at her lunch companion, an even older woman who was gazing at us fondly over the top of her cream spinach. I mentioned something about the value menus at McDonald's which made them both laugh, and go back to their meals. It suddenly occurred to me how loud my friend's voice was, even over the din of the restaurant. But he continued.
"Well," he went on, "what we eventually did out there on the runway is we meet up with a parked plane, before it even had approached the arrival port. And the cops and security are all there, lights are flickering... the works. And extending from where the plane is stopped there's a long conveyor belt jutting out. And of course by now I kind of have a general idea, but I still don't know exactly what's going on and am too intimidated by this point to inquire the details."
"It all sounds very clandestine." I offered.
"Yeah, like top secret! I mean... I was stunned! So I just kept my mouth shut. So we got out and eventually I overhear the airport personnel and some of the police saying 'Blah, blah, Garland, blah, blah, Judy Garland, blah, blah, Judy, Judy.' So it took me a minute, but soon I figured out that it must be Judy Garland! I remembered seeing in the headlines a day or two before that she had died. But I was 21 years old and, you know, I just knew she was a famous person, that's all. I didn't know the extent of her fame personally at that time. But I was about to learn even more after that day."
"Wow!" I said, noticing that the two old women to my left had now grown incredibly quiet as they ate.
"So," my friend went on, "Eventually out came the container, out of the airplane, with her in it. It was just a big wooden crate obviously with a casket inside. Just like 'b-b-b-r-r-r-n-n-n...' along the conveyor belt it comes. And we all get out and reach over and heave the crate off of the belt and carefully put it into the hearse!"
"Uh-huh." I say, hearing what sounds like a fork dropping on a plate to my left.
"So," he said, "now we have to drive all the way back to Campbell's. It's about 1:00 in the morning you know, and on the long ride I'm getting a little bit excited and anxious. We get into Manhattan, and as we're pulling up to Campbell's, there was already like 50 or 60 people out there on the sidewalk in front of the place! It was a pilgrimage outside the funeral home! I mean, word hadn't gotten out about the services or anything really - even we didn't know the details. But these were the types of fans that knew that if Judy Garland's funeral was going to be in New York, Campbell's was going to do it. So there they were, just standing, waiting and staring."
"She had, or has, a really dedicated fan base." I said, knowing he knew I was in their ranks.
"Yeah, I mean, it kind of hit me at that moment as we were pulling up. It was so late at night! I got even more anxious! So we pull in, take the shipping container into the funeral home, uncrated it. And inside, there was this casket. And I say 'casket' because it was a European burial container, like in Dracula movies."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, a European casket is human shaped, wider at the shoulders and narrow at the feet - and this is technically called a casket. What we have traditionally in America are more long rectangle boxes, called coffins. There's a difference. It was a pretty ugly casket because it was dark stained mahogany wood. But it was so darkly stained that it was nearly black. It was almost black on black."
"And these are the handles?" I asked, pointing down.
"Yes." he said.
"Why only two?"
"I'll get to that. So anyway we took her out of that casket. And well, when we did, we could feel that her body and all her clothing was wet. I mean really wet. It was because of the container the casket had been shipped in; it was sealed too tight. She had literally flown across the Atlantic in an air-tight bubble. So the whole effect over that period of time was like a high altitude terrarium; it was heavy condensation. Her dress was ruined, which at the time I thought was a gray knit jersey material and later found out was silver lame. Well, that was all soaked, ruined, you know, blech. And we peeled that off of her. We put the muggy garment in a bag and just threw it in the corner, I assumed for the incinerator later."
"Wait, wasn't Judy Garland buried in a silver lame dress?" I asked, expecting a twist.
"Oh, I'll get to that," he continued, "So, then we got a really good look at all of her and we realized she was in a really bad condition. They hadn't done a good job embalming her in England. She was turning green - gray and green."
"Didn't they perform an autopsy on her in England?" I gulped.
"Oh yeah." he said
The waiter arrived to take our orders. I glanced half commiseratively over at the two elderly women next to us. They were both looking down at their coffee cups, stirring them with lips pursed, silent.
"So then," he said, piping up, "Teddy says, 'she's never gonna last three to four days in this state!' So he put us to work on her right away. Myself and a more experienced guy, we literally re-embalmed her all over again to preserve her properly, so she would last. She was turning into a swamp! And while doing this we discovered that at her wrist and the crux of her elbow, the medical examiner in England had taken out swatches of her flesh for a diagnosis of the cause of death. And it was leaking and stuff, so those missing pieces had to be reconstructed. Well, she had been in bad shape - and when we finished she looked better, but still looked pretty bad in the face and stuff, green and all, because you know we couldn't repair the damage that resulted from the poor embalming."
"So anyway, she's just laying there like that, and now it was about 3:00 in the morning. The director tells me to go home and says 'Come back at 8:00. I'm canceling all the funerals that we have scheduled.' And when he said come back, he meant the whole staff! They had a staff of about 30-35 people there. So everybody was to report in the morning. Oh, I hardly slept that night. And when I got back there at 8:00 in the morning, the police had towed all the parked cars from Madison Avenue to Fifth Avenue, on both sides of the street! And they had barricades that would snake up and down the street because they knew what was coming next. And it had already started; at 8:00, there were probably 500 people there right away. Police were there patrolling, obviously."
"So all the employees assembled, and the director says, 'Ok, this is what we're gonna do; when we open at 1:00 today, we're gonna be open 24 hours from that point on, for the next two days. She's going to be displayed for the public starting at 1:00. We're going to open the doors for 55 minutes at a time, let the crowds in, close for five minutes to rearrange the flowers, go to the bathroom, do whatever you have to do, and then open them again.' So it was going to be 55 and five, 55 and five, twenty four-seven straight for two days!"
"Oh my god!" I said, "They could've had a drive through!"
"Believe me, if he could've arranged that, he would've, because it would have saved time! They were anticipating a massive show of people, and it was good thing they did as you'll see."
"So what happened next?"
"So now the manager said to me, 'stay close to me, Mickey Deans is coming in at 9:00 for arrangements.' And of course I had no idea who Mickey Deans was!"
"Here are your tossed salads." our waiter interrupted, slightly brushing one of the coffin handles across the tablecloth as he set the bowls down in front of us.
"Mickey Deans was her husband at the time of her death. He managed a disco." I stated, realizing he probably knew this by now.
"Yes!" he said, pointing up and smiling, "But at the time I just did what the director asked! So at 9:00, in walked three people. Mickey came in with an attorney, and also a minister, who I think was the minister who married them in England. So I was just standing in the arrangement room and he's there with the three of them making the arrangements. They went over how many days the funeral's going to be and that it was going to be by invitation only, and what the rules were going to be, etcetera, etcetera."
"That hadn't even been decided?" I asked.
"Nope. Not exactly. She wasn't being displayed yet, she was still downstairs and not looking great. But I'll get to that in a minute. So Mickey's there to make arrangements and right away he said, 'I don't want her displayed in that ugly thing that she was shipped in from England.' And we said, 'Fine. We'll be glad to sell you another casket.' So Campbell's at that time had three display rooms with caskets for sale. And when a manager was making arrangements he was kinda sizing up your role in life and your monetary worth, for all intents and purposes. And you would either go into room A, B, or C. It's a bit of a selling job, obviously. But it was also a sensitivity issue. I mean, you couldn't have everything in one room. You wouldn't want to parade families that didn't have much money past the really lavish, expensive coffins and say 'Oh here come down to this end of the room where all the cheap garbage is!'"
"But, as it turns out, this technique weirdly backfired a little bit in this case, surprisingly."
"Ok, I'll get to that. So obviously, Teddy escorts Mickey and crew right into room A, which has the most expensive caskets. In there they started at $5000 and went up to about, $14,000 or $15,000, and this is 1969, remember."
"Yeah, the most expensive one, now that would be over $100,000. And at the time that would be a solid cast-bronze casket that weighed about 800 lbs. Anyway, we're in the super-expensive casket room and Mickey Deans goes straight over to a very, very fancy, silver-plated casket. Very filigree, ornate, theatrical... you know, very heavy design and, for a lack of a better term, Italian style. And it seemed apropos that someone looking for the grandest funeral treatment possible would like it. And of course he said, 'I think we'll take this.' So he told them it was $10,000. So then, here's the weird part, the attorney kind of shook his head. So then this causes Mickey to go over to another casket, a lesser-looking one which was $5000, and he said, 'How about this one?' And the attorney again shook his head."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, with this, Teddy interrupted and said, 'Well, hold on fellas, what's going on?' Campbell's knew that having this funeral was not about money, actually. At that time they used to do between eight and fifteen funerals a day. They were really busy. But as I said they turned away an awful lot of people during this because it wouldn't be fair to other families to have mobs of Judy Garland fans trampling their services. So they knew turning away all that business was going to be a huge loss no matter what. So now, you know, this is like even more ridiculous. Teddy was basically like 'What do you mean $5000?'"
"So what happened?"
"Well, the attorney pulls him aside and explains the facts; that there's just not much money there. To put it more bluntly, Mickey's totally broke."
"Oh, God!" I groaned.
"Yeah, he didn't flinch, but inside I knew Teddy's jaw just hit the floor."
Our waiter brushed by our table to give the two elderly women their check. He also sat two middle aged men in business suits to our right. "Is everything alright here?" he turned to ask us. We both smiled and nodded.
"So what did you do?" I said, looking back at my friend.
"Ok," he said, "so now remember the clock is ticking. The time was 10:00 and we were gonna open the doors at 1:00, there's only a three hour window until show time. Anyone in the business would tell you that's just not enough time even if things were running smoothly. So we didn't even bother looking at any other coffins with them in any other rooms, even room C. We immediately left the three of them and went downstairs. And this is where it gets interesting. Teddy just picks up the telephone and calls a coffin company in Brooklyn and he says, 'I want the so-and-so coffin and I want you to paint it white, I want you to put gold highlights on it, and I want you to put such and such hardware on it and,' now the real key, he says, 'I want you to put a full glass liner on it!' It's a full length glass top that goes on top! Now, full glass liners, in those days and even today, they go only on very expensive coffins. And even back then, that top probably cost $800-$900, and this whole coffin didn't cost more than $1,500."
"A glass top? Lenin, Stalin... and Judy Garland."
"Yeah, people in the industry actually sometimes call them 'sneeze guards.'"
"Really?" I widened my eyes and said, just as one of the old women to my left coughed.
"Yeah," he said. "This was a first for me. I didn't realize it at first, but in cases where a body of someone with great significance is going to be exhibited, well they need to kind of guard against people who are gonna want to touch the body or maybe even steal stuff or whatever.'"
"Oh yeah! It used to happen to the bodies of saints all the time when their corpses were put on display for public expositions, because pieces of them supposedly held holy power. You know, in the 17th Century, one of Saint Francis Xavier's toes was bitten off by a Portuguese woman as she bent down to kiss his corpse during an exposition. She wanted it as a relic!"
"So with someone like Judy... well, with her fans, I mean you just can't be too careful."
The waiter cleared our salad bowls and put our entrees in front of us.
"Ok, ok... so what happened with the coffin business?" I asked.
"So," he went on, "we have less than three hours to go and we don't even have the coffin in the building, it doesn't even exist yet! And he's on the phone giving the specifics and I can hear the guy in Brooklyn through the phone saying, 'But Teddy, it's 10:00!' And Teddy just hangs up the phone."
"Did he tell them it was for Judy Garland?"
"He didn't need to. He just hung up because we're the guy's biggest customers, we're Campbell's! And whatever has to be done, you'll just get it done and get it to me by 1:00, you know? So this poor guy had to go get a coffin, paint it, put different hardware on it, line it with white velvet, get it on a truck and get it to Campbell's by 12:30, not 1:00! Plus, even if he had told him it was for Judy Garland - I mean that doesn't really make a difference in this case because they had no money! This was a rush job on really low end stuff. He wasn't getting the kind of money or prestige you'd get for a really famous person's high-end coffin."
"He probably hates all Judy Garland movies to this day." I suggested.
"Ok, so now the pressure was really on and Teddy kind of took control, he had to, obviously. He says to Mickey Deans, 'I noticed you didn't bring any clothing in.' And Mickey just flatly sates, 'Well what's wrong with the dress she was wearing? It was her wedding dress, she got married in it.' Well he just turned his head slyly, glanced at me without a word, and them turned back to Mickey and said, 'Oh we're going to lay her out in that?' And Mickey's like 'Of course.' So he says 'Ok. Fine then!' But I didn't even need to hear that because that look he had given me said everything. I knew that this thing was wet, and in a corner, in a grimy bag downstairs... if it hadn't crawled away by now on its own. So I was already swiftly out of the room, and I went to the assistant manager and I said, 'You won't believe this, but they want to lay her out in that gray... silver lame, whatever, wet garment she came in from London with. It's downstairs, and wet and mildew-y and now it's getting on ten, ten-something!' And I'm panicking and he says 'Ok, c'mon.' And we go downstairs and we put it in another bag, a little black bag - probably to seal the smell, and he says, 'Quick, go take it down the street to the cleaners and have it cleaned and come back.'"
"Oh Lord!" I said.
"So by now it's about 11:00, and I walk out the door, just really focused and hurrying. And I forget, you know. I walk out onto the sidewalk, and I look up and there's thousands of Judy Garland fans in the street! Thousands! There's TV cameras and all these newspaper reporters and photographers... and now I'm completely paranoid. And I have this lumpy thing sodden in a little black bag! And of course they've already spotted me and I'm thinking 'I can't walk out of here and go one block to these dry cleaners, filing past this mob, everybody's watching me!' So quickly but gracefully, I make a complete opposite left - like I'm just some guy leaving the place you know, and I go all the way around the big block, and come to the cleaners from the other direction, because I'm paranoid! I mean, this is crazy."
"So I walk into the cleaner's and a there's a little Chinese man working behind the counter, and I hold up the musty bag and say, 'I'd like to have this dress cleaned, and I'd like to have it back today please.' And he just looks at the bag and says, 'Ok, come back 4:00.' So obviously I say, 'No, no I need it before 4:00!' And he goes, 'Okay, come back 2:00.' So, now at my young age I'm finally learning and I say the magic words, 'It's Judy Garland's dress.' He stopped what he was doing, gave me his undivided attention and half shouted 'Who's Udee Gakin?' Then he shrugged his shoulders slightly, paused, and went back to his task, adding 'OK come back one hour.'"
"So I thank him, and as I'm walking out, I'm thinking that when this dry cleaner opens that little bag he's probably going to think I murdered someone! And I just forget about that for the moment and go back to the funeral home, and now things are almost in chaos outside. Flowers are coming in by the cartloads, and I mean by the cartloads. There's nowhere for all of them! I then found out then she was going to be laid out on the ground floor, because Campbell's had a chapel on the ground floor facing the side of 81st street - thank God. This is perfect because people are lined up on 81st street, and they're gonna just walk right in the building there from there, not on Madison Avenue, so this won't disrupt anything. And that's good news, but the clock is still ticking."
"You must've been crazy!"
"Oh I was nervous, very nervous. Especially since they had basically put me in charge of fixing the dress, that ruined dress that this woman had basically began to decompose all over. They put me in charge of erasing what had happened to it, so this person whom all these thousands of people had come to see and every TV camera and newspaper reported in New York City had come to document for the world to witness, could be buried forever in it, just looking as picture perfect as a poppy! Yeah, I was a little bit flustered! By this point I was fully aware of how important this woman was, yeah."
"So the chaos was mounting..."
"The whole building was like a whirlwind. I mean we had thirty-some people working there and everybody was running like mad, working on mostly carrying flowers into the building which, I mean... they were practically backing dump trucks full of them up to the place and unloading. Also answering phones, and whatnot. Some people were actually helping the police with a little bit of crowd control and stuff, because sometimes people outside would cry or wail a bit and maybe freaking out some - and that just added to the tension. The whole place was controlled but frantic. Meanwhile the clock is like 'tick...tick...tick' and right outside the door the crowd was like 'swell...swell...swell' and I'm thinking 'the whole world is watching and this is not going to happen on time.' I mean, the body wasn't even prepared! She was still green! On top of everything else Campbell's reputation is at stake. But Teddy's keeping cool and he says, 'Ok, let's get back to the arrangements.' And I wasn't there for that because I went to the dry cleaners, but apparently Mickey said, 'Ok, we're going to have this for two days and the actual service will be by invitation only.' And he gave him the list of who they're going to invite and whatnot, and it was the likes of Otto Preminger, Peter Lawford, John Wayne, Ed Sullivan, Kirk Douglas, and a few members of the Kennedy family. And who's giving the eulogy but James Mason - and I'll tell you about Mr. Mason a little later on."
"So before I even know what's what, it's time to go get the dress, and I high tail it to the dry cleaners, going the same way. I walk in, really just expecting the worst, and the man pops out from behind a curtain in the back with the dress on a hanger! And it's as good as new! I mean, you would have never known what had happened in it! I mean this guy is like the most brilliant dry cleaner in the world hidden away on 82nd street in 1969 - he can remove death itself from a wedding dress! In under an hour! And he doesn't even say a disparaging word, he just smiles real big and says 'don't winkie it!' while holding it out to me."
"Oh my God!"
"And I'm grateful, but I say, 'Wait! I can't walk down the street with this thing displayed like this! You don't understand!' So he gets a little annoyed with me, but he kindly puts it in a box, puts tissue paper all around it and everything, and sends me on my way."
"Could you imagine trying to walk past the crowd? You would've been clawed!" I said; glancing over at the two old women to my left and noticing that they're still sitting there, totally motionless, even though they've paid their check.
"So," my friend continues, "I do the whole thing around the other side of the block again. I come in the front door, and now it's getting between 12:00 and 1:00. Oh God, oh God. And when I go downstairs, what do I see? There are these two guys hovering over Judy Garland's body! One is fiddling with these brightly colored plastic things in her hair with wires hooked up to them, and this is 1969. Back then women curled their hair with a hot curling iron. This was the first time I saw a bunch of electric curlers, and he's got them all in her hair. And she's dead! It looked like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory! I mean I didn't know, I thought maybe it was some crazed fan who had snuck into the basement from outside! It's as though he was trying to reanimate her! And I looked at him aghast, and I just go, 'What in the world are you doing to her!?' And he just calmly says, 'they're curlers.' And I said 'Oh.' And then I realize, who's standing next to him but a top Hollywood make-up artist. Both of these guys were flown in from California at a second's notice to fix her up! Professional movie make up and hair artists - and they're working like mad on her. And I found out this completely miffed Teddy, who said, 'they got enough money to bring in people from California and they're buying a chintzy coffin?' or whatever it cost. And he was pretty annoyed at that, even though I was secretly kind of relieved, but whatever."
"What a scene!"
"Yeah, so in any event, there's the guy doing the hair with those weird electric things. And the make-up artist is truly, truly amazing. I mean, as I said she was green, and he has a box with at least 40 to 50 brushes in it. It was about two feet wide, and when he opened it up my eyes went out of my head cause I never saw such make-up in my life!"
"And he started to paint her! And I mean he literally did paint her, base after base, layer after layer. He brought her to life because, I mean, as I said, she looked really bad as a result of the botched embalming in London."
"Did he do a really good job?"
"Oh my God, he absolutely painted a picture of her face, on top of her face! As if she was coming right to life! When he was done with her, she was magnificent. Truly magnificent."
"In your experience, do you think that was that one of the finest make-up jobs ever?"
"Oh yeah, yeah, no one's ever - I’ve never seen a make-up done on a dead person like that. He literally painted a portrait. He virtually did reanimate her! She looked like she was just sleeping when he was done. I mean, I'm sure the people observing the body later were impressed, but if only they knew how fake it all was! But I guess this is showbiz right!"
"The show must go on!"
"Yeah, post mortem!"
"Amazing. But can I ask you a question?" I said, "She was very, very thin wasn't she?"
"Oh yes!" his voice went up, "She probably weighed 85 or 90 pounds. Nothing. Very thin and frail. You know it sounds a little bad, but in the embalming industry when we say someone's 'about to snap' we mean they are about to snap! And she was like a glass twig. But with that thick layer of make-up I'm sure we added an extra 20 lbs!"
"Frances Ethel Gumm was in there somewhere!" I said.
"I mean, the layers! Like whole structures; the core, the strata, the mantle, etc. The cosmetics probably ended up hardening, like armor!"
"Well if her funeral procession had driven past the Stonewall Inn downtown that day, she may have needed it. Her death sparked a riot!"
"Yeah, it probably would have just ended up like Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral. And you know, I'll bet you anything that layer of make-up is still intact! Still sealed in her grave like a perfect body cast, looking great."
"The last things to survive Earth's annihilation; Judy Garland's Max Factor shell."
"Yeah really. I was being very careful just as we were with anyone there, like I said I was too young at the time to know the full extent of her career and all. But the guys all working on her knew! And you could tell. She was a goddess to them, which I would learn even more at the end of this event, due to the thousands outside the door."
"Wow!" I say, one ear slightly cocked as I swear I overhear the two business men at the table to my right both discussing "surviving munchkins."
"But of course," he goes on, "there's no time to gasp at anything because it's now 12:30 when the make-up artist has applied the last coat. So I have the dress there and we slip it onto her. The hair guy takes the electric curlers out of her hair... fluffs it up, fixes it. The dress is on, last make-up touches are done. At quarter to one, suddenly the casket arrives... and it looks great! Really simple and perfect, with the clear glass on top! The guy did a great job!"
"And this was the part in the day that was almost felt like some sort of surreal magic. It was uncanny, but it felt just like a Broadway production - everyone was going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. All this tension leading up to one final moment. Here comes the coffin. Boom. We roll it downstairs. Boom. Pick her up. Boom. Put her in, put the glass top over her. Literally, it's five to one... we roll her right into the room and the room is a jungle of flowers, I mean from floor to ceiling, enough to fill two chapels, the whole funeral home actually! And the aroma! And just like that it all falls into place like a Hollywood production! With not a second to spare, literally at 1:00 we just walk over and open the doors and it's perfection and no one would have been the wiser! And right then when we opened the doors, I mean, the whole world just poured right in. Throngs of people, and it just went on for two days."
The waiter arrives to take our plates away. I swear to my left I hear the old women discussing funeral service package prices.
"I knew there were all kinds of people coming to see her. Tell me about it." I asked my friend.
"It was surprising, yes." he said, "Everyone... young, old, black, white. It was a real general cross-section of the general population, all different size and shapes and ages.
"Did they have any emotional outbursts, the people that came through?"
"Oh yeah, like I said. I mean, it was just me and three other employees standing around the casket during the viewing. I mean all of, if you can imagine, all of 81st Street was solidly packed with people for two days. They waited hours to just walk in and walk past her. And it was non-stop, just like Teddy said... open for 55 minutes, closed for five... just like that over and over. There were people that were, I mean some people fainted. Some people, you know, just got very choked up and emotional and couldn't walk. Not everyone, but there was a lot of stuff like that."
I hear a noise; "I'm sorry ma'am but we're very crowded, and we actually do need this table now!" our waiter is saying down to the old women at the table to my left. One of them inquires about a dessert menu.
"What about the actual funeral service?" I turn back and ask my friend.
"The day of the funeral," he says, "which was by invitation only, all of these famous people are walking in. So there's even more cameras and police and everything than since that first day out there, but nothing like that inside obviously. It was very formal. Everything was scheduled to happen at a certain time. And at one point we were supposed to have James Mason standing up by the other people speaking at the service, you know, all slotted to go on at a certain time. James Mason was giving the eulogy. And the service is already underway and we couldn't find him! No one had seen him and we couldn't find where he was and then we realized no one had actually seen him that day, you know, he hadn't introduced himself to the director or anything. So we really started to panic - like he was a no-show and there was going to be no eulogy. Oh my god, where's James Mason? You know! But right when it was time on the schedule for him to speak, and we had just about fainted... all of the sudden this big guy with a giant beard stands up in the crowd - and it's him! He had grown a full beard and no one had recognized him! He just walked up to the front like clockwork, cleared his throat, and with that baritone, trained Shakespearian voice he gave this moving eulogy."
"Ha ha! Oh lord!"
"Yeah, really. And when he was done, that was when the pallbearers came in. They hoisted her on their shoulders and walked her on their shoulders out of the funeral home. And the song they were singing was a battle hymn of the republic; 'thine Eyes Have Seen the Coming.' And outside she went, into the hearse, and from there she went to Ferncliff Cemetery. It was really something to behold at the time."
"Gee. How were the children? Do you remember?"
"I was standing next to Liza Minelli during the service, in the aisle-way of the chapel, when she was trying to sing. It was as they were taking her mother out of the chapel, and she couldn't sing along. Her voice kept breaking and she couldn't sing the song. I'll never forget that. The family was really pretty much removed from the whole situation until the day of the service. The whole rush of planning and activity was really for the public, and the public came!"
"The actual service was a Saturday wasn't it?"
"Hmmm.. that, I can't remember if it was a weekend or not."
I heard two dessert menus plop down on the table to my left, and looked to see the waiter stomping away.
"Had you had any other celebrity funerals there?" I asked him.
"Oh yeah." he said, "Let's see... when I was there? J.C. Penney was a famous person, you know, but not like a celebrity. I was there for a famous football player who died of cancer named Brian Piccolo They later made a movie out of him called 'Brian's Song.' I actually embalmed him, also. That was another big funeral. J.C. Penney and Brian Piccolo, that's it, I guess."
"Were they like Judy's?"
"Oh no, no! Nothing like that. Nothing. Judy was the biggest."
"Now... about the handles," I asked, pointing down "on a coffin, how many would there be? Just two?"
"No," he replied, "there would be two on the other side also. But those were badly damaged."
"And how did you come by holding onto these?" I wondered.
"Well," he said, relaxing his shoulders and tilting his head a bit, "later that day, the director told the maintenance people to break up the casket she was shipped in from London. He told them to break it up, bundle it, and put it out in the garbage. And by the time I walked down to the basement the whole thing was in pieces and I thought 'Wait, wait, wait, wait...' and this was the only thing I could salvage. I wanted something, if not from her at least from that day. So that's how I came by them."
I picked up the check for lunch and thanked my friend for a fantastic story. Did I buy Judy Garland's casket handles? Surprisingly... I didn't. Not because I didn't want them, but because I was outbid by the two old ladies sitting next to me.