His Truth is Marching On: Judy Garland’s Tribute to John F. Kennedy

Judy Garland and John F. Kennedy | Courtesy of Life Magazine
Kennedy rally poster | Courtesy of JFK Library

In 1960, Judy Garland was hospitalized for acute hepatitis and spent the winter and spring months in recovery. By the summer, Judy felt reenergized and eager to return to her audiences. Her first public appearance was at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner, where she sat next to her friend John. F. Kennedy. She admired him dearly, and said, “He’s magnetic. He’s tough. He’s mature.”1

Judy proudly supported JFK, and even traveled to West Germany in October of 1960 to campaign for Kennedy just days before the election. Judy performed for American troops stationed in Wiesbaden in a series of “Koncerts for Kennedy.”  Her goal was to reach some of the 800,000 absentee votes.2

Two weeks later, Judy was overjoyed at the election results, and she celebrated her friend’s victory at a party in London’s Savoy Hotel. Judy phoned JFK the following day to offer her congratulations, “Greetings, Mr. President,” Judy said to him, to which Kennedy replied, “Hello, Madame Ambassador.”3

Judy first met John F. Kennedy long before his run for the presidency. The public premiere for A Star Is Born, arguably Judy’s finest performance, was held at the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1954. The film premiere was a lavish affair as it was commemorating Judy’s highly anticipated return to film. It was a star-studded event that drew nearly 20,000 of Judy’s adoring fans. Judy’s performance was a sensation, and when she returned to New York, she found herself in a very high-profile social circle.4 The Duke and Duchess of Windsor even invited Judy to dine with them, but she had to decline. Judy’s close friend and Easter Parade co-star, Peter Lawford, had recently married Patricia Kennedy. Her brother, John F. Kennedy, was eager to meet Judy. Sid Luft, Judy’s husband at the time, recalled: “JFK was young, lanky, and extremely outgoing. He’d asked Peter and Pat to introduce him to ‘Dorothy’ in the flesh.” He added, “With Kennedy’s gift for oratory and Judy’s talent for telling stories, it was the start of a fun‑loving, comfortable friendship. Judy and I shared the same perception—that brother and sister alike were still suffering the loss of their older brother Joe.”5

Judy Garland visiting the White House 1962 | Courtesy of JFK Library

In the fall of 1951 Judy had a successful record-breaking 19 week run at the Palace Theatre in New York City. After 184 performances, Judy sang for over a million of her fans. Judy’s former husband, Sid Luft referred to this era of her career as the “beginning of the cult of Garland.”6 Audiences already loved Judy from her film performances but the experience of watching Judy sing live made her fans even more passionate about her. Audiences went crazy for Judy at her concerts. She received long standing ovations and her audiences screamed and wept for her.7 Judy was no longer just Dorothy from Kansas; she was a full-fledged American icon. Her residency at the Palace put her back on top; however, Judy experienced many ups and downs in her career and personal life. Judy often made the headlines because of failed marriages, drug addiction, and suicide attempts.8 In spite of all her struggles, her success as a live performer eventually led to a comeback on television.

Judy and Jack remained close friends ever since they first met during the premiere for A Star Is Born six years earlier. Even after JFK took office, the two stayed in close contact. The president often rang her for private concerts and Judy would oblige him by singing “Over the Rainbow.” Judy frequently called him at the White House to seek advice on difficult situations in her life.9 Norman Jewison, a director and film producer, recalled meeting with Judy backstage at one of her performances to discuss her upcoming television special. In the middle of the meeting, she politely interrupted Norman and said there was something important she needed to do. Judy picked up the phone and casually asked for the White House, then asked for the president. Meanwhile, Norman’s jaw dropped, and he couldn’t believe what was happening. He was stunned when Judy said, “Hello Mr. President,” and then proceeded to sing the opening verse to “Over the Rainbow.” She spoke gently to Kennedy for a few minutes and ended the phone call by saying, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Then she turned to Norman and said, “Now–about the show!” Judy’s television special aired in February in 1962 and was a huge success, and she went on to record a series of specials for CBS.10 During these tapings, Judy always stayed true to her signature style. She sang powerfully and earnestly as she did with all her live performances in front of packed theatres filled with impassioned fans. She did not adapt her style one bit for television, and several critics wrote as though this was a bad quality to have. A New York Times writer said Judy’s “intensity was so overwhelming that her performance regrettably was more tiring than engaging.” He urged the producers to slow down the feverish pace of the show, and that Judy tone down her vigor and volume that he deemed “more suitable to ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”11 Despite the criticism, CBS offered Judy a $24 million deal for a weekly television series.12

Judy Garland visiting the White House along with Richard Adler, Carol Burnett, & Danny Kaye, 1962 | Courtesy of JFK Library

The Judy Garland Show had a rough production, and even before it went on the air, many television critics believed the show was doomed. They believed Judy did not have the strength to meet the demands of performing on a weekly basis. Many of them were certain she would collapse or perhaps not even show up to the tapings. Judy was aware of what her doubters were saying, but once the show began taping in June, she was in top form. George Schlatter, the show’s producer, was very supportive of Judy and provided her with a luxurious dressing room on set.13 There was even a yellow brick road painted on the floor that went from Judy’s dressing room to the stage.14 Schlatter’s humor often put Judy at ease when she had moments of anxiety, and the two worked well together. Unfortunately, the creative partnership ended in August after CBS abruptly fired Schlatter and his team. The network did not agree with his approach to model each episode as a special event, like the opening night of the Palace. Instead, CBS believed its viewers wanted a more comfortable, familiar, and essentially mundane viewing experience.15

Recently appointed in 1959, the president of CBS, James T. Aubrey Jr., was obsessed with ratings and not interested in quality programming like The Judy Garland Show. In Aubrey’s opinion, Judy’s star power was too much for viewers, and he expected her to adjust for television. The sudden changes left Judy feeling shocked and bewildered.16 Aubrey’s specialty was appealing to a wider audience through formula comedies like Mister Ed and My Favorite Martian.17 Through his programming, Aubrey created a “placid consensual middle-of-the-road version of America that hid the intractable polarization growing daily beyond the screen.”18 While his time at CBS proved lucrative for the network, Aubrey was difficult to work with and he often feuded with major stars like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny.19 People within the industry referred to Aubrey as the “smiling cobra” for his ruthless behavior.20 He apparently despised Judy and nitpicked at her on-screen persona. When the network complained to Judy that she was too friendly on camera, she responded, “I’m a woman who wants to reach out and take 40 million people in her arms.” President Kennedy was a calming influence on Judy at this time as she often called him for advice on how to deal with Aubrey.  She was glad for the opportunity to call JFK up whenever she needed support, and he was happy to oblige. In the early part of November 1963, The Judy Garland Show experienced even more changes, which brought about yet another producer.21 Unfortunately, Judy would no longer be able to lean on her friend Jack to help her navigate the show’s new challenges.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 23, 1963, just one day after Judy’s youngest daughter, Lorna Luft, turned eleven years old.  Lorna and her brother Joey grew up with the Kennedy children and they frequently played together. The president often joined in on the fun, and on one occasion stole a golf cart from the Secret Service and took his and Judy’s kids for a ride. The Secret Service agents were obligated to chase the cart around much to the delight of the children.22 When news of the president’s assassination broke, Lorna was terrified and felt as though someone had been gunned down in her own living room.23 The loss was that deep and personal to her. For Judy, Kennedy’s death was even more devastating. Not only did she lose the president she campaigned for, but she also lost a dear friend. Judy was white as a sheet when she heard the news, but tried to remain strong for her friends and family. Almost immediately, she went over to the Lawford’s house to offer her support to Patricia Kennedy. When she came home, Judy put her arms around Joe and Lorna and cuddled with them as they watched the news together. Lorna could not tell if Judy was comforting them or clinging to them for support.24

Judy wanted nothing more than to fly to the east coast to attend the funeral and bring comfort to Bobby, Patricia, and the rest of the Kennedy family. However, CBS expected her to film her show as usual, and did not allow her any time off. The network told her she did not need to go to the funeral because the country would forget the whole incident within a month.25 Judy devised another way to say goodbye to her friend. She informed the CBS executives of her intention to perform “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on her upcoming taping. The network strongly disapproved of her song choice because they did not want the show to come off as too political. In the 1960s, a song like the “Battle Hymn” carried a heavy connotation against the backdrop of the racial tensions the country was experiencing.

Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, and while it was originally written as a Civil War battle song for the North, it has since resonated with many other causes. What started as a wartime rallying cry is now an American musical treasure and considered to be the country’s second national anthem. The “Battle Hymn” inspired labor organizers and civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King who referenced the song in his final speech. The song has been adapted countless times and was even rewritten as a feminist anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Suffragist.”26 Judy was certainly trying to make a statement with her choice of song. She could have easily selected a song from her extensive catalog, but “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the most fitting.

Since Judy had already been at odds with CBS after the termination of her producer George Schlatter, the denial of her request to perform a song for JFK was her breaking point. In the last segment of the episode, which aired on December 13, 1963, Judy came out and told her audience, “One of the greatest songs that was ever written is very seldom done on television and I would like to sing that song for you tonight.”27 Ignoring the network’s complaints, Judy lifted her head up, looked straight into the camera, and sang those famous lines, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Viewers in the studio and at home were immediately captivated.

She delivered the song in a way that was half prayer, half battle cry. Her powerful vocals boomed straight to the hearts of her listeners. The sound of Judy’s voice filled up every corner of the studio and living rooms across the country. She sang defiantly against the violence and intolerance in America. Judy sent a clear message–that the country would not be defeated, and on a personal level, the song challenged the hostility she received from CBS.

As Judy made her way closer to the camera, she slowly marched to the beat of the music, down the runway of the dimly lit stage. The music softened, and the camera zoomed in on her expressive face making the moment feel even more intimate to viewers at home. The closeups made it seem as though Judy was in the room with them. The music and the volume of her voice lowered when she sang:

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy…”

Then she raised her voice, declaring:

“We must die to make men free!
His truth is marching on!”

The dynamic of the song changed when she delivered those two lines. The music grew louder, and her vocals were so strong she scarcely needed a microphone. Judy blinked her eyes several times when she sang, “We must die to make men free” as though she were shaking tears from her eyes as she thought of her friend. That moment revealed that this was not Judy Garland the performer, this was the Judy who serenaded her friend over the phone. During the performance, she sang with her entire body, sometimes with her hands in the air or gripping the microphone. Judy sang directly to the American people as she looked straight into camera, and in the eyes of the studio audience members.

Lorna and Joe Luft were among the audience watching in awe as their mother delivered one of her most memorable performances. They had seen Judy sing some of the best songs ever written, but her rendition of this battle song left them breathless. Lorna remembered that moment vividly:

“Mama didn’t cry; instead, she put all of her love and sorrow into that song. Her face on the tape of that night is a mask of pain. The audience was stunned. All around us people were crying. I’d never seen anything like it. When the last note quivered into silence, the entire audience got to their feet and started cheering for what seemed like forever.”28

The performance was so powerful that as much as CBS disliked Judy going against their wishes, there was no way they could cut such an outstanding musical moment. In a final effort to spite Judy, the network noticeably edited out Judy’s dedication right before she started singing. Judy looked straight into the camera and whispered, “This is for you, Jack,” but the producers cut that line out. 29 Still, it was clear who the song was for, and the country was grateful for Judy’s tribute.

Casual viewers and ardent Judy fans across the country loved the performance so much that they were compelled to write into their local newspapers. One fan commented on her powerful vocals which made her sound as though, “She were the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”30 Some viewers were left emotional, while others proclaimed that Judy should win an Emmy for the performance. Another fan even recognized the historical significance of this television event and said the recording belonged in the Library of Congress. One woman likened the performance to a religious experience: “It is now 10:05 P.M. and I sit here with a tear-stained face. Judy Garland has just finished her (words fail me!) beautiful singing of the hymn—television’s greatest moment. One felt close to God’s Holy Presence; it was truly divine.” The performance, as someone else pointed out, was an important moment for both television and Judy Garland’s career: “Last night’s ‘Judy Garland Show’ may go down in TV history for the greatest and most magnificent vocalizing ever. Its final number brought to a peak the fantastic greatness of Judy Garland.”31

By popular demand, Judy performed the song again, and gave the following introduction: “A few weeks ago, we closed the show with a marvelous song called ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and ever since then we got so many marvelous letters and telegrams. We’ve been trying to think of some song to take the place of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ but there is no song to take the place of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ so I think we should just do the same one again.”32 Judy dazzled her audience by giving another stellar performance of the song.

When Judy passed away in 1969, her body was placed on public viewing in a New York funeral home. Despite a four-hour wait to enter, people of all ages, races, and social classes lined up night and day to see Judy. An estimated 22,000 fans gathered to pay their respects.33 Several fans reflected on Judy’s impact on the public. A woman from Queens believed people identified with Judy because everyone gets sad and lonely, and Judy made her audience feel like they were all tied together by those common experiences. Another New Yorker said, “Judy gave love and you got the feeling there wasn’t an ounce of hate in her,” and continued, “There’s so much hatred now, so much meanness, and I think Judy Garland was just too kind for this kind of world.”34 Dozens of Judy’s longtime friends attended her private funeral service on June 27, 1969. Among the attendees were Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Lauren Bacall. Judy’s A Star is Born co-star, James Mason, gave a heartfelt eulogy, and the service concluded with a song. The congregation sang Judy’s favorite hymn — “That Battle Hymn of the Republic.”35

  1. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 370. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  2. Newspapers.com. “21 Oct 1960, 3 – The Monitor at Newspapers.Com.” Accessed March 27, 2021. http://www.newspapers.com/image/292662040/.
  3. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 373. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  4. Sid Luft, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland (Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2017), 296.
  5. Sid Luft, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland (Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2017), 296.
  6. Sid Luft, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland (Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2017), 221.
  7. “Singers: Seance at the Palace,” Time, August 18, 1967. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,840977,00.html.
  8. Colin Bertram, “Judy Garland’s Personal Life Was a Search for Happiness She Often Portrayed Onscreen,” Biography, Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.biography.com/news/judy-garland-personal-life-struggles-husbands.
  9. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 371. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  10. A&E Biography – Judy Garland, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgJeCeklExE.
  11. Jack Gould, “Des Moines Tribune from Des Moines, Iowa on March 20, 1963, 18,” Newspapers.com. Accessed May 4, 2021. http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/323926109/.
  12. A&E Biography – Judy Garland, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgJeCeklExE.
  13. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 395. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  14. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 128.
  15. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 395. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  16. Gerald Clarke, Gerald, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 396. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  17. Gary R. Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 244.
  18. Gary R. Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 247-248.
  19. Gary R. Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 248.
  20. Gary R. Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 248-249.
  21. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 397. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  22. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998),106.
  23. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 130.
  24. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 131.
  25. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 132.
  26. Dominic Tierney, “The Legacy of Julia Ward Howe’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ – The Atlantic.” Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/11/the-battle-hymn-of-the-republic-americas-song-of-itself/66070/.
  27. TheJudyRoomVideos. JUDY GARLAND – Battle Hymn of the Republic – December 13, 1963, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RBOBFTnW04.
  28. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 132.
  29. Lorna Luft, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 132.
  30. Les Wedman, “13 Jan 1964, 9 – The Vancouver Sun at Newspapers.Com,” Newspapers.com. Accessed May 4, 2021. http://www.newspapers.com/image/491981535/.
  31. Newspapers.com. “17 Jan 1964, Page 10 – The Philadelphia Inquirer at Newspapers.Com.” Accessed May 4, 2021. http://www.newspapers.com/image/179198833/.
  32. beralts, Judy Garland – Battle Hymn Of The Republic, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1glH29rvHw.
  33. Gerald Clarke, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009), 449. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-fqzz9.
  34. “Thousands Line Up to View Judy Garland’s Body,” Accessed April 27, 2021. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/04/09/specials/garland-view.html?scp=1&sq=judy.
  35. Newspapers.com. “28 Jun 1969, 29 – Chicago Tribune at Newspapers.Com.” Accessed May 4, 2021. http://www.newspapers.com/image/377020916/.

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2 Responses

  1. I missed seeing the show this story talks about. I am one of the great Judy Garland’s biggest fans. By the time she hosted the show she had already won the most coveted award in the music industry ,the Grammy for Album of the Year for her sold out performances at Carnegie Hall.
    It is also true from what I have read that she had three disastrous marriages before 1960, and had been cheated out of an Oscar for her perfomance in A Star is Born.
    With the possible exception of Maria Callas in the world of opera there might have been no other female singer who could walk onto a stage and get a 7 minute standing ovation before singing a note. It does not surprise me that Ms Garland would attempt this after being told no b the network.

  2. I thought this was such an interesting article to read mainly because I had never heard about Judy Garland being good friends with JFK. I only heard that Judy entered a dark place at a point in her career but it is sad to see that people remember the bad stuff more. I loved how you took a journalistic explanatory approach because this was new to me so it made it easier to understand. I did not know what the Hymn song was about or what it meant but, through your article, I learned something new today. Garland truly was a national treasure.

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