The show we produced about Judy Garland started to take shape in the spring of 1984. There are plenty of fascinating tales that swirl around this legendary performer, only some of which have been proven true. We wanted to be sure we'd separated fact from fiction, and one story in particular grabbed our attention. Verifying it involved a cast of characters that extended beyond showbiz to include famous names in the world of politics.
At the time there was only one authorized biography of Garland: Judy, by Gerald Frank; and for it he interviewed every member of her family. Garland’s eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli, tells a story about her mother at the time she was making her television series in 1963 and ’64. As Liza explained, it was a grueling schedule and the production team was constantly changing. Judy would come to the studio to find new faces, different people to work with, and that, added to the stress of taping her shows before a live audience, left her exhausted and frustrated. At the end of the week, she would often come home and say to Liza, “What a week. I think I’ll call Jack”—referring to John F. Kennedy, then the president of the United States—and she’d pick up the phone and place a call to the White House. Each conversation ended the same way: Liza would hear her mother say, “Oh, no, again? Do you really want me to do that again? All right…” And then Judy would sing the last eight bars of “Over the Rainbow” into the phone.
DH: That story felt too good to be true. But if it was true, we certainly would want to use it in our program. We knew that Judy had campaigned for Kennedy and the families were friends. She had even rented a summer house in Hyannisport near the Kennedy compound. But did she really pick up the phone and call The White House just to chat and let off steam? And did the president always ask her to sing “Over the Rainbow” at the end of each call? The various parts of that story needed to be confirmed, despite the authorized nature of Frank’s book.
This research was a task tailor-made for Joan, and she loved every minute of it.
JK: I wrote a letter to Jacqueline Onassis on WNET letterhead and sent it to her apartment on Fifth Avenue. I told her we were producing a documentary about Judy Garland and, because there were so many myths and exaggerations surrounding her life, we wanted to fact-check a story we’d heard. I did not tell her where it came from or that Liza Minnelli was the original source. I simply asked her to confirm the basic details.
A few days later, I received a phone call from Nancy Tuckerman, formerly Mrs. Kennedy’s social secretary in the White House, and now her assistant at Doubleday, where Jackie was an editor.
“Hello. This is Nancy Tuckerman for Mrs. Onassis. She asked me to call you in reply to the letter you sent her. She wants you to know that the story you asked her about is not true.”
I was shocked and for a few seconds weighed whether or not I should take this a step further. Then I realized I had nothing to lose.
I said, “Mrs. Tuckerman, I think it’s important for you to know where that story originated. It’s in the only authorized biography of Judy Garland and was told to the author by Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. If Mrs. Onassis is now saying that the story isn’t true, then it means that Liza made it up. I must admit I’m rather flabbergasted that she would create a story that involved not just her mother, but also the president of the United States. Can you tell me, Mrs. Tuckerman, what exactly did Mrs. Onassis say? Did she deny every detail of that story, or perhaps just that those calls didn’t take place ‘often,’ as I had mentioned in my letter?”
There was a silence and then she said, “I didn’t actually speak to her about it. She received the letter at home, and sent it to me at the office with a note at the top: ‘Call Joan Kramer. Story not true.’” Then she added, “But if Liza Minnelli is the source, perhaps Mrs. Onassis just wasn’t in the room when Judy called the president.”
I replied in a voice that, in retrospect, must have sounded as though I was giving a lecture. “Mrs. Tuckerman, please correct me if I have my facts wrong. Mrs. Onassis started her career as a reporter/photographer and was married to a senator who became the president of the United States. Then she was the wife of a world statesman and now she’s an editor at a major publishing house. I’m certain she understands how important it is to fact-check a story. And she also clearly knows the difference between ‘Story not true’ and ‘I don’t know.’ If she wasn’t in the room during the president’s conversations with Judy Garland, shouldn’t her reply have been ‘I don’t know’?”
“Of course, she knows the difference. Therefore the story must really not be true.”
I finished by asking if she’d speak to Mrs. Onassis about it again and call me back. I knew I’d never hear from her again.
DH: I thought that was the end of it. But I should have known better.
JK: The next day I called Senator Edward Kennedy’s office in Washington, D.C. I spoke to his press secretary, who said, “I’ll ask the senator, but I doubt he would know.” Of course, I never told him about my letter to, and response from, Jackie Onassis.
Senator Kennedy indeed didn’t know. But he suggested that I call Evelyn Lincoln, who was President Kennedy’s secretary, and even gave me her number.
“The story is absolutely true,” she said.“How can you be so sure?”“Because whenever a call from a well-known personality came in, no matter what time of day or night it was, it was always put through to me first. And sometimes I was still on the line when I heard the president ask her to sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’”
So now it was an even balance: one denial and one confirmation. I had to find a way to break the tie.
At that time, Caroline Kennedy was working for the Film and Television department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most of the films with which she was involved eventually were acquired by WNET for broadcast on public television. And I was often assigned to “package” them, adding the WNET and PBS logos, etc. So she and I spent many hours together in edit rooms and she had an office near mine.
I didn’t tell her anything about my letter to her mother, but I did say that I’d called her uncle’s office and he'd suggested that I speak to Evelyn Lincoln, who’d confirmed the story.
Caroline said, “Evelyn Lincoln is a lovely person, but she’s getting a bit old now, and sometimes her memory isn’t what it used to be. So I don’t think you should take her word for it.”
“Did you ever hear about the calls from Judy to your father as you were growing up?”
“No. I did know Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft, because they and their family were our neighbors in Hyannisport during the summer. But I was much younger than her children, so they were closer to some of my cousins than they were to me.”
“I have an idea, though. Why don’t you call Dave Powers at the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts and ask him? He was one of my father’s closest aides at the White House, so he might be able to help. Tell him I told you to call.”
Caroline was then vice chair of the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. (Now she is honorary president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and a member of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee.)
I went back into my office and dialed the number.
David Powers came on the line immediately and said, “Oh, yes, I just heard from Caroline, who told me to expect your call.” I hadn’t asked her to do that and she didn’t tell me she was going to pave the way for me.
As soon as I started to tell the story, he interrupted me and said, “Oh, sure, I remember. I was usually with the president in the Oval Office when Judy called and he never would let her off the phone without asking her to sing a few bars of ‘Over the Rainbow.’ In fact, he would hold the phone out so that I could hear her sing too.”
That was good enough for me. Story confirmed.
Even today, so many years later, I’m disappointed at Mrs. Onassis’s dismissive and erroneous reply. If I were from The National Enquirer I could understand her not caring about the question. But from public television?
And I’m also still grateful to Caroline Kennedy for her help. Thanks to her, I received two confirmations that day: one for the story about Judy Garland and President Kennedy; the other cementing my already-existing opinion that Caroline is kind and considerate and completely unaffected by her fame.