Lorna Luft: My best friend’s parents were Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Ray Quinn and Louise Dearman star in Judy - The Songbook of Judy Garland
Ray Quinn and Louise Dearman star in Judy - The Songbook of Judy Garland
  • Her mother was Judy Garland and she grew up surrounded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Lorna Luft talks to Phil Penfold about a life in showbusiness.
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With a mother who was one of the biggest stars in the world, you have to ask Lorna Luft who it was that she idolised on screen when growing up in Hollywood.

She seems a bit perplexed by the question. One of the three children of the legend that was – and is – Judy Garland, she and her brother Joey, and half-sister Liza would be allowed to stay up to attend some of the showbusiness parties that her mother and father hosted.

Born to sing: Lorna Luft performing with her mother Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre in New York.

Born to sing: Lorna Luft performing with her mother Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre in New York.

“Only they weren’t really parties”, she explains. “They were just get-togethers, nice easy-going people there to have a good gossip about their industry. These were the moms and dads of my own friends. It really didn’t occur to me at the time that my best friend Leslie’s parents were Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, that the Martin kids had a father called Dean, or that the Sinatra children’s dad was Frank. I knew Frank Sinatra was my godfather, and that was that. They were just people.”

Everyone wants to know about Lorna’s mother – but what was her dad, the impresario Sid Luft, like?

“Dad?” she laughs, “Dad? Dad was a pugnacious fella. He had quite a reputation. If I could liken him to anyone, it would be the character of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. He died only a few years ago, and you know, we never ever really knew what his real age was. He said that he was born in 1915, and when he died he claimed to be 89, but there’s every possibility that yes, he shaved off a few years.

“He and my mom had a great marriage, and it was he who persuaded her to make a stage comeback after so many years of just working in the movies. She hadn’t really performed live since she was part of the singing act with her sisters, so it was a huge hurdle for her.

“Dad and I had our moments. There was a time when our relationship was not good, but we patched it up, and was I a happy child? Very much so, I was left a lot to my own devices.

“For me, the ‘Hollywood years’ for me didn’t last very long at all, because mom decided that it would be better for her, and us, if we lived in London. So my real growing up was spent right there, and we lived in a very nice house on the King’s Road, and I went to school at Lady Eden College.”

It was almost a given that with a mother like Judy and a dad like Sid, that Lorna, now 62, should follow in some part of the entertainment business, and she has carved out her own niche as a singer, actress and a producer.

“That’s kinda natural, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s a generational thing because my mother’s parents were also entertainers. Isn’t it true that there are families who are all lawyers over the decades, or doctors, or clergymen, or engineers? Maybe entertainment children get a bit more noticed because they have a slightly higher profile, but a lot of people do what their fathers or mothers did, and their grandparents before them.”

Luft admits that her own career has sometimes been a hard slog, but she has no intention of taking any final bows from the stage.

“I was very honoured to be asked to take part in the big gala performance of Follies, at the Albert Hall the other week,” she says. “During a break from rehearsals, I was sitting with a lot of my chums, all of us ladies at a certain stage of life, and we were laughing a lot and telling stories. And one of us said, ‘Look, isn’t it just great to be here, to be able to do this, and to still make a living at what we love?’ And she was right. I’m blessed. Very.”

What pleases her even more though is that she is now a grandmother.

“My son Jessie and his wife have just had Jordan Eloise, who is now eight months old, and you have to have eyes in the back of your head to check out what she’s up 
to. The great thing that I’ve discovered about being at the age I am in life is that you can dote on your grandkids – I’m now known affectionately as ‘GG’ – but at the end of the day, you can hand them back, and say, ‘That’s it, my work is done here, now it’s your responsibility’. If someone had told me years ago how good the ‘GG feeling’ is, I’d have begged my kids to do it sooner!”

Lorna’s new show Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland – is a love letter to her mother and with her husband Colin Freeman as musical director it’s very much a family affair.

“Mom was always very positive, there wasn’t a negative bone in her body. She was very funny and also entirely self-deprecating. She was a woman filled with honesty and hope, and she was tremendously bright. I learned a lot from my mom, and one of her traits that I hope that I have inherited is that she never saw the glass half empty – it was always half full. I believe in that, very much so. And she was always a giver, never a taker. I hope there’s some of that in me, too.”

Luft has talked and written extensively about her mother and her book Me and my Shadows, was made into a television mini-series. Luft served as a producer on the show which featured Judy Davies as her mother in adult life, and Hugh Laurie as Vincente Minnelli, Garland’s second husband and, of course, father to Liza.

Was she happy with the result? “Are you kidding?” she laughs. “It gave me my four girls. That’s the nickname I’ve given to the quartet of Emmy Awards that we picked up, and I’ve got them back at home in Palm Springs. Not on a piano, or anything like that, just on a shelf in a little space between the living rooms. I couldn’t be prouder to have won them.”

Lorna made her TV debut aged just 11 in 1963 on her mother’s Christmas show singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Nearly half a century later, she is still firing on all cylinders, appearing in musicals and concerts, touring in straight plays, and working for a string of charities, but remains perplexed at the number of female impersonators who give their versions of her mother.

“I suppose that the great thing is that it helps to keep her memory alive,” she says, “and once people have stopped impersonating someone, that’s the time you should be getting worried. But it is a little strange. Some of them are, well, just capital letters BAD. Worse than bad, in fact.”

Given her decades of experience, what advice would should give to young people about breaking into showbusiness?

“They do, and when they ask for advice, I always say two things. The first is ‘You have got to want to do this. Not because you want fame, but because you can’t live or breathe without not doing it’. And the second is: ‘Do your homework. Find your history. Research, research, research’. Know the background to the song you are going to sing, or the show you are going to appear in.

“There are far too many young people out there who come to an audition, and when they open their mouths I feel like yelling, ‘There were musicals before Wicked, and Miss Saigon, you know!’

“None of them know about the classic shows written by people like Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins…the list is endless.

“Sing me something from Show Boat, or Carousel, not just the ‘same old, same old’ that everyone else does.

“You know someone told me the other day about some friends he had who refused to watch black and white movies because they were ‘old’. I couldn’t believe my ears.”

So – apart from her mother – if Lorna had to pick a performer that gave her goose bumps, who would that be?

“Bette Davis, without a doubt. An amazing human being. A five star actress, and a proud activist. Like mom, a one-off. Each in their own field, they were one-offs. Unique. I could watch her in All About Eve over and over again,” she pauses and chuckles. “In fact, I have. To the point when I know the dialogue by heart.

“I’m done with CGI. Give me Miss Davis any day.”

• Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland, Grand Opera House, York, May 14 to 16. 0844 871 3024, www.atgtickets.com; Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, May 18 & 19. 01274 432000, www.bradford-theatres.co.uk