Liza Must Go On
For showbiz’s ultimate survivor, life has been one hell of a cabaret. But it’s marvelous all the same.
“She was this funny, serene force,” Liza tells me of Thompson and her influence on Liza’s childhood. “I remember once we were walking around in New York, I was about 4, and she had a big wolf coat, gray, just heavenly looking—she was so tall and thin. She stopped by the Stork Club. This very nice black gentleman opened the door, and she asked for Mr. So-and-So, and the man wasn’t in. And she said, ‘Yeah, well, just tell him that Miss Thompson and Miss Minnelli stopped by.’ And my world changed! I was Miss Minnelli.”
When she was 22, Minnelli spent a month studying Russian ballet, poring over Nijinsky with Thompson at her apartment at the Plaza. “We also went through a whole period when we studied haiku.” After Thompson was kicked out of the Plaza (she’d stayed rent-free for many years), she moved to Rome, then spent her last ten years in Minnelli’s apartment, wheeling about in elaborate turbans, riffing scat verses at her visitors, until she died in 1998, somewhere in her nineties. (She’d made up so many stories, no one knew her true age.)
As Liza describes the way she begged Ron Lewis to come be her director to reenact Kay’s act, he opens the hotel door.
“Hi baby! I’m braggin’ on ya.”
“You look great,” he says.
“I feel great,” she says.
We all continue happily chatting about that whole lost glamorous world—Liza’s stories are studded with visits to Noël Coward’s house in Switzerland, memories of the time that Charles Aznavour and Liliane Montevecchi snuck her into a Las Vegas show. Only when I mention Kay Thompson’s early rejections does the mood chill slightly. Thompson had a peculiar, acerbic charisma, I suggest—to some tastes insufficiently va-va-voom? Liza shakes her head: No, no, no.
“Oh, no, she conquered everything, then moved on,” Liza tells me. “She was the greatest person ever at MGM, then she got tired of that. She did a nightclub act that was the greatest nightclub act that had ever been seen, then she got tired of that. Then she wrote the best children’s book in the world. She lived her life! Anybody who knew her was lucky— ”
“Worshipped her,” adds Lewis.
“They worshipped her. Because she was unique.”
I explain that I was just referring to the musical Hooray for What!, where Thompson met Liza’s father, Vincente Minnelli. She was fired before the show hit Broadway—an event so humiliating she vowed never to do Broadway again and never spoke of it.
“It was a musical that neither of them liked,” Liza says with a shrug. “And if Kay didn’t like somethin’, she said it’s silly for her to do it. And I understand.”
I move on myself, asking about another member of Liza’s self-created family: her drummer Bill Lavorgna, a beloved band member for many years. She called him Pappy, and he died last year.
“He was wonderful,” Liza says. “I knew him from the time I was 13. In fact, he caught me driving when I wasn’t supposed to be!”
This was in Las Vegas, says Liza. “Momma was there divorcing somebody, right? So I took the car. And I was just driving because, you know, because I could drive. And I’m driving along. And I’m also smoking. A fast 13, right? So I stop at a light and I look and there’s Pappy and his wife, Joan. And I think, I’m screwed. I am screwed, that’s it, I’m gonna be in trouble forever!” She grins, a big mischievous grin. “And they never told. And from that second on, we were best friends.”
This is Liza’s central definition of friendship: Friends keep your secrets, they stay on your side, even when contradictions arise. Her stories of how she met her friends are full of rescues—she called someone and he came unquestioning to her aid. And can you blame her? Judy Garland’s legend was built on a frighteningly intense vulnerability, the unhappiness of a child star fed amphetamines and forced to wear tiny disks to reshape her nose. The sob in Garland’s voice (which was shaped by Kay Thompson) made listeners desperate to soothe her sadness. She died at 47 of an overdose. In the show, Liza tells a story about giving Kay the news and Kay’s reassuring her, saying, “Your mother lived a marvelous life. She did everything she ever wanted to do.”
Liza has transformed Judy’s fragility into the theater of the eternal comeback: Her fondest fans share an understanding that things can only go very, very badly or magically well. Right now, she seems vibrant. She gets up and dances, she wriggles and literally wrestles with her choreographer, demonstrating for me the way she worked out the slapstick for her role on the sitcom Arrested Development—she refused to get a stuntwoman, she says. She was willing to do anything, as long as it was funny.
That night, I walk into Woonsocket’s Stadium Theater. Who knew this place even existed? It’s gorgeous, beautifully restored. The audience is filled with people who love Liza, who are thrilled that her voice is so strong, that she looks so good lounging in her white glittery pajamas. They go crazy for “Cabaret,” they are moved by her performance of Judy’s Palace medley, with a verse written specially for Liza. And they eat up the winking references: the way she describes three closets that Kay made for her, then says, “What’s in them, my last three husbands?”
But for my taste, the best number is Kander and Ebb’s “And the World Goes ’Round.” Liza wears a black velvet jacket with bright red cuffs; she stands still while she sings it, hands in pockets. Like many of her songs, it’s an anthem of hope and survival, but it’s hard to miss the colder, stranger theme: that no matter how bad your pain, the universe simply doesn’t care when you suffer. “And sometimes a friend starts treating you bad / But the world goes ’round! / And sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening sound.”
Two days before, I’d watched a beautiful performance of this song on an early interview with Geraldo Rivera, a raw young Liza singing it with her black hair wet against her face. “I desperately want a family,” she told Geraldo. “I really want a family. It’s important to me.” She was talking about having children, something she, like Kay, she tells me, wasn’t able to do—though like Kay, she has an extended family, of 22 godchildren. But it does seem that Liza’s somehow gotten what she wants. It’s a different definition of happiness; a marvelous life. And the world goes ’round.