John Meyer was a 28-year-old pianist when he met Judy Garland, then 46, in late 1968 at the Manhattan studio of a mutual friend.
“She had a suitcase, a little black dress, a pair of fishnet stockings and pair of heels,” he tells PEOPLE of Garland. “That was about it. And a mink.”
He played her a song he’d written called “I Like to Hate Myself in the Morning and Raise a Little Hell Tonight.”
“She liked the song and she liked me,” says Meyer, now 79, who wrote about their relationship in his 2006 memoir Heartbreaker. “When our friend left the room, she pointed to herself and then to me and mouthed the phrase, ‘I’m with you.’ Just like that.”
They moved into the Park Avenue apartment of Meyer’s parents. “There was a spare bedroom in the back and I took her there and she said, ‘Great, I’ll move in here.’ “
At the time, Garland, one of the greatest entertainers of all time, was broke (she owed several million dollars to the IRS after her agent had embezzled much of her earnings), divorced (from husband number four Mark Herron), and without a place to live, having recently been kicked out of New York’s St. Moritz Hotel for not paying the bill. She’d been living there with her two younger kids, Lorna and Joey Luft.
She met Meyer two months before she flew to London to appear in a five-week concert series at the Talk of the Town nightclub in 1969. Those performances, just six months before she died of an accidental drug overdose, are the subject of the film Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, now considered an Oscar frontrunner for her show-stopping performance.
But before the Talk of the Town series, Meyer booked Garland gigs at a local club where he played piano. “She was broke, literally had nothing but a five dollar bill in her purse,” he says. “I called the owner of a club and said, ‘I could get Judy Garland to sing for you for $100. Cash. And cab fare.’ “
“I became her manager, her agent, her lover, her companion, the shoulder that she could lean on,” he says. “It was amazing. Her reality was that she would rely on the kindness of strangers.”
“Her big overriding motivation was ‘love me,’ ” he explains. “And she made people prove it in all her relationships. She would escalate the levels of commitment, until you were staying up with her for 36 hours a day,” states Meyer, who says Garland was on a combination of Ritalin and vodka at the time. “She’d keep moving the goal posts, until the person just had to drop and then she could say, ‘You deserted me, see.’ “
But he was so taken with her that he thought he could save her.
“One time, I was making her a very nice dinner. She didn’t want to eat by the way; she didn’t like to eat in front of people. And she began to sing ‘It Never Was You’ and she held out her arms to me and I put down the sauce pan and I almost fainted. Can you imagine Judy Garland two inches away from your ear?”
The two loved to laugh together. “When she would talk about The Wizard of Oz, she’d say, ‘The munchkins were a bunch of horny little guys and they were not above pinching my ass,’ ” he says with a laugh. “And she made jokes about Toto’s bad breath.”
They also had a lot of fun in the bedroom. “We did a lot of role playing,” he says. “We’d do scenes back and forth and we’d make up our own improvs. She’d say ‘Tonight, you be the professor and I’ll be the student.’ It was a lot of fun. That was more important to her than the actual sex.”
But things grew more chaotic after they were kicked out of his parents’ apartment. Ten days before Garland was preparing to fly to London, Meyer became very sick with a fever of 104.
“That’s nothing. I’ve been on stage with 106,” she said. Then, she dropped him.
Garland left for London, where she was joined by Mickey Deans, a nightclub manager she’d first met when he delivered her a box of uppers.
“Mickey was a hustler,” says Meyer, “and when I was unable to shepherd Judy through the TV shows in New York, she called Mickey, and Mickey, just like me, dropped his whole life to go with her. She had dropped me and somebody else assumed my place.”
At one point, Meyer flew to London, hoping he could win her back.
“She was a compulsion, you know?” he says. “I realized that this mission of mine to restore Judy to her former greatness and be the guy who rescued her was not going to work.”
He still remembers the last time he saw her in January 1969. “She gave me a cursory kiss goodbye, ‘So long Johnny,’ ” he says.
When he heard she died, he attended the service at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, where crowds of over 15,000 lined up through the night to say goodbye to the beloved icon.
“James Mason (her costar in A Star Is Born) gave the eulogy and then we all filed out into the bright, bright sunlight at 11 o’clock in the morning and I cried,” says Meyer. “No more jokes, no more fun. She was the most marvelous fun. That’s what nobody really speaks about.”
And while many of the stories about Judy’s life — and death — focus on the tragic, Meyer says he does not see her that way.
“She thought her life was a gas, a ball,” he says. “She didn’t think her life was painful. She was funny. She experienced joy. She loved sex. She didn’t love food. She loved to sing and she loved the attention.”