You’ve heard of the 27 Club – Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Winehouse – but there’s also a 47 Club. Tortured and tragic, its members gave much to the world, but cashed in their chips before they could truly live the fruit of their genius.
Today we take a look at four preeminent members of the 47 Club: Edith Piaf, Jack Kerouac, Frida Kahlo and the great Judy Garland. Not young, but at only 47, far from old, each of them still had more to contribute to their fields and indeed to themselves.
Edith Piaf (1915-1963)
Paris-born Edith Piaf was abandoned at birth by her mother, raised by her grandmother in a brothel, suffered from meningitis as a child, had impaired vision for a time, joined a circus with her father, and later sang on the streets for spare change. At 17, she gave birth to a child who died two years later.
From straitened beginnings, she found success at 20 when a nightclub owner discovered her. He loved the raw quality of her voice and dubbed her the “Little Sparrow”. Piaf was soon hobnobbing with some of France’s biggest names – Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour and renowned playwright Jean Cocteau, who wrote a play for her.
It was her gritty timbre and earnest delivery that spoke to people, and before long she was famous across France and Europe. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that Piaf was the voice of France, but when you hear La Vie en Rose, a song she herself wrote, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
Fame, money and adulation didn’t bring her personal happiness. She married twice, had numerous affairs, and the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash. Devastated, she turned to drugs and alcohol. In addition, injuries sustained in a few car accidents led to her addiction to morphine, and severe arthritic pain gave her the excuse to drink to excess. Piaf was in and out of clinics many times seeking to clean up her act but never quite succeeding.
Already quite frail, Piaf died from liver failure in 1963. Our rosy-eyed idealistic thinking is that she embraced it all, the good, the bad, the sorrow and the short bursts of happiness. Non, je ne regrette rien.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
Love it or loathe it, with its long stream-of-consciousness sentences detailing the drug-fuelled travels across America of a group of young men, On the Road (1957) is a seminal work of American literature. The novel was a rejection of middle-class values and it spoke to youth, always keen to escape the shackles of conventionality. It was also a search for meaning, the travels being a journey towards a kind of salvation.
Its author, Jack Kerouac, wrote spontaneously and never revised his work, believing it would remove the truth from his words. That spontaneity was celebrated by many, among them poet Allen Ginsberg who called Kerouac a genius. Critics felt his work could have used some serious revision because revision is a vital part of a writer’s work, but Kerouac’s approach was lauded by others and he become the voice of a generation – the Beat Generation, a term he coined himself. The Beat Generation celebrated sex, drugs and jazz, particularly the bebop movement as epitomised by Charlie Parker.
Kerouac wrote other books, including The Subterraneans (1958), which took him a mere three days to write, The Dharma Burns (1958), which introduced Buddhism to many American readers and Desolation Angels (1965). Someone once wrote that reading Kerouac demands enormous patience because there’s a lot of repetition across his works. Be that as it may, he certainly made an impact on the cultural life of America.
Yet for all this, he was embittered by poor reviews and wanted to be known as a serious writer rather than merely a symbol for the Beat Generation. Always a heavy drinker, Kerouac died of massive abdominal haemorrhaging.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo essentially painted her autobiography, capturing both the pleasure and the endless pain of her 47 years. She contracted polio as a child and when she was 18, her body was ripped apart in a bus accident. Frida was constantly in physical torment, enduring more than 30 operations and countless days and months spent in bed, where she set up an easel and mirror so she could paint.
Many of her works reflect her personal physical agonies, such as the harrowing Henry Ford Hospital (1932), the despondent The Wounded Deer (1946), Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) and The Broken Column (1944) which depicts Frida imprisoned in a body cast, her spine replaced by a cracked and crumbling stone pillar. They are incredibly powerful works.
But Frida also had a wonderful joie de vivre and made the best of her poor wracked body. She adored her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera; and although they both had affairs, their love for one another remained unabated.
Combining elements of fantasy with her own tortured reality, Frida’s art was personal, intimate, passionate and vibrant. She died of a pulmonary embolism. Her last journal entry read, “I hope the end is joyful and I hope never to come back.”
You can read more about Frida here.
Judy Garland (1922-1969)
The little girl with the big voice, Judy began life as Frances Gumm, in the spotlight from the age of two performing with her vaudeville family. In one of her first films, Broadway Melody (1938), she sang to a picture of superstar Clark Gable. She was only 15 – still a child, but what a voice. Stardom beckoned.
Her beguiling performance in The Wizard of Oz (1939) is part of cinematic history and no matter how many singers cover the song, Over the Rainbow belongs solely to Judy Garland.
Judy had a natural effortless talent – singing, dancing, acting – she could do it all, almost instinctively. But she was just a kid, and the studio plied her with pep pills to keep her awake; when she couldn’t sleep they gave her sleeping pills. As her weight fluctuated – a normal thing for teenage girls – they gave her diet pills. Judy once commented that her strongest memory was the constant battle with the studio about what, or even whether, she could eat. Is it any wonder that prescription drugs were part of her life?
The studio kept a tight rein on her personal life. When Judy married composer David Rose at 19 and became pregnant, the studio forced her to abort the child because marriage and motherhood didn’t fit the good girl-next-door persona they had decided for her. The abortion affected Judy deeply and the marriage failed shortly after.
In spite of stardom and her extraordinary talent, her self-esteem was shaky and Judy sought refuge in love affairs. Among her famous lovers were Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, producer Joseph L Mankiewicz, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner and James Mason.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Know who you’re Googling: Charlie “Bird” Parker
- Know who you’re Googling: Frida Kahlo
- Know who you’re Googling: Orson Welles
- Self-destruction: The artists’ curse
In 1944, she was working on Meet Me in St Louis with director Vincente Minnelli, who emphasised her lovely face, showing the public a beautiful woman in her prime. They married in 1945. Their daughter Liza was born the following year, but Judy suffered post-natal depression and continued her steady decline into mental illness, resulting in a number of suicide attempts. By the age of 28, she had two failed marriages behind her.
Her third husband Sid Luft, with whom she had two children, Lorna and Joey, gambled away much of Judy’s hard-earned savings. They divorced in 1965. Fourth husband Mark Herron was gay; the marriage was lucky to last the whole five months it did. Judy married her fifth husband Mickey Deans in March 1969, only three months before her death.
Judy Garland made over 35 films. She was Mickey Rooney’s love interest in three Andy Hardy films; she shone in iconic musicals like Easter Parade (1948) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and she was a fine dramatic actress, nominated for Best Actress Oscar for her brilliant performance in A Star is Born (1954), critics calling it the greatest one-woman show ever. Her utterly outstanding performance in Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) further proves the depth of her remarkable talent.
She made many recordings too and performed across the world. Over the years, she lost some clarity and timbre but Judy always gave the audience what they wanted even when her throat was rasping, even when she had laryngitis. She loved her audience because she felt loved in return.
Judy died in London from an accidental overdose of the barbiturates she’d been taking most of her life. On that day, 22 June 1969, there was a tornado in Kansas. If only little Dorothy had clicked her heels.
The 47 Club. Vale.