Gene Lyons
July 09, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

While the observation is guaranteed to irritate almost everybody old enough to have seen The Wizard of Oz in a theater, Judy Garland was in more ways than one the Madonna of her generation. ”Little Miss Showbusiness” they called her, and the longer the public melodrama of her career went on, the stronger the feelings she aroused. Audiences and fellow performers alike tended either to love her or to hate her. In JUDY GARLAND: The Secret Life of an American Legend (Hyperion, $24.95), even so unabashed an admirer as biographer David Shipman (The Story of Cinema) can’t help but note that many others were repelled by her intense narcissism and her growing instability. As millions who followed her tumultuous career couldn’t help but know, Garland’s fragile persona was no act. As a child star, she was afflicted by the mother of all stage mothers, worked half to death by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, and later betrayed by a succession of rotten husbands and faithless lovers. Shipman’s far too detailed yet highly readable biography shows Garland as a quintessential product of the Hollywood studio system, with its brutal production schedules and flag-waving hypocrisy. Fresh from a succession of ”America’s favorite kid sister” roles opposite Mickey Rooney, for example, the 20-year-old Garland was pressured by MGM to have an abortion in order to costar with Gene Kelly in For Me and My Gal. ”Oh, I’ve always dreamed of playing the Palace,” she cooed on screen as studio physicians kept her chipper by administering amphetamines and sleeping pills-which Shipman believes was the beginning of the addiction that eventually killed her. After Garland’s death, columnist Louella Parsons wrote, ”I do not blame Hollywood for what happened to Judy Garland, but it can only have happened in Hollywood.” Shipman clearly endorses that conclusion. B+

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