Biographer and Alta Journal contributor Sam Wasson first encountered Jim Bailey performing as Judy Garland when he was a teenager, at Los Angeles’s Cinegrill nightclub. The young Wasson was instantly entranced. Bailey’s performance, often categorized as an impersonation, was too intense and intimate to define. It wasn’t drag, Wasson said, and it wasn’t quite an illusion, since the goal was not to trick the audience. “It’s more than just a gag or a gesture of great technical ability,” Wasson told Alta Live viewers, explaining how Bailey neared perfection in his impersonation of Garland. “It is the ability to die and come back to life. That is the giving of all that she did, and that he did. That’s what made it so unforgettable and, I think we can safely say, unique.”
Wasson said that though he didn’t know it at the time, his fascination with Bailey’s performance predicted the path his career would take: “He was speaking to a part of me that I didn’t know was in my future, which was becoming a Hollywood historian. And that’s what he was doing. That wasn’t part of his conscious project—Bailey’s—but it became clear to me why that was so profound for me: because by the function of being so great and bringing back to life this great Hollywood artist, he was telling history.” Wasson, who couldn’t name one present-day performer with Bailey’s level of pure commitment, waffled on any plans to write a full-length biography of Bailey but acknowledged, “There is more to say—maybe I’ll write a follow-up.”
Check out these links to some of the topics Wasson and Alta Live host Beth Spotswood brought up.
- Read Wasson’s “The Man That Got Away,” from Alta Journal’s Winter 2022 issue.
- Watch Jim Bailey impersonate Judy Garland on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970.
- Read Wasson’s biographies: The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood; Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman; Fosse; and more.
- Visit Wasson’s website. •