It is 80 years since Hollywood gave us the perennial Christmas favourite that never seems to date, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, but it is 100 years since the death of the creator of Dorothy and her trip to the Emerald City and Oz. Frank L. Baum, the author of the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, died in 1919, nineteen years after the publication of his world famous children’s book, meaning that he never got to see its glorious film version, which premiered in August 1939.
April this year sees the publication of Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts, which has given me a terrific insight into not only the life of Frank, but also of his amazing wife Maud Gage, as she became involved in the film production and befriended Judy Garland, hoping to keep her late husband’s legacy as true on screen as it was on the pages of the book.
The fictionalised account follows Maud from the gates of MGM studios to her dealings with the pre-WWII male-dominated world of Hollywood films, then retraces her life from her amazing family and later relationship with her husband and the creator of this childhood fantasy world. The 77-year-old Maud Baum is not one to be pushed around, even by big-shot Louis B. Mayer, who obviously hadn’t checked up on Maud’s mother, the leading American suffragist Matilda Gage. Matilda, who worked tirelessly to secure the vote for women, wanted education for women (including her daughters) above any obedience to men. However, both Maud and her older sister Julia both ultimately gave up on learning, Julia through ill health and Maud when she met the actor Frank Baum. Matilda Gage is a great character – worthy of a book of her own I think – and yet despite her motherly instincts it was only later in life that she realised her ambitious plans for her daughters ignored the real-life hardships and fights they faced when bringing up their own families alongside personal and financial tragedies.
When Maud met Frank, he was already ‘on the road’ with his theatre company, writing and starring in his own plays, although struggling to hit the big time and finding finances (as always) difficult to manage. He had come from a well-to-do family who lived near Syracuse, New York, but had suffered with ill health, having been born with a weak heart (remember our Lion who didn’t have a heart?), so he often undertook solitary pursuits such as reading and writing, which probably helped him to escape his nine siblings too! He also loved chickens and, after looking after his parents’ chickens, became an expert on the Hamburg variety (later writing a book about them too!).
Despite some success in small towns, Frank’s dream of achieving fame through the theatre was ended when his own theatre burnt to the ground. By now, he had family responsibilities, having married Maud in 1882, so he turned his hand to becoming a salesman, including for an oil supplier (remember our Tin Man who needs oil to stop him rusting?). Unfortunately, Frank was not a natural salesman and soon his ventures with many outlets from oil to china failed miserably. With four sons to feed and clothe, even Maud had to turn to sewing to try and help with the family finances and Frank also tried running a toy store and a local newspaper.
After moving to Chicago, during the time when the World’s Fair came to town in 1893 with its White City and Ferris wheel attractions, Frank, encouraged by his mother-in-law Matilda, sent off some children’s stories to publishers. Success followed after the publication of Mother Goose in Prose in 1897, with that story and its subsequent sequels selling well. Having time to reflect on his life and the wonderful world of children’s imaginations, Frank finally published The Wonderful World of Oz in 1900. So much of his life is reflected in that story:
- Oz – He took the name from his filing cabinet drawer O-Z.
- Yellow Brick Road – Had been his real-life road to school.
- Scarecrows – Hated by Maud.
- Tornadoes – A familiar sight in South Dakota where they had lived.
- Dorothy – A niece of Frank’s who tragically died aged just five.
Frank loved technology, magic, wizardry and even theosophy (inspired once again by Matilda and her love of the spiritual world).
The first print run of 10,000 books sold out in a month and, with over 700 different editions available all over the world, The Wonderful World of Oz has never gone out of print. The wonderful original illustrations by W.W. Denslow helped to create the images that were only finally topped by the Hollywood technicolour beauty that filled cinema screens in 1939. Tragically, Frank never lived to see the film, dying in his Hollywood home, Ozcot, in 1919.
Elizabeth Lett’s brilliant novel Finding Dorothy is based on a lot of research and we gain an incredible insight into the world of film stars, especially young girls like Judy Garland. Shockingly unprotected by her mother, Ethel Glumm, Judy still missed her father, who had died, and seemed very vulnerable to the older men prowling the sets of Hollywood films. We also can well imagine the pressures she was put under, to look like a young girl, not eating, smoking to keep thin and having few friends. Inspired by a photograph the author found of Maud Baum sitting with Judy Garland and looking at Frank’s original book, we can see how the friendship between the two may have developed, even though it did nothing to prevent the tragedy that followed Judy throughout her life despite her fame and fortune.
I can definitely recommend Finding Dorothy as one of my favourite personal reads so far this year and I can also recommend it highly for book groups as it raises many discussion points about the origins of the story, the real people involved and a time of challenges for women, not only then but in the contemporary movie world too with the #metoo campaign, which continues even today.
So put on those sparkly red shoes and head off to the Emerald City!
Philipa Coughlan 5/4
Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
Quercus 9781529403442 hbk Apr 2019