Do you recall the resume in my last post?
We left off with L. Frank Baum leaving Aberdeen–broke, disappointed, and disillusioned—with a wife and four kids to feed.
Chicago—The Lean Years and New Beginnings (1890s)
The Baums arrived in Chicago in time for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a time of creativity that showcased U.S. history and its hopeful future. After trying a few jobs, Frank became a traveling china salesman for the next five years, keeping him from home for weeks at a time. During his travels, he started to write down original verses on paper scraps.
To help make ends meet, Maud gave embroidery lessons to women. With Frank gone so much, running the household fell into her hands. In her no-nonsense way, she took the reigns of financial control and child discipline.
In 1897, Baum launched The Show Window Magazine, with advice and photos of effective shop window displays. He also initiated the National Association of Window Trimmers. As the number of subscribers increased, he was able to quit traveling and stay home.
With Papa at home, no matter the state of financial affairs, life was fun—whether sending up fireworks on the Fourth of July (the best in the neighborhood), riding bicycles to the park, playing instruments, pulling taffy, or sitting at the dinner table where he served out riddles and puns with the food. Story hour was a regular affair that often included neighbors and taffy or popcorn balls. Supposedly, the local policeman stopped by on dark evenings to safely escort children home.
Baum printed and bound a book of poetry himself: By the Candelabra’s Glare. From time to time, his poems, essays, and short stories were published in various periodicals or the newspaper. His topics ran the gamut, from an essay predicting daily life in 2090 to a tall tale, “A Cold Day on the Railroad.” The tale won first place in the Biggest Lie Contest. That’s only fitting for a man who constantly blurred the line between fantasy and reality.
When his mother-in-law visited, she encouraged him to write down the stories he told to his sons and the neighbor children. Some of those stories ended up in the book, Mother Goose in Prose, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. In this, Baum relays anecdotes and back story about how Little Bo Peep lost and found her sheep, how Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, how Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds got baked in a pie, and more.
He sent a copy of the book to his sister, Mary Louise, in Syracuse, with this inscription:
“When I was young
I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame.
Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children.
For aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’
I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which,
when caught, is not worth the possession;
but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing
that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”
–L. Frank Baum, inscription, 1897
And please children he did.
In 1899, Baum and W. W. Denslow collaborated on Father Goose, His Book, a volume of original nursery rhymes. Uniquely illustrated and formatted, it became a bestseller, establishing Baum as a popular children’s author at age forty-three. Denslow’s superb illustrations set a new trend for children’s picture books.
Soon, Baum got the notion to write about a girl named Dorothy being carried away in a cyclone to a magical place called Oz. But when he first proposed the idea, his publisher saw no future for it, saying he’d only publish the book if Denslow and Baum funded it themselves. So they did.
Surprising all, in 1900,The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a best seller by Christmas, already in its third edition. In December, Maud asked Frank to request an advance; he did so begrudgingly. The publisher wrote a check which Baum promptly pocketed without looking at it. At home, Maud took the check and screamed in happiness to see an amount of several thousand dollars. (Supposedly, the forgot about her iron and burned a shirt.) Later, they framed the canceled check as a token of good fortune.
Though Christmas had always been a jolly affair at the Baum household—with Frank dressed as Santa, sneaking a tree inside on Christmas Eve–this Christmas brought extra cause for rejoicing.
In 1900 and 1901, Baum had several children’s books published. But the one most prevalent under Christmas trees across the country was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The Macatawa Resort Years (1899 – 1909)
Finally experiencing financial payoff for his writing efforts, Baum rented then purchased a house in Macatawa Resort on Lake Michigan near Holland. He dubbed his cottage “Sign of the Goose,” paid for with proceeds from his Goose books.
For eleven summers, the Baums took the steamship from Chicago to Macatawa and reveled in the beauty of Lake Michigan shores, woods, and dunes. Baum considered this area just as much of a magical Fairyland as Oz was.
To give you some Macatawa flavor, here are pictures from my own visits there the past two years, over 100 years later than Baum’s visits . . .
And here’s my family having fun at the other end of Lake Macatawa . . .
Though unverifiable (and unlikely, I think), some people claim that the resort’s boardwalks were Baum’s inspiration for the Yellow Brick Road. Additionally, the nearby German-style castle at Castle Park was supposedly his model for Glinda’s castle in Oz. Whether that’s true or not, the annual Ozmapolitan Conventions were held at Castle Park from 1960s to 1984. And chances are, though Baum had already started writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by 1899 and later finished it in Chicago, he most likely wrote part of it on the porch of his Macatawa rental house in 1899.
As with Aberdeen and Chicago, Baum was very involved with the Macatawa community. He instigated the annual Venetian Night during the week-long Regatta and was a member of the Yacht Club. He wrote Tamawaca Folks: A Summer Comedy, a satire of his neighbors and the resort’s issues (1907). He satirizes himself, too.
In his own “Sign of the Goose” cottage, Baum embellished the rooms with all things geese: the sign on the porch, geese stencils on the parlor walls, goose-themed furniture with geese burned into the wood, and goose-shaped brass tacks. The cottage burned down in 1927, along with others, yet his spirit lives on in another cottage aptly named “The Wizard.”
The City of Holland honors Baum with a mural:
This mural includes historic Holland landmarks, including the Baum connection:
Chicago—The Prosperous Years (1899-1909)
While the Baums summered in Macatawa, the rest of the year alternated between Chicago and sometimes wintering at the Hotel Del Coronado in southern California. Also, in 1906, Frank and Maud took a six-month trip to Egypt and western Europe.
Baum enjoyed much financial success during this decade. His collaboration with Paul Tietjens and W. W. Denslow in creating The Wizard of Oz musical extravaganza paid off in a long run (1902 – 1909), embraced all over the country, including Broadway. Numerous stories were serialized in The Delineator and St. Nicholas magazines then published as books. He turned out over a dozen novels for children and adults (including six Oz books), and shorter tales for younger readers, employing a variety of pseudonyms. He used his own name for what he and his publisher considered his best works: the novel-length fairy tales for children.
Due to his wife and mother-in-law’s influence, Baum was forward thinking in his views of women’s rights, exemplified in his novels. Dorothy is the original Oz heroine. Later, Oz is governed by its rightful ruler, Princess Ozma. Baum wrote other stories with more female protagonists than male ones. Also, in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), General Jinjur’s revolt gently satirizes the suffragettes’ ongoing plight.
Sometimes Baum’s progressive ideals caused problems. For example, in book seven of his Aunt Jane’s Nieces series (written as Edith Van Dyne), he writes about three young ladies running their own newspaper. He titled it Aunt Jane’s Nieces in Journalism. Unbeknownst to Baum, his publisher changed the title to Aunt Jane’s Nieces on Vacation (1912), explaining that it didn’t bode well for female protagonists to be so industrious and independent. The previous title would have prohibited sales.
Baum ran into similar issues with his story The Flying Girl (1911), about a girl airplane pilot. It was promptly censored because his depiction of girls was far too adventurous.
Frank loved speculating about technology. His character Tik-Tok was a mechanical man in Ozma of Oz (1907). Tik-Tok, really a robot, was the first of its kind in literature. Also, Princess Ozma owned a Magic Picture screen, and Glinda a Great Book of Records, both foreshadowing today’s technology.
In 1904, Baum acquired a new Oz illustrator, John R. Neill. Sadly, due to rivalry, his collaboration with Denslow was over. In 1905, amidst the decade’s joys, another disappointment intervened. Baum’s second attempt at a musical extravaganza, The Woggle-Bug, failed miserably, closing after only three weeks.
In 1908, Frank launched the most innovative of his projects so far: the Fairylogue and Radio-Plays. It was a combination of live action, a slide show “magic lantern” travelogue (aptly called an Ozologue), and motion pictures. As his first dive into film, it told the stories of Oz, combined with a non-Oz tale, too. He hosted it on both stage and screen in his dapper white suit.
Reviewers and audiences of all ages loved it, from the Midwest to New York City. But the Fairylogue was an expensive proposition and did not pay for itself. Baum, who had invested his own money, plunged into debt, marking the end of his good fortune.
The Hollywood Years (1909 – 1919)
Financial problems and health concerns forced Baum to sell his Macatawa cottage and leave Chicago. He and Maud moved to Hollywood, California, a cozy, orchard grove only a mile from the future site of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
To pay off his debt to the studio where he’d filmed the Fairylogue, Baum sold his Oz film rights. Consequently, in 1910, Selig Studios made the first Oz films. Bankrupt in 1911, Baum never saw another penny from The Wizard of Oz. Mrs. Baum didn’t get rights back till the early 1920s.
With Maud’s inheritance, the Baums built a house they christened Ozcot. It had lovely gardens where Baum spent hours writing, gardening, and entertaining school children with lemonade and stories.
Failure did not thwart Baum. Once again, he collaborated on creating a new Oz tale for the stage. In 1913, the musical extravaganza The Tik-Tok Man of Oz brought moderate success for about a year.
With plans to create more Oz stories and bring them to life, Baum and his friends raised money to fund the Oz Film Manufacturing Company (OFMC). He wrote the scripts for five full-length and five short films. But as mentioned earlier, the OFMC had difficulties distributing them. The company folded in 1915.
By then, Baum had already started fulfilling his commitment to produce one new Oz book per year, despite crippling health problems. He continued to garden, having won numerous awards for his dahlias and chrysanthemums. In 1919, after surgery, hospitalization, and being bedridden for months, he passed away at home shortly before his 63rd birthday.
So Frank never saw the 1939 MGM film version of his original Oz brainchild, The Wizard of Oz. But Maud and her sons saw it. Maud posed in a promotional shot with Judy Garland, and later attended the premier.
Ozcot was at 1749 Cherokee Avenue and Yucca Street, a block north of Hollywood Boulevard. After Frank died, Maud lived there another 34 years, till she passed away in 1953. Unfortunately, there’s nothing left of the house now. When my son Jeffrey visited the area, he took a picture of the street sign on that corner.
So again—a wizard or a humbug? Would you hire this guy? How do you measure success?
Honestly, I wish I’d known him. I’m inspired by his life. Though plagued by failures, many that he probably caused by his own poor judgement, he exuded resilience, vitality, and optimism. No time for wallowing, he was always on to the next project, finding a way to do it, come what may. His muses didn’t let him sit still for a minute.
Though his life often took a different trek than planned, he did what he needed to do. He gave up acting to sell Casterine oil and support his family. Even then, he was resourceful. For every experience returned later and flowed into his pen. Raising chickens surfaced as Billina the Hen in Ozma of Oz. Dakota cyclones sparked the image of Dorothy being whirled off to Oz. Years of selling china surely was key to creating the Dainty China Country is his first Oz book.
Not only did Baum follow his passions, but he loved people. A kind man, he gave of himself generously to every community he lived in.
As mentioned in my Ruby Slipper post, Baum knew the value of igniting a child’s imagination . . .
“Stunt, dwarf, or destroy the imagination of a child,
and you have taken away its chances of success in life.
Imagination transforms the commonplace into the great
and creates the new out of the old.”
— L. Frank Baum,
1909 interview The Advance magazine
“Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone,
the talking-machine and the automobile,
for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities . . .
The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman
most apt to create, to invent,
and therefore to foster civilization.”
—L. Frank Baum in Preface to The Lost Princess of Oz, 1917
Baum certainly did his part fostering imagination and civilization. Creating stories that delight and transport children to other realms is one sure means to that end.
Interested in more? I recommend:
The Annotated Wizard of Oz by Michael Patrick Hearn
The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was by Martin Gardner & Russel B. Nye
The Wonderful World of Oz by John Fricke (Oz memorabilia through the decades)
Find anything you want to know about Oz on this Ozzy website
International Wizard of Oz Club
John Fricke’s blog
Any additional thoughts on L. Frank Baum?
Is there someone from history that you admire and wish you could have met?
I’d love to hear from you!
10 thoughts on “We’re off to See the Wizard, Part 4: The Man Behind the Curtain, continued”
He seems like such a wholesome man. I don’t just mean virtuous, but healthy mentally and emotionally. What a gift he left with us!
Here is an interesting note—my grandpa was a window dresser/trimmer in Chicago in the early 1900s. I wonder if he ever saw ‘The Show Window Magazine” or was a member of the National Association?
This was a very satisfying series on Mr. Baum. Thank you for all the work and research and obvious affection you have for the man!
Thank you for your kind words, Anita. How interesting that your grandpa was a window trimmer in Chicago in the early 1900s! Baum kept that magazine going till around 1902, then sold it. Today, I believe it is still being published under a different title. I wonder if your grandpa was familiar with the magazine, or if he even met up with Baum somehow!
I’m pretty sure I saw Baum on skis in the background of one of pics of the kids on the tubes.
That’s a good one!
Your biographical sketch of Frank Baum is an amazing illustration of the human spirit. Thank you for bringing this icon of American literature and pop culture to life! It provides inspiration for continuing to move forward towards our dreams!
So glad you were inspired, Brad!
Another inspiring and informative post on Baum! I especially loved his quote on fame!!
I really love that quote, too.