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This richly imagined novel tells the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that inspired the iconic film, through the eyes of author L. Frank Baum’s intrepid wife, Maud.
“A breathtaking read that will transport you over the rainbow and into the heart of one of America’s most enduring fairy tales.”—Lisa Wingate, author of Before We Were Yours
Hollywood, 1938: As soon as she learns that M-G-M is adapting her late husband’s masterpiece for the screen, seventy-seven-year-old Maud Gage Baum sets about trying to finagle her way onto the set. Nineteen years after Frank’s passing, Maud is the only person who can help the producers stay true to the spirit of the book—because she’s the only one left who knows its secrets.
But the moment she hears Judy Garland rehearsing the first notes of “Over the Rainbow,” Maud recognizes the yearning that defined her own life story, from her youth as a suffragette’s daughter to her coming of age as one of the first women in the Ivy League, from her blossoming romance with Frank to the hardscrabble prairie years that inspired The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Judy reminds Maud of a young girl she cared for and tried to help in South Dakota, a dreamer who never got her happy ending. Now, with the young actress under pressure from the studio as well as her ambitious stage mother, Maud resolves to protect her—the way she tried so hard to protect the real Dorothy.
The author of two New York Times bestselling nonfiction books, The Eighty-Dollar Champion and The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts is a master at discovering and researching a rich historical story and transforming it into a page-turner. Finding Dorothy is the result of Letts’s journey into the amazing lives of Frank and Maud Baum. Written as fiction but based closely on the truth, Elizabeth Letts’s new book tells a story of love, loss, inspiration, and perseverance, set in America’s heartland.
Advance praise for Finding Dorothy
“In some ways reminiscent of Jerry Stahl’s excellent I, Fatty, Letts’ Finding Dorothy combines exhaustive research with expansive imagination, blending history and speculation into a seamless tapestry. . . . It’s a testament to Letts’ skill that she can capture on the page, without benefit of audio, that same emotion we have all felt sometime over the last 80 years while listening to ‘Over the Rainbow.’”—BookPage (starred review)
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Finding Dorothy
It was a city within a city, a textile mill to weave the gossamer of fantasy on looping looms of celluloid. From the flashing needles of the tailors in the costume shop to the zoo where the animals were trained, from the matzo ball soup in the commissary to the blinding-white offices in the brand-new Thalberg executive building, an army of people—composers and musicians, technicians and tinsmiths, directors and actors—spun thread into gold. Once upon a time, dreams were made by hand, but now they were mass-produced. These forty-four acres were their assembly line.
Outside its walls, the brown hills, tidy neighborhoods, and rusting oil derricks of Culver City gave no hint of magic; but within the gates of M-G-M—Metro, as it was known—you stepped inside an enchanted kingdom. A private trolley line that cut through the center of the studio’s back lots could whisk you across the world, or back in time—from old New York’s Brownstone Row to the Wild West’s Billy the Kid Street to Renaissance Italy’s Verona Square—with no stops in the outside world. In 1938, more than three thousand people labored inside these walls. Just as the Emerald City was the center of the Land of Oz, so the M-G-M Studios were the beating heart of that mythic place called Hollywood.
Maud Baum had been waiting on foot outside the massive front gates of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for almost an hour, just another face among the throngs of visitors hoping for a chance to get inside. Every now and again, a gleaming automobile pulled up to the gate. Each time, the studio’s guard snapped to attention and offered a crisp salute. Whenever this happened, the fans waiting around the entrance, hoping to catch a peek of the stars, would leap forward, thrusting bits of papers through the car’s windows. As Maud observed this spectacle, she couldn’t help but feel a pang for Frank: his doomed Oz Manufacturing Film Company, a single giant barnlike structure, had been just a short distance away from the current location of this thriving metropolis of Metro. In 1914, when Frank had opened his company, Hollywood had been a sleepy backwater of orange trees and bungalows, and filmmaking a crazy venture seen as a passing fad. If only he could have lived to see what a movie studio would become over the course of the next two decades: another White City, a giant theater stage. This fantastical place was the concrete manifestation of what Frank had been able to imagine long before it had come to pass.
At last it was Maud’s turn. As the guard scribbled her a pass, her stomach fluttered. Inside her purse, she had the small cutout torn from Variety. She didn’t need to look at it; she had long since memorized its few words: “oz” sold to louis b. mayer at m-g-m. As the last living link to the inspiration behind the story, she was determined to offer her services as a consultant. But getting access to the studio had not been easy. For months, they had rebuffed her calls, only reluctantly setting up a meeting with the studio head, Louis B. Mayer, because the receptionist was no doubt fed up with answering her daily queries. Today she would make her case.
If Maud’s suffragist mother, Matilda, had taught her anything, it was that if you wanted something, you needed to ask for it—or demand it, if necessary. True, Maud would far rather be reading a book at Ozcot, her Hollywood home, but she had made a promise to her late husband that she aimed to keep.
The guard pushed her day pass through the glass-fronted window and gave her a nod.
“Where is the Thalberg Building?” she asked.
He jerked his head to the left—a gesture that could have pointed anywhere. “White Lung? Just head that way. You can’t miss it.”
White Lung? What a peculiar name for a building. Maud was about to ask him why, but as she’d aged she’d learned to keep her thoughts to herself so as not to come off as a doddering old fool.
Inside the studio’s gates, the paths and private roads were crowded with people and vehicles. A knot of actors hurried by, costumed in elaborate ball gowns, paste jewels, and powdered wigs, followed by painters in splattered coveralls, a man humming a tune to himself, and another fellow, likely a writer, with a furrowed brow and a pencil tucked behind his ear. Maud leapt out of the way as three girls whizzed past on bicycles. Having spent much time in the theater, she was reminded of the bustle of backstage, but this—this was such an immense scale—all the world’s a stage! Frank had loved to quote Shakespeare. Here, it seemed to be literally true.
The Art Moderne Thalberg Building was dazzlingly white, its fresh exterior paint as clean as snow. A few scaffoldings still crept up one side—the building was clearly brand-new. When she stepped inside the polished lobby, she felt a chill prickle her skin and heard an odd wheezing sound like an old man breathing. She pulled her cardigan tighter around her shoulders as the receptionist gave her a sympathetic look.
“It’s the air conditioner,” she said. “Like a heater for cool.”
Maud suppressed a smile. Such a Frank-like idea. A heater for cool. He was always saying backward things like that.
“May I help you?”
“I am here to see Mr. Louis B. Mayer.” Maud made sure that her voice conveyed no hint of hesitation. She who hesitates is lost. That was another of Matilda’s expressions. Seventy-seven years old and Maud sometimes still felt as if her mother were perched just behind the wings, whispering stage instructions.
The receptionist was a young woman with a well-coiffed platinum bob. “Actress?” she asked.
“Most definitely not.”
The girl raised a stylishly penciled eyebrow and gave Maud the once-over, from her gray curls down to her sturdy brown pumps.
“Are you . . . ?” She leaned in. “His mother?”
To her credit, Maud did not show her irritation. “Mrs. L. Frank Baum. I have an appointment.”
The young woman narrowed her eyes, the rubber tip of her pencil ticking down the list. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Baum. You aren’t on Mr. Mayer’s schedule.”
“Check again,” Maud insisted. “One o’clock. I made this appointment weeks ago.” She wouldn’t let them turn her away now. She’d been waiting too long for this day to arrive.
“You’ll have to speak to Mrs. Koverman . . .” She dropped her voice. “Mount Ida. No one gets to Mr. Mayer without going through her first.”
Maud smiled. “I’m quite adept at going through people.”
“Take the elevator to the third floor. Mrs. Koverman’s desk will be right in front of you.”
As Maud waited for the elevator, her blurry reflection looked back at her from the shining brass of the twin doors. She hoped that her expression reflected a resoluteness of spirit, rather than the trepidation she was now feeling as this important meeting was at last upon her.
“Third floor,” she said to the uniformed elevator man, stepping inside.
When the doors slid open, she faced a secretary’s desk with a plaque that read mrs. ida koverman. A stout matron with bobbed brown hair inspected Maud.
“Maud Baum,” Maud said. “I have an appointment with Mr. Louis B. Mayer.”
“On what business?”
“My late husband . . .” Maud was horrified to hear her voice squeak.
Mrs. Koverman looked at her with no trace of sympathy.
“My late husband, Mr. L. Frank Baum, was the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Mrs. Koverman’s expression did not soften.
Maud had long since noted that there were two kinds of people in the world: fans of Oz—those who remembered their childhoods—and those who pretended that they had never even heard of Oz, who believed that adults should put away childish things. From the look on her face, Mrs. Koverman fell into the latter category.
“Have a seat.” She cut off any further conversation with a vigorous clacking of her typewriter keys.
Maud sat, feet crossed at the ankle, handbag and a well-worn copy of Oz balanced on her lap, hoping to convey that she wasn’t planning on going anywhere.
Every now and again, Mrs. Koverman would stand up and rap upon the door with the brass plaque on it reading louis b. mayer, then enter with a piece of typed paper or a phone message. Each time she emerged, Maud looked at her steadily while Mrs. Koverman avoided her gaze. Once in a while, Maud glanced at her wristwatch. Soon one-thirty had come and gone.
The two women might have remained in their silent test of wills had not a large commotion ensued from the elevator bay—a loud thwack and a cry of “Bugger all!” filled the room. Maud was astonished to see a giant young man—well over six feet tall—rubbing his head, then bending over to gather up a scattered pile of papers from the floor. Most surprising, a brand-new edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had skidded across the floor, landing almost at Maud’s feet.
She picked it up and approached the man. “I believe you’ve lost this?”
“Right,” he said with a British accent. “Just give me a minute. I’m a bit dazed.”
Maud watched with alarm as the lanky man swayed like a tall pine on a windy day. But after a moment, he straightened his tie, took the book from Maud, and held out his other hand in greeting. “Noel Langley. Scenarist.”
He noted the faded clothbound volume Maud held in her other hand. “Doing a little homework, I see.”
“Let me guess. Are you playing Auntie Em?”
“Auntie Em?” Maud was startled. She peered at the man, confused. “But how could you . . . ?”
“Clara Blandick,” Langley continued, not seeming to notice Maud’s reaction. “I presume . . .”
“Oh, the actress?” Maud said, gathering her wits. “You mean the actress?”
“Yes, the actress,” Langley said, louder this time. Maud blinked in irritation.
“Not at all. I’m not an actress,” Maud said firmly. “I’m Maud Baum—Mrs. L. Frank . . . ?”
Langley returned a blank look.
“My late husband, Frank—L. Frank Baum? Author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?” Maud held up her book and pointed to the author’s name.
Still looking puzzled, he scrutinized Maud as if seeing her for the first time. She twisted the emerald she wore on her fourth finger and smoothed the folds of her simple floral dress, aware how out of place she must appear to this elegant young man.
“But the book was written before I was born . . .” Langley said slowly, as if trying to solve a difficult math problem in his head. “Surely his wife must be . . .” As he spoke, his head cocked progressively more to one side, until with his long limbs and small tilted head, he looked like a curious grasshopper.
“I’m seventy-seven years old,” Maud said. “Not dead yet, if that’s what you were thinking.”
“Certainly not, of course not,” Langley stammered, his face now beet red. “It’s just that I imagined the book was published years ago? I guess, I assumed—oh, never mind what I assumed . . .”
“Not to worry,” Maud said soothingly. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. The turn of the century.”
“Ah, yes . . .” Langley said. His blush had faded, but the tips of his auricles remained pink.
“Must seem like ancient history to a young man like you.” Maud’s heart sank at the thought.
Langley nodded in agreement.
“Which brings up a good point,” Maud said. “It’s a lucky chance I’ve run into you. You see—”
Before Maud had a chance to finish, the elevator doors slid open again and a brown-haired man seemed to blow out as if pushed by a strong wind.
“Langley!” he cried out.
“Hello,” the tall fellow answered. “Look what we have here . . . if you can believe it. It’s Mrs. L. Frank Baum. Mrs. Baum, this is Mervyn LeRoy. He’s the producer.”
LeRoy skidded to a stop in front of the pair and looked Maud up and down.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, appearing mystified at her presence.
LeRoy’s gaze fell upon the faded green book Maud clasped in her bony, spotted hands.
“Well, now, look at this.” LeRoy reached out. “This looks like the exact same edition I had when I was a kid . . . sat on the shelf right by my bed. Loved that book so much.”
Maud sensed an opening. “Would you like to take a look?”
She held out the worn volume, the color leached from its cover and its edges frayed. Before cracking it open, LeRoy inhaled its papery scent, then reverently brushed the palm of his hand across the stamped green cloth. Flipping it open, he perused the color illustrations one by one, a half-smile on his lips.
“I grew up reading this book. Loved it! It’s hard to explain. I almost felt as if the characters were part of my own family.”
“I am glad to hear you feel that way. So you’ll understand why it’s so important to stick to the author’s vision.”
LeRoy tore his eyes away from the volume in his hands and returned his gaze to Maud, whose corporeal presence he still seemed to find puzzling. “The author’s vision? Tell the truth, I never gave a moment’s thought to the person who wrote it. Oz always seemed so timeless—eternal, really. Funny to think it started out as the idea of an unknown person with a pen in his hand.”
Elizabeth Letts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion and The Perfect Horse, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for research nonfiction, as well as two previous novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning. She lives in Southern California.