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Finding Dorothy
Author:Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home, or Heaven. That word is Liberty.

—Matilda Joslyn Gage The story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.

—L. Frank Baum I tried my damndest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and I couldn’t.

—Judy Garland




October 1938

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.