1938, book review, E. Y. Harburg, Elizabeth Letts, feminism, historical fiction, Hollywood, Judy Garland, L. Frank Baum, Louis B. Mayer, Maud Baum, Wizard of Oz
Review: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine, 2019. 351 pp. $28
In October 1938, Maud Baum has a mission to undertake in Hollywood, and since she’s seventy-eight, she presents an odd picture to security guards and receptionists. But those who underestimate Maud do so at their peril, for not only has she learned a thing or two in her long life about effecting change, her mother was a charismatic activist for feminist causes, especially suffrage. More important to the reason Maud lays siege to M-G-M, she’s L. Frank Baum’s widow — he, who penned the book whose film version is in production, The Wizard of Oz.
And as she begins her quest, this is what she sees:
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.
Maud wants to be sure that this factory won’t destroy the work into which her late husband put his heart and soul — and, as the reader eventually learns, constituted his only professional success in a lifetime filled with disappointments. And what should Maud find when she visits the M-G-M soundstage, but a girl too old to play Dorothy singing a song about a rainbow? This not only does damage to her beloved husband’s opus, it will, Maud believes, betray the millions of children who love the original.
From this ingenious premise comes an intriguing, occasionally uneven but ultimately satisfying novel, written with wisdom and a sure hand. Letts splits her narrative in two, one half for the movie in production, and the other, for Maud’s childhood and subsequent marriage to Frank. Throughout, the author delivers a strong feminist message, which comes to the fore when she crashes the studio. Those scenes focus on Judy Garland, still only fifteen when the filming starts, and oppressed from all sides. She’s got a horrible mother who treats her like a dollar sign; an assistant producer who molests her; a commissary that, on studio orders, won’t let her eat anything but cottage cheese and lettuce, for fear she will grow and then really look too old for the part; and diet pills she must take, which give her insomnia, for which she takes another set of pills.
But Judy also has Maud, though she doesn’t realize it yet, because that kind old lady knows a victim when she sees one and can’t walk away. Maud’s license to be a gadfly lacks the necessary signatures, and the executives running this horror show periodically try to shut her out. Why, then, does she continue, and how does she manage to?
The key lies in Maud’s past, invariably bound up with the original models for Dorothy, Auntie Em, the Emerald City, the Wizard, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and, yes, Toto too. To Maud, these autobiographical bits mean much more than a past life, representing intense emotional experiences. Though I prefer the studio narrative, with credible portrayals of Yip Harburg, the lyricist, and Louis B. Mayer, the second m in M-G-M, Letts does well to show why Maud looks after Judy and refuses to take no for an answer. Also, though not an Oz aficionado, and as someone who likes the book better than the movie, I still appreciate the revelations about Baum’s sources for his characters, especially because Letts resists the temptation to overplay them. What could have been a wink-wink-nudge-nudge routine feels more natural and earned.
I wish Letts had shown more and told less, and that the prose rose more often to the level quoted above. Also, I don’t quite believe certain plot points, especially how easily Maud penetrates the studio, though I accept Letts’s assertion that she has stuck strictly to the historical record, which is pretty remarkable in itself, since history doesn’t always make good fiction. (One nit about the afterword: I wish she’d mentioned Yip Harburg’s most famous other songs, like “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” or “Paper Moon,” not just his other musical, about Amelia Bloomer.) Even so, I salute Finding Dorothy, which tells an unusual, worthwhile story.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.