Meet L. Frank Baum, the man behind the curtain

L. Frank Baum at work on the porch of his summer home.
L. Frank Baum at work on the porch of his summer home.

He sold axle grease, fine china and prize-winning chickens, made and lost fortunes and changed the course of children’s literature.

For L. Frank Baum, life was almost as much of a whirlwind as the cyclone in his best-seller, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

For as much as we know about Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, most people know far less about the man who created them 114 years ago.

So, just who was L. Frank Baum?

He was a dreamer and a hopeless romantic with boundless energy and a vivid imagination. The seventh of nine children, he was born in 1856 in the upstate New York town of Chittenango, the son of a barrel maker and later wealthy oil producer. But, as was common in the mid-19th century, only four of his siblings lived to adulthood. Two had died by the time he was born, two more before he was 10.

Named Lyman, after his father’s brother, he preferred his middle name, Frank.

When he was 5, his family moved to nearby Syracuse. He spent most of his childhood at Rose Lawn, a farm north of Syracuse where his father raised dairy cattle and grew grain and tobacco. A shy child, he got lost in books and became fascinated with a scarecrow that guarded the family’s crops.

Baum loved to play. But in the 1800s, children were to be seen and not heard. He chafed at the strict rules of his devout Methodist family, required to read the Bible on Sundays instead of seeing his friends.

Fearing the 12-year-old lacked discipline, his parents sent him to Peekskill Military Academy on the Hudson River. After two years he transferred to the strict Syracuse Classical School but apparently never graduated.

As an adult, he tried it all. He helped found the New York State Poultry Association and bred exotic chickens. He manufactured a successful axle grease, Baum’s Castorine. He became a newspaper publisher.

He had half a dozen plays produced. His first, “The Maid of Arran,” a sentimental Irish melodrama that Baum wrote, directed and acted in, became a minor hit. In 1881 and ’82, he performed it around the country, including Kansas.

For someone with such a fertile imagination, sticking to one thing proved difficult.

“He was enormously inventive, but he kept losing interest in things,” said Baum authority Michael Patrick Hearn, author of “The Annotated Wizard of Oz.” “He had a lot of wonderful ideas, but they weren’t always practical. He made and lost fortunes throughout his life.”

While his family always supported him, they probably wondered if he would ever find his true calling.

In 1882, at the age of 26, he married Maud Gage, who was the perfect practical anchor to Baum’s imagination run amok. She was the daughter of suffragist leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, who wrote “The History of Women’s Suffrage,” with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There probably wouldn’t have been a Dorothy if not for the influence of these strong women in Baum’s life, Hearn said.

Baum, an ardent supporter of feminist causes, always wanted a daughter and planned to name her Dorothy. Instead, the couple had four sons.

In 1888, he moved his family to Aberdeen, S.D., a frontier boomtown where several of his wife’s relatives lived. He opened Baum’s Bazaar, a luxury import store, and later took over a local newspaper. But soon after, a drought destroyed crops and lives.

By early 1891, his efforts had failed, and the family moved to Chicago, where Baum took a job as a traveling salesman showing fine china.

A born storyteller, he never stopped creating characters in his head. When he returned from the road, he’d tell those stories to his children and their friends.

It was his mother-in-law, his intellectual mentor, who encouraged Baum to become a children’s author. She once told him he would be a darn fool if he didn’t write his stories down and try to publish them.

In all, Baum ended up writing more than 70 books.

His first children’s book, “Mother Goose in Prose,” was a critical but not a financial success. After meeting illustrator W.W. Denslow, he penned “Father Goose, His Book,” the top-selling children’s book of 1899. Then, in 1900, came the biggest success of his life: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Baum and Denslow wanted the illustrations in color. When publishers balked at the cost, the pair paid for the process themselves. The resulting book stunned the reading public. Elaborate and enormously bright, the first-edition contained 24 full color plates and more than 100 two-color illustrations within the text, unheard of at the time.

A runaway best-seller, the book sold about 90,000 copies in its first two years. It also helped change the course of children’s literature. Aside from notable works by Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, most children’s books of the time were meant to impart information or moral lessons, Hearn said. Baum allowed children to dream. More than anything, he wanted them to have fun.

As Baum wrote in the copy of “Mother Goose in Prose” that he gave his older sister, “I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”

But not everyone liked “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Shortly after it came out, libraries across the country, including the Kansas City Public Library, banned it. Critics deemed the fantasy stories unhealthy for children. Some religious leaders attacked the book for containing good witches. After World War II, some critics even interpreted the land of Oz as a communist state. As late as the 1960s, many librarians still considered the book sensational, poorly written and unwholesome and refused to include it in their collections.

That didn’t stop the public from loving it. But while the book sold well, what made Baum his real fortune was the musical extravaganza “The Wizard of Oz,” which opened in Chicago in the summer of 1902 and went to Broadway the next year. Two road companies toured successfully for about eight years.

“It was the ‘Wicked’ of its day,” Hearn said.

“(It) was not a dramatization of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but a hodgepodge of spectacular effects, comic romantic entanglements, slapstick routines, puns and wisecracks,” wrote Katharine Rogers in “L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz.” Characters included Locusta, the good witch of the north, Cynthia, a “lady lunatic,” Nick Chopper (the Tim Woodman), a cow named Imogene and Sir Dashemoff Daily.

And, of course, Dorothy.

Baum had a niece named Dorothy, Hearn said. His wife adored the child, who died as a baby while Baum was writing “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

“She was the daughter she never had,” Hearn said. “Baum dedicated his book to Maud. So Baum did symbolically give Maud her Dorothy.”

After the success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Baum yearned to explore other ideas. But because of public demand, he kept writing sequels.

He always believed “Oz” would make a great movie. In 1908, for a lecture tour he was giving, he produced expensive hand-colored motion pictures based on the “Oz” books called Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.

“He paid for actors and basically rented a studio,” Hearn said.

But there was a problem: “He just spent too much money on it,” Hearn said. In 1911 he filed for bankruptcy.

Baum borrowed money from a friend, Harrison H. Rountree, to pay off his creditors, turned over the rights to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and never saw another penny in royalties.

He did continue writing “Oz” books, 14 in all.

Later in life, the couple moved to Hollywood, Calif., where Baum grew prize-winning chrysanthemums in his large garden and founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Co., one of the first movie studios there.

While it lasted only a couple of years, Baum was able to build a comfortable home he named Ozcot, financed largely with his wife’s inheritance.

A lifelong cigar smoker, he died in 1919 at the age of 62. He told his wife on his death bed that she was the only person he had ever loved, and she told him the same.

Baum left a legacy of creativity that is hard to overestimate, literary experts say. Perhaps it’s best summarized in one of his quotes:

“I believe that dreams — day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing — are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.”

To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460, or email


In “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” L. Frank Baum depicted Kansas as flat, dry, dull and gray. He spoke from experience. In the early 1880s, while touring with his play “The Maid of Arran,” he and his wife, Maud, stopped in both Topeka and Lawrence.

She wrote a blistering letter to her family in the “Dakotah Territory” about how much she hated the Sunflower State, said Baum authority Michael Patrick Hearn.

“Many Kansans have taken offense to that description over the years,” Hearn said. “But I suspect Baum was talking about his own observations while living on the prairie in Dakotah Territory. His niece told me that he changed it to Kansas because that’s where cyclones come from.”

Read it yourself:

Chapter One: The Cyclone

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner.

There was no garret at all, and no cellar — except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke. It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.

Today, however, they were not playing. Uncle Henry sat upon the doorstep and looked anxiously at the sky, which was even grayer than usual. Dorothy stood in the door with Toto in her arms, and looked at the sky too. Aunt Em was washing the dishes.

From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm. There now came a sharp whistling in the air from the south, and as they turned their eyes that way they saw ripples in the grass coming from that direction also.

Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up.

“There’s a cyclone coming, Em,” he called to his wife …


Time to say goodbye, Yellow Brick Road. This is the last in our daily series celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie.

You can find all 31 “Oz-some” stories on

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