There may actually be no place like home, but would you believe that home is actually in Bloomington, Illinois, not Kansas? Today, we explore the history of the real “Dorothy Gale,” a creation that was “Oz” author L. Frank Baum’s gift of love to his grieving wife. And a family secret for that was kept for almost a century.
I was born in Kansas, grew up there, graduated from high school and college and spent a relatively large part of my adulthood in the Sunflower State. I’ve been other places too, but as soon as I mention my home state I always hear the same question “Where’s Dorothy?” Part of me always wants to say something snarky like “She’s living in Miami Beach with her mother Sophia and her roommates Blanche and Rose.” But I knew they weren’t asking about the “Golden Girls” they were asking about the other more famous fictional Dorothy, the one from over the rainbow.
Author L. Frank Baum had been a struggling writer for nearly twenty years before he wrote his first successful children’s story “Mother Goose in Prose” and an even more acclaimed sequel “Father Goose.” But these stories would be little remembered after he wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1898. The book would remain at the top of the best-seller list for over two years and would sell over a million copies. The book was the first in a series of 14 all chronicling the adventures of Dorothy Gale from Kansas and her friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman (although he is called Niccolo Chopper in the book), and the Lion (also known as the Cowardly Lion but surprisingly is a bit part in the first couple books)
Many people may be surprised to know that long before the movie, “The Wizard of Oz” was a very popular Broadway musical. ( The music in the movie was explicitly written for the film version, Originally Toto was a cow called Imogene. The Broadway show (which is almost entirely faithful to the books) differs wildly from the 1939 film.
While they are children’s novels, the tone of the “Oz” series is much darker (and violent) than the movie version. Here are a few things that are vastly different from the narrative most of us know: The original book never mentions her last name (although the second book does say that her surname is Gale.) Her slippers are silver, not ruby. (The movie went with ruby because it looked better on the color film. She had ponytails, not pigtails. Dorothy’s parents were killed in a boating accident, and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are actually foster parents. The land of Oz was just a dream in the movie, not an actual place, The Tinman was a real person who was in love with a Munchkin girl, the man was cursed by the wicked witch and changed to a tin man, the witch left him without a heart as punishment for loving foolishly. The witch doesn’t melt in the book but meets a much more graphic demise. I actually read a couple of these books in high school, and I was shocked at how much different they were from what I had grown up watching when the film was broadcast on television.
So when MGM decided to turn the story into a feature film, it was cleaned up, bedazzled with some great new music (including one of the most famous songs of all time) and featured Judy Garland as Dorothy. This is the Oz everyone knows, and Judy Garland is the Dorothy everyone means when they ask anyone from Kansas the same question they have already heard a thousand times.
L. Frank Baum and his wife Maud had four sons. His wife had always wanted to have a daughter, but after the fourth son had been born, she entered menopause and was no longer able to have children. Maud was overjoyed when on June 11th, 1898 her brother Thomas and his wife had a little girl they named Dorothy. The Baums were living in Chicago at the time, and Maud would make the trip every weekend to visit her niece at her brother’s home in Bloomington, Illinois. In November of the same year, little Dorothy became ill with “congestion of the brain” (most likely an aneurysm or blood clot) and died exactly five months to the date she was born.
The family was distraught, especially Maud Baum. After the funeral, she was hospitalized for extreme exhaustion. Frank had been working on his first novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” about a boy who was traveling to a magical kingdom. As an attempt to console his wife he rewrote the story and changed the protagonist to a little girl named Dorothy and dedicated the book to his wife. He told her “Now Dorothy has immortality and will live on in the hearts and minds of children.” He had no idea just how profound of a statement that would be. While the book was dedicated to Maud, very few people outside of the family knew the real origin of the heroine’s name.
It wasn’t until 1996 when biographer Dr. Sally Wagner who was interviewing some of Baum’s descendants decided to try to locate Dorothy’s gravesite. Eventually, the grave of Dorothy Gage was located. The story of the little girl became worldwide news that year. In nearby St Louis Mickey Carroll one of the original actors in the film who was an extra as a “Munchkin” saw the article. He was in the monument business and offered to make a new headstone for free.
The City of Bloomington opened the Dorothy Gage Memorial Garden on May 31, 1997, a place where grieving parents can come for comfort. Many additional children have been buried near little Dorothy’s resting place.
Dorothy Gale’s light in this world was brief. But her namesake lives on If you are passing through Bloomington, Illinois. this lovely memorial garden is worth visiting also if you are a history fan (like me) you will also find the final resting spot of Adlai Stevenson who was Vice-President of the United States under Grover Cleveland and his son of the same name who was the Democratic nominee against Dwight Eisenhower.
So for all my fellow Kansans next time someone asks you “where’s Dorothy” Now you know the answer.