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15 Wonderful Things You Might Not Know About L. Frank Baum

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In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book that has never been out of print and that has been produced as movies, theatrical plays and musicals, and led to further cultural phenomena like The Wiz and Wicked. In honor of his 160th birthday, here are 15 facts about the actual man behind the curtain.

1. HIS HOMETOWN HOSTS AN OZ-FEST (BUT NOT THAT OZZFEST).

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York, to a wealthy family and raised on an estate called Rose Lawn in Mattydale, New York, just outside Syracuse. In honor of Baum, Chittenango holds an annual festival of all things Oz called Oz-Stavaganza.

2. THE FIRST ANIMALS HE WROTE ABOUT WERE CHICKENS.

Baum was a sickly child and his father indulged his hobbies, including buying him a small printing press that he used to produce a newspaper. Another hobby was raising fancy chickens called Hamburgs. At 23, he started his own chicken trade journal, which he soon sold to a rival. He stayed on as a column writer, and contributed a long, serialized article on breeding and rearing Hamburgs. Later, when Baum was 30, the magazine (supposedly without Baum's knowledge) published that original article in full, making it Baum's first published book.

3. DOROTHY'S "YELLOW BRICK ROAD" MIGHT HAVE BEEN BASED ON A CHILDHOOD MEMORY.

When he was 12, Baum was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, New York, for two years, where he was absolutely miserable. But it is also where he may have first seen a yellow brick road—at that time many of the streets of Peekskill were paved with yellow Dutch bricks. And for a young teen who just wanted to go home, the memory might have provided future inspiration. An alternative hypothesis is that when he was living in Syracuse, a plank road was installed made out of a yellow colored wood.

4. BAUM HAD A BRIEF CAREER AS AN ACTOR.

Baum (acting under the name Louis F. Baum) in 'The Maid of Arran.' Wikimedia Commons.

Baum’s first ambition as a young man was to be an actor and playwright. He wrote several plays, including The Maid of Arran, which was successfully produced and in which he acted. The only time that Baum was known to have been in Kansas was when he toured in this play in 1882. However, his love of and involvement with the theater lasted throughout his life.

5. BAUM WAS A FEMINIST, AS WERE HIS WIFE AND IN-LAWS.

L. Frank and Maud Baum on a trip to Egypt. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, daughter of the noted feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. He had a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, who, along with his new wife, helped him become a lifelong suffragist and feminist. According to biographer Katharine M. Rogers, Baum was "a secure man who did not worry about asserting his masculine authority." In fact, most of his books had girls as the heroes. Matilda Gage was the person who convinced Baum to write for children, having listened to him tell his children the stories that he created.

6. MOST OF HIS CAREER PATHS, INCLUDING RUNNING A NEWSPAPER, FAILED.

After several financial reverses—Baum failed as an actor, as a salesman, and in other careers—he moved his family in 1888 to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, in what is now South Dakota. He opened a store (which failed) and a newspaper (which failed, too). In his newspaper, he strongly supported women’s suffrage, but he is also thought to have written two racist editorials calling for extermination of Native Americans. (In 2006, two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux Nation for the editorials.) In 1891, Baum lost the newspaper and he and his family moved to Chicago.

7. HE STARTED WRITING CHILDREN'S BOOK IN HIS FORTIES.

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In 1897, at the age of 41, Baum published his first book for children, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (his first big commission; Parrish went on to become a top illustrator for books and magazines). It was a success. Baum followed it up in 1899 with Father Goose: His Book, which also sold very well. He then wrote two alphabet books, and publishers began to consider him an important children’s author.

8. THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST TRUE AMERICAN FAIRYTALE.

In 1900, Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with illustrations by William Wallace Denslow. It was an instant hit. Although there have been many theories on how the book is an allusion to the politics of the United States in the late 1800s, there is no conclusive proof that Baum intended any such connections. But Baum did create the Land of Oz as a distinctly American utopia, making it the first truly American fairytale.

9. THE LAND OF OZ WAS NAMED FOR A FILING CABINET.

Baum’s original title for the book was “The Emerald City,” but publishers had a superstition that a jewel in a book title was bad luck and asked Baum to change it. Baum got the name for his fairy country off a drawer on a file cabinet that was marked “O-Z.” He named his plucky heroine Dorothy Gale after an infant niece named Dorothy Louise Gage who died while he was writing the book.

10. WICKED WAS NOT THE FIRST OZ ADAPTATION ON BROADWAY.

In 1902, Baum collaborated on a stage version called The Wizard of Oz that ran on Broadway for two years and toured until 1911. The plot was decidedly different from the book, with Toto being replaced by a cow and more people from Kansas traveling to Oz along with Dorothy. Because of the success of the play and subsequent Oscar-winning movie, the book has often been published without “wonderful” in the title.

11. THERE ARE 40 OFFICIAL 'OZ' BOOKS.

Baum continued writing Oz books—14 in total—until the end of his life, with a new book usually coming out in time for Christmas. In his later years, he answered children’s letters on letterhead that proclaimed him as the "Royal Historian of Oz." He often used suggestions from children when creating the Oz books. The series was continued after his death by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote an additional 19 Oz books, and several other authors who added seven more.

12. BAUM WROTE UNDER A VARIETY OF PSEUDONYMS.

In addition to the Oz series, Baum wrote other books for children and teenagers, including romances and science fiction, under an assortment of pen names. Under the name Edith Van Dyne, he wrote a successful series of books called Aunt Jane’s Nieces that were as popular as the Oz books. Other pseudonyms included Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

13. BAUM LOST THE RIGHTS TO HIS MOST FAMOUS BOOK BECAUSE OF FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES.

Baum created a stage show in 1908 called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays” that combined a lecture by him with live actors, a movie, and projected slides. Critics and audiences loved it, but it cost more to produce than it brought in. Baum declared bankruptcy, which caused him to lose his royalty rights to his earlier books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

14. BAUM WROTE AND DIRECTED A NUMBER OF 'OZ' FILMS HIMSELF.

In 1914, Baum started a film company. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company lasted only for a few years, but it produced several Oz-related movies, including His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. For once, Baum didn’t lose any money on this business venture.

15. HIS FINAL WORDS WERE IN REFERENCE TO OZ.

Baum’s health began to fail in 1917, and he died two years later after suffering a stroke. Just before he passed, he had some interesting last words for his wife. In his books, the land of Oz is cut off from the rest of the world by impassable wastelands, including a desert called the Shifting Sands. As Baum lay dying, he supposedly referenced the work that made his legacy: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”

Additional sources: The Making of the Wizard of OzThe Oz Scrapbook.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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