When I accepted the invitation to present on Billie Burke, subject of my most recent biography, at the International Wizard of Oz Club's annual convention in Wamego, Kansas, earlier this month, I wondered--much like Dorothy after landing in Oz--what I had got myself into.
I am no Oz expert. Far from it--Billie Burke played Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 MGM classic, but while my book offers a chapter on Burke's portrayal and the significance of the much-derided role of the Good Fairy, I know next to nothing about Winkies or Ozma, Prince Inga of Pingaree or Cayke the Cookie Chef. Add to this that I was to present at the opening reception alongside two gentlemen speaking on the topic of Margaret Hamilton, the film's Wicked Witch (one of them her son), and a master impersonator of said witch (Kurt Raymond), lunging at guests throughout the evening, and I began to wonder whether I had overestimated the advantage of good over evil.
But then, maybe not. Doesn't Glinda tell the Wicked Witch, as she protects Dorothy with her magic wand, "You have no power here!"? Of course, Dorothy had something I didn't have--ruby slippers. ("Their magic must be very powerful, or she wouldn't want them so badly.") But I had Billie, known on her 1940s radio comedy show as "that bright morning star." What was a sulfurous Wicked Witch against all that Ziegfeldian sparkle and perfume?
I was presenting with Paul Miles Schneider, author of the enthralling new Oz-themed novel, Silver Shoes, and Hamilton Meserve, silver-haired son of Margaret Hamilton--the former to speak on being the childhood pen pal of Ms. Hamilton, the latter about being her only child. I was first to the podium, where I gave my spiel about the real Billie Burke--the forthright, down-to-earth professional, the courageous former stage beauty who remade herself overnight as dizzy comedienne and was made immortal by The Wizard of Oz. Then up came Paul, to the cackles of our flesh and blood Witch, sharing anecdotes about corresponding with the charming Ms. Hamilton. (Paul's account of the meeting can be read here on Red Room.)
We all know by now that Margaret Hamilton was nothing like the role she is most famed for playing. Let her evil laughter shriek down seventy years--even if we didn't know, from those Maxwell House commercials and from interviews, that Margaret Hamilton was a kindly woman, we were convinced of it after hearing how sweet she was to seven-year-old Paul. But what I, who had aimed to bring the real Billie Burke to my audience that night, was not prepared for was how palpably Hamilton Meserve brought the lovely, generous spirit that was his mother so strongly into that crowded room that even our obstreperous Wicked Witch stayed still and listened.
It wasn't just that Ms. Hamilton could downplay stereotype by reading to children, having them touch her face to ascertain that it was neither green nor warty but the gentle visage of a grandmother. She was a real good fairy, taking hungry stage actors new to New York into her Gramercy Place apartment, tiding them over till their stars turned favorable, knowing them younger editions of herself, when what she called "the bug" drove her out of upper middle class respectability in Cleveland to the disreputable glory of the theatre: an acolyte of that greatest of temples, where the sacrifice was self on the sacred altar of dramatis personae. Like many of her generation of actors, her heart was not in Hollywood but on Broadway. She relentlessly played summer stock, proving she was capable of making her mark in everything from Parthy Ann in Showboat to the Countess in A Little Night Music. Maggie, as everyone called her, did so much for so many people (not to mention so much good for animals) one felt tempted to dub her the Mother Teresa of the Great White Way. Yet she was clearly closer to sorceress than saint, rich with that other component of the truly good fairy: the self-deprecating humor that is the same as compassion and is stronger than stone.
It is not that pretty, flittery Billie Burke was not revealed by me that evening in Wamego--people told me after that it was like seeing her for the first time. But I came to see that greater than either Glinda or the Wicked Witch, Margaret Hamilton was a truly beautiful being, who came to us in Halloween masquerade to terrify our hearts, only to throw off the disguise and win them back through laughter and love.
Photos from The International Wizard of Oz Club's annual conference, Wamego, Kansas, October 2009.
Left to right: Helen Meserve, Hamilton Meserve, Grant Hayter-Menzies.
Photo credit: Peter Hanff
Left to right: Paul Miles Schneider, Robert Baum (great-grandson of L. Frank Baum), Grant Hayter-Menzies.
Photo credit: Stephen Pietreface
-Before turning to biography full time, Grant Hayter-Menzies served as art and music critic for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Canada. His current book project deals with the extraordinary friendship of American diplomatic wife Sarah Pike Conger and the Empress Dowager Cixi of China, before, during, and after one of the greatest cataclysms of East/West relations, the 1900 Boxer Uprising.
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