I’ve no doubt many events played into my lifelong love for The Wizard of Oz. My mother would read the Oz books to me as a child. I was immediately captivated by their stories, and I remember studying the elaborately detailed illustrations for hours on end. We had several early editions of the books—even a few first editions—that had all once belonged to my grandfather when he was a young boy at the beginning of the 20th century. I never knew my grandfather. He passed away three years before I was born. Yet my earliest and most emotional connection to him was through the discovery of these magical books. I was roughly the same age as he was when he had first opened their pages and gazed upon them.
But at the ripe old age of seven, my life changed forever. I had an audience with the Wicked Witch of the West.
Oh, I don’t just mean that I met Margaret Hamilton—although that’s exactly what happened. My family had moved to Lawrence, Kansas, from New York City when I was four and a half years old. We were returning three years later to attend my Uncle Bobby’s wedding. Lincoln Center was fairly new back then, and they were running a first-class production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” with none other than Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch herself, as the lovable Aunt Eller. We didn’t see the play, however. My family waited patiently outside the theatre by the big fountain until it was time to go in. I had no idea that my grandfather, a former executive at Warner Bros., had made a few choice phone calls and arranged a special meeting.
When it was time to go in, I made my way through the stage door with my parents. I had been backstage for theatrical performances before. My mother was an actress, and my father had been, among other things, a stage director and designer. So I was familiar enough with what was going on behind the scenes. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. There was a crowd of twenty or thirty people, all waiting patiently for a chance to meet Miss Hamilton. Instead of queuing up with the group, I was ushered in ahead of them. I probably looked terribly confused at the time. My mother and father took me straight to her dressing room door.
And there she was, this sweet little old lady, grinning right at me.
“You must be Paul!” she said with a warm smile. “Please, come in!” I was squeezing my mother’s hand tightly as we both entered her private dressing room. It was almost like watching the parting of the Red Sea as people stepped aside and cleared a path for us. But then, she was quick to add, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with Paul alone. I understand he has questions for me.”
I wasn’t sure if my mother was expecting this or not, but she was happy to oblige. She sat me down in a chair next to the kindly old lady, stepped back outside, and closed the door.
And there I was, all by myself, with this woman who looked more like my grandmother than an evil witch. She started to take off her stage makeup, and I remember just staring at her. She certainly didn’t seem mean or frightening or ugly.
“You have questions for me?” she asked. “What would you like to know?”
Although I still wasn’t convinced this was the actual Wicked Witch of the West, I launched right in with a barrage of questions: How did you melt? How did you fly? How did they make you green?
I could tell she was impressed with my early understanding of a variety of theatrical devices, like trapdoors, piano wires, and compressed air. And she treated me like an adult, never once talking down to me. She described in great detail how the film crew had slowly lowered her down on a platform while they pumped smoke and air up through tiny holes around the edges of the opening. And how her pointed hat had been oversized, and her black dress had been tacked securely to the floor. All of this to create the illusion that she was melting.
She also asked me questions about my school, where I lived, my younger brother, and my parents. We had a most stimulating conversation, particularly from my eager, seven-year-old perspective.
Yet somehow I still wasn’t convinced, and she could sense it.
“You don’t believe it’s me, do you?” she asked finally. “You don’t think I played the Witch.”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “You seem so nice. Even though I know you were acting. And you don’t sound like her. You don’t laugh like her.”
She looked at me and smiled.
“Maybe this will help convince you,” she said. And then … she laughed. Yes, I mean the laugh. That horrific, high-pitched, devious cackle that has caused generations of young children to run terrified from their living room TV sets.
It was just me. And just her. … And suddenly, I was in the presence of the Wicked Witch of the West.
I will never forget it as long as I live. Before I left, she asked for my address. My parents gave it to her, and she promised to send my brother John and me autographed photos. She kept her promise, too.
But two months later, when school started again and I began the second grade, we were given the assignment by our teacher to find a pen pal for the year. It was supposed to be someone we had met over the summer or fairly recently. Preferably someone from out of state or at least out of town. And hopefully not a relative. As the teacher went around the room to ask each of us who we were selecting, she received expected answers like, “My friend from camp, Mike,” or “This girl I met at Grandma’s named Jill.” I raised my hand and perhaps a little too proudly announced, “I choose the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz!”
That evening, my mother got a phone call from my teacher, who was very concerned by my behavior in class that day. She quietly explained the assignment to my mom, who quickly rallied to my defense.
“Well … he did meet her this summer, and she lives out of state. She’s not a relative. Miss Hamilton fits the rules of your assignment, doesn’t she? I don’t see why this would be a problem, as long as she agrees to do it.”
And she did.
Margaret Hamilton … the Wicked Witch of the West … became my pen pal for the entire second-grade school year. I still have the postcards and letters. And the signed, glossy photos—three in all.
I saw Maggie again just a few years later, when she appeared live on stage at the Kansas City Starlight Theatre as the Wicked Witch in a regional production of The Wizard of Oz. My mother took us in to see her. Although we corresponded once or twice after that, this was the last time I would see her in person.
I can only tell you that she was one of the nicest people I have ever met or known, or will likely ever meet or know. The antithesis of the legendary Wicked Witch she created on film. And from what I understand from sharing my personal recollections with others, she treated everyone, especially children, with the same care, affection, and warmth that she had shown me.
Many things in my life led me to write the novel Silver Shoes. But facing the real live Wicked Witch of the West alone, as a wide-eyed, seven-year-old child, would surely be at the top of any list.