When Harry Met Betty

When they finally deciphered the nature of the charges that Harry Baker faced, Mary and her sisters were scandalized. “It came as terrible shock,” said Mary Dalton, another niece. “They had grown up with Harry, and so they had known each other for a long time. He was supposed to be a fine young man with Christian ideals and seemed like a suitable spouse for someone who grew up with a minister for a father.”

These assumptions rapidly unraveled after the truth about Harry Baker’s sexual orientation came to light. Harry, bound for Hollywood, left behind a wife in her mid-thirties and two small children. Mary sold the furniture, hoping to raise enough money to rent a furnished apartment, but without support or employment, she finally moved into her mother’s home in Lima, Ohio, where three of her sisters lived already.

“It was a big two-story house with a backyard and fruit trees and a grape arbor,” remembered Susan Baumgarten, another granddaughter of Harry Baker, who lived in the home in later years. “They had a basement where they did laundry with an old-fashioned laundry machine where you had to wring out the clothes.” This work would have been Mary’s. “She had to depend on her sisters for support, so she kept house for them,” Baumgarten said. In later years, Mary’s mother and one of her sisters developed Parkinson’s disease, and she cared for them after they lost their mobility. According to various family members, Harry Baker never sent any support to his ex-wife.

Divorce, to say nothing of homosexuality, was never discussed in the family. Many of Harry Baker’s relatives said they knew little more than rumors about his life; and, except for Sarah Baker, none dared to ask his ex-wife, Mary, about his fate. “I found her to be a stern and somewhat austere disciplinarian,” Sarah remembered. Susan Baumgarten saw her a bit differently: “I wouldn’t say that she was bitter—it was more like a Christian martyr situation. She was going to be a survivor.”

Regardless, the heavy silence that hung over the matter of Harry’s desertion affected the children. “My husband never mentioned him,” recalled Jane Baker, who married Harry Jr. in 1944. “He never talked about him at all, except to say that he ‘left the family.’ That was the way he put it. I learned later from one of his cousins that he was a homosexual. Grandmother Baker, she was very nice, but she was stern. She stuck to business. But I gather, from what I have picked up from the family, that she was very kind to my husband as a small child. I think she knew he missed his father, but she never said that. They just never talked about him.”

This taboo was passed down. “I don’t think I ever heard about him at all until I was probably thirteen or fourteen,” Sarah Baker recalled. “Later, my mother would sometimes confide in me. ‘You know, your Grandfather was a homosexual,’ she would say—but never with my father or brothers present.” When Sarah finally heard the story of his arrest, from one of her great-aunts, she took the information to her mother. It was news to her. With her father, Harry Jr., Sarah never discussed the subject.

In the early 1990s, a relative compiled a family history and genealogy and mailed a copy to Harry, Jr. “My father kind of pooh-poohed it,” Sarah said. “Eventually he read it, but he must have had to muster up the courage.” Turns out there was nothing in the family history about the elder Harry Baker’s secret past.

While his wife was working the laundry machine for her mother and sisters back in Ohio, Harry was making his new life in Hollywood. By 1930, as his cake business flourished, he was living with another man, “Mac,” who served as his assistant baker.

Sally Cobb, who ran the Brown Derby with her husband Bob, remarked on the pair to Mark Willems. “Sally was very gay savvy,” Willems said. “She had many gay friends, and she talked about those two guys, Harry Baker and his friend, that they lived together and ran the business together.” In those days, even in Hollywood, such arrangements were rare, Willems added. Rather than risk the scandal of living together, “a gay couple would buy houses next door to each other.”

Baker somehow kept his relationship with Mac a secret from his mother Belle, who made periodic extended visits from Lima and died in his home in 1934. “I remember my grandmother talking about Mac,” said Betty Heisser, one of Harry’s nieces, “but not their relationship. To her, that would have been unthinkable.”

Harry Baker wasn’t the only illustrious culinary figure on the Hollywood scene in the 1930s. In the same year that Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers were sampling Baker’s chiffon, Marjorie Child Husted, the brains behind Betty Crocker, cooked up a spectacular marketing illusion. She herself began posing as the fictional Betty Crocker.

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