From its start, the Brown Derby featured as many star cameos as the film Hollywood. In fact, many of its first regulars had starred in the film. When a second Brown Derby opened in 1929, closer to the studios, DeMille was an investor. The plot for the film A Star is Born was conceived there, and the original version features a Brown Derby waitress in the girl-from-the-provinces role. Star-struck tourists quickly made the Derby a station on the Hollywood pilgrimage, earning it the nickname “Rubberneck Restaurant.”
The Brown Derby manager was a showman who got his start selling bottles of ocean water to tourists and is remembered primarily because of the salad named after him. Bob Cobb’s restaurant “was one of the greatest, most glamorous eating establishments in America,” said Mark Willems, who co-authored a history of the Brown Derby with Cobb’s widow, Sally. “And the chiffon cake was the cornerstone of their establishment. After Cobb salad, it was the most famous recipe they had.”
According to Willems, the most popular version of Baker’s creation was his grapefruit chiffon, which he made especially for Hollywood gossip columnist Luella Parsons. “Luella was overweight, and she held weekly staff meetings at the Derby,” he explained. “She threatened to move her meeting if they didn’t come up with a less fattening dessert. She told them ‘Put grapefruit on something, everyone knows that grapefruit is less fattening.’ ”
Though Harry Baker was only a baker, his fortunes rose with the Derby’s, and he began to move in charmed circles. Derby patrons like actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Dolores del Rio and singers Nelson Eddy and Lily Pons, to name just a few, began to request his cakes for their parties. The studio commissaries followed suit. His cakes even appeared in feature films. In 1933, while counseling her son Elliott on the subject of his divorce, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tasted Baker’s creation at a Los Angeles party she attended with Will Rogers. Shortly after, Baker was invited to the White House to share his recipe with the staff. Baker sent a cake, but he declined the invitation, along with hundreds of other requests for his recipe from lesser mortals. Instead, he took elaborate precautions to guard it. He took care to mix the batter alone in the kitchen of his bungalow on Larchmont Boulevard; in fact, no one was allowed in his kitchen. He also hid his garbage, fearing that spies would see the high volume of used vegetable oil containers and guess his secret ingredient. And so he maintained a monopoly on his wildly popular creation.
Throughout the 1930s, the reputation for Baker’s cake spread far and wide and orders came in faster than he could fill them. He mixed batter for each cake individually and baked them separately, using twelve tin hot-plate ovens set up in a spare bedroom. Finished cakes were set to cool on the porch, where customers retrieved them, leaving two dollars’ payment in the mail slot. At the height of his business, Baker in this way produced forty-two cakes in an eighteen-hour day, from which he grossed an equivalent, in today’s dollars, of somewhere around nine hundred dollars.
Harry Baker had always been ambitious. Harry Jr., when he spoke of him at all, told his wife that it had been his father’s dream to earn a million dollars. Whether he hit that mark or not, the elder Baker had, in short order, come a long way from penury and fudge. Some of his first profits, he later told the Minneapolis Tribune, were paid to a portrait painter, who captured the likeness of his mother, Belle Baker, in oils. The result, Harry said, was “more beautiful than Whistler’s mother.”
This much of Harry Baker’s life story was easily established with a few trips to the Minneapolis library and the assistance of a helpful archivist at General Mills. But it left his first forty years unaccounted for. As is so often the case when conducting historical research, questions piled up faster than answers. Most pressing among them: Why had Harry Baker gone to Hollywood in the first place? Published accounts were pointedly vague on this point. “His business dwindled in the slump of 1921,” reported the Tribune. “He looked for a bright spot to settle, and picked Los Angeles.” But why did he leave his family?
In early 2003, I gathered what I had learned so far and wrote a short item for the Larchmont Chronicle, a newspaper that served the Hollywood neighborhood where Harry Baker had lived. I included contact information in case someone who knew about his life should read it. I received a few false leads and a few queries from curious fans of the cake in Japan (it is apparently quite popular there). Nothing happened for two years. I had more or less consigned Baker’s story to my unsolved-mystery file when I received an email from his granddaughter Sarah, the daughter of Harry Jr., who had chanced upon the article online. After a few email exchanges, it became clear that Harry Baker’s world was more complicated than I had imagined. His 1923 departure to Hollywood was precipitated by personal reasons, not economic ones.
Sarah Baker wrote: “When my father was seven years old, my grandmother answered the door and found a policeman who informed her that her husband had been arrested for performing an indecent act with a young man in a public restroom. That led to the divorce.”
“To my mother, it was a family tragedy,” said Florence Lorenz, a niece of Harry Baker. “Homosexuality was a taboo subject in those days. Not only did they not talk about it, they didn’t even know about it.” Harry’s wife Mary, one of six girls, was close with her sisters, including Florence’s mother Winifred, who witnessed the aftermath of his arrest. “The policeman came to the door, and Mother didn’t even know what they were talking about,” Florence reported.