Fantasy has an essential, positive quality. Illusion distracts us from painful truths. And so just as Hollywood idols distracted the country from the Depression, war, and nuclear annihilation, Betty Crocker reassured the dejected housewives of America—their hands limp, prone on their kitchen floors—that tending their husbands, homes, and children was their biological destiny.
There is always at least a slight gap, however, between fantasy and reality—a crack into which we pour that uncomfortable notion that we are fooling ourselves. No one is more conscious of that gap than the manufacturers of the fantasy. “Nobody ever completely bought into that saccharine image of America. There was an element of camp to it all along,” said Daniel Harris, a cultural critic and the author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture. “There was always a delight in ridiculing it on the part of the people who were its instruments. Judy Garland embodied the wholesome American idol, and it is rumored that while she was performing she would say to Mickey Rooney, ‘I have gonorrhea, can I suck you off tonight.’ She continually expressed her fatigue and contempt for what she symbolized.”
And what of Harry Baker? What is the fantasy in his history? The truth? His aspiration was to earn a million dollars. He made it a point in every city he lived, his niece Florence Lorenz reported, to obtain the address of Post Office Box Number One. Picture him approaching forty, at the cusp of the 1920s. He is respectable. He sells insurance. He is married to the second of six daughters of a Methodist minister. He has a son and a daughter, named for himself and his wife. He is a portrait of Ohio, of middle America. He is the embodiment of an entire nation’s yearning—maybe an entire world’s, maybe an entire species’—to reproduce in a world of unending abundance.
And then, the encounter in that restroom: the great failure, the human flaw that cracked the façade. Or was it his grand gesture? Breakdown or triumph—either way, it became the means to his liberation.
And for his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren? He simply disappeared. “He was a deep, dark secret,” said Susan Baumgarten. “We always thought he was dead.”
After he sold his recipe—some say for twenty-five thousand dollars, some fifty thousand dollars, though the exact number was kept secret—Harry Baker slipped from view. Mac, his companion, eventually married and had children. During the 1950s, Baker’s daughter briefly hired a private investigator to hunt him down, without luck. A rumor placed him in South America. There is a death record, though: At 6:30 a.m., on September 27, 1974, at the age of ninety-one, Harry Baker suffered heart failure at the California Convalescent Center in Los Angeles.
Though Mary Baker never spoke of her husband’s abandonment, it weighed heavily on her mind. In the baby book that she kept for Harry Jr., a late entry is written in the unsteady hand of an old woman. It reads in its entirety:
“I should explain: In the fall of 1923 when Harry was 7 years old his father decided he could probably make a better living in California. Business was very low—and the depression causing difficulties. We sold all of the furniture and since the future was uncertain, his father left for California. That was the last time we saw him.
We tried to find a furnished apartment we could afford. Finally grandmother very kindly invited us to make our home with her. Aunt Margaret, Aunt Helen, and Aunt Winifred also lived there.
We had a wonderful home life.”