“Clowns in the dusty arena of everyday life”

by Jacquelyn Thayer

“There will be no ceremony today.”

Word of the cancellation of the January 2 wedding of Chicago society scions Mary Landon Baker—daughter of Boston transplant and influential stockbroker Alfred Landon Baker1—and Allister McCormick—of the city’s legendary Harvesting Machine McCormicks, son of inventor Leander Hamilton McCormick—was delivered to a full house at the grand Fourth Presbyterian Church at Michigan and Delaware. The story had legs enough to hit wide outside the Chicago press circle, no small matter in 1922. The New York Times weighed in with a quote from Mr. Baker, offering assurance that delay was simply down to Mary’s illness, while McCormick pater stressed Allister’s own good health—and lack of contact with Mary, who was, in his words, “too ill to see him.”

Mary Landon Baker and Allister McCormick as attendants at a summer 1921 wedding. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Mary Landon Baker and Allister McCormick as attendants at a summer 1921 wedding. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

But as with any story of such vast significance, conflicting or incomplete reports readily arose. Rival paper the New York Evening Telegram declared the day of the failed nuptials that Allister, too, had been taken by a vague illness. More sensationally, the Telegram was the first to serve up a small but quite relevant bit of backstory missing from other early reports: “The announcement of Miss Baker’s engagement to Allister McCormick, who served as an aviator during the war, was no surprise to her friends who knew the close friendship between the two families. But Miss Baker’s persistent postponing of the wedding made it necessary last May for members of both families to deny rumors of a broken engagement.”2

Though no consensus would emerge on Allister’s state, it wasn’t long before elaboration on the nature of Mary’s woes emerged—suggesting “nervous collapse” over a more run-of-the-mill physical ailment. Per her father, “she was prepared for the ceremony to the point of having dressed in her wedding gown, when she broke down and took to her bed.”3

After the excitements of that January day, all was quiet on the media front. Baker and McCormick would wed at a more opportune, less anxiety-ridden time. A little more than a week later, Allister set sail to London on a honeymoon cruise—platonically accompanied by would-be best man and Oxford matriculant Henry Channon—via the White Starliner Baltic, happy to share all the pressing details with the Milwaukee Sentinel while bearing the kicky new nickname “Almost Groom.” Mary, in an intimate phone call, “told me that she was pleased with the arrangements for our wedding the latter part of March,” he reported. The wedding was set for fine English surroundings, courtesy of Allister’s brother Edward; Mary would prepare by journeying first to Santa Barbara, California, only a little off-route. “Her farewell was a devoted wish for a safe voyage,” assured Allister, who also officially attributed his fiancee’s health woes to an overabundance of social activity.

But it’s here that an unnamed reporter, injecting him- or herself into the proceedings, curiously introduced a wholly new salacious element to the story: “Did you hear that Miss Baker’s interest in an actor was responsible for the postponement?”

“News to me,” replied the bridegroom, and to the rumor pages it was assigned.4

March was, perhaps, a case of simple misspeaking, for the couple’s official February 5 announcement—accompanied by a two-column headshot of Mary and issued “6,000 miles apart,” as the St. Petersburg Times helpfully interjected—declared an April date, alongside a perhaps needlessly detailed reminder of the prior nuptial debacle.5

So it was for April, then, that the society column lights awaited most eagerly; it’s reasonable to assume that, given the distance of a few decades and media developments, dedicated web and print sidebars, bargaining for exclusives, and memes run into the talk show ground would be de rigeur. Absent such innovations, the machine functioned to only slightly more restrained capacity. No reporter better seized the moment than wire correspondent Patricia Daugherty, given an up-close-and-personal meeting with Mary aboard the California Limited en route to Chicago. Daugherty opens proceedings with the most unforced of imagery:

Secret telling time when the lights are out and your mother has called “the fourth and last time” to “stop your chattering and go to sleep” and you go right on, only in a whisper and tell your chum the rest—why you like the boy next door, what you are going to do when you grow up—everything.
Do you remember—of course you do if you ever were a little girl and had secrets—and Mary Landon Baker, despite all that has been said and written, is just a little girl, and everyone will admit she has had secrets. And so we lay in her compartment on the California Limited and she told them to me.

Daugherty’s clear journalistic disinterest is to be applauded, as is her ability to get the hard data—“her [pajamas] were pink silk trimmed with lace.” Mary reiterates Allister’s social exertion assertion, with dancing, demanding dressmakers and a wholly superfluous rehearsal dinner all consuming her fragile resources. Allister, she further reports, insisted on a postponement more than once in that whirlwind—it was Mary’s own stubborn will that sealed her literal collapse, which, in her telling, put her out for a good three-and-a-half hours. “At 3:30 as I went from my bedroom to the drawing room to have my wedding picture made,” she said, “I collapsed—wedding gown, veil, flowers and all: and the next thing I knew it was 7 o’clock, Jan. 2 and I wasn’t married.”

The stress was indeed more than most could bear. “I collapsed from the strain of fitting on clothes and going to parties all season,” she said, “and that’s the only reason I didn’t marry Allister on Jan. 2.”

(Daugherty’s enthusiasm for scoop was such that it may have impaired her ability to conclude an article and a sentence: “And so, when Mary Landon Baker leaned over and kissed me goodnight—which is unusual for me.”)6

Almost two weeks later, Mary’s departure for an Atlantic journey aboard the Aquitania was worth a photo blurb—and the reminder that, counting the little-covered May 1921 mishap, “Contrary Mary” had actually “thrice” failed to wed Allister. “The fourth time shall not fail,” assured Mary.7

Never one to let a potential Byzantine maze turn linear, Mary would not take herself to London to wait out the final engagement month. The International News Service found her instead in Paris, a mere flight away from her fiancé, with whom she shared one rendezvous “of a few hours.” Mary’s friends were quick to deny any suggestions of quarrel between lovers; it was, in fact, Allister’s generous understanding of Mary’s continued fragility that prompted his decision to allow her several weeks of Continental recuperation. And Mary’s fragility, fortunately, proved no hindrance to her enjoyment of the apparently-trademarked “Apple Blossom Time in Normandy,” nor her adventures with Chicago-born pal the Countess De Janze, with whom she planned to stay for an indeterminate period. “When she leaves, however, she expects to go to London and meet her fiancé there,” concluded the INS optimistically.8

Mary’s delight would survive about a week; by April 25, five days post the initial update, INS correspondent Alice Langellier led an investigation into the Count and Countess’s false claims that Mary remained at their Normandy estate. The intrepid Langellier tracked down Mary, mother and cousin (and new character entry) Adele Kimball at a hotel in Paris, pushing past orders given to employees to protect the troupe’s privacy. To little avail; word of a sleeping Mary curtailed Langellier from seizing on any greater scoop than word that the McCormick brothers, too, were registered at same hotel.9

If the close quarters suggested forward momentum for the nuptial plan, fate would strike another blow—and a secondary scandal. On May 27, another postponement was announced, this time simultaneous with news of the death of English actor Barry Baxter. Indeed, those early rumors swatted away by Allister returned with a vengeance, this time on record in the Chicago Tribune’s report of the latest delay. The “handsome” Baxter, they noted, “was with Miss Baker frequently at the time she failed to appear for the church wedding after her return from California, where she went to regain her poise.”

Barry Baxter. Photographed by Foulsham & Banfield. From the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library.
Barry Baxter. Photographed by Foulsham & Banfield. From the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library.

The Tribune, despite its status—though also, perhaps worth noting, published at that time by Allister’s cousin Robert R. McCormick—held little back in its consideration of Baxter’s role as an “almost invariabl[e]” third party to Mary and Allister’s public activities. “Among Miss Baker’s friends,” confided the reporter, “Baxter was regarded as a suitor whose love for her was quite as ardent as that of young McCormick. Both she and Baxter found it necessary to deny stories of a secret wedding, Baxter adding that he already had a wife.”

The sources clearly had their fun, as we’re also given report of a telegraph from Mary to Baxter on the eve of the January wedding: “When I put on my wedding dress, I found I could never go through with it.”10

Within a day of the scandal’s break, damage control arrived in the response of Dr. E.L. Rounds, the Woman Physician at whose home Baxter died. Her “emphatic denial” of any entanglement beyond friendship further called out the papers for some unsurprisingly poor editorial judgment. “There is nothing to it at all,” she said. “Why, one newspaper that was so positive in printing this erroneous report even published a picture of Mr. Baxter that wasn’t his picture at all.”

It’s a special sort of fitting, then, that the same article, citing Baxter’s cause of death as pneumonia, cheerfully attributed its emergence, in the form of a collapse after one play, to one thing only: “At the time of the collapse reports were circulated that his ill health might be connected with Miss Baker’s decision to go to London to marry Mr. McCormick, after several postponements of the nuptials.”11

While the saga helped inspire an exciting full-page spread in one tabloid about “Jilting—the Latest Indoor Sport of Society Buds” (also introducing the multi-use and decades ahead of its time phrase “pulled a Mary Landon Baker”)12, the unseemliness of matters, coupled with the limbo of inconclusive wedding arrangements, left the actual Baker/McCormick saga to die down for an uncharacteristic few weeks—until the International News Service caught wind of Mary’s plan to journey from Paris to London, leaving Allister, who at some point mid-coverage had elected to remain in France, bereft. Though a rumor in Illinois’s Journal Gazette reported that Mary had told a Chicago friend her plans to return to the States and break ties with Allister,13 correspondent Frank E. Mason set the record straight. Inspired by the dedicated literary stylings of his peers, Mason took special note of Mary’s single goodbye kiss for her “young Chicago millionaire” fiancé before departing for England with her mother. “[McCormick] was visibly affected by the leave taking,” he noted. “In true sweetheart fashion the young millionaire remained on the train bidding an affectionate farewell until it began to leave the station.”

Fully ready for his close-up—or, rather, Mason ready for his screenplay deal—Allister shared a few parting words. “She is gone and I won’t see her for a week,” he “murmured,” eyes welling with tears while Mary “fidgeted” and “lingered” before returning to the train’s platform for the climactic moment:

“Promise me you will not forget me while you are in London,” urged Allister.
Miss Baker replied in a low voice, but the answer evidently was satisfactory.

After bemoaning the vacant nature of a Mary-less Paris, Allister assured his audience that the wedding would, as suggested after the last postponement, occur in autumn—a point that Mary, one day later, would dispute in a statement to the International News Service, prompted by her weariness with interviews.

“My marriage will take place within two or three weeks in a funny little English country place—Weybridge—and it will be the quietest thing ever seen in England,” said Miss Baker. “I am keeping everything secret. Only my mother and myself know the date. We are taking great precautions to prevent newspapers from knowing it.”15

Allister quickly vouched for the new arrangement, the reporter guaranteeing “no chance” of a repeat failure.16 The affair settled, it was time for an elaborate front-page Sunday edition feature piece recapping the European adventure and written much in the vein of certain other breathlessly nonsensical reports:

Paris loves a romance. If there is a hint of mystery so much the better. A triangle is preferred. An octagonal would be still more deeply appreciated.
There’s an old saying, “When a woman will, she will, and when she won’t, she won’t, and that’s an end on’t.”
But the adage doesn’t apply to Miss Mary Landon Baker, the “nervous bride-to-be,” pretty Chicago girl, who changes her mind about her marriage to Allister McCormick almost as often as her gowns. And she has eight trunks full of gowns.

There’s little in the way of news on offer—Mary was spotted late night at a Parisian dance club in the company of two unidentified young men; her rebellious spirit extended to daring American short skirts, sadly out of fashion in her current milieu. Mary herself attributes the repeated delays to doctor’s orders—her “nervousness” making a wedding’s excitement inadvisable—and “complications,” not including the death of Baxter to what here would seem to have been consequences of an untreated head injury. Despite Paris’s apparent thrill for the intrigues of two twentysomething members of the Chicago and London society sets, there’s just the slightest air of fatigue manifesting itself. “May has passed, June is well underway, but still no wedding bells,” concludes the feature. “Baxter’s death lent a touch of tragedy to what was jointly comedy and romance.”17

And within eight days Mary would become the centerpiece of another extended report, this one run in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Though apparently prompted by the initial delay to September, given a reference to Mary’s London train trip, the timing remained inauspicious:

What would you do if the girl you loved and wanted with all your heart had turned you down three times, once at the very altar?
That is what pretty Mary Landon Baker has done to young Allister H. McCormick. The Chicago heiress has gone back on her word once more, and now announces that the wedding set “surely and positively” for London in May, “or perhaps June,” has been postponed until September. Allister is still trailing along, doing his best to win his elusive bride.

The unidentified journalist behind this latest piece, told in bold-titled sections, found the story a great opportunity to share many previously undiscussed tidbits:

Mary is aesthetic. She writes epigrams every day, just after breakfast. Once, in greeting an interviewer, she said: “I’m so glad you’ve called. I’ve just dashed off a few epigrams.”
Here they are:
“We are all clowns in the dusty arena of everyday life; fate is our ring master.”
“As sleep at night is intolerably ridiculous, so is work in the daytime.”
“Solution is like a drug. A little of it quiets the turmoil of the brain, but too much deadens the nerves.”

Indeed, in 1920 Mary had published Verbum sapienti, a collection of heady epigrams like “Visions are incorporeal cinematographs” and “Time and space are material hallucinations.”18 The author here, however, is more concerned with an unnamed, and likely unpublished, roman a clef that featured poorly-disguised versions of her society compatriots:

[…] nobody had any difficulty whatever in picking out who was who. The painful part about it was that she showed in the book that she considered everybody in society except herself had a head of solid ivory. So, of course, she was the only person who read the book who really liked it.

But Allister treasured his whimsical fiancée. “She was made for him, he murmurs to his friends,” it’s reported. “She has a great brain, he is convinced.” For Mary, love is a fresh epigram:

“Remember, a perfect love never loves. Isn’t that expressive?”
“Sure. But what does it mean?”
“Just what it says,” she explained. “And remember this, too. A woman should only listen to the tiny urge of a personal destiny, called by the grouping multitude, intuition.”
“Well?” she was asked.
“Well,” she concluded, “a wise girl should obey hunches at all times, and I always will.”

The author revisits that fateful earlier January day—where, it’s suggested, a twenty-minute delay may well have been twenty hours for bridegroom and company. And if this rather sympathetic slant towards Allister doesn’t provide sufficient insight, it’s safe to say the discussion alone of Mary’s life as an “aesthetic” gives away this reporter’s game.19

Indeed, we’ve entered the phase of Mary as pretentious moron, and things, as we’ll see shortly, did not improve from there. The worm has, perhaps, turned. And this outdated feature would prove timely; within three days came report from the United Press that Mary—now dubbed the “phantom bride”—remained ambivalent about the arrangements. “‘Contrary Mary,’ declared the report, “now says she will return to the United States Sept. 1 and that if the nuptials are not celebrated before that date, they never will be.” In a late-arriving twist, the article provides a more sympathetic slant on this lightweight conception of Mary:

According to her close friends, she is easily influenced, sometimes taking the advice of her mother, who opposes the marriage, and at other times following the lead of the McCormick family, which is urging a quick wedding.
She is traveling with her mother, and by day is under her influence, according to this version, and taking tea, dancing and going to suppers with McCormick, at which times she is ready to marry him.

A full-page Sunday spread one week later was not so much “feature” or “report” as “one-star human review.” Our unnamed critic argues the point that Allister—“a thoroughly wholesome, nice chap and very rich” scion—may certainly be luckier not to wed Mary. “What is the matter with Mary Landon Baker?” wondered the intrepid critic.

Is she a spoiled child who cannot see what a cruel thing it is to play hide-and-seek with a man’s heart?
Is Mary a perfectly heartless girl, governed by utterly selfish whims, who does not care how wretched she makes the man who loves her?
Or is Mary Landon Baker such an unstable, volatile little person that she really does not know her own mind from one hour to another and is deeply in love with Allister McCormick one day and indifferent to him the next?
Is such a girl worth marrying?

Indeed, the author speculates that Mary’s whims foretell “interminable misery” for a future husband, and offers up one obscure quote credited to the bride: “I shall naturally meet many young eligible men in the English social world. If there is anyone I feel I like better than I do Allister, I shall break my engagement. If I do not meet anyone I like better I shall return to France, probably in September. And then my marriage to Allister will be quietly celebrated.”21

Mary even became fodder for doggerel that summer, featuring in Bide Dudley’s “Good Evening!” column:

Miss Mary Landon Baker,
As sure as you are born,
Is sayin’ she’ll be married
On some September morn
The news is so exciting
It’s causing quite a buzz.
Yep, Mary says she’ll wed him;
We’re praying that she does.

In early July, Mary settled upon a plan: August 1723—a date that would come and go with shockingly minimal notice, though the Journal Gazette, undaunted by past inaccuracy, hopefully announced on August 19 that local reports declared the couple had married.24 A week after, she issued a telephone statement from Scotland regarding her intention to wed within a matter of days.25 By September 16, wire services reported yet another cancellation in the “romance […] which has set a new record for marriage postponements,” with Mary making hasty plans to depart London for Switzerland on the heels of announcing a new wedding date of October 20.26 And later that day, the Cosmopolitan News Service found itself obligated to report on Mary’s sudden cancellation of said travel plans. Certain linguistic choices point to their own narrative exhaustion:

It is not known at present when the marriage will take place. It has been postponed half a dozen times already, owing to the temperamental views of Miss Baker.27

Should the story have been expected to wrap with the same dramatic flair with which it began? By year’s end, the break came the way all latter word had: by means of limited column space, faintly laced with the verbal equivalent of an eyeroll.

Mary Landon Baker of Chicago, who left Allister McCormick waiting at the church last New Year’s Day and who since has been gallivanting around throughout Europe every now and then just one jump ahead of matrimony—according to cabled reports—is coming home. Her mama’s going to bring her back.

Bringing the affair almost full circle, Alfred Baker, Mary’s father, contributed his first on-record report since that ill-fated day: “My daughter is returning as she departed—unmarried,” he said. “And with no matrimonial plans of which I am aware.”28

And when caught in Paris that January, confronted by another band of reporters seeking to know when, if at all, she truly planned to wed Allister, Mary—the contrary, the procrastinator, the lingering aesthetic—somehow, finally, found her resolve.

“I am not going to get married at all,” said Miss Baker. “Not to Allister or anybody. Never. I’m going to be an old maid.”
The newspaper men, who really hadn’t expected any reply at all, or at best, a sort of half-hearted “perhaps,” were stunned by this sudden decision.

Allister, the perpetual bridegroom, would wrap his own part in this story with an engagement to London native Joan Stevens in September 1923—happily and fittingly concluded twice over with, first, a civil ceremony the next month in Paris, followed two days later by a religious one at the British Embassy. And Mary, for once, was good to her word. Periodic reports of future romantic entanglements and engagements—real or imagined—would appear over the ensuing decade; to a 1956 feature, she retained her celebrity as the woman who “left her man waiting at the church.” But through novella publications (1934’s satirical and semi-autobiographical The Arcadians emerged to positive review from the Chicago Tribune) and world travels, to her death in 1961, never would Mary Landon Baker wed—doing her best, perhaps, to both fulfill and finally deny the media’s best wishes.

1Taylor, Charles Henry, ed. History of the Board of Trade of the city of Chicago, Volume 3, Part 1. 1917.
2Both Parties to Wedding, Called Off, Are Now Sick,” New York Evening Telegram, January 3, 1922.
3Bride Collapses; Wedding Postponed: McCormick-Baker Nuptials Are Held Up,” Southeast Missourian, January 4, 1922.
4Almost Groom Sails for London,” Milwaukee Sentinel, January 15, 1922.
5Girl Who Halted Wedding to Marry Abroad, in April,” St. Petersburg Times, February 5, 1922.
6Mary Landon Baker Says Physical Collapse Caused Postponement of Marriage,” Patricia Daugherty, International News Service/Chicago Evening American, April 4, 1922.
7Contrary Mary Off to England to be Married,” St. Petersburg Times, April 16, 1922.
8Girl Who Twice Failed at Altar Meets Her Fiance,” International News Service/Deseret News, April 20, 1922.
9Mary Landon Baker is Living in Paris, Not in Normandy,” International News Service/Pittsburgh Press, April 25, 1922.
10Love, Tragedy Tangle Seen in Baker Nuptials,” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1922.
11Denies Actor Loved Mary Landon Baker,” New York Times, May 29, 1922.
12“Jilting—the Latest Indoor Sport of Society Buds,” The Morning Tulsa Daily World, June 4, 1922.
13“Mary Landon Baker is Soon to Sail for Home,” Journal Gazette, June 8, 1922.
14Mary Landon Baker Leaves for London and M’Cormick Will Follow in Few Days,” International News Service/Pittsburgh Press, June 8, 1922.
15Miss Baker Will Be June Bride, Says So Herself,” International News Service/Pittsburgh Press, June 9, 1922.
16To Avoid Dramatic,” Border Cities Star, June 10, 1922.
17“Paris Asks Will M’Cormick Ever Lead Miss Mary Landon Baker to Marriage Altar and If So, When,” Charleston Daily Mail, June 11, 1922.
18Baker, Mary Landon. Verbum sapienti. 1920.
19“‘Ideal Lover Never Loves,’” Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 18, 1922.
20‘Contrary Mary’ to Be Married by Fall or Never, Is Latest,” United Press/Pittsburgh Press, June 21, 1922.
21“Four Times ‘Left Waiting at the Church,’” Washington Times, June 25, 1922.
22“Good Evening!,” The Evening World, July 21, 1922.
23Mary Makes Up Her Mind,” The Spokesman-Review,” July 5, 1922.
24“Report Says Mary Has Married Allister,” Journal Gazette, August 19, 1922.
25“Miss Mary Landon Baker Has Decided to Wed Mr. McCormick,” Greensboro Daily News, Aug 26, 1922.
26‘Contrary’ Mary Again Postpones Wedding Bells,” Nevada Daily Mail, September 15, 1922.
27Procrastinating Mary Lingering in London,” Cosmopolitan News Service/Rochester Evening Journal, September 16, 1922.
28Mary Landon Baker to Return Unwed,” Aurora Daily Star, December 16, 1922.
29“‘I’m Going to Be an Old Maid,’ Says Mary Landon Baker, Reviving Gossip,” published in New Castle News, January 20, 1923