Auntie Em actress from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a Maine ship captain’s daughter born at sea

Auntie Em actress from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a Maine ship captain’s daughter born at sea

Auntie Em symbolizes both Kansas and home for Dorothy as she navigates her way through the magical and sometimes treacherous kingdom of Oz.

But in real life, the actress who played Auntie Em in the 1939 MGM production of “The Wizard of Oz” had deep Maine roots and an adventurous bent that started early. She was born on a three-masted sailing ship in 1876, part of a Maine seafaring tradition that saw captains’ wives accompanying their husbands around the world and many of their children born at sea.

Clara Blanchard Dickey, whose father was a sea captain, was in good company. At least 60 children from the town of Searsport alone were born at sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were challenges aplenty to such a life — dangers from typhoons and mutineers rather than tornadoes and flying monkeys — but there were also benefits.

Clara Blanchard Dickey, whose stage name was “Clara Blandick,” in a photo taken in 1903 or so when she appeared in the play “Raffles.” Her most famous role was Aunt Em in the 1939 classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“These families got to see the world,” said Cipperly Good, the curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. “To go to sea, I think you learned geography, business savvy and just had that grit we talk about nowadays. … And while you were waiting in port, you’re going to the theater. You’re definitely cultured. You’re observing the world.”

Dickey, a character actress who went by the stage name “Clara Blandick,” hailed from an old Stockton Springs family. Her grandfather, Captain Daniel Dickey, served in the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Her father, Captain Isaac B. Dickey, was the master of the bark Willard Mudgett. The ship, built in 1874, was one of more than 200 brigs, schooners, barks and sloops constructed in Stockton Springs during the mid-1800s.

At that time, the town was a hive of activity. In addition to all the ships being built, the harbor served as a busy hub for the export of dried fish, granite, potatoes, timber and more. Goods were also imported there from far-flung ports all over the world. In Stockton Springs, as in other coastal communities, going to sea was often a family business. Captains could spend as many as five years on voyages, and it was common for their wives to go, too.  

“I think these ladies grew up going to sea with their fathers, and so there was no reason not to go to sea with their husbands,” Good said.

“A vintage movie poster for “The Wizard of Oz.” (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The wives weren’t just there to raise the children and boost shipboard morale. They often served as navigators and were among the few on board who actually knew the ship’s location. Keeping knowledge of a ship’s actual location to a small circle — the captain, his wife and perhaps the first mate — was one way to keep the crew from staging a mutiny, Good said.

Clara Blanchard Dickey’s mother, Hattie Mudgett Dickey, also hailed from the Maine seafaring world.

Although little is known about her, Good said, something is known about her daughter’s birth, because Captain William Blanchard of Searsport served as Hattie Dickey’s midwife.  

Blanchard had anchored his boat, the Wealthy Pendleton, in a Far East harbor to seek shelter from a typhoon when he noticed distress signals coming from the Willard Mudgett. According to the Penobscot Marine Museum’s account, the ships were at anchor in Kobe, Japan, while other reports indicate they were in Hong Kong.

When Blanchard learned that Hattie needed a doctor for childbirth, he offered his own services. He had experience from delivering five of his own kids at sea, Good said.

Blanchard’s wife was named Clara Pendleton Blanchard. So the Dickeys named their baby Clara Blanchard Dickey in appreciation of the help that came their way during a typhoon.

The Dickey family settled in Quincy, Massachusetts, when Clara was still a child. She began to pursue acting in 1900, when she was 24. She acted on stage and in early motion pictures, making her Broadway debut in 1912. During World War I, she went to France to perform volunteer work for the American Expeditionary Force and she continued to act upon her return.

She moved to Hollywood in 1929, and worked steadily for the next 20 years. According to some estimates, she acted in as many as 200 films, often playing mothers or other maternal figures. She played Aunt Polly in “Tom Sawyer” in 1930 and “Huckleberry Finn” in 1931.

Her most famous movie, though, was “The Wizard of Oz.” Auntie Em was a small role but an important one, and Clara Blanchard Dickey earned $750 for her work, or nearly $14,000 in today’s dollars.

She wasn’t the only cast member with Maine ties. Margaret Hamilton, who portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West and Elmira Gulch, spent her summers on Cape Island near Boothbay between 1961 and 1985. Hamilton and her son bought the island when she was in her 60s and she became a well-loved part of the community, known for rowing between the island and the mainland.

As for Clara Blanchard Dickey, she kept working until 1950, when she retired from acting. Over the next decade, her health declined, and she suffered from failing eyesight and severe arthritis. Her only marriage had ended in divorce and she had no children. At the end of her life, she lived in near-seclusion at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

She died by suicide on Palm Sunday in 1962. She was 85.

Although it was a sad final scene for an actor who left an indelible mark on the silver screen, the way she lived her life was in keeping with her out-of-the-ordinary early years.

“It sounds like she sort of wrung every ounce out of life, until her body failed,” Good said.

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