It was a brisk autumn day in the Midwest when the future Fay Baker was born, her first public appearance so to speak.
Born at the very end of the Edwardian era when the definition of being the perfect woman was ultimate femininity and vulnerability, subdued and corseted, intelligent and witty yes, but still a delicate blossom to be led through life on the arm of a strong man. In a few short years that would all end in a stunning cultural change, and little Fay would embrace it with a passion.
Ten years after the dark-eyed beauty was born, this change would hit America and Europe like a lightning bolt. The Roaring Twenties had arrived. Women found their voices and exercised their right to vote. Hair was not only let down, it was cut off, skirt hemlines began to shorten, and a woman’s legs were finally allowed to see the light of day, and if it pleased you, corsets tossed in favor of airy silk pieces.
Fay Baker was a dancer, and a good one at that, and ballet was her love as well as tap. But she was a “modern” woman and with the new freedoms available to her she would take her beauty and talent in a different direction. She would become a “Fan” dancer, the new and exotic form of erotic dance first made famous by Sally Rand (although Fay would claim she was actually the original) and the incredible Josephine Baker, and by 1933 Fay, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl, was a veteran performer and dancing to sell-out crowds in Canada and the United States.
She also interestingly enough, staged shows geared for children where the feathered fans were replaced with tap shoes and silly songs, and in fact later, she would own and operate dance and acting studios for children and adults.
But with fame comes controversy and scandal, and Fay had her share of both. From failed marriages that included one that lasted a mere 17 ½ hours, to the search and ultimate rescue of her and her pilot who had gone down in the wilds of the Canadian bush and were missing almost a week. But a little thing like an emergency landing in the middle of nowhere wasn’t going to stop her and on she went, perfecting and advancing her career.
Still in the spotlight and dancing up a storm, she would eventually fall in love and marry again and by 1938 had dance schools in California and Texas. She wasn’t ready to hang up the pointe shoes or feathers just yet and although dimming, the spotlight was still shining on her.
But as the years passed the light slowly faded away and in time went out, and Fay Baker quietly went on with the rest of her life. And at some point, her path would take her to Sonora where she would quietly live her final years.
It was during my first week here as the curator of the Tuolumne County Museum that I would stumble upon a box sitting on a shelf. The box contained a pair of well used pointe shoes, a small hand embroidered tablecloth with the name “Fay Baker” stitched on it, and some faded newspaper clippings. I had to know more! After hitting a couple of dead ends as there were a few Fay Bakers in the entertainment world during that time frame, and of course Fay Baker was her stage name, I found her, the real her, and I traced her path to Sonora and her final years.
I will not give her real name. The information is out there if you look for it, and this fascinating woman certainly had nothing to be ashamed of in her career or otherwise. And maybe some of you here even knew her story.
But maybe she had put her past away for safekeeping and spent the last chapter of her life happy in her anonymity. So, I will respect that possibility and end the story of this Midwest beauty, who embraced the modern world with confidence, style and class, and most importantly on her own terms.