“Shyness” was the diagnosis: After all, what else could possibly have caused Mary Landon Baker — heiress and socialite — to have left her fiancé, Allister McCormick, a fellow Chicagoan, at the altar so often in the early 1920s?
Newspapers around the world — including The New York Times, which referred to the would-be groom as “thrice jilted Allister McCormick” — delighted in covering the drama that unfolded between the two. In the end, nothing could compel Miss Baker to become Mrs. McCormick: not the Cartier sapphire engagement ring, nor the mountain of wedding gifts (valued at a reported $100,000), nor the thousand of well-heeled guests who showed up for the first wedding ceremony.
Called the “shy bride” by reporters, Miss Baker appears to have been anything but: Throughout the 1920s, she went through lovers like General Sherman blazing a path to the sea and provided excellent copy while doing so. (Mr. McCormick abandoned his pursuit of Miss Baker in 1923, opting instead for a more compliant wife based in London).
Miss Baker acquired and discarded husband-candidates on at least two continents: an English Lord, an Irish prince, a Spaniard of means. Her brief 1926 engagement to a Yugoslav diplomat caused “the greatest excitement since the European war” in Belgrade, reported one Times correspondent.
Read “Mary Baker Engaged to Count Pouritch" (Oct. 24, 1926)
Miss Baker was also linked to the actor Barry Baxter, who collapsed onstage and died during their friendship; rumors flew that he had learned that Miss Baker was about to dispatch herself to London to marry another man. Mr. Baxter’s physician came forward to deliver the disappointing news: The cause of death had been pneumonia, not betrayal or lovesickness. Thus Miss Baker remained categorized as simply shy rather than fatale.
By the time she died in 1961, at age 61, she had supposedly received 65 marriage proposals.
Read “Mary L. Baker, 61, Spurned Suitors" (July 14, 1961)
Her love of life seemed abundant; she was, for example, fond of pirate parties, tango dancing with Romanian princes and glinting lamé gowns. Furthermore, Miss Baker was a quintessential “dollar princess,” an heiress whose net worth made her an international catch.
When quizzed about his daughter’s aversion to marriage, her father, the financier Alfred Baker, suggested to a reporter that she was simply having too delectable a time playing the field to settle down. Years later, Miss Baker told a journalist, “I did not marry, because I did not meet the right man at the right time at the right place.” At another point, she confessed, “I have never been in love.”
It seems a perfectly valid reason to have shunned the affections of so many men, although it was a luxurious position to be able to take. We will probably never know Miss Baker’s motives in marionetting her suitors, but we do know this: She was never in need of spousal support. In 1927, when her father died, she made the leap from heiress to outright rich in her own right; she received another small fortune upon her mother’s death in 1955. She had security; she had status. Mary Landon Baker wasn’t “shy.” Rather, she was free.
Lesley M. M. Blume is a journalist, historian and author of the New York Times best-selling book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises.’