Ruth Plumly Thompson

Ruth Plumly Thompson
Ruth Plumly Thompson

Ruth Plumly Thompson was another Pennsylvania native, born in Philadelphia in 1891. Thompson’s writing career began early. She had a fairy tale published in St. Nicholas childrens’ magazine while she was still in high school. She was offered a full scholarship to Swarthmore College but she declined it in order to remain close to her family. Her father had died when she was a child, she lost her brother in the First World War and she had an invalid sister. She concentrated on writing as a way to support her family.

After publishing several stories as a freelance writer Thompson was offered her first job at the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Within two years she had become the editor of the Sunday Children’s Page. Unlike her predecessor, who had adapted well known fairy tales, Thompson mostly wrote new stories. She held the editor’s position from 1914 to 1921.

When L. Frank Baum passed away in 1919, his publisher, Reilly & Lee (formerly Reilly & Britton), frantically searched for a replacement. While Baum’s other books had been moderately successful, his Oz histories were guaranteed sellers and the publishers wanted to maintain the tradition of publishing a new history each year. Already being a fan of her writing for the Sunday Children’s Page, William F. Lee, Vice President of Reilly & Lee, contracted Thompson to continue the Oz series. Lee had as many of Baum’s notes as could be located, collected and sent to Thompson.

None of Baum’s editors had believed his claims that Oz was a real place. The Ozites had always communicated directly with Baum. Thus The Royal Book of Oz, Thompson’s first history, is probably the least accurate of all her accounts. Baum’s notes were incomplete so she cheerfully made up characters and events to suit her fancy. At the time no one was aware that it mattered. John R. Neill, the book’s illustrator and the one other person who had been to Oz, simply assumed that her story was one he hadn’t heard during any of his visits and illustrated it without comment.

Two weeks after Royal Book had been published Thompson found herself caught in a sudden downpour while walking home from visiting a neighbor. She took shelter in a stand of trees by the side of the road but quickly became lost. She wandered in circles for about an hour before finally exiting into a sunny garden. She immediately recognized the girl she found waiting as Princess Ozma. Neill had been very accurate in his portrayal of her.

Thompson only remained in Oz for a day but it was a cordial visit. She returned to Pennsylvania with a new perspective on her world and a magic phone number. She used the latter several times a year to get the information she needed for the annual Oz histories. This method of communication was successful until 1934 when an ontological storm in the gap between Oz and Earth caused the phone number to forget it had ever existed. Caught in the backlash, Thompson found herself only half remembering that Oz was real.

Thompson wrote five more histories but the magic had gone out of the process. Her working relationship with Reilly & Lee, already difficult, worsened with each book. They began to reject her manuscripts and demand rewrites of the ones they did accept. They failed to promote the series as they once had and they failed to take advantage of the publicity generated by MGM’s adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. In 1939, needing to spend her time in more profitable pursuits, Thompson reluctantly resigned as Royal Historian of Oz.

She worked as a freelance writer for children’s magazines throughout the 40s and 50s. She kept her Oz records and notes and returned to them enough to flesh out two more manuscripts in the 1970s. The stories she told were of an older Oz, before the gates between that world and Earth had let too much evil pass through. Ruth Plumly Thompson passed away in 1976 at the age of 85.

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