You’d really have to know what you’re looking at to see the clue: Hanging in Lexington bloodstock agent John Donaldson’s office is a print by Maxfield Parrish, “Three Wise Men of Gotham,” which illustrated the story of the same name in the book “Mother Goose in Prose” by Donaldson’s great-grandfather L. Frank Baum.
Baum published that book just three years before he achieved international fame with his children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The book instantly inspired a stage musical, three silent films and numerous Baum-penned sequels. In 1939, the story was seared into pop culture immortality by the 1939 film starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, the Kansas girl plopped down in a magical land of munchkins, wizards, witches and talking characters that don’t talk in the real world. The stage version of the story makes its way back to Lexington this weekend as the national tour of “The Wizard of Oz,” opens the 2017-18 season of Broadway Live at the Lexington Opera House, Friday through Sunday.
That print subtly hung on Donaldson’s office wall is much like the literary lineage in his life: It’s a presence, but hardly a focus.
“We grew up with it, and it was more of watching the movie,” he says. “I started to get a little more interested when my mother passed away.”
She had asked Donaldson and his brother, MacFarland, to help fund a room dedicated to Baum and Oz in the Fayetteville, N.Y., home of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a pioneering suffragette who was Baum’s mother-in-law.
That got them involved in looking at Baum’s work and legacy, some of which occupies a few shelves in Donaldson’s home. A top bedroom bookshelf is lined with “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and its sequels including Baum’s final book, “Glinda of Oz,” published a year after his death in 1919.
He also has first editions of a number of Baum’s books, with handwritten dedications to Baum’s son, Kenneth Gage Baum, Donaldson’s maternal grandfather, and copies of some of Baum’s original longhand manuscripts. The originals were given to the Library of Congress.
“They said he would just sit down and write in freehand, and he had beautiful writing,” Donaldson says.
The books were split among heirs of the Baum family, including his cousins Dorothy and Craig, children of his aunt Ozma, who Donaldson says was enthusiastic about preserving the family legacy.
Donaldson was more drawn to horses through his father, John Donaldson Jr., a rancher in Arizona and New Mexico who because known as a first-rate ranch owner and manager.
Donaldson, who is John Donaldson III, grew up in Tuscon and fell in love with horses while playing polo in his early teens. After a failed attempt at pasture-breeding horses with his brother, he moved to Lexington in 1979.
He describes his work as “a general, all-around horseman who advises people,” buying and selling horses for himself and others, and occasionally racing his own horses. His closest brush with the Kentucky Derby was as co-breeder of 2006 third-place finisher Steppenwolfer.
Donaldson’s interest in his literary heritage was most recently rekindled by his son, Jesse, an author whose first novel is “The More They Disappear” and who is currently touring all 120 Kentucky counties reading his new book, “On Homesickness.”
“Being in the horse industry, you think about bloodlines and how traits are passed on,” Donaldson says.
Jesse Donaldson doesn’t mention being Baum’s great-great-grandson in his press materials or in interviews, unless he’s asked.
“For me, the connections are sometimes hard to talk about, because when you have someone as iconic as L. Frank Baum in your family, it’s a lot to live up to,” he says.
Jesse Donaldson says he has read Baum biographies and admires his writing and how he went about his life and career. He even attended an Oz convention in Portland, Ore., where he lives. He went incognito to get a sense of the enduring enthusiasm for the story his great-great-grandfather created.
“There aren’t many things like that anymore, these cultural touchstones that everyone knows,” Jesse Donaldson says. “There’s no getting around the fact that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is one of them, and it’s great to be able to say that’s part of your family.”
Jesse Donaldson’s published work thus far, a crime novel and hybrid memoir, are far removed from the fantastic creations of Baum. But looking at the copy of “On Homesickness” on his desk, Donaldson finds a thread between his great-grandfather and his son.
“‘The Wizard of Oz’ is about Dorothy trying to get home,” Donaldson says, “and in this book, Jesse is writing about wanting to go home.”
Rich Copley: @copiousnotes