Carmen Dolores Baker was born on New Year's Eve, 1927, not wanting to miss the party. Named after her mother, Mia, a vivacious San Francisco socialite and heir to the Ghirardelli chocolate family, she immediately acquired the diminutive "Carmencita," which was often shortened to just "Cheeta." The standing joke in the family was that no one used their given name: her father, christened Earll Bradley Baker, changed his name to George Washington Baker, Jr., after his powerhouse attorney father, a lawyer who represented Southern Pacific and lived in a house the size of an Egyptian pyramid, but made up for these transgressions by brazenly supporting and entertaining liberal politicians such as William Jennings Bryan. To his grandchildren, George was known simply as "Pappy." Her beloved brother, Joseph, five years her senior, went by "Jerry." Carmencita always hated the name "Carmen," and extended that antipathy to any unfortunate bureaucrat, solicitor or tax collector who happened to employ it.
The Baker tribe was and is a convivial, fun-loving bunch, born politicians; George Jr. was one of the finer exemplars. Renowned for his humorous nature, community spirit and democratic sociability, Pappy was equally at home chatting with co-directors of the symphony or hanging out with grooms and cowboys at the Cow Palace, where he both served and presented. It was at a backstage dressing room with the actor, Eddie Cantor, that George and Eddie hatched the idea of philanthropy for "infantile paralysis (polio)," that they would call the "March of Dimes," of which George would become a founding director.
Carmencita grew up in a big house in Piedmont that her father built in 1929, which she shared with not only her parents and brothers, but a nurse, chauffer and household staff, a monkey named Figaro, a parrot who yelled at people to "shut the door," a tiny pony and at least one enormous dog. But her favorite times were at the family's "Sleepy Time Ranch" on Overlook Road in Los Gatos. Jerry, who attended both Cate School and Cal Poly, was a serious cowboy who practiced calf-roping at a nearby enclosure (eventually capturing day money at the Cow Palace, against professionals), and was equally at home in cowboy boots and in white-tie-and-tails. Carmencita used to recall the afternoon when Jerry came back from his arena and remarked that he'd struck up a friendship there with a local resident who liked to watch him practice, by the name of John Steinbeck.
One of the big events at the ranch in those years was the visit of Missy LeHand, private secretary to the family's good friend, President Franklin Roosevelt. Though FDR did not stay at the ranch himself, the preparations for her included arduous security measures and installation of a dedicated telephone line for communications between president and assistant. George and Mia, and occasionally Carmencita, were occasional guests an the White House, where FDR would press George for the latest presidential jokes, and George would accommodate him, to Cheeta's delight, over the strenuous, covert opposition of Mia. "Man standing at a Montana bar says, 'Roosevelt is a horse's ass.' POW! A fist sends him crashing to the floor. He opens his eyes to find a big, brassed-off cowboy staring down at him. 'Around here,' says the cowboy, 'we treat our horses with respect." "Roosevelt just roared," Carmencita averred.
Carmencita attended the San Dominico School in San Anselmo. She loved the nuns - when they weren't scourging her knuckles for violating room hours - and delighted in watching them play ball and lead nature walks in their great habits.
A year or so before Cheeta was to finish her finishing school, Roosevelt tapped George to .serve for Deputy for Industry under the Marshall Plan in Italy, to help coordinate infusions of technical assistance, financial assistance and bourbon.
The Rome years were a watershed for Carmencita. Here is a mischievous 17-year-old beauty, Italian heritage, dancing in the highest circles, riding her dad's coattails as he tours Italy with a checkbook the size of the Roman Coliseum. Carmencita attended luncheons and dinners with royalty, with ambassadors, industrialists, sports heroes, movie idols and a Hungarian scion to whom she devoted particular attention. Constellations of Italy's brightest luminaries passed through the portals of Rome's grand Excelsior Hotel, where Carmencita, Mia and George kept rooms.
Carmencita met the gangster Lucky Luciano, had dinner with Louis Armstrong and his wife, both of whom she loved. One evening she was called to translate Italian for a visiting dignitary who spoke English; seated at the right of an Italian high official, she was terribly nervous, but the dignitary found her entrancing and later asked her out. Her father, as was his wont, befriended the hotel staff, and one Christmas shared with them his famous eggnog recipe; Carmencita recalls coming home that evening to find half the hotel employees missing and the rest off-vertical.
Her favorites in Rome, however - the ones she spoke of most often and most fondly - were Army photographer Slim Aarons, and Roy Rowan, who later become a correspondent for Time-Life. Rowan gave Cheeta a camera with which she began documenting events. One of her first photos, a crowd shot of a public gathering at a town square, ran high in a prestigious publication like the New York Times. Her contributions became so regular that her photographer friends dubbed her one-girl press service "Piccolo Mondo (Small World)." Rowan wanted Carmencita to marry him. She loved him dearly, but was not "in love" with him; his final gesture, when they parted at the airport, was to take back her camera, which she found both incredible and hilarious. Ironically, Cheeta remained in touch with Slim Aarons for the rest of his celebrated life, and saw him again on more than one occasion, including once while with Niven on assignment for House Beautiful magazine in Palm Beach.
On their return to San Francisco, George issued to Carmencita the standard parental ultimatum: "if you go to college, I'll pay; if you don't, you pay." Cheeta had seen way too much high life and excitement to countenance the dry shelves of academia, so she plunged into the close-knit community and bustling commerce of SF, hoping to parlay her social contacts and photography credits into gainful employment. It wasn't long before her effervescent personality and knack for winning favors led her into advertising and publicity. She developed promotions for Victor Bergeron, a.k.a. Trader Vic, who became a fast friend and co-gastronome; his restaurant on Cosmo Place was an epicenter of San Francisco society, arts and letters. She worked the angles of a double-agent, freelancing publicity for commercial clients and selling ads and photos for newspapers and magazines.
By her late 20's she was renting a nice apartment on Nob Hill, which she had furnished herself. One day she found out, possibly from her roommate, about a soiree hosted by the Western offices of Time Magazine. It was there that she met the charismatic screenwriter and novelist Niven Busch, who had been writing for Time since its establishment by his cousin, Briton Hadden. They were soon married, and Carmencita was ensconced at Niven's ranch in Hollister.
The Rafter Lazy B
The ranch years read like a Roman holiday written across a Western landscape. Kids, horses, ponies, dogs and bikes tearing through Elysian gardens, rafts navigating rivers and pools, quiet music wafting over aromas from an Italian kitchen, birds and butterflies floating over nectar-laden flowers, great fires crackling out of stone hearths, beautiful rooms filled with a steady stream of guests and family, opulent food and drink, laughter and fun.
Carmencita entered a household already full of youth: Niven had four children by previous marriages: Peter, Briton ("Tony"), Niven Terence ("Terry") and Mary Kelly. Pete and Tony had already moved out, and MK lived with her mother across the continent, but all of the offspring spent parts of the summer at the ranch. Around the time Carmencita arrived, Niven took in his brother's stepson, Potter Wickware, a refugee from the East Coast. Carmencita strove to befriend, know, love and care for each of her charges.
Carmencita's own first child arrived in 1956. She named the baby Joseph and called him Jerry, after the fashion of her brother, Jerry, who was killed in World War II. Carmencita dearly loved, and idolized, her brother, Jerry, always missed him, and frequently told stories about growing up with him on the Los Gatos ranch. Jerry participated in the "D-Day" invasion, and gained notoriety for instigating lifeboat races between the battleships lurking off of France before the invasion, to ease the tension of the troops. He died in France on July 15, 1944, at age 22.
The twins, Eliza and Nicholas, arrived like a miniature hurricane in 1960. Liza jokes about the bruises she experienced while "underneath Nick" prior to delivery; she came out a minute or two before he did but ever after was the only one who ever heard the word, "caution." Nick's exuberant personality manifested immediately: his very crib had to be roofed to prevent him from scaling the headboard; when he graduated to a bed, he loved to rise early, spin records on the stereo and induce Liza to dance on the furniture, a practice he still relishes.
One summer, faced with the entertainment challenge posed by a house bulging with vacationing cousins, including the Baker twins, George and Jerry, and occasionally their sister, Babs, and her then-fiancé, Lance, Carmencita unearthed an old Model T flatbed truck, replete with a hand-crank starter, steering column accelerator and decaying wooden floorboards that framed the asphalt whizzing beneath. She decked the "popgun" with hay bale benches and a lemonade thermos, piled everyone on board, and we all cruised across the countryside, waving and yelling at passers-by, visiting the Tres Pinos store for popsicles, and rubbing lemons in each others' hair.
One of her great favorites was Rodney Lewis Smith, or Roddy, MK's boyfriend, who courageously attended Mary on a summer tour of ranch duty. He survived well enough for awhile, having been courteously forewarned that reaching one's hand into the biscuit basket was a way to get fork-stabbed, and winning leniency with his guitar playing and MK's harmonies, until Cheeta pranked him with a jalapeno stuffed into a piece of chocolate cake. Roddy, who had stepped out of the shower to taste the offering, galloped the length of the house, wearing only a towel, to grab ice water from the refrigerator.
For Jerry's 10th birthday party, Carmencita orchestrated a surprise party on horseback, rustling up mounts for half the fourth-grade class at two-room Southside School. A dozen screaming Comanche warriors ambushed the arriving victim from a hillside hideout overlooking a river plain and picnic table. The birthday was celebrated on the table and on blankets spread on the ground; games included horse races.
Picnics were her forte. The most famous of these was her "Moonlight Ride,: where she convened a posse of mounted family members and neighbors, and, under the light of a full moon, rode to a picnic site on a hill overlooking a wide, spectral valley. We built a great bonfire, cooked steak, beans, potatoes and corn, and . and sent the kids (reluctantly, the author was in this group) back home early in the family pick-up - a 1957 Chevy Apache with the rafter-lazy-B brand on the door. Other evening parties were spread out on low tables across the lawn, BBQ in lieu of bonfire, the moon augmented by candlight, always ending in sing-along over the guitars of Terry, Roddy or visitors such as Terry's friend, Tony Conavaro, whose flamenco chops and flute-playing girlfriend, Sherry, sent Carmencita into ecstasy.
The rodeo gatherings descended from the annual picnics hosted by Selby and Josephine McCreery, who would invite gentleman ranchers and their families from all over San Benito County, bring along the ranch chef for barbeque duty, and serve great piles of grilled chicken, garlic bread and potato salad, topped off with the occasional Yorkshire pudding. Mom liked to bring picnics right into the grandstand for the show, which ran from 10 in the morning to late afternoon then; for libation, she would fill up a hollowed-out watermelon with high-octane fruit punch accessed through a bristling garland of straws.
She loved the community of rodeo luminaries and ranch society, and would fill out the box with rodeo officials and cowboys, ranchers and out-of-town guests, with whom she would converse reverently about the working stockhorse classes, horsemanship and tales from the chutes. Horses remained a lifelong obsession. "She never missed a Kentucky Derby in all the years I knew her," recalled Tonio, who himself has an enviable record of predicting that race.
One year, she entered her own steed, Blue, into the open stockhorse class, where saddle-free horses are simply led into the arena and judged on confirmation. Cheeta always loved to spectate this class, picking winners among the phalanx of buckskins and roans, palominos and pintos. A mouse-colored, blaze-faced quarterhorse obtained from her friend Karin in Santa Barbara, Blue was a lot like Cheeta herself, with a bright personality and a prancing gait that Cheeta found endlessly amusing. A bit round in the barrel, Blue didn't win a ribbon. But the event added a great angle to the rodeo that year, won Carmencita a pink straw cowboy hat, and gave her family a chance to hang out around the chutes and stables.
A more successful contestant was Barney Google, Carmencita's Peking duck. Barney was a feed-store progeny who lorded over the barnyard, paced haughtily along his narrow trough, and enjoyed accosting the barnyard cats and eating their food. Turns out that the cat food diet is a duck breeder's secret: the year Cheeta cleaned him up in the swimming pool and entered him in the County Fair, he won "Best in Show," beating out a formidable pool of high-bred mallards and mandarins.
The yard was also populated by chickens, both bantam and full-sized, numerous dogs and cats, a prodigious family of rabbits, equally productive pairs of turtle doves, and ersatz wild animals including ground squirrels, cottontail rabbits, a cinnamon teal, and a series of ill-fated songbirds lost from wild nests hidden everywhere in trees and shrubbery. Rarely did a summer pas without new adaptees - perhaps the most interesting of which was a trio of black-tailed deer fawns who lived mostly in the house, slept on Carmencita's bed and nursed from oversized baby bottles.
The autumn season was enlivened by visits from Pet and Terry for dove, quail and deer hunts, each with its own pattern of hunting activity and hours. The dove were everyone's favorite. Pete, Terry and Niven would bag several dozen birds that we would pluck and clean and Carmencita would brown these serially in her yellow Le Creuset pan, in olive oil with garlic, onion and thyme, simmered with white wine. The process took a couple of hours, a wait during which the insanely delectable aromas drove everyone crazy with anticipation. Those meals of dove and brown rice, often served out on the screen porch, were among the best ever served, anywhere.
Always gregarious and loving, Carmencita embraced her step children and adopted cousins and loved them as her own. She helped knit back together the frayed family links that she found, and brought together from all over the country her newly acquired, extended family. The joys of family, friends, adventurous days and cozy evenings were the harvests of her big heart and generosity - and meant much to both her inherited progeny and native ones.
When the ranch years drew to an end, Carmencita formed her bond with Tonio - a love that would motivate, sustain and fulfill her to the end of her days. In the first months of their marriage, Carmencita and Tonio lived with Josephine Grant (nee McCreery) at her ranch on Mt. Hamilton - a refuge that helped ease the transition to a series of residences in East San Jose, from La Pala Apartments, to a house on Joanne Avenue, to her ultimate sanctuary, a beautiful, two-bedroom house and grounds at the end of bucolic Summit Avenue.
Here, Carmencita continued to cultivate her family bonds and raised two more children, Marina and Jessica, and helped with a granddaughter, Francesca. She celebrated and treasured her other grandchildren, Nathaniel and Sarah Delaney-Busch, Emma and Briton Barge, and also her great-granddaughter, Shirleah Johnson. Leaning on the rock foundation of her husband, she defeated the substance banes that for awhile overwhelmed her, and revived her talents in landscaping, interior design and gourmet cooking. She lavished her talents and love on Tonio, rising with him before dawn each day to prepare breakfast and lunch, managing the household and grounds, and greeting him with a ceaseless parade of new creations from her indefatigable kitchen. Bubbling with the enthusiasm of invention, she would call up her children and describe her invented recipes like works of art.
Ever present were a parade of animal friends - Lulu the schnauzer and her mother; Lulu's diminutive yet monumental son, Uncle Albert; best friends Maxwell the cat and Puggles, the Australian shepherd, adopted friend Percy the cat, and Oliver, the doe-eyed beagle, perhaps her favorite of all, who relied on Cheeta for protection, encouragement and unconditional love, and who howled for days when she died.
Her talent for public relations re-surfaced in her volunteer work with the Youth Science Institute, a children's educational facility located in Alum Rock Park, for which she ran a used book store on Alum Rock Avenue and coordinated outreach for public events such as a highly attended show of huge, moving dinosaurs. (The models were so realistic that her grandson Nate, then a great devotee of all things saurian, was reluctant to inquire much beyond the entrance portal.) Through these and other community activities she became friends with local society such as the Moore's, the Lo's, the Valby's and many others, and cultivated her relationships with Tonio's partners Juan and Susan, both of whom she loved like family.
To her last hour, Carmencita retained her enormous capacity to love - her love of people in general, and her family in particular, and most especially, always foremost, her sweet, patient, kind, incandescent Tonio, or " 'Dorb." Loving was her most basic instinct, her prime motivation, informing her culinary artwork, her gardens, her homes. It is the love and attention that she showered on everyone that made her passing both harder to bear, for the loss, and bearable, for the legacy. We will always love her, and we will carry forward the light of love that she instilled in us.
Following is one of Carmencita's favorite poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Yeats. The linnet in the poem is very like our own house finch, the rosy-breasted finch often found in our parks and yards. A pair of house finches nested outside my bedroom door at the Ranch; the male sang in the apple tree outside Carmencita's kitchen window. A linnet was singing in the parking lot of the hospital the day she died:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.