Intriguing Connections: Elvis and the Gerber Baby

alex atkins bookshelf cultureWhen it comes to reading obituaries, people fall into two camps: those who believe they are morbid and those who believe they are fascinating, revealing facts lost to time or as fragments of recent history. Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, shares this perspective: “The New York Times comes each morning in a blue plastic wrapper, and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I open the not-yet-smudged pages of newsprint. Obituaries are history as it is happening… Whose time am I living in? Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life! Other people, it seems, also read the obits faithfully, snip and save them, stand in the back of the old theater, feeling that warm and special glow that comes from contemplating and appreciating [who] has left the building forever.”

Notice the phrase she just used: “who has left the building” a variation of the well-known idiom “Elvis has left the building.” Were it not for the obituary of country music promoter Horace Lee Logan, Jr. (1916-2002) on October 13, 2002, most people — especially the writers of English idiom and phrase reference books — would not have remembered or known who had originated the phrase “Elvis has left the building.” In this case, Logan’s obituary served a very important purpose in the realm of the English lexicon: it brought to the forefront a long forgotten fact: that on December 15, 1956 at the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum in Shreveport, Louisiana, Elvis Presley had performed for a very enthusiastic and adoring audience. Since Elvis had performed in the middle of the evening’s line-up, Logan had to calm down the audience so that the other performers could get on stage and perform. He had to announce that Elvis had left the coliseum so he announced, “All right, all right, Elvis has left the building. I’ve told you absolutely straight up to this point. You know that. He has left the building. He left the stage and went out the back with the policemen and he is now gone from the building.” That phrase became a catchphrase associated with Elvis which was repeated at the end of some of his shows, radio interviews, and captured on some of his albums. The catchphrase, included in most idiom reference books published after 2002, is used more generally to refer to any person who has either left a location or has passed away.

Let us turn the page to another obituary… A recent obituary on June 4, 2022 would not capture most people’s attention: it featured the name of a 95-year-old former teacher and writer that few would recognize: Ann Turner Cook. Although she lived in relative obscurity, she has one of the most recognized place on this planet seen and known by billions of people. If you saw the face you would recognize instantly. You see, Ann Turner Cook is the face of the iconic Gerber baby that appears on all baby food packaging. Her identity was a secret for more than a half century. Gerber finally revealed her identity at the drawing’s 50th anniversary in 1978 — a detail lost to time. At the time of her death, the staff at Gerber wrote the following tribute: “Gerber is deeply saddened by the passing of Ann Turner Cook, the original Gerber baby, whose face was sketched to become the iconic Gerber logo more than 90 years ago. Many years before becoming an extraordinary mother, teacher and writer, her smile and expressive curiosity captured hearts everywhere and will continue to live on as a symbol for all babies.”

It’s a remarkable story. When Cook was merely five months old, a neighbor, Dorothy Hope Smith, who was a commercial artist who specialized in children, drew a simple charcoal sketch of her face with an unfinished body. She submitted it to the Gerber Products Company, founded by Dorothy Gerber in Fremont, Michigan in 1927 (Gerber joined the Nestle family in 2007), that was running a contest to find the face for their baby food advertising campaign. The executives had pored over thousands of entries, some that were very detailed oil paintings; however, they were delighted with the rendering’s simplicity, innocence, and universality. Consequently, they they accepted exactly as Smith had rendered it. Cook explained in a 1992 interview, “I have to credit Dorothy with everything. I was really no cuter than any other baby, but she had wonderful artistic talent and was able to draw a very appealing likeness.” Indeed, the appealing wide-eyed, cherubic face with pursed lips was used for the next 90 years on billions of baby food products. In 1931, Gerber trademarked the iconic baby face. Naturally, since Gerber kept the baby’s identity a secret, there was much speculation in the press and the public about the model’s true identity, including Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields, and even Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, Elvis never made that list. One family even sued the Gerber company, claiming that their baby was the one on the label; however, once Smith testified, the family lost the case. In 1951, Smith sought a settlement for her original drawing and received $5,000 from Gerber. Back then, that amount was “enough to make a down payment on a modest house and to buy a first car,” she said in an interview. (For comparison, note that the Pepsi logo cost $1 million in 2008; the BBC logo cost $1.8 million in 1997; and the BP logo cost $211 million in 2008.)

Cook married, had four children, moved to Orlando, Florida and earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in English. She taught English in junior high and high school. After she retired she began writing crime novels that she published independently.

Through most of her life, Cook’s secret was in plain sight and she took pride in being a global symbol for babies. In an interview with CBS in 2013 she noted “I can’t think of anything nicer than to be a symbol for babies. And that’s what I think I became.”

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