A dozen ways of seeing Cozy Baker, first lady of kaleidoscopes

Cozy Baker lives a wrong turn from where they play the Kemper Open pro golf tournament in Potomac. It’s a John Cheever, doctors-and-lawyers kind of neighborhood: big split-level houses, pools or tennis courts in the back yards. A Lincoln Continental stands in her driveway. I ring the doorbell a few times; then I knock. Nothing, except the slightly unnerving silence of midday suburbia. In a dark window, a small toy lies against the sill—a kaleidoscope. And behind it are 20 more.

“Now take a look,” says Cozy Baker.

We are standing on her deck. Before me spreads an enormous wooden bowl of fading flowers, pansies poking out under leggy greenery. A wooden arm arcs above the bowl and holds at its end a gleaming gold cylinder, which points down at the plants like a ray gun. This is Robert C. Anderson’s “Garden Scope”—a teleidoscope, to be precise, which turns whatever you’re looking at into a kaleidoscopic image. Remembering the cardboard-tube scopes I grew up with, with their plastic shards, I bend down, prepared to be disappointed.

Instead, I see visual music. A crystalline, concentric lattice of endlessly repeating colors and patterns, trembling marvelously in the breeze. My eyes dance between the image and the flowers, as if the reality were the optical illusion.

“It’s unbelievable,” I say.

“Isn’t it?” she says. And then she tells me how she surprises her dinner guests by secretly turning on the four-color fiber-optic lighting under the lip of her peanut-shaped swimming pool. “I call it my ‘kaleidopool,’” she says.

Ten rooms, 1,000 models. Hazel Cozette Baker owns the world’s largest collection of kaleidoscopes—some of which appear in her latest book on the topic, Kaleidoscope Artistry. Sixteen years ago, she founded the Brewster Society, which counts as its members almost all the significant scope makers, collectors, and dealers today. “If it weren’t for Cozy Baker,” says Kay Winkler, a Potomac collector and maker, “there wouldn’t be a group of recognized kaleidoscope artists making a living.”

Now Baker’s home serves as a museum for the art, although only for Brewster Society members and other aficionados. Baker conducts visitors around the highlights with a docent’s practiced enthusiasm. Here, a purple velvet creation that Liberace would have loved. Over there, a $2,500 motorized scope from Japan that plays music and secretes perfume. In the solarium, a “kaliedaquarium” (currently sans fish) and what looks like a small coffin, whose insides show the shattered image of a video feed that also plays on an attached TV (which Baker uses to show her grandchildren Disney movies). Instead of magazines, the bathroom has shelves of scopes. They seem to materialize at Baker’s fingertips whenever she stretches out her arm.

“I don’t like having them in storage,” she says. “I like to have them wherever people are sitting or eating. They’re nourishment for the soul.”

Cozy Baker is probably in her 60s. (She never talks about her age.) Gold slippers, gold nails, gorgeous white hair, and limpid eyes, as if she’d been looking at something for a long time and forgotten to blink.

Baker’s husband is a retired antitrust lawyer; she worked as a librarian until she had children. Her younger son, Randall, was killed 22 years ago by a drunk driver. His death spurred her to write a book, Love Beyond Life, about how she coped with the tragedy. She did a few talk shows and spoke to groups. “One night,” she says, “in Annapolis, a man asked me, ‘What would you do if all three of your children were killed in an accident?’

“I told him I didn’t know what I would do,” she continues. “And I decided then that I couldn’t help people anymore. In fact, it was taking so much from me that I was getting more depressed.”

But she had discovered kaleidoscopes on the book tour, in a Nashville craft shop. She shows me her initial purchase, which seems almost shockingly inelegant—screws sticking out and a primary-colored image—compared with the rest of her collection. “I can’t believe now that this is what got me started,” she says.

“But I got so excited about it,” she laughs. “And on the plane home I kept on looking at it, and I rushed home and put on some of my ‘Bolero’ and Debussy music, and I immediately called 12 people to invite them to a dinner party to show them this thing.”

A friend of Baker’s who worked at the Library of Congress helped her find 18 books in its catalog with the word “kaleidoscope” in their titles—none of them on the actual subject. So she decided to write her own (which became Through the Kaleidoscope). And she traveled for a year (“from Cape Cod to California”) and bought every scope she came across.

“They were very hard to find at first,” Baker says. “But all of a sudden, my name got out there. People would call me from overseas. Collectors found out that, if they were serious about scopes, that they should call Cozy Baker.”

She discovered the endless permutations of scopes—how they can have two, three, or up to 20 mirrors running up the insides of their tubes, reflecting their images. How the tubes can be made of anything from alabaster to zebrawood. How the end of a scope can have just a clear lens or an object image—a sealed chamber holding tumbling or floating objects; a translucent, colored wheel; even marbles.

“Some people are into it for the science,” says Baker, standing by a floor model almost as tall as she. “And I’m not, which is why I don’t talk too much about the mirrors. For me, it’s the harmony of the exterior and the interior. Beauty; beauty.”

Cozy Baker owns a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-high, 500-pound wooden kaleidoscope that looks like a giant Greek pi. It almost has its own room. “‘The Largest in the World,” says Baker when I ask about its name. It’s not, though, she tells me later. She knows a man in the Catskills who built a scope out of an abandoned corn silo.

The Brewster Society, named for Sir David Brewster, who invented the kaleidoscope in 1816, has about 500 members—serious enthusiasts only, please. Cozy Baker has been president continuously since its beginning, in 1986. She writes its quarterly newsletter. She also organizes its annual convention, with classes, panels of experts, and a masked ball.

Kaleidoscope Artistry touches on the camaraderie among scope makers, how they encourage each other, even share new mirror innovations. “Other crafts aren’t like that,” Baker says. “Jewelry, for example, is really cutthroat. But people who are into kaleidoscopes are so into the art form itself that they want others to do well, too.”

The Brewster Society has donated scopes—to the Salvation Army, children with AIDS, the International Eye Foundation, and many more causes. “One of our scope makers was living and doing craft work with homeless people in Sacramento,” says Baker, “and we sent them some scopes. I even had one of the people make 500 scopes to send over to Desert Storm for the soldiers. They had a little wrapper on them showing a soldier on a truck.”

Cozy Baker uses her scopes to relax.

Really relax.

“I use them to meditate,” she says. “To me, it’s finding a few minutes several times a day to clear my mind and breathe beauty.” But life has intervened so much recently—visitors, interviews, world events—that she doesn’t look into her scopes as much as she used to. “I used to sit here—I would put my stereo on and breathe the color,” she says. “And you know what? I need to start doing that more.”

According to Kaleidoscope Artistry, scopes are being used to treat hyperactive children, and also in cancer wards and hospices. “I used to wear them,” Baker says, “so that even when I would stop at a red light I would look at them. That was one of my favorite times [to look], because red is my least favorite color.”

In fact, her slogan now is “Happy Colors.” It’s the way she signs off on her answering machine, the way she closes her correspondence. When she went to Sendai, Japan, to open the world’s only other kaleidoscope museum, those gathered sang “Happy Colors” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

“I love kaleidoscopes because they’re joyous,” she says. “It’s the only art form I know of that you can’t make sordid or ugly. I once tried to use a combination of egg yolks and cigarette ashes [as the object image], but it came out beautifully! And I think that’s one of the main reasons I’ve kept my interest in them as long as I have.”

“Try pushing all the buttons at once,” Cozy Baker says.

This is “The Marbleator.” It has 55 handblown marbles that move through what looks like a combination jukebox/way-back machine. One of the buttons connects to an internal strobe light; another to neon. “How much was this one?” I ask.

“Twelve thousand dollars,” she says.

Kaleidoscopes—good ones, ones to make a Brewsterite take notice—don’t come cheap. “I will never forget when I got this one,” Cozy Baker says, touching “Van Dyke Series II,” a 1979 work made by the late Craig Musser that began the renaissance of art scopes—and that Baker bought for $3,200. “I wasn’t going to get it. I said to [Musser], ‘Isn’t there something between $395 and $3,200? That’s a big space missing there.’”

According to Baker, you can get a very good kaleidoscope today for around $150. “A lot of it depends on the material, on the mirrors, on the—everything that goes into it,” she says. “When I did my little travel book [A Cozy Getaway], people laughed, because instead

of doing the usual what-you-can-do-for-$5-a-day, I wrote about how you can have a great vacation for $5,000 a day. But people find their level—they find what they can afford.”

When Baker’s husband found out she was buying a $3,200 kaleidoscope, he was amazed. “‘All you can do is look in it!’” she remembers him saying. “And I said, ‘Hell, that’s all you do with television!” she says. “‘And I prefer this!’”

Cozy Baker has a problem: dust.

“It’s terrible,” she says. “My housekeeper of 27 years just loved them, and she’d treat each one so tenderly. But she died, so for the past two years they haven’t been dusted properly. So I got a little feather duster, and now I got one of these can things with air, and I’m going to start working tomorrow.”

“What I’ve been threatening to do,” she adds, “is hold a party and give everyone who comes a dust cloth. But they need Q-Tips to go over the little ones, because mascara gets on them. It’s a problem.”

Cozy Baker says Kaleidoscope Artistry, her sixth book on the subject, is her last. (She admits she’s said that about every one of her books.) But then she drops a shocker: that she also tried to get out of the Brewster Society recently.

“All the years, and this creep [a former Brewster Society member who Baker says has been posting unflattering reviews of the book under other members’ names on Amazon.com] was getting to me,” she says. “I also got tired of hearing complaints about our conventions. You know how it is: Some people don’t like to go to conventions without complaining about something. And all of a sudden, it seemed like there was a lot on my shoulders, and I was getting tired of it.”

So she announced in the newsletter that the Brewster Society was “for sale.” But, though she got a few inquiries, she says no one was willing to take on all the work “for the little bit you get out of it.”

“Most of the people who are [members] love the Brewster Society,” she adds. “So I thought, OK, I’m ready, I’ll go on a little while longer.”

She’d like to do something about her name, too, but she knows that won’t happen. “I got ‘Cozette’ from my aunt, who was reading Les Miserables at the time and decided to give me a decent middle name, anyway,” she says. “It was only when I got married that I decided to change to ‘Cozette.’ And that immediately changed into ‘Cozy,’ and it’s been ‘Cozy’ ever since.”

“Now,” says Baker, “I should really get back into ‘Cozette.’ And I’ll try, but it’s too late. People know me as Cozy.”

In a downstairs den, Cozy Baker shows me a miniature replica of her three main rooms upstairs—the lamps and furniture, the Asian fans on the wall, right down to tiny copies of every one of those rooms’ three or four dozen kaleidoscopes, some no bigger than a thumbnail. The set, made by stained-glass artist Carl Goeller, was given to her in 1996 by the Brewster Society membership as a tribute.

Again, I blink. It’s as if we’re looking at a dollhouse we’ve just walked through.

And it’s somehow not surprising when she tells me that most of the copies themselves are working kaleidoscopes. CP