The Search for Dare Wright
By Jean Nathan
Henry Holt, 305 pp., $25
f you know the children's book The Lonely Doll, you no doubt know one of the black-and-white photographs that illustrate it: the image of a blond-haired doll named Edith turned over the knee of a teddy bear named Mr. Bear, who is giving Edith, skirt lifted, a good spanking for playing dress-up without his permission. Little Bear, who had enticed Edith with lipstick and a petticoat, has his front paws to his face and can barely watch.
But little girls, the book's target audience, did watch and in large numbers beginning in 1957, the year Doubleday published The Lonely Doll by author/photographer Dare Wright. Biographer Jean Nathan was watching as well. In fact, the future journalist couldn't take her eyes off the image when she too was a child and lonely.
In her well researched biography of Wright, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, Nathan calls that spanking scene "dark," "troubling," and "unsettling." She calls the whole series of children's books written and with photographs by Wright 19 in all from 1957 to 1981, 10 featuring Edith and the Bears "moody," "claustrophobic," and "sinister." This, though, is nothing compared to the family dynamics that shaped Edith's owner and author. The operative word for those dynamics, to say the least: odd.
Wright's mother, Edie, was a driven and successful portrait painter. (Her subjects included President Calvin Coolidge and Greta Garbo.) Wright's father, Ivan, was an alcoholic and unsuccessful playwright and drama critic. After they divorced in 1919, Edie kept Dare, starting at the age of 4, on the road throughout Ohio and up and down the East Coast. Ivan kept their son Blaine in New York. (Sister and brother would have no contact for more than two decades.) For Edie, it was constant travel gathering commissions; for Dare, it was constant travel and solitude except for the times she got to play with mom at the makeup mirror and except for her one friend, Edith, who happened to be a doll.
After boarding school in Cleveland, Wright tried acting on the stage, but her heart wasn't in it. She tried modeling, and Town & Country, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Maidenform, the bra people, hired her. Then she tried to fall in love with an English pilot, but the pilot fell for somebody else, then his plane fell out of the sky, and he was killed. Wright was devastated. Or was Wright relieved? As she used to say half-jokingly, it was her brother, a failed writer but the inventor of a popular fishing lure, she really wanted to marry.
But at least, by this point, Wright wasn't alone. She had her photography surrealistic shots of herself dolled up inside the tiny but stylish confines of her New York apartment and she had Edith, posed by Wright into weird tableaus along with Mr. Bear and Little Bear and positioned by Wright to be the focus of Wright's Upper East Side cocktail parties. She had Edie as well, who took to photography too: whether it was lying to editors that her daughter's photos were actually her own or shooting her daughter by the sea, mermaidlike and stark naked. And Blaine? He took to a cabin in the countryside and became a confirmed bachelor and successful alcoholic.
What became of Wright? She died in 2001, alone, in a New York City hospital for the indigent. This after sliding into alcoholism, anorexia, baby talk, hallucinations, and the company of Central Park vagrants.
And what's become of Edith? She survives in Houghton Mifflin's reissues of Wright's titles, beginning in 1998 with The Lonely Doll, now in its ninth printing. And she survives thanks to the Madame Alexander doll company, which produced an Edith almost 50 years ago, a doll the U.S. included in its "ideal house" exhibit in Moscow in 1959. Madame Alexander brought out a new Edith in the fall of 2003, but according to Nathan, "[T]his version, with its Barbie-doll blond hair and small round eyes, is a very unconvincing Edith." Nathan doesn't add that, based on those features alone, it's a very convincing Dare Wright.