Thursday, March 26, 2015

"The Lonely Doll" and the Life of Author Dare Wright

 As a little girl, one of my favorite picture books was "The Lonely Doll" by Dare Wright. The story is a simple one: a lonely doll named Edith is befriended by a pair of teddy bears. "Little Bear" becomes Edith's best friend and partner in mischief, while "Mr. Bear" serves as parent figure to both of the smaller toys.

What makes the book memorable are the hauntingly beautiful photographs of real toys. Caught as if in mid action, their poses and stuffed faces convey a remarkable range of emotions. Perhaps because they knew it was a favorite of mine, or perhaps because they recognized its unique artistry, my parents had hung on to the book, and I was delighted to see it again a few years ago.

"The Lonely Doll" and "The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll"

First published in 1957, "The Lonely Doll" was wildly popular in its day. Readers "of a certain age" may remember it fondly -- as I do, and as did journalist Jean Nathan.  Nathan began a quest to find a copy of the book, which in turn fired her determination to research author Dare Wright and share her complicated story.

Jean Nathan's biography of Dare Wright, "The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright,"is a psychological tale of a highly-talented woman whose life was overshadowed by dependence on her domineering mother. Not coincidentally, Dare's mother was named Edith -- just like Dare's favorite doll.

Edith Wright was a successful portrait painter. A single mother, she supported herself and Dare with her art. Commissions could be sporadic as well as involve travel, so Dare had something of a nomadic childhood, often spending long stretches left alone with various relatives. In other words, she had ample opportunities to develop her own creative imagination but fewer to interact directly with the real world.

As a young adult, Dare's attempt at an acting career was not particularly successful, but she went on to become a sought-after photographer's model in the late 1930s and 1940s. Eventually she found her true creative calling when she moved behind the camera and became a skillful professional photographer herself.

The gift of a teddy bear in 1955 became the seed for her career as a children's book author. There were 10 books in the Lonely Doll series, and many other books as well. Her estate has an official webpage where you can find her complete bibliography as well as samples of her photography -- including many self portraits.

Her biography reveals that despite success, Dare continued to live a hothouse existence -- never really establishing adult personal relationships, but remaining in her mother's shadow. The two of them always vacationed together: making costumes, dressing up, creating tableaux, and taking photographs. It was as if Dare's existence was an art project to be polished and preserved, rather than experienced.

Aspects of Dare Wright's story reminded me of another dysfunctional mother-daughter pair documented in the film "Grey Gardens." Cousins of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" (yes, more Ediths!) fell onto hard times and scratched out a surreal existence in their decaying mansion, Grey Gardens.

I promise to avoid spoilers for the mystery, but reading "Gone Girl," by Gillian Flynn also reminded me a bit of Dare's story. Dare fictionalized her own childhood, while Amy Elliot Dunne's life was appropriated into popular children's books by her parents. Both Dare and the fictional Amy were confronted with perfected versions of themselves, which they never could live up to. For Dare Wright, the doll Edith was more than just a toy -- more even than a much-loved character she wrote about. For Dare, her doll was an alter ego.


Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Everest 1996 Climbing Disaster in Books and Film

Back when I was a graduate student in Seattle, I used to love the (all too rare) clear days when we could get a view of Mt Rainier. In fact, the U of W campus is built around an avenue sited to feature that very view.

Mt Rainier from the University of Washington campus, Seattle
But Rainier has a dark side too. I also remember the radio news on Monday mornings announcing the numbers of climbers killed, or injured and rescued, over each weekend. Disliking heights, as well as cold and life-threatening danger, mountains are something I enjoy from a safe distance or in photographs.

More recently, but still years ago, we took our then young sons on a visit to the Tech Museum in San Jose. Showing at the museum's IMAX theater was the [then new] National Geographic film, "Everest, Mountain Without Mercy." Climber and filmmaker, David Breashears, had transported a 48-pound IMAX camera (including film -- yes, film) to the top of Mount Everest, capturing footage so beautiful and amazing that I promptly bought the companion book ("Everest, Mountain Without Mercy," by Broughton Coburn) from the museum book shop.

The story and images document more than the skillful accomplishment of a difficult movie-making feat, for in May of 1996 a disaster was brewing high above them on the mountain. In fact, the IMAX expedition delayed their own summit attempt to avoid getting caught up in a jam of several large groups just ahead of them.

The first bad event they encountered was the death of a Taiwanese climber, who'd been left behind by his group to rest in a tent following a bad fall. He died from internal injuries and the IMAX climbers stopped their own activities to help bring the body part way down the mountain, to where he could be carried on down by the other members of his group on their return trip.

On May 10, 23 people from three expeditions reached the summit of Mount Everest, but most of them not until dangerously late in the day. The weather was changing, delays left them low on bottled oxygen, and they faced a difficult climb back down to the relative safety of the highest camp, Camp IV. Only a few made it back to collapse in camp without even realizing how much trouble others were in.

A few climbers, including expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, were stranded overnight high near the summit -- too high for any realistic hope of rescue. Others made it down to the vicinity of Camp IV, but were unable to locate the tent village in white-out conditions and a state of complete physical and mental exhaustion. Rescuers had trouble locating a group huddled on the ice, but some were helped to their feet and survival, while others roused to make it to safety under their own steam. Sadly, anyone who couldn't walk couldn't be helped. At that altitude simply staying alive and mobile is so difficult that it helping an incapacitated fellow-climber is effectively impossible.

Elite climbers are a small tribe, and some of those trapped on the mountain were not only known to members of the IMAX team, but were personal friends. Guide Rob Hall had stayed not far below the summit to try to help one of his clients. The client, Doug Hansen, didn't survive the night, but Rob Hall was in contact by radio with his friends lower down the mountain who were unable to do more than beg him to get moving. They even patched through a radio call to his pregnant wife at home in New Zealand. Tragically, he was unable to coordinate a climb back down, and no one was able to reach him.

Much closer to Camp IV, client climber Beck Weathers had been unresponsive and left for dead. Somehow, he managed to rouse himself and walk into camp. Badly frostbitten and suffering from extreme exposure, he defied all expectations of his imminent death and was helped all the way down to Camp II. There, a miraculous helicopter evacuation succeeded in transporting him for emergency treatment.

In total, five climbers died on the Nepalese side of Everest that day, while three Indian climbers approaching Everest's summit from the North side of the mountain also lost their lives. Remarkably, after all that had happened, the IMAX team rested in base camp, and when weather conditions improved headed back up the mountain to make their own successful summit push on May 23rd.

Aside from the IMAX team's record of the events on May 10, the story has been told in book form by several of survivors. In particular, adventure journalist Jon Krakauer was on assignment for "Outside Magazine" as a client climber in Rob Hall's group. Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air" is a gripping read based on his personal experiences and observations, as well as interviews with other survivors. A skilled technical climber who lacked previous high-altitude experience, he writes vividly about the his own hypoxia-induced impaired judgement and even hallucinations.

While "Into Thin Air" doesn't really assign blame for the disaster, Krakauer does try to work out contributing factors, which if avoided might have led to a better outcome. While he doesn't spare himself from responsibility, he is hardest on the team leaders (neither of whom survived to explain their decisions) and guide Anatoli Boukreev. A Russian climber of great expertise working for Scott Fischer, Boukreev has been criticized for guiding the summit without using bottled oxygen -- which meant he had to descend rapidly, leaving clients higher on the mountain to make their way down without him.

Likely feeling slighted by Krakauer's account, Boukreev wrote "The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest." While not as well written or as sweeping of an account as "Into Thin Air," it is interesting to understand Boukreev's theories about climbing and guiding, which were somewhat different from the other writers. He also fairly reminds readers that because he'd had a chance to descend and recover at Camp IV, he was able to go back out into the storm on repeated rescue excursions -- indeed he saved the lives of several clients, and made a heroic attempt to rescue Scott Fischer.

Survivor Beck Weathers also has a book, "Left for Dead: My Journey Home From Everest." There is inspiration to be found in his personal story of survival, and in fact I believe Weathers left medicine to pursue a career in motivational speaking. He lost both hands and his nose to frostbite, and submitted to numerous surgeries as well as lengthy physical therapy.

Of all the deaths and disasters of climbers attempting the summit of Everest, the events of May 1996 are still the most often told and retold and remembered. An opera is premiering in 2015, and a new film is scheduled to come out this year also. The film, "Everest," features Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin as well as Keira Knightly and Robin Wright.

I think the incident continues to resonate with strength of a Greek tragedy or a Shakespeare play due to the expert narratives provided by the IMAX team and Jon Krakauer. Tales of adventure, accomplishment, hubris, and fate never get old or dull.