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.


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