Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll

Infamous Spanking Scene
Copyright by The Estate of Dare Wright

What do you make of this? A stern-looking teddy bear spanks a blonde doll—clad only in a petticoat—while a smaller, anguished teddy bear looks on. Hard to believe, but this photo appeared in a popular children’s book of the 1950s called The Lonely Doll.

Weird and seemingly kinky as that photo is, it isn’t half as bizarre as the life of the woman who took the photos and wrote the book, Dare Wright. I heard a story about her on the radio program This American Life a couple of years ago by a women who was in the process of writing a biography of Dare. I was totally intrigued.

I managed to find a copy of The Lonely Doll at the library and I have to admit I was rather stunned when I got to the spanking page (it hadn’t been mentioned in the radio story). I mean, you would just never see anything like that in a contemporary children's book. But, hey, my parents spanked me, and I know that even though middle/upper-class white Americans frown upon corporal punishment today, lots of parents still spank their kids. As recently as 30 years ago, most people wouldn’t have flipped out about it. But apparently the spanking scene (restaged in other books in the series) was one of the reasons The Lonely Doll series was allowed to go out of print.

But spanking aside--the book is just plain spooky. The doll, Edith, really is palpably lonely, and the story line is surreal. Edith lives in some sort of boudoir totally by herself. Then one day these teddy bears show up to be her friends. There’s a sort of mischievous little bear and a larger martinet-like bear (the spanker). And the reason Edith gets spanked? She writes “Mr. Bear is just a silly old bear.” in red lipstick on a mirror. Or something along those lines. My point is--the punishment doesn’t really fit the “crime.” It’s a bit harsh! Clearly, the author of the book has some issues! And I needed to find out what they were.

The biography of Dare Wright, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, finally came out about a year ago, and I just picked up a copy. Turns out Dare Wright wrote a whole series of Lonely Doll books that, one assumes, replay Dare’s own childhood fears and air her inner demons.

I found out that the doll in the book was given to Dare in the 1920s. Dare’s mother, Edie (note the name), a portrait painter of some renown, bought the doll for Dare after an article about Edie stated that her poor little girl had nothing to play with but a few “decrepit” dolls. Edie, hypersensitive about keeping up appearances but always on the brink of financial ruin, purchased an extremely expensive doll for Dare and paid for it in installments.

Flash forward 30 years or so. Dare has a well-established career as a model, although she’d really rather be a photographer. She is still eerily childlike and depends on her svengali of a mother to direct her life. They do everything together and even sleep in the same bed. Edie is also fond of having her daughter, draped in seaweed and seashells, pose for nude photos on the beach.

One day Dare receives a box of her childhood possessions, including her long-lost doll, Edith. Dare's delighted to see Edith again and gives Edith, a baby doll with curly brown hair, an extreme makeover. Off comes Edith’s brown wig to be replaced with a wig fashioned from a snippet of platinum blonde hair from one of Dare’s hairpieces. Dare pierces the dolls ears and inserts gold hoop earrings. She applies makeup. In short, Dare makes the doll look just like her.

Edith, the Lonely Doll
Copyright by The Estate of Dare Wright

Dare Wright
Copyright by The Estate of Dare Wright

See what I mean?

Anyway, I’m only about halfway through the book, but it’s quite fascinating. Dare really had only the most tenuous grasp on reality and adulthood, but she was a very clever and accomplished person—she was an expert seamstress, sewing all her own clothes (and all the doll’s clothes); she taught herself photography and built herself a darkroom; and was a talented painter. Plus, she was breathtakingly beautiful. Men were always falling in love with her, but she would stiffen up like a board if they even tried to kiss her. One guy reported that she once grabbed Edith and used the doll to try to fend off his unwanted amorous advances! Picture that. Despite her fear of physical intimacy, she was once named as co-respondent in a divorce case by a woman who was eager to jettison her husband. Dare had an iron-clad defense—two gynecologists were willing to testify that she was a virgin. She was in her late 30s. Again, I’m only halfway through the book, but I just know it is going to get stranger. Hopefully, some light will be shed on that spanking motif.


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