Yesterday, browsing at the St. Marks Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, a biography of Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll, a children’s book published originally in 1957 and currently in print. I had had a copy which I had given away & it seemed fortuitous to pick up another copy, hardbound, to replace it.
I was not aware of Dare Wright or her numerous children’s books, illustrated with her photographs until well into my adulthood. My good friend K. was the first to mention The Lonely Doll to me, as it had been a beacon for her in her childhood. & then subsequently others I knew mentioned this as well.
I’ve been rereading The Lonely Doll & other books by Dare Wright. I am struck by how Edith, the lonely doll of the title, encounters & addresses serious issues: isolation, separation, doubt. The appearance of Mr. & Little Bear is a kind of wish fulfillment & also a plateau in which Edith’s sensitivities can be played out, in determining her emotional perimeters. Written w/ a laconic sweetness, it is nevertheless resonant w/ indications of trauma – loss, rejection, abjection.
Dolls can be quite serious. I can think of such oddities as the doll of Alma Mahler that Oskar Kokoschka made as a kind of effigy, or the mutating poupees of Hans Bellmer, but perhaps more for understanding Dare Wright we should think of the tableaux of Laurie Simmons, or the use of dolls in the Todd Haynes film Superstar – the Karen Carpenter Story. In either case dolls & a doll world are miniatures of an ideological structure which can be apprehended as such in its shrunken state.
Children are anarchists, surrealists, & clairvoyants before the fact: they can see the tree from the woods & then some. The images of The Lonely Doll & its sequels are in a sense quite spare & shocking, given their photographic sources. The amateurishness of the tableaux is more than obvious. As an adult this may seem somewhat paltry, but for children it allows the child to enter in the fiction & finish it, which may be part of the power Dare Wright’s books have, in addition to fairy tale aspects of the narratives. The Lonely Doll culminates in a potential trauma in which Edith the doll & Little Bear transgress Mr. Bear with their uncontrolled behavior. Edith fears rejection & the loss of her only friends, which is assuaged in Mr. Bear’s forgiveness & a swearing of unconditional love. Given the simplicity of means, this is a remarkably complex situation which addresses primal insecurities. I think I can understand the truly vehement passion of my various friends who have grown up with this book as it touches on the intensity of separation & isolation for a child.
Jean Nathan’s biography of Dare Wright is a very sensitive assessment of Wright’s life, which was remarkably circumscribed & controlled. In lesser hands maybe there wouldn’t seem like anything to write about, or perhaps the macabre aspects would stand out more. Dare Wright’s career as a children’s book author is almost accidental – she had been an acting student, a model, & then had branched out into photography, all the while living w/ her scarily controlling mother. All her life Dare Wright was like a doll herself, made up in fantastic configurations of impossible, untouchable beauty, except by dear old mom. In terms of The Lonely Doll, here is where some parallels become a bit too disturbing: the doll is named Edith, after the mother, Edith “Edie” Stevenson Wright. The doll Edith wears a wig that is identical to Dare Wright’s bangs-&-ponytail hairdo. If anything, the reason to get the hardbound copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is its cover which features a truly sick contact sheet of 6x6cm images of Dare Wright fidgeting w/ a Hasselblad, until the last frame of Edie, mimicking the same.
Looking at photographs of Dare Wright in her youth & adulthood I am struck by her poise, by what seems a kind of visual self-possession. Her demeanor was urbane, bordering on bohemian, but w/ a backbone of proper. If anything, reading about her life w/ mother, I am reminded of the end of the Hitchcock film Marnie in which the mother screams at her lying, stealing, pathological daughter that Marnie was raised to be “decent.” & so was Dare Wright. Or along more pop lines, Dare Wright was raised to be like the Nat King Cole hit “Mona Lisa.” Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art? Beautiful, inscrutable & untouchable. Wright’s story is a story about proper manners as a kind of perversion, an ill-fitting mask over psychological oddities. It’s all about what wasn’t said, what wasn’t done & what didn’t happen.
After the mother has passed, as Dare Wright entered old age, this became a paradigm of extreme self-destruction. Her later years had been spent in a apt on E. 80th St., & she spent a great deal of time in Central Park, often sleeping there, or bringing people she met there to her home. Ultimately, Dare Wright died in a public hospital on Roosevelt Island.
Given Dare Wright’s timeline, I along w/ my friend D., another avid devotee of The Lonely Doll, realized that in her proximity to the Metropolitan Museum, & Central Park, along w/ our own – either one of us could have seen her, potentially often, without knowing it.
I must give Jean Nathan credit for telling a macabre story in a sensitive, respectful manner, without sensationalism or a sense of spectacle. It could also be perceived as a potentially slight story – ultimately little happened in a very circumscribed life – & again Jean Nathan opens this up to a sense of the profundity of just that. The story is almost Victorian. As a biography it’s all sadness, but one must look at the books, the ability to create them, as being the true achievement.