I recently revisited the Lonely Doll books of Dare Wright, this time as a mother. I used to love them so much as a little girl, and have keen memories of the black and white photography and the velvety texture of Edith the Doll's face (Dare Wright's own Lenci Doll), and of her bangs and earrings and rather blank, innocent stare. She was the idea of real beauty to me as child, along with my Sindy ballet doll. I think the styling and photography of these books stunned me more than anything, because the loose storylines never stuck, although the iconic activities that Mr. Bear and Edith did together did stay with me (gift-giving, parties, walks, etc). I was awed by the still-life set ups (rather than the usual illustrated books) and wanted so much to understand what and how a doll, all alone, was able to do all this stuff.
Dare Wright wrote a total of ten Lonely Doll/Edith and Mr. Bear books, although today only nine have been reprinted. Girls (and boys) connecting with dolls is a tale, in itself, as old as time. We are in a different moment in history than Wright was; women in their twenties and thirties now seem to easily have another fifteen years, at least, to debate whether or not to have a baby -- in which they can thoroughly examine their identities, and probably find themselves romanticizing and working with dolls in their artwork across colleges, film, and art schools galore -- perhaps seeing how it feels to be a child and mother simultaneously, much like small children do during their days. Back in the 50s though, not that many women had the platform to carry out their artistic visions and subconscious art projects en masse. What I do love about the work is that it brings back the work of Rankin/Bass' claymation, and other attempts during that period at using still objects to tell stories, although Wright's are intimate and personal. Dare Wright was a really interesting artist with a multi-layered, artistic past. As a lithe, unconventionally attractive blonde, she came to New York and began modeling -- with a stealth postured command of her body, her stance reminds us of a dancer, or mannequin. We see clearly that her talent also lied deeply in photography and storytelling. She also often photographed for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. It is interesting to note that her mother, Edith Stevenson Wright, was a portrait painter. Perhaps Wright is showing us, through a doll's actions in still-life portraiture, how she felt seen, posed, on edge, and still as a child. Who knows?
It is known and often brought up about that Dare that she had a difficult childhood. Left out of school, and raised alone with her mother (while the father and brother were estranged), she was on her own. She reunited with her brother in her 20s in New York City, when the two became extremely close; many wonder whether romantically. Obviously the bears represent these male figures in her life. And perhaps the male gaze as well. Concerned feminists often raise an eyebrow at the all-too-short skirts on Edith that reveal her panties in many scenarios. Does this, maybe, add to the childish/uninformed way that the doll lives her naive life? Edith as a doll is a child after all, correct? At least in the series. Skirts, too, at that time, were short. And knee socks were high. But I think Wright's highlighting of Edith's innocence is behind the wardrobe choice.
In my home, we now have three Lonely Doll books (The Lonely Doll, Edith and Mr. Bear, and A Gift From the Lonely Doll), given to my daughter by an aunt, and I have been looking at the stories in a whole new light. The parts that do perturb me now are the many instances for which Edith feels sorry, or put in her proper place, or told that she is wrong for doing something that comes naturally by her two male bear friends. It must be added, though, that she stands her ground (maybe it helps that her expressions don't change) and usually carries out her plan. For some years, I have been aware of an incredible article in The New York Times about the series in which Kim Gordon, Anna Sui, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Novelist and Critic Daphne Merkin all weigh in on the tale of Edith and Mr. Bear. It helps to read so many other artistic women speak to their awareness of and/or and love of the stories as well. There's a really cool Rookie article written by artist Sonja Ahlers. As parents, we can ask ourselves all sorts of questions about whether Edith is a gal we want our children connecting to. I remain hopeful that she represents a child in the vast world fending for her own, and learning lessons from a larger, looming authoritarian awareness/feeling/figure. Maybe I am naive for not jumping wholeheartedly onto the Lonely Doll hate wagon, but I think that there's something so historically significant to the stories, and about how children (and maybe even little girls and women) were treated before helicopter parents, PC sensibilities, sexual rights, and tiger moms made their societal debut in America. Maybe in many parts of the world (and in America) little girls are still being seen this way. I sense Wright's struggle, and don't begrudge her efforts whatsoever in reaching out to other children's hearts with stories from her own childhood, or life, or recollection of emotional places that she visited as an innocent young person.
Just because our culture is now trying endlessly to be lawsuit-riddled, fair at every turn, always just, and safe for all doesn't mean that reality ever will be, or that the extreme feelings children have of being exposed, reprimanded, frustrated, and embarrassed won't need to be felt and learned from -- no matter how many cameras are recording them or psychologists are on hand to work things out with. Childhood is, no doubt, intense. Edith, The Lonely Doll, is without parents in the stories, and left to her own devices. What in the 50s was a controversial happening, the "latch key kid" phenomena is now a normal state of being for many children. The vulnerability that Edith feels is what, I think, so many cool women later connect with when recalling the books. No, I do not condone spanking kids, and Edith is spanked by Mr. Bear.
No, I do not condone girls crying because men are mean to them, and Edith does cry from the harsh words that are spoken to her, as most children do. The books can easily be collected by mothers and adults as works of art and reflections of psychology, as well as enjoyed by children, as I sure did. The sets are lovely and sophisticated -- these were stylish times!
If anyone is more interested in Dare Wright, much has been examined, but Jean Nathan has a book available on Amazon called The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright. "When the cover image inexplicably came to journalist Jean Nathan one afternoon, she went in search of the book-and ultimately its author. Nathan found Dare Wright living out her last days in a decrepit public hospital in Queens, New York. Over the next five years, Nathan pieced together Dare Wright's bizarre life of glamour and painful isolation to create this mesmerizing biography of a woman who struggled to escape the imprisonment of her childhood through her art." For people who are utterly obsessed, you can order a limited edition Edith Doll from the R. John Wright archives and the Toy Shoppe.
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