In 1957, Doubleday published a strange little children’s book. The Lonely Doll, the first in a series of Lonely Doll books, was written by a woman named Dare Wright and illustrated with a series of black and white photographs shot by the author. The first book remained in print until 1991, is being reprinted again, and, in surveys taken as recently as 1995, was named among the top 20 favorite children’s books of all time.
The Lonely Doll tells the story of a pretty blond doll named Edith who lives unhappily alone in a New York mansion until two teddy bears, father and son, take up residence with her. One day when Mr. Bear goes out, Little Bear and Edith play a messy game of dress-up, instigated by Little Bear. The fun gets out of control when Little Bear writes a naughty message about Mr. Bear in lipstick on a mirror. Mr. Bear returns home just in the middle of this act of naughtiness. Edith is given a spanking by Mr. Bear, but worse, she is afraid that Mr. Bear will take Little Bear and leave her all alone again. They clean up the mess and Mr. Bear promises Edith that they will stay with her “forever and ever.”
Viewed from adulthood there is something undeniably disconcerting about The Lonely Doll. Wright’s biographer, Jean Nathan, quotes a reader on Amazon.com: “Hello Freud! This is not a children’s book this is an autobiographical photomontage which is deeply disturbing...”
Biographer Nathan had fond childhood memories of The Lonely Doll, but several events, including her own ambivalent reacquaintance with the book as an adult, led her to try to find out more about its creator. The story she uncovered became The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, a story so downright bizarre that the unsettling book Wright created, reread with knowledge of the creator’s life story, makes perfect, awful sense. Nathan found Wright listed in the New York phone book and ended up finally locating her destitute and dying in a public hospital in New York City. Nathan was given access to decades of Wright’s papers and photographs, as well as the cooperation of friends who had known Wright for many years. The strange tale Nathan was able to piece together is straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.
Born in 1915, Wright was first an actress, then a fashion model. She eventually became a fashion photographer and then the author of the Lonely Doll series. Wright’s ultra-glamorous looks and occupation imply a certain bohemian frisson, but that is hardly the case. As a young child, Wright’s parents divorced and Dare lived with her mother, Edith Stevenson Wright, a portrait painter. Her brother Blaine disappeared with their father, Ivan. Dare Wright never saw her father again, and didn’t see her brother Blaine until he sought her out when they were in their early 20s. Edith Wright was the mommy-monster incarnate—a flamboyant character who didn’t merely overshadow her daughter, she practically absorbed her. Edith dominated Dare not by threats or violence, but by the sheer force of her personality. The gorgeous, sophisticated Dare of photographs was, by all accounts, extremely childlike and extraordinarily emotionally dependent on her mother. When the handsome Blaine reappeared in Dare’s life, Edith played tug-of-war for Dare’s allegiance. Dare was smitten with Blaine, which made her mother resentful and possessive. In the only apparent major instance of Wright standing up to her mother, Dare insisted on maintaining a close relationship with Blaine. Blaine, for his part, resented his mother’s desertion and blamed her for Dare’s arrested development. At one point, Nathan states that Dare and Blaine made inquiries about marrying each other. Neither Dare nor Blaine ever married at all, and neither was able to sustain any other intimate relationship, despite the fact that both were pursued avidly by members of the opposite sex. With the exception of a horrific rape by a homeless man whom the lonely Wright befriended in her 80s, Nathan maintains Wright was a virgin her entire life.
Dare and Edith Wright’s closeness was the subject of much speculation among their friends, who considered them a couple. They played a lifelong game of dress-up with each other, spending days sewing costumes and building props, and then photographing each other in situ; stacks of these photographs were among the papers author Nathan acquired, and many are reprinted in the book. Dare and Edith traveled together and scandalized the small Outer Bank island of Okracoke, a favorite vacation spot, by sunbathing nude and photographing each other in the buff al fresco—this in the 1940s. They lived together for long periods of Dare’s life and slept in the same bed until Edith’s death.
Dare Wright, always complicit in her captivity to her mother, was an obedient daughter to the very end: When Edith died in 1974, followed by Blaine in 1982, Dare began a long decline into alcoholism fueled by grief. Dare Wright’s literary legacy, however, outlived its author, who died in 2000. The Lonely Doll is an amazing document of wish fulfillment: a pretty little blond girl all alone with just a father bear and a brother bear, and no mother, overpowering or otherwise, in sight.
Nathan’s book is a compelling dissection of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship and the strange body of photographic collaborations that resulted. Even if The Lonely Doll was not a part of the reader’s childhood, Nathan’s biography of Dare Wright is an absolute page-turner, and the most interesting biography I’ve read in ages.