Oddtober 2020: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan

Book: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright

Author: Jean Nathan

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The Wright Family was odd.  Dare Wright’s upbringing is a perfect distillation of what would happen if you crossed Grey Gardens with Martha Stewart’s micro-managed zest for living with the entirety of the old “cluster B” section of the DSM.

Availability: Published in 2004 by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This didn’t turn out to be as creepy an analysis as I had hoped.  I may have misjudged the overall creepiness because I’m not really scared of dolls. I never understood the people who were and still are scared of the Chucky franchise.  It was too campy and an active fire and competent voodoo priestess could have wrecked that doll’s shit right quick. The Annabelle franchise is a bit more frightening, I guess, but I also feel that if a possessed doll could be safely secured in a glass case in the home of two elderly fraudsters (no real shade, I love Ed and Lorraine Warren) who kept chickens in the house, maybe all you have to do if confronted by an evil doll is send it to whomever is in charge of the Warren estate and ask that it be put behind glass too.  Or maybe encase the doll in concrete and send it to the Vatican or drop it into the Mariana Trench? But really who cares because if I’m not scared by dolls, I won’t get it and people who aren’t scared by people wearing masks will not understand my utter revulsion at Slipknot or the original Shatner Michael Myers configuration. Horror is relative.

But creepy or not I am going to continue because maybe the creepiness is the books we read along the way. This is the second part of my look at The Lonely Doll and Dare Wright. You may want to have a look at the first part because in that entry I discuss the book itself and my speculations behind what was at work in the book and what may have happened to Dare Wright to cause her to create such a needy, emotionally shattered character in what was meant, one supposes, to be a pretty little children’s book. I wondered why Dare included the spanking scene and what the reader was supposed to take away from the message behind such a spanking.  I had some conclusions, given my tendency toward armchair psychoanalysis.  Among them:

–The Lonely Doll was terrified of abandonment by a male father figure, and that she would submit to any sort of punishment if it meant that the father figure, Mr. Bear, would stay.

–I wondered if Mr. Bear and Little Bear’s sudden arrival signified a stepfather and step-sibling, forcing Edith into submitting to a male figure who was essentially sprung on her, while negotiating a relationship with another child, whose own rebellion against a father figure could create all sorts of problems.

–Because of these two possibilities, I pegged Dare Wright as having been a little girl whose own parents were divorced and who missed her father.  I thought perhaps she had a stepfather whose assertion of his authority over her was at times draconian but she still wanted to please him because he represented stability and because her new step-sibling brought her companionship she missed out on when her mother was single.

I was kind of right but I was also very wrong.

Jean Nathan’s biography of Dare Wright (which, by the way, is a very good read in and of itself) doesn’t shy away from discussing the toxic psychology at play in Dare Wright’s family but she also doesn’t belabor the point, stating simply why A led to B.  Nathan became fascinated with Dare Wright as an adult, when she found herself remembering The Lonely Doll from her own childhood. Before the Internet Age, she was forced to go to an actual book store – one devoted to children’s books – and ask about it and was surprised when the clerk told her it was both out of print and not very popular due to it’s un-PC spanking scene.  Nathan didn’t remember the spanking scene at all.  Many adults do not. But then plenty of adults remember the book as a frightening look into whatever childhood misery informed their early life.  For some of those (mostly) women, the book is a text on female acquiescence to male power and authority.  For others, it’s a look at frightening family dynamics and possible abuse.  But for some it’s a look at a lovely modern home that stands somewhere between real and fantasy life, populated with adorable toys doing fun things with the occasional Tom Sawyer-like spanking when the little dolls acted up a bit too much.  Some saw the Lonely Doll as the embodiment of a single woman in a big city, making her own family, having adventures, enjoying her life.

Nathan’s deep look into Dare Wright’s life shines a lot of light on The Lonely Doll for those of us who absolutely need to wring out every drop of information when a charming picture book catches our eye.  The biography itself is a great read, and it’s going to be hard to restrain myself from discussing the entire book, but I think I can rein myself in and stick to just the information that answers the whys asked of The Lonely Doll and Dare Wright. Maybe.

Bare bones background.  Dare Wright was born in 1914 to portrait artist Edith Stevenson and failed actor/writer/farmer Ivan Leonard Wright.  Married in 1910, they also had a son named Blaine in 1912, and the marriage dissolved in 1917 when Ivan abandoned Edith and moved to New York.  Their marriage had been marred by financial difficulties that caused them to continually move around, and Edith, also called Edie, became so estranged from her family during this time that she was forced to send Blaine to stay with his paternal grandmother, who in turn sent him to live with his father. When the divorce was final, Edie sent word to Ivan that she never wanted to see or hear from him or Blaine ever again, and she never again married or even had a serious romantic relationship.  Dare tracked her brother down 25 years later, but her father had died before she finally reconnected with Blaine.

Dare had several courtships in her life, and was even engaged to marry a pilot when he returned from duty in WWII.  The pilot was one of Blaine’s best friends, and the union seemed a good idea but Dare was uninterested in sexual intimacy.  The pilot had an affair with a married woman and when Dare found out she ended the engagement.  Her education was spotty at best but she was intelligent, very artistic like her mother, and capable of learning all sorts of useful skills.  She attempted to become a professional model and actress but lacked the drive to pull it off and The Lonely Doll was her attempt to establish herself as a writer and photographer. Though her books were and still are quite successful, Dare’s personal life was far less so.  She never had a sexual relationship, remained more or less with her mother in some manner until Edie died, and descended into alcoholism and died after several years as a severe invalid, requiring constant hospitalization.

Right about here the dots should be connected regarding Mr. Bear and Little Bear.  Dare was deprived of her father and brother before she was even able to create meaningful memories of them.  One of the few bits of contact she managed from Blaine came in the form of a children’s book he sent her for a gift, which she cherished. Recreating a relationship between her father and brother in the form of a children’s book is pretty on the nose (her brother was the one who found the dolls that became Mr. Bear and Little Bear). It’s even more obvious when you realize that the bears appeared out of nowhere.  The Lonely Doll had about as much familiarity with her bears as Dare would have had if her brother and father had suddenly shown back up in her life. Yet the Lonely Doll immediately acquiesced to Mr. Bear’s authority, accepting him entirely as her de facto parent, engaging with Little Bear as an equal in a type of sibling relationship.  But the Lonely Doll never forgot that she was the outsider, the third wheel. Mr. Bear and Little Bear arrived together and if she stepped out of line too much they could disappear as a unit.

As compelling as the analysis of Ivan as Mr. Bear and Blaine as Little Bear is, the real story of Dare and the Lonely Doll comes when discussing her mother, Edith.

Yep, the Lonely Doll has the same name as Dare’s mother.  Goodness, we’re off to the races.

Edith Stevenson as a child was notably different than her siblings.  She was detached from others, preferring to analyze people, especially their expressions, catching changes in how people showed emotion.  Her family had little money and it prevented her from studying fine art to the extent she wanted, though she made the most of every opportunity she could.  She was a lovely young woman, with wild curly blonde hair and a bohemian air about her, and she craved financial stability so she could pursue art for art’s sake. She was a very good painter – her portraits still hang in homes of privilege and seats of power throughout North America – and she resented the way she had to court the wealthy to sit for portraits.  After pursuing her for years, she only agreed to marry Ivan if he promised to support her in a manner that would permit her to paint what she wanted, giving her the financial prosperity she envied in her clients.

He failed to do this and he failed miserably. And in the process of failing he engaged in financial dealings that cut the remaining threads of Edie’s already frayed relationship with her family, then he left her alone with two children with no support.  Edith’s tendency to observe people rather than interact with them or have intimate relationships caused her to be a distant mother, preferring to watch her children as they cried and acted out than comfort or discipline them.  Her children also spent an extraordinary amount of time in the care of others as she painted. Blaine’s reaction to this was to become a terror, but Dare became quiet and compliant.  Once her father and brother were gone, with only Edith to rely upon, Dare did not resist when her mother molded her into a version of herself.  Edie spent very little “quality” time with her daughter – she certainly didn’t spend “quantity” time either – and when she did, the two spent the majority of that time molding their homes into the showcases they wanted but could not afford, sewing astonishing costumes and clothing, and preening and dressing up in front of Edith’s make-up table.

While she was still in school, Dare may not have had good attendance records until she was sent to boarding school (which was two blocks away from her mother’s apartment!!), but Edith did manage to pass on skills that Dare picked up quickly.  The two of them made necessity the mother of skills that would have earned them a show on a modern home and garden cable channel. If they couldn’t afford the nice tiles Edith wanted, Dare stenciled the floors and walls to imitate them. They sewed clothes that rivaled couture designs (Nathan got to see trunks of the clothes Dare sewed herself and was dazzled by them). They made cabinets, upholstered furniture, and if they didn’t know how to do something, they learned.

But being the daughter of a woman who preferred to observe, who cast her critical eye over everything, who had an idealized version of her world in her head and would shape her environment to achieve that vision, limited Dare.  It’s interesting to speculate on how much Dare’s behavior was genetic versus how much of it was learned in order to please her mother, but it’s undeniable how much Edith molded Dare into image.  Dare and Edith’s homes were not places to relax, to be comfortable.  They were showcases to their desire to control every visual detail of their surroundings.  Their homes were not places where a little girl could expect a bedtime story or a cup of hot cocoa on a cold day or even a cuddle if she had a nightmare. They ate most of their meals at cafes and seldom cooked, their kitchens afterthoughts to the design efforts spent in the rest of their apartments. Their home was the backdrop for their preening and posing, perfect complements to their current tastes with little thought given to comfort.

That’s not that uncommon, really.  Lots of people aspire to showroom type living spaces, but very few achieve them because real life is messy.  The unsettling element comes up when one considers how much Edith controlled how Dare looked.  Dare was a beautiful child, and Edith loved painting her pretty, blonde daughter.  When Dare’s hair began to darken, Edith was not happy with how Dare looked, and as an adult, Dare bleached her hair to the blonde shade her mother preferred.  But even as Dare aged, her mother’s painted images of her never aged past teen years.  Edith froze Dare’s image in time.

Here’s where it gets very interesting: Dare herself froze in time, seemingly not aging, remaining the image of her mother’s idealized version of her.  Blonde, blunt-cut bangs, hair perpetually in a youthful ponytail, small hoop earrings, face unwrinkled.  Skimming through Nathan’s book, I came upon an image of Dare posing nude on a beach.  The picture was taken when Dare was in her early 40s and she looks like she’s twenty years younger.  Even in her sixties she looked far younger than she was, and had she not succumbed to alcoholism like her mother before her, she likely would have kept a very youthful appearance until the end.  How the hell that happens is beyond my capacity to understand because her appearance extended beyond just good genetics where aging was concerned.  It was very much as if her mother’s obsessive and critical eye froze her in time.

It’s undeniable that Edith severed ties with her son because she preferred Dare and wanted to keep Dare to herself.  She willingly traded her son for utter control over her daughter and she loathed every romantic attachment Dare had in her life. She was pleased when Dare’s engagement ended, and Dare very much mimicked her mother’s dating behaviors when she herself was an adult.  Edith disliked the notion of sexual companionship so much that she served as a willing beard to homosexual men, and never took a lover or had a serious relationship after her marriage ended. Dare was lucky enough to have several wealthy and attractive men who adored her during her life and she regretted not marrying a couple of them and moving away from her mother’s image fixed in time. But she also never had a sexual relationship, often sharing a bed with her mother, spooning each other in the only real cuddling behavior either would permit, neither aware of how very odd that seemed.

As Edith molded her daughter into a version of herself, a doll she could dress and pose, Dare did the same when she got older, turning Edith literally into a doll dressed in the idealized image of Dare that Edith created.  Is that the most lunatic sentence I’ve ever written? Possibly, but it happened, undeniably.

During one of the times when Dare lived apart from her mother, when she was trying to get acting and modeling jobs and failing, she spent time refining her appearance.  Trying out new styles of hair, new colors of lipstick, new eyebrow shapes, she curated an image of herself that Edith tried to emulate when Dare returned to her.  If Edith had set the pace when Dare was a girl, she followed Dare’s lead when Dare surpassed her own very exacting standards.  That standard, though, always had the implication that these two had a standard and one would always be studying the other, that they would always be on display to themselves and to the world.  They kept up the act until the end, posing and playing pretend and seldom dropping the act. Once, when Dare behaved out of character with a gentleman who had once loved and wanted to marry her, he was appalled.  She drank too much and began to cry, revealing how sad and angry she was that she hadn’t married him when she had the chance. He was so utterly taken aback when showed genuine vulnerability that he made it sound as if she had done something unforgivable, something for which he could justify never seeing her again.

Perhaps that’s part of the horror of the book: behave as men want or you may pay a big price.

Dare’s Lonely Doll, Edith, looks exactly like Dare in her prime, the way her mother preferred.  Dare created a gorgeous but cold backdrop in the Lonely Doll’s home, very visually appealing but impersonal, and combined herself and her mother into a single entity that would welcome an authoritative male as long as he was a peer, like a brother, or a father figure, who created the template for acceptable behavior and appearance. In this scenario, the spanking scenes that so scandalize the more modern eye are stripped of eroticism or sexual implication, though the lonely, frantic need to avoid abandonment remains the same. Edith and Dare were both abandoned, and both could, in this idealized, sanitary, pretty but soulless world, keep the masculine figure as long as they behaved. But that only works to a point, that terrifying image of forsaken women. Dare got her brother back, and he participated in the books with her, inspiring her, encouraging her, and she had that relationship because she sought him out and embraced him into her life. The real life Lonely Doll and Little Bear were together because the Doll took action. She made things right.  She forged the relationship.

I don’t know how much self-awareness Edith and Dare had about their lives.  I don’t know if Edith genuinely understood why she rejected her son and kept him away, though surely she had to have had clearer motives when she denounced the men who loved her daughter.  And I don’t know how much Dare understood that she was molded into a beautiful but frigid woman capable of feeling limited intimacy only with her mother and the brother she actively tracked down and adored. It wasn’t all bad.  Dare traveled, had a career, was admired for her glamorous appearance, and had creative skills that made her an exacting master of photography and an accomplished seamstress.  She found her brother again, she had a weird relationship with her mother that tormented her while also making her happy at times.  But her desire to drown herself in alcohol shows the real impact of her life, I think. She regretted the road not taken, and, unlike Frost’s road not taken, a different path for Dare really would have made all the difference. But I don’t want to wrap her up in a blanket of dysfunction because she had talent, her exacting standards created a beautiful product in both herself and her book, and because, in the end, we are all fucked up somehow. No one dies without regrets but few leave behind a complex legacy that people discuss in earnest decades after we are gone.

When fans of the Lonely Doll book ask what it was they loved about it when they were children, invariably the prettiness of the book comes up.  Kim Gordon, co-founder of the band Sonic Youth, when asked what book shaped her the most as an adult, had this to say:

“The Lonely Doll,” by Dare Wright… was my first view, my first idea, of New York as a glamorous place. I also really liked the doll’s pink-and-white-checked apron and the general air of existential blankness.

That blankness is important, I think, because it permits a transference of experience that explains why there are so many valid yet vastly different reactions to this book. But Gordon goes on:

When I tried to read it to my daughter, Coco, I thought, “This is so dark and terrifying.” But I’ve met many women who were influenced by that book.

It is dark and terrifying even as it is pretty and somewhat vapid.  It’s a book about fear of abandonment, of submission, of random strokes of luck that can be taken from you at any time. It’s also a book of answered prayers, of negotiating relationships, of making the past right.  What you bring to the table is what this book is. For the record, I see this book only through the lens of an adult and my primary reaction was that Mr. Bear is an asshole and being alone in that pretty house, feeding the birds, would be far better than having some dude who wandered in with a troublesome sidekick hitting me because I put on lipstick.  Even knowing who Dare was and what made her tick doesn’t change this initial reaction.

A lot of women have been influenced by the book, as Jean Nathan herself demonstrates.  An article about Dare in The New Yorker mentions some notable women whose memories of The Lonely Doll resonate with them as an adult, shaping their views and remaining a part of their childhood literary experience. Writer Antonya Nelson thinks the book hold san “ugly truth” about male-female relationships.  Designer Anna Sui’s baby doll dresses seem an homage to Edith’s style.  Cindy Sherman never saw the book until she was much older but feels a cosmic tie to the book, sensing a universality to Dare’s photographs that is part of an unconscious shared experience. In 2016, Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts were slated to star in a film adaptation of Nathan’s biography, playing Edith and Dare respectively, but it appears to be in production still, which means it’s probably never going to make it to the big screen.  That’s a shame – Lange would have brought a delightful melodrama to Edith.

There is a quality to Dare that causes her to ring many bells for those of us who remember weird or interesting women in film and literature, and perhaps that fuels many literary women’s refusal to denounce this very problematic book. The Lonely Doll reflects the complexity of female characters that transcends pretty dolls in dresses. She was Miss Havisham’s Estella, trained by her mother to break men’s hearts, though in Dare’s case she delivered the blows via emotional unavailability.  She was Scarlett O’Hara, set on looking affluent even when broke and obsessed with the size of her waist.  She appears as if she is the embodiment of every virginal heroine whose virtue is sentimentally rewarded except Dare’s virtue was less virtue than an utter lack of desire. And though Whatever Happened to Baby Jane comes up when discussing Dare, especially where her emotionally stunted nature and later alcoholism were concerned, Dare was no haggard wash-up pretending to be a child.  Though he’s a man, perhaps I should invoke Dorian Gray because Dare genuinely appeared quite young even into her sixties, but her portraits never aged either, perpetually portraying her as a teen.

I know this isn’t a particularly creepy Oddtober offering.  The analysis of Dare and her work took a sharp left turn after reading Nathan’s biography.  And frankly, I’m getting old.  I no longer see things in stark black and white. A bear spanking a sad doll is only part of this book and it’s still creepy, but there’s more to this book than just that image.  You can fail extraordinarily in some elements of your life and succeed beyond your wildest dreams in others and be happy and sad throughout all of it. Just because it all ended in alcoholism and sadness doesn’t mean that’s all we should look at when discussing Dare Wright.

Still, to try to keep a Halloween-y vibe, let me end on a creepy note that adds a touch of Faulkner to the literary elements of Dare’s life.

Remember above, when I discussed how Dare and her mother slept in the same bed when they lived together as adults?  Spooning in a chaste but emotionally incestuous embrace? Edith died during her sleep, while in her daughter’s arms.  She grabbed her daughter’s arm tightly, alarming Dare, who asked her if she was all right.  She got no answer but her mother’s hand relaxed and fell away, and Dare knew she had died.  She was paralyzed, with fear or sorrow, until morning, arms around her dead mother in whose image she lived and whom she immortalized in that image.

One thought on “Oddtober 2020: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan

  1. What a plethora of documented inaccuracies and weird, unfounded speculation about Dare Wright. May I suggest reading her 2019 biography “Dare Wright And The Lonely Doll” written by Dare’s godchild Brook Ashley? That’s the true story of this multi-talented woman and has over five hundred photographs to document the facts.

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