For those of you who haven't yet read the book, Dare Wright was the daughter of Edie Stevenson Wright, a well-known portrait painter of Cleveland's rich and powerful citizens, and to some extent of national personages including President Coolidge and Greta Garbo. Edie lived and worked out of the Hanna Building in downtown Cleveland for most of her life, until shortly before her death in the '70s. She is described as looking and acting a lot like Endora, the mother of Samantha on "Bewitched", which this picture seems to bear out.
As a teenager, Edie was forced into the role of family breadwinner after her father's untimely and gruesome death in an accident. Edie had to set aside her plans to study art in Europe, and instead supported her somewhat ungrateful mother and siblings by painting commissioned portraits of rich people whose standard of living was far above what Edie's family could achieve. Edie eventually fell in love with Ivan Wright, whom she married with the understanding that he would assume the burden of supporting her in the style she desired.
Unfortunately, by the time the couple had had two children, son Blaine and daughter Dare, it was clear that Ivan was a dysfunctional alcoholic who would not be able to provide for his family. The couple divorced acrimoniously, each taking one of the children. Edie took three-year-old Dare as being the better behaved child, important because Edie was forced for a time to live in the homes of relatives who disliked the "acting out" antics of Blaine. Blaine never understood nor forgave his mother's abandonment of him.
After Ivan remarried, fortunately to a kind woman who gave Blaine the mothering that he needed, Edie cut off all contact with Ivan and Blaine. Dare grew up missing the father and brother she remembered, and lonely from being left alone or at boarding school while Edie focused on building her portrait painting career. Distrustful of men and fearful that her rich customers would learn the embarrassing circumstances of her divorce (she claimed to have been widowed), Edie isolated herself and her daughter from others, and built a fantasy world in which she and her daughter were each others' main companions and played games such as dress-up. After a newspaper reporter mildly criticized Edie's mothering skills, Edie bought Dare an expensive Lenci doll which at that time had a curly hairdo resembling Edie's own. The doll was thus named "Edith".
As an adult, Dare moved to New York to attempt acting and art careers, but lacked the motivation to succeed at either. Her mother continued to assert control on her even from afar, pushing Dare towards a modeling career so that she could support herself. Dare was lukewarm about modeling herself, but eventually developed a strong interest in photography. She was also reunited with her handsome long-lost brother, Blaine, after 25 years apart.
Like Dare, Blaine had been traumatized by their parents' divorce. Unlike Dare, he blamed Edie for the family dysfunction and constantly, though unsuccessfully, tried to steer Dare away from her influence. Dare remained resolutely attached to both her mother and brother, to the point where she was seen by others as acting more like a lover to both of them than a daughter and sister. Both Dare and Blaine had difficulty handling relationships and their closest ties were to each other; they went so far as to contemplate getting secretly married to each other. After rejecting that idea, Blaine then introduced Dare to his good friend Philip, to whom she was briefly engaged. Even the possessive Edie supported the match due to Philip's wealthy background. However, the engagement did not work out and Philip died a few years later. Dare was to remain single and largely virginal for the rest of her life.
After Philip's death, Dare rediscovered and became attached to her childhood doll, Edith, who she and her mother treated as if she were a real child. Dare redid the doll with a new wig and earrings so that the doll no longer resembled her mother, but instead looked like an alter ego of Dare herself. The bears, Mr. Bear and Little Bear, were purchased by Blaine, as the book describes:
Blaine's feelings about the other Edith [the doll] were conflicted. It wasn't that he couldn't understand his sister's love for her doll, it was her connection to Edie [the mother]. He was outraged to learn that Dare had never been given a teddy bear as a child and railed against his mother, in full seriousness, for what he considered an unforgivable oversight. He was determined to make it up to his sister; while he was at it, he decided he would also buy a teddy bear for the Seawell's three-year-old son, Brockman.
It was Dorothy [a friend of Dare's who was trying to date Blaine] who was corralled into accompanying him on the 1955 trip to FAO Schwarz. "Blaine was drunk and got weird, as he always did when he drank," she recalled. "In we went. But when he saw all the bears together, he said it would be terrible to separate them because they would be lonely. With that he directed the saleswoman to pack up the entire lot, all their Steiff bears, hundreds of dollars of bears. Dare's apartment in those days was just around the corner. We walked over there, carrying all those damn teddy bears."
Dorothy found the spectacle of a grown-up brother and sister sitting on the floor surrounded by teddy bears, telling stories in imaginary bear voices, disturbing. Soon, Dare added Edith to the party - and urged Dorothy to join in. Making no effort to hide her disdain, Dorothy refused.
By the time Dorothy and Blaine left that evening, Dorothy had convinced Dare that the bears, aside from the one destined for Brockman, must be returned to the store the next morning. Dare did return all but two, a big one for Brockman and a little one for herself. For several days, though, Dare kept Brockman's bear in custody and photographed the two animals with Edith. She later said she was struck by how happy Edith looked with her companions. ...
[After giving the large bear to Brockman,] Dare continued to photograph Edith and the little teddy bear. She liked to imagine Edith as herself and the little bear as a stand-in for Blaine. But she couldn't shake the lingering sense that something was missing. Not surprisingly, the big bear had been critical to her vision. Only with him in the picture could Dare replicate her own holy trinity: herself, a brother AND a father. She told Blaine that she intended to borrow the big bear back from Brockman. Soon after, Blaine arrived at Dare's apartment bearing an FAO Schwarz box, with a big bear in it and a note: "One does not borrow other people's bears."
Isn't that the greatest? I think so anyway. I also think Dorothy sounds like a real party poop here, typical of people who Do Not Understand Bears or Bear People. No wonder Blaine didn't want her for a girlfriend.
Dare's photos of Edith and the bears eventually led to the book, "The Lonely Doll," which sold very well and led to nine more Edith books, as well as a number of other children's books involving photography of other dolls, live animals and exotic locales. Themes of Dare's childhood loneliness and family issues run through all of the books. A common theme involves the mischievous Little Bear (a stand-in for Blaine) encouraging Edith the doll to commit some misdeed for which she is eventually spanked by father figure Mr. Bear. The Lonely Doll books were very popular and sold well for years, but began to go out of print by the 80s, partly because the spanking scenes had become regarded as politically incorrect. Dare's last book was published in 1981. (I vaguely recall seeing an advertisement for a book signing at The Learned Owl at Beachwood Place when that book came out, and being surprised at age 17 that the book series I remembered from when I was 5 was still being written.)
Edie died in 1975, actually expiring in the bed that she shared with her adult daughter. Blaine, who had developed a drinking problem, died ten years later. Dare, as a result of her grief and inability to cope alone, also became alcoholic and mentally unstable, spending nights in Central Park and bringing homeless people back to her apartment for company. The people she brought home stole from her and, on one occasion, raped her. Eventually she developed a respiratory condition and died in the charity ward of a NYC hospital. The author of Secret Life had fortunately sought her out just prior to her death, and thus received from Dare's guardians many files and unpublished pictures that helped her to write Dare's biography. In keeping with her early training by Edie not to speak of her private life, very little information was known or released about Dare all during her celebrated career as a famous author.
Although the author of Secret Life appears to blame Edie for not letting go of her daughter, I think this is somewhat unfair. While it is true that Edie was not the best mother, she clearly loved Dare, and her deficiencies appear to have stemmed at least partly from being mishandled by her own mother, as well as her own trauma from the failed marriage to Ivan. The strain of being a single mother attempting to support a child in the 1920s and 30s must have been difficult. Edie purportedly never remarried because after Ivan, she no longer trusted men. It seems like this distrust was well-founded. Furthermore, Ivan appears to have been a very absent father due to his alcoholism and his differences with Edie. It is hard to see that as entirely Edie's fault. And, while Dare appears to have second-guessed her life choices after both Edie and Blaine died and left her alone, she does not appear to have been terribly miserable during most of her life. It is possible that her greatest attachment in life simply was to her mother and that she preferred it that way; she certainly had many chances to get away, when she moved to New York on her own and later when her brother exhorted her repeatedly to escape her mother's influence. It seems that she needed Edie as much as Edie needed her. Just because this isn't the choice that most adults would make doesn't make it an awful choice.
(To be continued in Part 2)