Before I get to that, I just wanted to note that Brook Ashley, the daughter of Dare's longtime friends who was also her guardian and heir, is critical of the portrayal of Dare's life as set forth in the Secret Life biography. Brook, who also maintains Dare Wright's official website at http://www.darewright.com , is apparently writing her own kinder, gentler memoir, excerpts of which are here. I liked the part at the end about Dare's ashes being scattered in Central Park. A fitting end.
Also, I was googling around yesterday and found, on a knitter's review forum of all places (and the silly knitters didn't even realize Edith the doll knits Mr. Bear a scarf in one of the books :P), some more comments by Brook:
"Please don't take her recent biography as the literal truth ... The Nathan biography never shows Dare's humor and joy. Artists shouldn't have to be bound by what society considers to be 'normal.' June Cleaver might have been the ideal Fifties woman, but she couldn't have written The Lonely Doll series. She'd have been a drag to be with as well. Dare was great fun."
I kind of figured that was the case and that the book overly demonized the relationship between Dare and her mother. Oh well, people will write anything in order to sell books, yanno? I was also interested to see that one of the knitters thought the Lonely Doll books looked a little creepy, just as several of you have said. I think it's the black and white film making things look a bit noir.
moving right along...
As I have mentioned before, I saw my first Lonely Doll book when I was 5 years old, in Malley's Candies, a candy store and ice cream parlor in Lakewood, Ohio. Malley's was and is pretty much a household word in those parts. For those of you who aren't from Cleveland and/or don't remember the place, this is what it looked like then:
Malley's sold ice cream, candy and stuffed toys (Dakin Dream Pets mostly) that I would beg and plead for on every visit for years, but they never sold books. They were carrying the latest Dare Wright book, however, because it was "local interest". It was up on a high shelf behind the cash register, and this is the cover image I saw looking down at me that day in 1968.
My little eyes just about bugged out of my head and I couldn't stop looking at it. People were always getting tied up and gagged on the cowboy and spy and detective shows on TV, but this was the first time I'd ever seen such a thing full blown on the cover of a children's book. In retrospect, I also realize that as a child and up until I was in my early 20s, I had a fascination with bondage - it turned me on. When I got a little older, I would occasionally tie up a doll or me and my little playmates would tie up each other. We had to be secretive because some of our parents and even some of our fellow children weren't into it. When I got old enough to have sex I experimented with ropes and scarves and handcuffs in the usual way, but for some reason when I was about 23, I lost all desire to ever do any of that stuff. I don't know why - I didn't have a bad experience or anything - just didn't want to anymore. Maybe I felt like I was finally enough In control of things that I didn't need to play at being Out of control. I'd still tie someone else up if I loved them and they wanted me to, but it would be strictly doing them a favor. It wouldn't do anything for me one way or the other.
Anyway, seeing the cover of this book, which was called "Edith and Big Bad Bill," made me anxious to see what was inside. How did the doll get tied up? (Presumably Big Bad Bill did it, I figured.) What happened to her? Did she get away? I was dying to know. At this point I had never seen any of the Lonely Doll series and was completely unfamiliar with Dare Wright. I have no idea how I didn't know about the Lonely Doll books, as I practically lived in the Lakewood Library children's section at that time and had already read (I could read when I was 2 or 3) many of the classics such as Babar, Madeleine, Francois the lion, Dr. Seuss and so forth. It's possible that the Lonely Doll books were always checked out or missing or something, as I understand they were quite popular.
Anyway, my mother saw me looking all googly-eyed at that book and immediately freaked out, telling me that the book was just terrible and that wasn't the Right way to play with dolls. My mother had already noticed that I had rather violent and dramatic play proclivities, and she was always trying to get me to stop that and blaming the other kids on the street for being bad influences on me. In hindsight, with the Vietnam War, assassinations and riots on TV every night, and with every cartoon focusing on Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote or Tom the cat attempting to catch and eat some benign critter and being thwarted by Extreme Cartoon Violence, playing "Perils of Pauline"- type scripts out with one's dolls seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. To say nothing of all my favorite Westerns that involved white hats and black hats shooting each other, banks getting robbed, Indians burning down the frontier and all that good stuff. Hell, even if you were going to play something traditionally acceptable like Doctor and Nurse, some toy had to get injured first.
But my mother was afraid I would grow up without empathy for others. There is an old Shirley Temple movie that my mother saw when she was a child - she was a huge Shirley fan - that involved Shirley as a nice little girl playing with Jane Withers who was a nasty little girl in the movie. They play dolls and Jane decides it would be fun to play Trainwreck and run her doll carriage into Shirley's and thus make Shirley's doll the train wreck victim. Shirley doesn't want to play and pulls the carriage out of the way at the last minute, causing Jane to fall down and run crying to her mamma. My mother always loved Shirley in that scene. She thought that playing with dolls in any sort of a violent way was being like Jane. That you should love your doll babies so when you grew up you would be properly trained to love your real babies. I remember that I actually did have that weird motherly attachment to some of my dolls and took special pains to be nice to them and protect them from harm, but there were others I didn't care so much about because I didn't like how they looked or something, and they came in for the lion's share of the dolly abuse. I also think that as people go, I probably am a lot more naturally cold-blooded than my empathetic touchy-feely mom.
Anyway, my mom hustled me out of the store, and I didn't get the Edith book and furthermore associated Edith books with being Forbidden and Bad. Which, of course, made me want to look at them all the more, but furtively.
At some point within the next couple of years, I did happen across "Edith and Big Bad Bill" and a couple of other Lonely Doll books at the library. With my mother safely out of eyeshot, I thought this was the perfect time to look inside of that book and see just what kind of delicious horrors lay within. I was expecting something quite dramatic, having built it up in my kiddie fantasies to a fever pitch. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Edith was only tied up for about 30 seconds of the plot - Big Bad Bill doesn't even bother to tie up Little Bear - and then is freed by the supposed "villain" who turns out to be a nice bear, just lonely. Boo, hiss. I still remember the utter disappointment I felt, sitting there in the bay window of what was then the children's section. The Brothers Grimm could do better than that even on an off day!
I then looked at a couple more of the Lonely Doll books and they seemed rather dull. All the stories seemed to involve Edith the doll being lonely, something I couldn't relate to because I personally was not. I had my parents, my books, and enough kids on the street that I generally had somebody to play with. On the days when other kids weren't around, or were being little devils and wouldn't play with me (you know what jerks kids are sometimes), I was pretty happy reading by myself. Everyone always assumed that as an only child, I must just naturally be Lonely. I found that just about as annoying as their assumptions that I must also be Spoiled, or that my mother must have Taught me to Read. My entire childhood was Lesson 1 in "People are Stupid Idiots so Ignore Them." I was most definitely Not lonely until I hit puberty and suddenly wanted A Boyfriend and there wasn't one around.
Edith, in order not to be lonely, apparently had to live with these bothersome bears, the littler one of which was always getting her in trouble, resulting in this:
I never saw anything amiss in a spanking scene. I was from the era where corporal punishment was still OK parenting; a lot of kids got spanked, and my mom, while she never formally spanked, would whack me with her hand or a hairbrush whenever she thought I needed it. (I have since decided this is not the right way to raise kids, especially girls, because it causes them to equate getting hit with being loved, but at the time it was the norm.) But I could never understand why Mr. Bear would spank Edith for something that was Little Bear's idea. It seemed very unfair! Plus, Little Bear seemed like an awful brother, sort of like the stories my mother told of her childhood with her own brother, Uncle Jimmy, who would coax her into doing all sorts of mischief, often with disastrous results. As an only child, I didn't, and don't, really understand siblings, and thought it was weird that my mom was clearly still so attached to Uncle Jimmy after the horrible tricks he pulled (and to some extent continued to pull on her as an adult). I was very glad I was an only child and didn't have to put up with any brothers or sisters. My friends were always complaining about their sibs and being envious of me not having any. So I could not understand why Edith would want these dern bears around so badly.
On top of that, the pictures were all in black and white. I loved bright primary colors and detailed illustrations, like Dr. Seuss. And this was 1968 and the entire world was psychedelic. I still think of it as an absolutely wonderful time to be a kid. The world was so colorful and bright...drug-driven, but when you're a little kid your brain just SEES that way without any drugs. And here were these slightly creepy, plain photos of a doll, who wasn't even a Barbie doll or anything modern, who couldn't do anything like talk or walk or roller skate or giggle or turn somersaults...well, it just bored the peewodden out of me.
Over the years I would hear a mention of Dare Wright here and there, in the bigger department stores or the fancier bookstores, always getting a push for being a "local interest" author. At some point I relegated her to that bunch of authors who Rich, "Cultured" local people liked and followed. That whole bunch who sent their daughters to Mag's or worse yet Laurel School for Girls, who lived in the fancy part of Rocky River or down by the lake or on the East Side, and shopped at all those prissy boutiques with the clothes all in Size 5, and went out to fashionable spots in the City of New York. None of it had anything to do with me and my life.
Then one day as an adult I was messing around on the 'net and found Dare Wright's website and started thinking about those Edith books again. And this time I could appreciate the artistry in the photographs. (I like photography a lot when it is not being pushed by some snobby wannabe who is gabbling on about light settings and so forth. I just like to look at the pictures and if the light is done "wrong" a lot of times I will still like it, because I'm weird that way. That's why I used to take pictures with a crap camera and just see what came out. ) I could even understand better about being lonely. And I didn't mind so much that Edith the doll didn't do anything exciting, mechanically speaking, or that she seemed to be living this little rich girl life.
And I liked the bears better because when I went off to college, I started getting more "into" bears. I was never that "into" bears as a child - I liked those Dakin Dream Pets to collect, they were all bright colors and different animals. But plain ol' bears, well, they didn't DO anything - you could hug them, so what? I had one huggy bedtime toy that I slept with till I was a teenager, but it wasn't a bear, it was a lamb. (As in, Mary Had a Little Lamb.) But as I got older, bears began to represent love to me - Cosmo would advertise the expensive Gunds - a boyfriend of mine sent me a huggable koala in the mail - and I needed the security that they provided. And I met another guy who I fell in love with, who talked to stuffed animals like they were his friends.
I guess I am the "target audience" now. (Although I still don't understand about brothers. I think I like having __satori for a pretend brother because we are too old and too far apart to get in each other's hair TOO much :P) But, as much as many children liked those Lonely Doll books, I will always regard them as "children's books for adults," similar to fairytales where you don't see all the subtexts and undercurrents until you are grown up. Maybe you can appreciate them on some subconscious level as a child, but it's not the same. Or maybe it's just my childhood was too different and too much a product of the commercialized, mechanized 60's to "get" it.