· Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright ·
In one of my favorite independent bookstores, the cover of a staff-suggested book recently caught my eye. There was something magnetic about it and I couldn’t resist taking a closer look, eschewing the age-old adage not to judge a book by its cover. On the second look, I was drawn to it even more.
A black and white image of a beautiful woman lying on the ground with her hair splayed out above her head dominated the cover, two strings of pearls draped loosely over her neck. Her eyes were covered with pieces of shells; she looked a little like Lady Gaga. This image was compelling in itself, but along the bottom of the book, a light pink gingham pattern bordered the edge and in the recesses of my mind, this sparked recognition. Finally, upon reading the title, I realized why: titled The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, this was a book about the author of a beloved children’s book our family has read for generations.
Despite this family connection, I knew nothing of the books’ author and photographer, Dare Wright. Were I to have ever thought about it, I would never have imagined this Lady-Gaga-esque woman on the cover of this book to be the brains behind a popular children’s series. Before even reading the back or opening the cover, I was hooked.
When I did open the book and start reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Written by Jean Nathan, a journalist who has written for The New York Times and Vogue, the story of Dare Wright could not have been more compelling in content or writing. The prologue could stand on its own as an irresistible chronicle of Nathan’s own connection to the Lonely Doll series and an opening to the intriguing mystery of Dare Wright.
In The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, Nathan takes the reader all the way back to Wright’s mother, Edith (Edie) Stevenson Wright and her own childhood. A prodigious artist, Edie would have a profound impact on Dare her entire life. After introducing us to Dare’s parents and heritage, Nathan chronicles her childhood fraught with loneliness and a desire to please her mother. An unconventional mother-daughter relationship, a long-lost father and brother, and a theme of manipulation by Edie throughout Dare’s life dominate the biography.
Impeccably researched and compellingly written, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll beautifully tells the tragic story of a woman who brought joy to so many children. Lonely and child-like herself, she transformed her own girlhood doll in her own image, and fans of the children’s books will see an uncomfortable resemblance between the woman and the doll. Richly illustrated with images of Edie, Dare, her brother Blaine, and Edith and the Bears, it’s a biography that can appeal to fans of the Lonely Doll and those who have never heard of it alike.
If you have heard of it, and you look back at it, you might discover, like I did, a creepiness and darkness to the childhood favorites. Upon learning about Dare’s own childhood and life, the books take on a slightly sinister feel. Looking up The Lonely Doll and Dare Wright online brings up articles with conflicting feelings about the classic. Establishing its creepy-status in the 21st century is a story from 2013 in which actress Famke Janssen claimed she had her New York home broken into only to have nothing stolen but the book left on a shelf in her bedroom… It was later found that there had not been a break in and that the book, in fact, belonged to Janssen, but the damage was done and a Google search of The Lonely Doll comes up with several hits asking if the series is the creepiest children’s book ever.
Here’s the thing, Jean Nathan’s biography won’t actually quite convince you otherwise. Dare Wright lived a tragic life and had disturbing relationships with both her mother and her brother. She turned to alcohol in her old age and lived a life of arrested development. But while many may find her books creepy, her life story instead elicits sympathy. The story of an iconic doll, of an unhealthy mother-daughter relationship, of broken families, of the mid-century New York fashion world, of keeping up appearances, of loneliness and loss, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is the perfect summer read.