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Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Jean Nathan

I used to not even think about memories. They were things you just had like a pair of tennis shorts or a punchbowl. You didn't think about them till you needed them and when you did need them, there they were. You'd take them out, use them and eventually they'd find their way back where they came from where they waited to be called upon again some other time. They didn't change while they waited. They just became dormant like those weird sea monkeys that come dehydrated in a package till you add water and they come to life. By the way, just now I couldn't remember what those things were called and had to google "add water dehydrated sea animal alive" to find out.

Needless to say, my memories don't operate as they did when they were fresh out of the box. Nowadays, my brain tends to function in a much more random way. I'll find myself unable to remember the name of the Britain's prime minister but then I'll see a color combination that reminds me of a shirt I had when I was in second grade. I'll remember every detail of the shirt down to which seam frayed first and what it smelled like if I wore it in the rain. And yet had I not seen that color combination, that memory would never have been recalled, instead gathering dust under heaps and heaps of other useless information in some forgotten wing of my brain, a dehydrated sea monkey in my head.

My memory perrformed just such a trick on me a few weeks ago when quite by chance I read a review in Boldtype of Jean Nathan's biography of children's author Dare Wright entitled The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright. The article described what was Miss Wright's claim to fame, authoring a series of children's books (starting with 1957's The Lonely Doll) that follows the adventures of Edith, Mr. Bear, and Little Bear. The stories are illustrated with a collection of black and white photographs taken by the author. The three characters are represented in the photos by inanimate objects; Edith is a doll and the bears are Steiff teddy bears.

Edith. Teddy bears. Black and white photos. Something was stirring way, way back in my mind.

I read on. A synopsis of The Lonely Doll followed.

Edith is lonely. She prays every night for some friends to come and play with her. One day her prayers are answered. Enter Mr. Bear, the authoritarian, and Little Bear, the troublemaker.

Certain chemicals were mixing in my brain.

One day, Mr. Bear, having errands to run, leaves Edith and Little Bear at home alone. The two play dress up and use a lipstick to write disparaging assessments of Mr. Bear's worth on the vanity mirror. Upon his return and discovery of this, Mr. Bear harshly scolds the two scamps and exacts his revenge by taking Edith over his ursine lap and spanking her ruthlessly.

Bzzzzzz! Bzz, bzzzzzzz! Electricity has been achieved. An archived memory had been rousted from my cranial annals and sucked through a pneumatic tube leading to the front of my brain.

"I remember that book!"

Sister Leslie had it. It had a pink and white checked cover and it was big and square and Edith was on the cover with her legs splayed out and I remember how scary it was seeing Mr. Bear exploit his physical advantage over defenseless Edith.

And something else. You could see Edith's underwear in every single photo.

Not unlike a bear who's been prematurely stirred from its hibernation, the memory came out roaring, demanding acknowledgment, attention, and respect, demanding that more memories be pulled from the archives lest it be left as alone and friendless as Edith was at the book's beginning. So I thought about it some more. I remembered having looked at the photos countless times, inching my eyes over every detail, every shadow and highlight, every gradation. I remember the poses being somehow simultaneously lifelike and fake, as if the poses accurately created the illusion of the characters' weight and balance—Mr. Bear's position and the angle of his outstretched arm really made it appear as though he were about to deliver a stinging blow to Edith's half exposed cheek, and Edith did look like she was being quite effectively restrained, pinched between Mr. Bear's other arm and leg—but the photos lacked any sense of motion, any sense that this was something that was actually happening. It seemed more like a dream than a story.

The memory of this begged further investigation. So I read Ms. Nathan's book and discovered what is truly one of the most tragic stories I think I've ever come across, that of Dare Wright herself. Born in 1914 to well meaning if not well equipped parents, Dare and her older brother Blaine spent their young lives moving from one place to another. Dare's mother Edie, an artist who had given up the opportunity to travel and study in Europe in order to marry Dare's father Ivan, was trying to establish herself as a portrait painter in Youngstown, Ohio. Ivan, an actor turned drama critic (a tubercular leg left him unable to perform on the stage), proved unable to keep a job and equally unable to keep from moving the family in search of the next employment opportunity. That, coupled with chronic bouts of alcohol abuse eventually resulted in Ivan's departure to his native Canada. He took Blaine with him and left Edie and Dare to fend for themselves in Ohio. Dare was only three years old and her father's abandonment and the subsequent forced estrangement from her brother left in her a deep, deep wound that she would spend the rest of her life trying to heal.

Burdened with such grief at such an early age, many children act out, sabotaging themselves or others or both, an innate reaction to perceived injustice. Dare did not. Instead, she withdrew. While her mother painted in their studio, Dare was left on her own to play quietly by herself. Edie gave her a doll to play with and Dare would spend hours playing dress up and making up stories centered around the doll. The doll's name was Edith and she would one day become famous, known as The Lonely Doll.

Dare grew into a stunning beauty, tall, thin and blonde. Encouraged by her mother, she became an artist in her own right, learning to draw and paint, eventually teaching herself photography and the art of film development. She moved to New York City to study. She modeled for national magazines, appearing on the cover of the May 1951 issue of Cosmopolitan. But her success failed to give her any independence from her mother nor did she ever pursue it. Edie and Dare became a single entity, living in their own fantasy world of dress up and make believe. This world served to protect mother and daughter from the dangers and heartaches that certainly awaited them outside the confines of their studio.

That is not to say they were reclusive. Edie welcomed, indeed beckoned all types of media exposure for herself and to a certain degree her daughter. But when the reporters were gone and the party guests had left, the two retreated to their own particular, homemade version of reality.

Out of this fantasy world was born the Lonely Doll stories, all of which centered around the theme of loneliness and Edith's abject fear of being abandoned. Dare was Edith. They even looked alike. Mr. Bear was Dare's father and Little Bear was her brother Blaine. In life, Dare wanted only to be with them again as a whole family. Mr. Bear's power is born of the constant threat that he will leave Edith alone, taking Little Bear with him just as Ivan had taken Blaine when Dare was three.

Dare's aching for her lost father and brother was soothed by an eventual reunion but the relief was short-lived. Dare's wedding engagement to an RAF friend of Blaine's ended tragically when a plane crash ended her fiancé's life. Dare would never marry.

One by one the people in her life dropped away. Her father died, then her mother. Blaine, suffering from cancer pleaded with Dare to come see him one last time, but she couldn't bear it. When he died, Dare's worst fear became her reality. She was truly all alone in the world. Before long she descended into a world of alcoholism and mental illness, sleeping on the streets, alternately befriended by and brutalized by New York City's homeless.

How fragile humans are. Without each other, we have nothing. We wither away into madness or poison ourselves to death. Pain is survivable. Estrangement is not.

Stories are told and sometimes they entertain, sometimes they provoke contemplation. And some stories affect you. This book affected me.

Ms. Nathan's book is incredibly researched. I have no doubt that I would be unable to produce such a thorough accounting of my own life story, never mind someone else's. My memory's just not that good.



At 9/29/2009 6:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the book is Jean Nathan's invention, so it's neither memory nor research.


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