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

Overview

In 1957, a children’s book called The Lonely Doll was published. With its pink-and-white-checked cover and photographs featuring a wide-eyed doll, it captured the imaginations of young girls and made the author, Dare Wright, a household name. Close to forty years after its publication, the book was out of print but not forgotten. When the cover image inexplicably came to journalist Jean Nathan one afternoon, she went in search of the book—and ultimately its author. Nathan found Dare Wright living out her last ...

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

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Overview

In 1957, a children’s book called The Lonely Doll was published. With its pink-and-white-checked cover and photographs featuring a wide-eyed doll, it captured the imaginations of young girls and made the author, Dare Wright, a household name. Close to forty years after its publication, the book was out of print but not forgotten. When the cover image inexplicably came to journalist Jean Nathan one afternoon, she went in search of the book—and ultimately its author. Nathan found Dare Wright living out her last days in a decrepit public hospital in Queens, New York. Over the next five years, Nathan pieced together Dare Wright’s bizarre life of glamour and painful isolation to create this mesmerizing biography of a woman who struggled to escape the imprisonment of her childhood through her art.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Although I never read The Lonely Doll as a child or saw Dare Wright’s photographs, it’s as if I somehow did. Nathan has done an amazing job to capture Wright's life on the page and to bring us into the household of one of the saddest dysfunctional families ever." —Cindy Sherman

"Splendid...Nathan's detective work is admirable as is the care with which she traces Wright's psychic decay. Even readers who never felt Edith’s spell will be captivated—and perhaps, unsettled—by this modern gothic tale." —Michelle Green, People (4 stars)

"Compelling psychological biography...Nathan's meticulously researched, well-documented biography...illuminates Wright’s tangled and tragic life, work and times." —Neal Wyatt, Library Journal

"[Nathan's] sympathetic, graceful style seems appropriate for this private, elusive figure who kept such porous boundaries between her real and imaginary worlds." —Joy Press, The Village Voice

"Thoroughly engrossing, and fans of The Lonely Doll series will want to read her terrific—and terrifically disturbing—life story...Readers of this dark and haunting biography will never be able to look at The Lonely Doll books, or their author, in quite the same way again." —Rebecca Maksel, San Francisco Chronicle

"A probing and profound new biography...in Ms. Nathan's sensitive hands, Wright's fate takes on a certain fluttering romance—an indignant poetry." —Alexandra Fuller, The New York Observer

"Nathan's dexterous writing sees around the corners of Dare Wright’s life to show that behind 0her perhaps perverse books was a childlike effort at life that was both futile and bold." —Benjamin Lyntal, The New York Sun

"Sensational though Nathan’s subject matter is...she never descends into exploitation. Her deft handling of these horrors recalls David and Albert Maysles’ 1976 documentary Grey Gardens." —L D Beghtol, Time Out (New York)

M. G. Lord
Jean Nathan explores the disparity between Wright's polished facade and her turbulent interior in her first book, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, an exhaustively reported, gracefully written biography. The book was compiled with the cooperation of Wright's estate (she died, at the age of 86, in 2001), and since Nathan was privy to Wright's letters, she is in a position to tell you everything you could possibly want to know. Nathan also can -- and does -- tell things you may not want to know.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In 1957, The Lonely Doll made model/actress turned author/photographer Dare Wright famous. The children's book told the story of Edith, a lonely doll until two teddy bears-a father and son-come to live with her. This dark and painfully poignant biography, tells the story of the beautiful and creative Dare (1914-2001), who was separated from her own father and brother when she was three. Alone with her strong-willed, manipulative mother, Edie, Dare strove to please her, Nathan writes, "playing handmaiden to Edie's queen as Edie created their own private universe" of dressup and pretend. Their closeness becomes increasingly disturbing, keeping Dare a child even as she matures into womanhood. There's a suggestion by some who knew them of a sexual element in the relationship, but Nathan is careful not to speculate. With Edie's death near the end of the book the story loses some of its clarity, because despite having many friends, Dare doesn't know how to live without her mother; the downward spiral of her final years is horrifying yet incomprehensible. But this is a quibble, and doesn't detract from the fascinating and elusive girl/woman at the center of this story. Photos. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Sept. 2) FYI: The Lonely Doll and two of its sequels have been reissued by Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In The Lonely Doll (1957) and eight subsequent picture books, Dare Wright recounted the adventures of lonely doll Edith and her family of stuffed bears. This series illustrated by Wright's striking black-and-white photographs captured children's imaginations and made the one-time model a household name. In this compelling psychological biography, journalist Nathan explores the dark fairy tale that Wright actually lived. Born to a wastrel film critic father and a well-known artist mother, Wright was a child of divorce. Her mother, unable to cope with her son, abandoned him to relatives and took off with Dare. Edith Wright controlled her daughter, turning her into a puppet and a project. Marred by this unhealthy relationship, Dare did not so much create the world of Edith the doll as live through it, escaping into the realm of her imagination rather than facing reality. Nathan's meticulously researched, well-documented biography is not easy going, but it illuminates Wright's tangled and tragic life, work, and times. Recommended for public libraries. Neal Wyatt, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., Richmond, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
New York journalist Nathan rescues from oblivion the enigmatic author of a beloved, politically incorrect children's book. Dare Wright died at age 86 in a state nursing home on Roosevelt Island.That was in 2001-44 years after the publication of The Lonely Doll launched her popular (and exceedingly weird) children's book series. Born in Canada, Wright was brought up mostly in Cleveland, where her divorced mother Edie tenaciously made a living as a portrait painter. Dare enjoyed a fairly glamorous adult life in Manhattan in the '50s and '60s, first as a photographer, fashion model, and actress, then as the author of numerous Edith and the Bears books. Yet the story Nathan doggedly pursues is of the steely umbilical bond between artistically driven, egotistical mother and beautiful, submissive, obedient daughter. Edie and Dare did everything together: they traveled as a pair, collaborated in work, fended off importunate admirers, even slept in the same bed. Their parents' 1919 divorce traumatized both four-year-old Dare and her seven-year-old brother Blaine, who was sent away to live with his alcoholic father. Only in their late 20s did the siblings finally reunite, spending long vacations together in upstate New York and negotiating prickly truces between son and mother, who vied for Dare's attention. This sad, triangular drama was enacted for the rest of their lives, as none of the Wrights seemed to need intimacy outside the threesome. Dare's fetish for her doll, Edith-funny how similar that name is to Mom's-led her to develop, with Edie's help, a story in photographs (complete with spanking scenes), which she painstakingly composed like a fashion shoot. Legions of fans cherished TheLonely Doll and subsequent books, though their affection couldn't ease Dare's bitter old age, soaked in alcohol following Edie's and Blaine's deaths. Nathan's straightforward account somewhat dryly sticks to the facts, allowing the curious and very lovely photographs that Dare and her mother took of each other over a lifetime to tell much of the story. Fascinating mother-daughter symbiosis makes this a Freudian feast.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312424923
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/1/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean Nathan graduated from Williams College and the Columbia School of Journalism. She was a staff writer for The New York Observer and a senior editor at Connoisseur magazine. She has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Travel & Leisure, Vogue, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

From The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll:

Mostly, when Edie had to be out in the world, Dare was left at home alone. There, she learned to find comfort and companionship in her books and her dolls, and to fire up her imagination. If Dare's first dolls were improvisational, homemade, the books Edie bought Dare when she was feeling flush were the real thing. The first two she purchased were a collection of Grimm's fairy tales and a picture book called The Lovely Garden, the story of the much-beloved Princess Yolande who lives on the Island of Can-be-done, whose "sweet smile seemed to say: 'What am I here for if it is not to make others happier?'" The book's message was reminiscent of her mother's inscriptions on the backs of her portraits-"To my Good and Precious Daughter"-directives on how to act and so meet the conditions of Edie's love. But the mechanics of fairy tales carried a message, too. If princesses could be put to sleep and awaken unharmed, perhaps fathers and brothers could also. If princesses could escape punishing circumstances, perhaps Dare could, too.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2005

    Fascinating story could be better written

    Loved the story -- who was not mesmerized by The Lonely Doll as a child (us boomers, anyway.) The rudimentary story is a keeper. The author gets bogged down with myriad characters (feels like War & Peace) that can confuse and create some drudgery towards the middle. Also, amazingly, she turns the ending into her own story in an ironic twist that parallels Dare's mother Edie! Holt should get a lit professor to clean up the sloppiness. Otherise, it's an incredible story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2005

    AMAZING BIOGRAPHY !!

    This is simply one of the best, most moving biographies I have ever read. Jean Nathan has done a brilliant job researching and documenting Dare Wright's life. It is hard to express how much I enjoyed this biography. I read it in five days. I heard the author on NPR and remembered when I worked in a children's bookstore in New York that we had a book with black and white photographs of a doll and two bears. I realized that it was 'The Lonely Doll' series. I remembered that I had always found the author's name Dare Wright unusual. This bio packs an emotional wallop. Even if you have never read or even heard of 'The Lonely Doll' books, this bio is well worth your time. Thanks to Jean Nathan for not letting Dare Wright's life go undocumented.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2004

    A Beautifully Written Biography

    Although I never saw the Dare Wright books when I was little (my parents purchased the Eloise books and various Eloise dolls and accoutrements for me instead--a much cheerier bunch), I find this beautifully written biography speaks not only of the life of Dare Wright, but those of her mother Edie and her brother Baird as well. This is Jean Nathan's first book. She has done a beautiful job of researching and writing this life and it is hard to put down. It seems as if it became truly a labor of love for Ms. Nathan and I can understand why. She has thoughtfully chosen wonderful photos--lots of them--to illustrate her text, and they illustrate it beautifully. Dare Wright was such an elegant, intelligent, gifted, perceptive woman but so terribly emotionally imprisoned by her mother's needs. When you finish the book you will see the cover contact print much differently. I would like to see another book of photographs of Dare Wright's life. In the context of her life photographs were so very important: she was a model, she was a photographer. Although Dare Wright was also a gifted illustrator she chose photography, a medium her artist mother did not use professionally use, to illustrate her children's books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2004

    I Dreamed I went walking in my Maidenform

    This story about the beautiful writer/model who modeled the Maidenform Bra will be a bestseller. All the intimate details of a poscho/social drama are present and form a page turner you will recommend to your friends.

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