A Girl, Her Doll and Her Mom-Principals in a Creepy Drama

The Secret Life of The Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright , by Jean Nathan. Henry Holt, 320 pages, $25.

Just about every woman in New York City at some point secretly fears that she’s going to wind up alone, alcoholic and jabbering to herself in a dark one-bedroom apartment, having devoted the best years of her life to taking care of her mother. That’s precisely what happened to Dare Wright, the subject of a probing and profound new biography by Jean Nathan; and yet in Ms. Nathan’s sensitive hands, Wright’s fate takes on a certain fluttering romance-an indignant poetry.

The late, under-lamented Dare Wright was the author of a series of children’s books published between 1957 and 1981-little girls’ books, really, despite the spirited efforts of the Marlo Thomas–Free to Be You and Me generation. The mere mention of Wright’s books tends to elicit a gasp of recognition from anyone who’s encountered them (two of the more popular were The Lonely Doll and The Doll and the Kitten). The series chronicled the adventures of a gingham-clad miniature mannequin named Edith and her two stuffed companions, naughty Little Bear and gruff Mr. Bear. The story line was always less memorable than Wright’s elaborately staged, airless photography and the toddler-like, tow-headed protagonist’s slightly risqué outfits (a flash of petticoats when she was upended by Mr. Bear for a spanking, etc.). Predating Barbie, Britney and JonBenet, Edith was a sort of innocent haute couture Goldilocks for the 10-and-under set.

Except, it turns out, she was more of a Hitchcock blonde, a porcelain-skinned, well-varnished call for help.

Inexplicably haunted in adulthood by half-forgotten images of Edith and her cohorts, Ms. Nathan, a former staffer at The Observer and Connoisseur magazine, stumbled Nancy Drew–like onto a treasure trove of unexpurgated background material about Wright, a onetime Maidenform model and Cosmo cover girl. There’s enough fodder here to keep a departmentful of post-Freudian grad students in nail polish for a decade. But Ms. Nathan wisely refrains from all but the most basic psychological analysis. (Even more remarkable for a writer these days, she removes herself entirely from the body of the narrative).

The doll Edith was the namesake of Dare Wright’s domineering mother, Edie Stevenson, a noted and ambitious portrait painter whose commissions included Calvin Coolidge and Greta Garbo (most of her time, though, she spent daubing the crème de la crème of Cleveland, Ohio). Stevenson, who also had a gift for fiction-at least where her own life story was concerned-split early from Dare’s ne’er-do-well father, and abandoned their son, Blaine. The father died young, leaving Blaine to a stepmother, yet one senses that the little boy got the better part of the deal. The strikingly pretty and intellectually gifted Dare wasn’t reunited with her brother until well into adulthood, at which point they developed a creepy, almost carnal attachment reminiscent of another children’s book: Flowers in the Attic (1979), the trashy incest classic by V.C. Andrews.

In the interim, Edie managed to be both totally neglectful and terribly controlling of her daughter, fashioning her into a kind of compliant Mini-Me or “handmaiden,” dressing her in fancy outfits and refusing her any contemporary playmates. A despairing Dare developed an unhealthy obsession with the mirror and, eventually, a more fruitful one with the camera. Mother tried to co-opt that one too, snapping nude shots of her fully grown daughter as they sunbathed, vacationing on a primitive island off North Carolina. They also liked to share a bed, spooning together well into adulthood. As they say in Bonnie Fuller’s Star Magazine: “Not Normal!”

Ms. Nathan’s subtitle-”The Search for Dare Wright”-is apt. Though she spent four years visiting the aged authoress before the latter “expired” (as the attending doctor put it) at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and though she spent several more years doing meticulous secondary research, the result only proves the essentially frustrating thing about even the best “human-interest” stories: No personality is ever truly fixable. In this instance, it’s a nearly insurmountable case of “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” “Maybe Dare was born in a seashell,” muses one of the scores of acquaintances interviewed. “She didn’t look like a New York woman at all,” comments another. “Much more ethereal than that, like a ghost, like some wonderful blithe spirit.” Another calls her “a pixie, a fairy, full of imagination and in another world.” Her goddaughter adds: “It was almost as if, if she walked on sand, she wouldn’t leave footprints. It seemed as though she was only half there, but because she was only half there she was twice as much there, if you see what I mean.” Indeed: A flibbertigibbet, a will o’ the wisp, a clown! (A very sad one.)

The characters surrounding Dare emerge a bit more clearly. Edie Stevenson is a complete monster, of course, but also funny-somehow reminiscent of the meddling mother-in-law Agnes Moorehead played on Bewitched, given to nibbling on candied rose leaves and complaining to a friend that she’s “so weary of looking at fat derrieres in shorts.” Though as winsome and elusive as Dare in his way, handsome brother Blaine is a much more reassuring, resilient figure: flunking defiantly out of Collegiate, buying an island he calls the Isle of Pot so that visitors can say they’re “going to Pot,” and inventing a fishing lure he calls the Phoebe. (Really, this family trumps anything invented by J.D. Salinger.) They all drink a lot of cocktails. Blaine valiantly tries to hook Dare up with a friend of his, a dashing R.A.F. pilot named Philip, but it ends-you guessed it-in tragedy, leaving her a latter-day Miss Havisham, rebuffing all suitors so as to keep her carefully preserved world of childhood fantasy intact (not to mention her virginity).

Wright was wedded only to her work, though even that relationship seemed slightly corrupt. “You looked so pretty last night,” effused Random House chairman Bennett Cerf, half-paternally, half-predatorily. “Come in one day and let your publisher kiss you!” (After he died, the company abandoned her.)

This is a deeply creepy story of a painful life, and there’s little solace in the ending, despite Ms. Nathan’s painstaking and sympathetic intervention. But then again, it’s Dare Wright whose books are now being brought back into print to be etched onto the tender consciousness of a new generation; it’s Dare Wright whose beauty and curious visions still intrigue us (while those who trapped her in a private horror lapse into deep obscurity); and it’s Dare Wright, the madwoman in the one-bedroom, whose achievement and sorry fate we will remember.

Alexandra Jacobs is a senior editor at The Observer.