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The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright Hardcover – August 12, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
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"Most artists lead idiosyncratic existences, but few are stranger than that of Dare Wright, a beautiful and poignantly lost soul. With painstaking resolve, Jean Nathan has captured this elusive creature and, with compassion and empathy, brought her back to life. Her biography of Wright is a haunting tale, skillfully told."
-- Mark Singer, Author of Somewhere in America and staff writer, The New Yorker

"Jean Nathan has given us a haunting portrait of a haunted and heartbreaking creative life. Here is proof, if ever any was needed, that the children's books that last are those born not of lovely thoughts but of childhood's innermost necessities."-Leonard S. Marcus, author of Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon

"Reads like a novel, and a Gothic one at that, full of outsized characters, an evocatively drawn backdrop, and with a strange and compelling mystery at its heart."-Meg Wolitzer, author of The Wife

"A beguiling piece of detective work, which itself makes for a kind of fairy tale."-Stacy Schiff, author of Vera

"Although I never read The Lonely Doll as a child or saw Dare Wright's photographs, it's as if somehow I 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

"An evocative, amazing biography."-Jacki Lyden, author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (September 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805076123
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805076127
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #761,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on September 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Remember the seminal books of your youth? For journalist Jean Nathan, that book was THE LONELY DOLL. First published in 1957, with its pink and white gingham cover, this book featured photographs of a little blond-haired doll named Edith, and it put its author, Dare Wright, on the map. Almost 40 years later, with the book long since out of print, Nathan decided to find out a little more about its author. What she found saddened and shocked her.

First, she set about getting a copy of the book, which was no easy feat. After many attempts to locate Wright, Nathan simply opened the phone book and there was the author's address. It was with both anticipation and a little dread that she wrote to her. What if Wright was dead? Is it better not to know? Within a few weeks, she received her answer. Brook Ashley was a friend of the Wright family and explained that Dare was in a New York hospital on life support. Since there were no living relatives, Brook stepped in to act as her legal guardian. She was touched by Nathan's letter and began regaling her with the story of Dare's life.

Dare Wright was the second child born to Edith Stevenson and Ivan Wright in 1914. Both parents had artistic leanings. Wright was a failed actor and ultimately a theater critic, and Edith, known as Edie, desperately longed to study art abroad but was forced to abandon that dream when she married. Their first child was a son named Blaine. The family shuttled back and forth between Toronto and New York. Edie and Ivan's marriage was strained from the beginning and, after the children were born, quickly began to disintegrate. They divorced and Edie took young Dare and settled in Cleveland, while Blaine stayed with Ivan. Early on, the relationship between mother and daughter could best be described as oddly intense.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Owen Keehnen on September 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is the thoroughly gripping, utterly creepy, and ultimately tragic story of Dare Wright, her mother Edie, her doll Edie (Yes, the doll was named after her mother!) and Dare's creation of The Lonely Doll series of children's books popular in the 1950s-60s. Edie was also an accomplished portrait artist! Eccentric doesn't even BEGIN to describe this family dynamic. This mother/daughter duo often slept in the same bed, took numerous photos (many nude!) of each other, played an ongoing game of dress up and make-believe, and existed almost exclusively in a clinging calustrophobic fantasy world built for two. The parallels between Dare's life and her Lonely Doll books are chilling as is Edie's maniacal possessiveness of her daughter. It's very reminiscent of the 70s film documentary 'Grey Gardens'...only with a doll named after the mother but fashioned to physically resemble the daughter. A gripping chronicle of two enmeshed and unbelievable lives that left me in awe many times...Wonderfully weird...dolly dearest indeed!
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Privacy, Please on May 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Dare Wright was a beautiful and tragic woman. This book could very easily have given in to pathos, or glossed over some of the more difficult aspects of its subject's life. It neither glosses over nor sensationalizes. One truly gets the sense of Dare, her mother and her brother as people who suffered trauma in life and, having been damaged, coped in the best way that they knew how.

My earliest memory of the Lonely Doll books is seeing a copy of "Edith and Big Bad Bill" for sale in a local Cleveland candy store, which did not normally carry books, but was clearly featuring this one due to the local interest. I was about five years old and was fascinated by the cover, which depicted Edith the doll tied to a tree. I wanted to know how she ended up that way and what happened to her. It was not all that different from my usual Saturday morning cartoon fare featuring ducks and bunnies pursued by hunters and teenage sleuths pursued by villains. My mother, however, detected something darker in the photo, refused to buy me the book, and spent some time exhorting me that that was not the proper method of playing with dolls.

Clearly my mother saw a darkness in the photo that eluded me. I later looked over some of the Edith books, including the one that had caught my eye, at the library, but for some reason they didn't strike a chord with me at the time. Although I do recall being a bit disappointed that Big Bad Bill was really not so bad and that he untied Edith without any daring rescue or further adventure taking place. :)

As an adult, I remembered the books and especially Big Bad Bill and decided to Google around for some information. I found the Dare Wright webpage a couple of years ago, and recently discovered that this book had also been written.
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42 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Charismatic Creature on September 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was interested in this book, because I am a doll collector and like the author Jean Nathan, I recall "Edith The Lonely Doll" from my childhood. I had no inkling of the strange and bizarre life of the author, Dare Wright -- presumably no one outside her small circle of friends and family could have known anything much about her. Without Ms. Nathan's interest -- remarkably she began investigating book and author just before Ms.Wright passed away enabling her to get photos and personal reminiscences that otherwise would have disappeared -- this would be a lost chapter in the history of children's literature. Bravo to Ms. Nathan for discovering and exploring this.

I simply could not put the book down. If Dare Wright's life were fiction, you would dismiss it out of hand as overblown, exaggerated and unbelievable. A beautiful model and gifted photographer, she lived in the shadow of her dominating mother (herself a hugely successful society painter) and was incapable of having a normal relationship with a man....excepting her obsessive, almost incestuous relationship with her brother Blaine.

As a child, I was fascinated by the Lonely Doll books although I never was given one to own. I must have read them at the library or book store, though, because I recall them very clearly. (Dare Wright produced sequels right up into the early 80s.) I was particularly fascinated by the concept of photographing dolls with props, which Ms. Wright accomplished with rare feeling and subtlety in black and white. I know as a youngster I tried to do the same with my Barbie's -- not an easy task! Ms. Wright had an very large and especially beautiful and photographic Lenci doll from her childhood to work with.
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