A few months back, I was browsing the shelves of my favorite used bookstore. Bookshops like these have become a precious rarity in the digital age and especially with the continued decline of brick-and-mortar retail. I try to do my part to keep my passion for books alive through stores like these, as it’s there that you can often unearth valuable, out-of-print gems that you would unlikely find anywhere else. It was at such a store that, thanks to their wide and eclectic range of often offbeat literary biographies, I came across Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright.
I had, at this point, never heard of Dare Wright or The Lonely Doll, named “the creepiest children’s book” of all-time by The New Yorker in 2017. But something about this biography’s promise to tell the story, for the first time in full, of the author of a once-famed children’s book from the 1950s who fell out of the limelight in later life spoke to me. And the biographer’s claim that this was the first comprehensive look into Wright’s life was not unfounded — fiercely private, she gave very few interviews over the course of her career, and next to nothing was publicly known about her later years and death until The Secret Life’s publication in 2004.
Almost every children’s picture book is illustrated through just that, pictures, but Wright took things a step further: The Lonely Doll and its ensuing nine sequels were all illustrated through real-life, black-and-white photographs entirely staged and taken by Wright herself. This subsequently gave Wright’s books a distinct and memorable edge over other children’s books of the era, allowing it to become something of a beloved cult classic in the hearts of children, mostly female, who grew up consuming Wright’s work. And since absence makes both the heart and nostalgia grow fonder, the fact that The Lonely Doll went out of print by the 1990s made the search for its story all the more important to its baby boomer fans.
Dare Wright was many things throughout her life: an actress, model, photographer, writer, and above all an artist. But like the best of them, her inner life was plagued with demons, including a notoriously overbearing mother who all but physically prevented her daughter from aging into an adult. So grab your favorite teddy bear and light your best old book-scented candle as we dive into the mostly gothic and troubling but still glamorous and cinematic life of Dare Wright.
Little Edie and Big Edie: Growing Up With Mommie Dearest
Wright was born Canadian in Vaughn, Ontario on December 3, 1914 to Ivan Wright, Edith “Edie” Stevenson, and older brother Blaine. Her parents’ marriage was already troubled by this time, and she was caught in the crossfire from birth. The family separated when she was three, with Ivan taking Blaine to live in New York and Edie eventually settling with Dare in Cleveland, Ohio. According to Jean Nathan, Wright lived in a “state of constant upheaval, with her caregivers changing even more frequently than her surroundings.” Since her father and brother had left her life so early on in her childhood, she was often unsure growing up whether they were real or she had imagined them.
Edie, a portrait painter, began receiving commissions for local lawyers, judges, and politicians, and worked consistently as a painter throughout Wright’s childhood. But it was during this time that Wright’s perhaps unusually close relationship with her mother began to take hold. She was in almost complete isolation with Edie during the ages of six to nine, encouraging an understanding of their own private universe populated by lots of make-believe.
“A paragon of industriousness, and wildly inventive, Edie invited her daughter’s participation in creating this new private world,” wrote Nathan. “She instilled in Dare the means to explore her own creativity. She taught her not only to read and write but also to draw, to paint, to do carpentry, and to sew. Edie’s view of the world as a canvas for her composition extended to their physicals selves and to their surroundings.” Sadly for Wright, it would come to pass that her mother saw her as her own type of blank canvas to singlehandedly shape and mold.
Maude Truesdale, a writer for the Cleveland News who published a series on Cleveland’s pioneering women during this period, described Edie’s apartment as “unlike a studio as could be well imagined,” and included a description of the artist’s daughter as well, a “little girl with a white cloth about her head upon which her mother had pinned a cross cut from red paper was playing Red Cross nurse to some decrepit dolls.”
Just weeks later, Edie signed a lease for an actual studio space in the Fine Arts Building in downtown Cleveland, and Wright was to begin the 4th grade at the private Laurel School for girls in Shaker Heights, where she would be a dormitory girl. Clearly tormented by the judgment of others, Edie also sought out to make sure no one could ever describe her daughter’s dolls as “decrepit” again: at the Halle Brothers Department Store, she bought her an Italian-made Lenci doll that stood 22 inches high, the most expensive doll in the store. Since they remarked that the doll looked nothing like Wright and more like Edie, they settled on a name for the girl’s new companion: Edith. Because all little girls naturally name their dolls after their mother.
Lights, Camera, Cosmo
Missing her mother while boarding at the Laurel School, Wright turned to the only way she knew how to comfort herself: through her imagination. “[She told] herself stories revolving around her life’s central characters, attempts to work out solutions to her dilemmas,” observed Nathan. It was this time spent inward that resulted in her first published work, “An Imaginary Story: The Little Green Door,” which appeared in the school’s yearbook Laurel Leaves. It borrowed heavily from the fairytales she consumed so fervently, as these stories, according to Nathan, accurately represented her ongoing power struggle with her own existence.
“All Dare’s anxieties and conflicts were poured into its narrative,” she wrote. “Her fear — or fantasy — that her father was searching for her and unable to find her, her worry that her brother’s bad behavior had led her astray and had caused the family to be separated, and above all her concern that she had somehow transgressed by going with her mother in the first place.”
Before long, Wright’s artistic expression began to evolve into joining the school drama club. Jane Douglass Crawford, head of the club and teacher of Spoken English, took Wright under her wing as she believed there was a budding young actress beneath the surface of the girl’s introversion. But when Wright told her mother about her newfound love for acting, nurtured and encouraged by a new mentor, Edie’s reaction was predictable, according to Nathan. “From the very first, she detested this woman who sought to control her daughter. Edie had already cast Dare in the only role she wanted her to play: that of her mother’s ‘good and previous’ model daughter.”
But when Edie failed to provide much guidance for her daughter following her high school graduation, it was Crawford who stepped back in to convince her to attend drama school. Edie harbored resentment and bitterness for those with college degrees, since she had managed to become a successful working artist without one. Nonetheless, Wright left Cleveland for New York City in October 1933, where she would attend both art and drama school as a compromise. Crawford had intended to go with her, but since the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) had suspended hiring any new teachers due to the Depression, she remained in Ohio and Wright felt lost without her. One term and six months later, Wright had dropped out. Her search for her brother Blaine in New York was also a dead-end; his number was not listed in the phonebook. She went home to Cleveland by train, too ashamed to tell her mother.
Thereafter, Wright returned to New York and forced herself to go out on auditions in hopes of becoming a working actress. While hardly achieving star status, she did experience some success during this time as a Bennet family maid in a dramatization of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the summer of 1935. When the theatre company did four performances in Cleveland, Edie immediately appointed herself her daughter’s publicist and agent, as if she wasn’t already, and began passing out risqué photographs of Wright to her local press contacts.
Unable to secure any other stable acting work afterward, Wright admitted defeat and returned to Cleveland. But Edie had already set her sights on Hollywood. It wasn’t long before the mother-daughter duo packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where they lived for a year between 1937 and 1938. Her mother believed she had a studio connection with Sam Katz, a movie theatre magnate she had painted in 1931 and who now worked for MGM. But Katz was too preoccupied working with Louis B. Mayer trying to cast Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz to ever make the time to take Wright on as a client.
“While Edie had some sympathy for Dare’s disappointment at her unfulfilled acting career, the stage had never been part of her vision for her daughter. Edie’s bigger concern was Dare’s negligible income,” wrote Nathan. “She suggested that when they left California, Dare register with a modeling agency to bring in money between acting jobs.” Since any acting work post–Pride and Prejudice did not exist, it seemed like a reasonable suggestion. And within a decade, Wright was on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
Nobody Ever Said Life Was Fair, Tina
In 1941, Wright and her brother Blaine reconnected for the first time since they were separated as children. Blaine, by this point, had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he became close friends with one of his flight instructors, Philip Sandeman. Wright and Sandeman soon developed a romantic connection, one that Nathan observed seemed to give back to Wright a sense of purpose that had been missing since her Laurel graduation years prior.
“Fairytales and her dolls had been the focus of the stories she told herself in childhood; now, in her late twenties, she turned the focus onto herself,” wrote the biographer. “These stories were narrated not with words but through images, by means of her new camera and its self-timer. The resulting self-portraits, in which she tried on not only clothes but also personas, were first steps on the path to explore a self of her own … The choice of medium alone represented a break from Edie. And these portraits could be created in privacy, out from under her mother’s watchful eye.”
But by the time Blaine re-entered their lives and Wright began dating Sandeman, Edie’s grip on her daughter only tightened, terrified of losing the doll she had spent nearly a quarter of a century building. By Nathan’s account, Edie began sending her daughter letters on the daily in New York, where she was working as a model. But Wright was childishly unaware of her mother’s intentions and reveled in the extra attention. They would play dress-up in hotel rooms like children and take turns photographing each other. Meanwhile, any relationship Blaine had with his mother had soured and drove him to drink, speaking of hating Edie “like poison” for the rest of his life. Edie wrote to a friend to confirm what everyone already knew: “Dare is all I need.”
Edie continued scheming to divide her children and to weaken her daughter’s relationship with Sandeman, even after they got engaged in July 1946. An official announcement would only appear in the Cleveland News in February 1948, but it didn’t matter anyway, since the wedding would never come to be. Accounts of the dissolution of Wright and Sandeman’s relationship are equally as divided, with the general consensus being that Sandeman ended things because of Wright’s refusal to commit to a sexual component, which may or may not been followed by him having affairs. Nathan’s research yielded a telegraph that Sandeman sent to Blaine alleging he needed to have a “normal” relationship with a woman, and a biography on Wright’s official website claims that Sandeman wrote to her saying she was not a “real woman,” an accusation that hurt her deeply.
Hurtful as it may have been to hear, it was a common complaint against Wright by other potential male suitors in the years to follow. Anthony Palermo, a mutual friend of a man Edie was dating, claimed to have pursued Wright for two years before ultimately giving up because of her intense childlike demeanor. Alleging she was plagued by “inner dilemmas,” Palermo believed she almost came from another world entirely. “She and her mother were both children. Dare lived in a fantasy world playing with dolls,” he said. “I think the mother ruined that girl. There was some Svengali type of thing going on. She was under her mother’s spell.” Donald Seawell, a friend of Blaine’s once set up on a date with Wright, alleged that she was so terrified when he made a sexual advance towards her that she ran out of the apartment so fast, she lost both her shoes on 57th Street. Unsurprisingly, Wright never married and had no children, because she herself was still a child.
Dare’s Bears and Their Doll Friend
In 1955, an intoxicated and depressed Blaine was aghast to learn that Wright had never been given a teddy bear as a child. According to Nathan, the siblings both remained childlike as adults, speaking baby talk, teasing each other, and exchanged children’s toys and games as gifts. Along with Wright’s friend Dorothy, whom had been trying to date Blaine, he took her to New York City’s once-flagship toy store FAO Schwarz, where they encountered a large selection of bears. The siblings agreed that they couldn’t separate them, because then the rest of the bears would be lonely. Dorothy found the spectacle of two grown siblings playing with teddy bears, complete with imaginary bear voices, to be disturbing. It was she who convinced them that all but one bear, who was supposed to be a gift for a friend’s son, needed to be returned. Wright did return most of them, keeping the big bear for the boy and a little bear for herself.
Still pursuing her own personal photography efforts, Wright began photographing her new bear friends with Edith. “She liked to imagine Edith as herself and the little bear as a stand-in for Blaine,” Nathan observed. But if the little bear represented Blaine, then she needed the big bear to represent the other missing male figure in her life, one she never saw again: her father. She tasked Blaine with “borrowing” the big bear back from the child they’d gifted it to; he arrived at her doorstep with a FAO Schwarz box and a note reading, “One does not borrow other people’s bears.”
According to the biography, it was never Wright’s intention to ever show anyone the photographs of Edith and the bears. “These were hermetic pursuits, fueled by a private obsession,” wrote Nathan. It was the boy’s father, Donald Seawell — the one Wright lost her shoes running away from — who, after receiving photos taken by Wright of son Brockman opening his gift, set up a meeting for her with an executive friend at Doubleday who thought the photos of the child and his bear was a nice idea for a children’s book. Wright went all out in preparation for the meeting, crafting a children’s story called “Spring Fever” told through her photographs of Edith and the bears, with Mr. Bear assuming the paternal role and Little Bear being the mischievous younger brother. It also featured a scene in which Mr. Bear loses his patience and puts Edith over his knee to spank her, making the story somewhat a product of its time.
Margaret Lesser, the Doubleday editor who met with Wright in the spring of 1956, saw potential in the “Spring Fever” story and signed her to a contract with a deadline of January 1957 to rework the story and produce more illustrations through her photography. “[F]or the new version, Dare reached deeper into the reserves of her childhood memories to a place where feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, and fear lurked,” wrote Nathan. “These she now fastened onto Edith, just as securely as she had her ponytailed wig. Edith became a lonely doll, as Dare had once been a lonely little girl, wishing for a brother, however naughty, to play with, and a father who might be enlisted as a reliable parent to care for them both. In this rendition of the story, Edith’s wish comes true.” While Nathan likened the narrative’s theme of childhood anxieties to that of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she described Edith’s fear as much more concrete and relatable. “She is terrified that Mr. Bear will take Little Bear and walk out the door.”
Wright made her deadline and the story was published as The Lonely Doll and made The New York Times Best Seller list for children’s books. Its success led to the publication of nine other children’s books featuring Edith and the bears illustrated solely through Wright’s photographs. She would leave Doubleday for Random House in 1959, telling The Walton Reporter that she’d had “squabbles” with them over the future of the Edith books: “They want a series like The Bobbsey Twins and I don’t.”
It would be with Random House that she would publish her first book outside of the Edith series, a fairytale called Lona following a princess who gets transformed into a doll by a wizard. “If the Edith books explored a fantasized childhood with a father and brother, Lona was Dare’s way to explore the fantasy of an adulthood with a husband and lover,” noted Nathan. “And however disguised, the wicked wizard, powerful and terrifying, was Edie. This story, too, explored wish fulfillment, but of a very different kind.” While Wright would continue publishing children’s books until the early 1980s, it would be Edie’s death that would be the cause of her ultimate demise. After all, what is a muse without their artist?
The Loneliest Doll
“I don’t think of Edith as a doll,” Wright told a reporter in 1962. “She was my friend when I was a child, and now she supports me. She’s a personality in her own right.” But even the daily emotional support provided by Edith wouldn’t be enough to rescue her from the depression that ensued following Edie’s death in 1975. Though Wright was in her 60s, she’d spent most of her life sharing a bed with her mother, and Nathan notes that they had no idea how odd others found this arrangement. Edie continued painting portraits of her daughter as an adult, but depicted her as a teenager even when she was in her 40s. Friends and acquaintances noted that Wright started to act even more like a child as she grew older, dressing in rompers that were better suited to a toddler.
In a letter dated February 1976, Wright wrote that her mother had died and that while it was not untimely for her, “it was untimely for me.” By this time the author had returned to Doubleday, who was eager to line up future projects for Wright. But as Nathan argued, Wright was not inspired in the least. “[She] was eating less and drinking still more, her days and nights haunted by doubts and demons,” she wrote. “In losing Edie she had lost the armature of her identity; without the scaffolding her mother had provided, it was all collapsing. And so were the boundaries.”
Friends, family, and neighbors began noticing increasingly bizarre behavior in the years to come. Many knew the problem was alcohol, but her childlike demeanor most likely didn’t help matters. “She was constantly getting mugged, beat up, black eyes, face bruised,” noted friend Jeanne Hammond. “But I felt she was courting it, wandering around after dark, looking bleak and absent. She wasn’t coping.” In 1983, Jerry Mayro, friend and owner of Burlington Bookshop in New York, tried to help by taking a set of keys to Wright’s apartment and her checkbook, so he could help manage her finances. He admitted Wright to rehab twice, but she left both times, presumably believing herself to have “escaped” from one of her fairytales, running 13 blocks back to her apartment barefoot in the snow.
In 1987, Donald Seawell’s daughter Brook Ashley, who would later write the biography Dare Wright and the Lonely Doll, arranged for nurse’s aide Christine Corneille to look after Wright. Corneille noted that Wright would be constantly walking through Central Park and bringing “street people” home with her to give them a place to sleep. Believed to be just her childlike innocence and loneliness at play once again, Corneille was forced to hire her friend Marie Simon to watch Wright on the weekends.
When she one morning found the apartment in complete disarray and Wright in shock on the living room floor, Simon brought her to a hospital where it was determined that she had been raped. Thereafter, Corneille came to live with Wright and Simon continued to keep watch on weekends. Two years after the sexual assault, in February 1995, Wright would suffer respiratory failure during a routine colonoscopy, prompting Corneille to move her to Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island for long-term care. It would be there that Wright would pass away in January 2001, at the age of 86.
“The story of The Lonely Doll was in large measure Dare’s own story,” wrote Nathan. “In the book, a tour de force of wish fulfillment, she found a way to make things right, providing her alter ego, Edith, with love and rescue in the form of two male teddy bears, the father and brother whose real-life counterparts she had lost when she was young. She ceaselessly sought that rescue in her own life, which was spent posing, playing dress-up, and retreating into fantasy in order to remain her mother’s ‘good and precious daughter,’ as if holding on to her mother and her mother’s love depended on that.”
As I mentioned, I’d never heard of The Lonely Doll or its creator until I happened to pick up a copy of Nathan’s biography one day in a store. Part of me wants to say it was the dust jacket’s intriguing premise of a tale of a pop culture phenomenon gone dark that made me want to read it, but after coming to terms with Wright’s full story I have to believe it was the themes of childhood and loneliness that drew me to her narrative. I did not grow up with an overbearing mother like Edie who made me stay childlike all my life in order to earn her love, but I am someone who remains in close contact with his inner child.
I still watch the Disney movies from my childhood, buy copies of children’s books that meant something to me growing up, and clutch a Winnie the Pooh bear that I bought solely for emotional support last year each night as I watch television. I often felt lonely growing up, and these were the things that brought me comfort and support. I don’t find Wright’s childlike presence to be as creepy or disturbing as some commentators opine; I think the innocence of childhood ends all too soon and there isn’t anything wrong with either looking backwards sometimes or allowing the things you loved growing up to grow up with you. The Lonely Doll is said to have inspired generations of female artists, a story that touches a part of you and never leaves. Otherwise known as the best kind of story.