The Secret life of The Lonely Doll: the search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan

What a strange life some people lead.

Was Wright childlike or stunted emotionally? unusually close to her mother or tied inextricably to her mother’s girdle strings? I suppose that Dare Wright’s is not the strangest life out there, but not one I would have cared to lead. Jean Nathan, like many girls, read Wright’s The Lonely Doll when herself a child and forgot it for years, but when the image of a pink gingham book with a doll (or was it a real girl?) swam back up from long lost childhood memory, she determined to find out what the book was. Her search led her not only to the book she remembered, The Lonely Doll, but to the author of that and a number of other Lonely Doll books, Dare Wright.

Born in 1914 in Canada, the second child of Ivan and Edie Wright, Dare led a disrupted life; her parents separated when she was three and her brother Blaine five. Dare went with Edie while Blaine lived with Ivan, and Edie quickly ceased mentioning either her husband or her other child, though retaining her married name to avoid embarrassment about Dare’s last name. They stayed in Cleveland during Dare’s childhood but moved to New York City when she was an adult, where Dare worked as a model, and photographer before her stories told about the doll and two stuffed bears coalesced into a series which eventually ran to nine, according to the New York Times obituary. She remained very close to her mother and brother, coming to pieces psychologically after they died and eventually descending into (possible) dementia and certain alcoholism.

Nathan arrived as Wright was coming very close to the end of her life, so did not get the proper chance to tell Wright what the books meant to her; at the time Wright was lying, on life support and drifting into the end of senility, in a public nursing home/hospital for the indigent on Roosevelt Island, in the Hudson River. According to this book, Wright’s caretakers handed off responsibility for Wright’s obituary to Nathan (when the time came) and researching the obituary grew into this biography of Wright. As a work of information, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is a bit thin on the ground when compared to brick-sized behemoths such as McCullough produces, but then, frankly, most of us don’t leave sufficient information behind for even the paltriest of biographies. Who, among ordinary people, thinks they’ll have such a thing written about them?

That said, Nathan does more reading between the lines, with less documentation of her theories, than I like to see in any biography. Although Edie and Dare did sunbathe in the nude together–there are several artsy nude photographs of Dare surviving–Nathan’s theories tend towards the salacious and scurrilous but ultimately unproven: Dare contemplated marrying her brother? she slept with her mother well into adulthood? maybe, but Nathan doesn’t have much to prove this. As an example, Nathan includes a description of the night Edie Wright died, hugging her daughter as they shared a bed. Who could she have heard this from? Certainly neither of the two involved. However flawed, the biography is, however, all we have….and I admit it makes for an interesting read, one step up from the National Enquirer. I’d like to read something by the surviving friends who knew her well; all I could find was an article in the New York Times.

In fairness, as an adult reader I can see much of the Freudian subtext in the Lonely Doll books as I now do in a good many books I first read as a child and teenager: fear of abandonment, fear of doing something to cause your family to cease loving you, and so on. Is it OK to let kids read books with Traumatic Subtext? The debate goes on in regards Yes or No; I have to admit I fall somewhere between “Yes, kids don’t always pick up on Disturbing Subtext.” and “Yes, let them read it; if they do pick up on it, this will allow them to work out their reactions to this event in what is, after all, a work of fiction before the trauma occurs to them in real life. (If it ever does.)”

A web site about Dare Wright


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