Monday, October 31, 2011

The Most Unsettling Series of Children's Books Ever Published

by Stephen J. Gertz

A beautiful actress and model turned fashion photographer, she, to all appearances an urban sophisticate, talked to the dolls she photographed for her personal pleasure, "Now, hold still; don't move; just stand there like that," in a child's sing-song voice. She, in fact, talked to her dolls whenever surrounded by them, which was often.

Dare Wright, cover girl, Cosmopolitan, 1951

Her favorite, Edith, the child amongst teddy bears, she had named after her overbearing mother. She liked to imagine Edith as herself. Her father had left the family when she was a a little girl.  She was separated from her beloved brother. Abandonment, fear of the adult world and punishment, sexual anxiety, and stifling domination by her mother kept her a child. They slept together as adults. Edie, as her mother was known, was a respected society portrait painter, though society was confined to Cleveland, where they lived before arriving in Manhattan, attracting artists, the interesting, and those of means, sometimes, to their good fortune, all three. They made quite a couple; Garbo, once a dinner guest, was charmed.


Dare Wright, photographer.

Dare Wright (1914-2001) was The Lonely Doll (1957), the book that brought her fame and the first in a series of children's books about Edith, the two bears who befriended her, and the juvenile psychodramas Wright placed them in, one great big happy family, the yearning of a woman-child working out her neuroses. The books are, to a large degree, autobiographical exercises in wish-fulfillment.


Dare Wright, in essence, photographed and published scenes from her fantasy life with her as the star, a little girl trapped in a world beyond her understanding and working through it with child-sense. And young girls responded; the books became very popular. Through the child-eyes of Dare Wright and her readers, The Lonely Doll series reflects the world as they understand it. To mature adults, they may seem a bit disturbing, with a strange, neo-gothic, somewhat creepy, perverse core; Dare Wright's life writ child-size. They are now very collectible.

Self-Portrait.

Dare Wright was drawn to photography after her career as an actress and model stalled. She was  absorbed by self-portraiture, often photographing herself as a sea nymph, nude and innocent, yet often trapped in a net or, washed up on the beach, corpse-like, ornamented with seashore detritus, a shell over an eye as if leaving Charon a coin for passage across the river Styx to the world of the dead. Yet the photos possess a palpable eroticism that she seemed completely unaware of. They are all symbolic of something we can't always comprehend but vaguely sense. Sometimes the symbolism is obvious.

One of many spanking scenes in The Lonely Doll series...

It is inevitable that in almost each book of The Lonely Doll series little Edith gets spanked. In one, she's bound to a tree with rope and gagged. There are times when you look at Wright's innocently conceived black and white tableaus in the books and see, at one and the same time, a sadist and masochist, the two roles as one in the subconscious of the author, id and ego in conflict with perfect propriety.

...and another.
Self-Portrait.

In another self-portrait she stands completely nude on a beach, open, unabashed, proud, almost defiant. Her mother sits on a towel in the far background. Dare holds something - a dead fish? - in her right hand above her head, and, face turned away in cool, contemptuous disregard, appears ready to drop it on her mother. It's a subconscious declaration of independence, anger, and disdain she could never acknowledge to herself, much less openly declare.

In 2004, Jean Nathan wrote The Secret Life of The Lonely Doll, a biography of Wright. It is one of the strangest, saddest, most bizarre and just plain weird stories you will ever read. She makes Marilyn Monroe appear to be the sanest, most well-adjusted woman-child who ever lived.

 
First editions of The Lonely Doll books (Wright wrote nineteen between 1957-1981), in fine condition with dust jacket, sell from $325 for the earliest, subsequent volumes, and up to $750 for a fine first edition of The Lonely Doll, the first book in the series, Wright's first session of self-psychotherapy, and the best-seller of all of them. The Lonely Doll was re-issued in 1998.

Dare Wright grew old, an alcoholic, was horrifically raped, mentally confused, and died alone, perhaps the inevitable fate of the inspiration and living template for The Lonely Doll.
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11/02/2011 CORRECTIONS:

Brook Ashley, executor to the Dare Wright estate, advises me that the spanking scenes do not occur in all of the books. This is certainly true and I likely conflated what I had seen in a handful in the past to the total.

The figure in the background to the self-portrait described above is not Edith, Dare Wright's mother, but, rather, Edith, the doll. My error is likely due to the figure being a bit indistinct and that I was confused by the photo's caption in Jean Nathan's biography as to which Edith was which, a confusion that Dare Wright, in her inner  conflict, apparently shared. My interpretation, however, remains sound, in my judgment, a desire to put Edith/doll behind her and become an adult, a death wish for Edith whether mother or alter-ego.

Ms. Ashley wanted it to be clear that Dare Wright did not die completely alone. She was, rather, surrounded by caring friends whose affection for Ms. Wright endues.

A word in general: An artist is sometimes the worst interpreter of their own work; they are too close to it and often do not understand where the product of their imagination came from, a sacred space deep in the subconscious that they must trust and not question lest the well-spring get tainted by self-doubt and run dry. Dare Wright was a troubled artist who brought her talent to bear in a genre of literature that, while rich with artistic illustration, is not generally associated with the aesthetic of high art. And, in the end, that is what The Lonely Doll books are, high art infused into a popular genre. They transcend the audience they were originally meant for to address the inner demons that lie shallow beneath the placid surface of a child's everyday life. Dare Wright's special gift was that she spoke to her child readers as a peer, not as an adult. She did not have to mediate between the two worlds to find a path to the child's; she spoke directly, through her simple (though highly stylized) photographs and text. The demons of childhood did not need to be recalled by her. They were alive, in the present, ultimately the only constant companion of The Lonely Doll.

It is, I believe, time for Dare Wright to be recognized for her self-portrait photography, an astonishing body of work that deserves exhibition and critical acceptance.
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Book images courtesy of Royal Books, currently offering these volumes, with our thanks. Self-portraits of Dare Wright  reproduced with the express and sole permission of the copyright holder, Brook  Ashley, heir and executor of the Dare Wright estate, with our thanks.
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10 comments:

  1. My considerable admiration, Stephen, for your consistently interesting, enlightening, and gracefully written essays. Booktryst is one of the very few postings I try never to miss. Ed Glaser

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  2. A bit presumptuous, don't ypu think, psychoanalyzing someone you never met?

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  3. Wow, I had no idea the author was so troubled. The first book was my absolute favorite as a child of the '60s & I had no clue there were sequels. Now I'll have to search them out. I really don't think any child would read anything disturbing into them, tho that pic of Edith tied to a tree gives one pause.

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  4. This book turned me into a life long spanking fetishist. I vividly remember the first time my sister read it to me - I was about 3, circa 1966. My siblings and I were beaten, not spanked, and in fact I had never even seen an over the knee (otk) spanking till I saw this picture. Edith had been sassy and richly deserved the punishment, which was very mild, and afterwards she was forgiven and Mr. Bear promised to never leave her. This was so loving, so reassuring, and so different from what I was experiencing that I immediately eroticized it and was sexually aroused by any reference to spanking from then on. It's been fascinating and rather sad to read about poor Dare's troubled life.

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  5. One of my all time favorite books as a child. Dare Wright has always fascinated me. Her photography is amazing.

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  6. I wish you hadn't given the detail about the horrifying rape. Major trigger for me. I regret reading this page.

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  7. I adored these books since my childhood until this day I sometimes take them out and read them to myself and stare at the pictures like a fascinated child and I'm 56. Msg Wright was a brilliant individual and I hope she had some happiness in her life as she sure gave it to many people

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  8. There is no detail about the "horrifying rape", just a mention of it. ^^^ Very interesting essay and I recall reading some as a child. I remember the jacket covers primarily. What a sad struggle through life. I think that the executor is trying to quash what is quite clear: a very personal struggle for this woman.

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  9. I read these books when I was a girl in the 60's. They were disturbing to me and left me unsettled but I did not know why. Gives me some understanding now.

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  10. Love those bears so much. I think the doll, Edith, is so beautiful. Just want to have a long cuddle w/ them on a sofa during a winter's night. Dare is an amazing photographer - Teddy Bear and otherwise. Believe the bears and Edith still exist and thank heavens for that. I just adore them all. I can't have enough of them. I need more. Pascal Behr

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