Dare Wright was a photographer and author of a series of highly successful children’s picture books chronicling the life of a doll named Edith and her teddy bear companions. In her Lonely Doll series, which made its debut in 1957 and was a staple in the early reading life of millions of baby boomers, Wright pioneered the use of photography in books published for children.
Jean Nathan’s biography, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, unearths Wright’s personal story. Separated from her brother and father at an early age, Wright formed an unusually close relationship with her mother, a Cleveland portrait painter. Nathan investigates Wright’s frequent retreats into imaginary childhood worlds, as well as her adult attempts to distinguish her own personality from that of her mother. Wright’s subconscious struggle revealed itself in her popular children’s books, for which she staged and photographed elaborate scenes of a doll who shares her mother’s name, looks eerily like Wright herself, and regains a lost brother and father in the form of two teddy bear companions.
This book would be a fascinating read for anyone who grew up with the Lonely Doll books, but fans of gothic fiction, Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological explorations, or movies in the vein of Grey Gardens will also find it equally gripping. The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll can also be read as the story of how one artist’s unresolved issues repeatedly emerged in her work, only to resonate with a generation of children who knew nothing of Wright’s problematic relationships with her family. Nathan frames her biography by sharing with readers her own youthful love of the Lonely Doll books, as well as her journey to meet Wright, whom she tracked down in obscurity near the end of life, and later came to know via a trove of personal photographs, manuscripts, and letters. Nathan’s research, and Wright’s life, were also the subject of a segment on NPR’s “This American Life” in 2000.
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