By Brook Ashley, Dare’s Goddaughter
Some people (very few of whom were growing up when the book was first published in the 1950s) have implied that The Lonely Doll’s text and images expose a darkly troubled side of the author. They point to a scene in the book where Mr. Bear spanks Edith for being naughty, and are critical of Edith’s short dress that shows her petticoat. Without an understanding of the era in which the book was written, when most children were spanked and little girls wore short dresses, a single out-of-context photograph has become an easy target.
Behind The Scenes — The Real Story
I first held Dare’s Edith doll when I was three years old, well before The Lonely Doll was published. She had been Dare’s favorite childhood plaything, and wore a beautiful orange organdy dress. Her felt face and body were much more welcoming than my own plastic and china dolls, and my thumbs traced the places on Edith’s arms where the felt had worn away three decades earlier .
By the time I was six, I was spending most weekends with Dare and we began dressing Edith in a variety of outfits. Dare loved pink and white gingham, and in 1954 she made Edith a new cotton dress with a crisp, white apron. The colors clashed with Edith’s original, curly auburn wig, so Dare fashioned a new one with straight, blond hair and swept it into a ponytail. Edith’s tiny ears were pierced for gold hoop earrings just like the ones Dare wore, and suddenly she looked very much like Dare herself.
After Dare’s brother, Blaine, surprised her with two teddy bears, Dare and I began imagining adventures for the trio. Mr. Bear would be a lovable, if slightly grumpy, father figure who smoked a pipe while reading his newspaper, and Little Bear was a pesky, but endearing, ursine brother. Edith’s personality was both timid and impetuous. Like all children, she longed for a stable family and lasting friendships while expressing a universal fear of abandonment.
Dare, who was both a professional model and fashion photographer, quickly began photographing the story lines we were imagining for Edith and the two bears. Soon they turned into mock-ups for our very own children’s story book.
Dare’s mid-Manhattan apartment opened onto a private garden terrace that was accessed by stepping up and over her windowsill.
We Called Our Book The Lonely Doll
Much of our playful story, along with many of its photographs, would be folded into the version that Doubleday published in 1957. But Edith, while endearingly sweet and caring in the early part of 1955, was a bit boring without a rebellious side to balance those thoughtful qualities. That was about to change.
It was later in the year, just before Christmas 1955, and Dare had created angel costumes for me and Edith. She took a series of photographs where I posed sweetly with Edith for a little story titled The Angel and Her Doll which Dare magically turned into another book mock-up for me.
At the end of that formal session, when it was okay to break character, I pretended that Edith had been a very naughty cherub who had broken into a celestial dressing room to douse herself with forbidden glitter. Dare kept the shutter clicking as I decided to bend Edith over my knee for a spanking — and that was the genesis of the later spanking scene in The Lonely Doll which became an award-winning children’s classic.
Dare Wright did not manifest any dark childhood traumas in creating The Lonely Doll‘s spanking scene. She only echoed the innocent impulses of a young child who knew what it was like to be spanked, and who occasionally showed her own petticoat.
How The Lonely Doll Was Received in 1957
When the book was published in 1957, there wasn’t a single reviewer who criticized the spanking photograph. Disciplining children with a spanking was the norm back then, and completely unsurprising in the plot of a book. Most reviews didn’t even comment on Edith’s spanking, and those that did, like the Virginian Pilot, simply mentioned it as part of the story line.
The Lonely Doll is a clever little story based upon beautiful photographs of a girl doll, Edith, A little Teddy Bear friend, and a somewhat severe Teddy Bear father. Edith is a doll to delight the heart of any little girl, crisp and starched in her checked dress and organdy apron, with ruffled frills kicking up under her skirts.
After some wonderful shots of the doll and the bears at the beach, Brooklyn Bridge, and so on, she and the innocent little Teddy get into a grown person’s dressing room, and try on the clothes, just as children always love to do. Teddy is gorgeous in junk jewelry and Edith has lipstick all over the mirror and herself, when they are discovered by Mr. Bear, and get a sound spanking. — The Virginian Pilot, November 19, 1957.
The Lonely Doll made the New York Times Best-Selling Children’s Books list and became a Junior Literary Guild selection by being innovative, not controversial. As the New York Times children’s books editor wrote,