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THE EXAMINED LIFE

A doll's life

WHEN THE CHILDREN'S book "The Lonely Doll" was published in 1957, the tale of a blonde doll named Edith and her teddy bear companion invading a woman's dressing room was a hit. Jean Nathan, a freelance journalist and author of "The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll" (Henry Holt), a newly published biography of "Lonely Doll" author Dare Wright, recalls how entrancing she found the elaborate photographic tableaux. "This book was proof that glamour and elegance existed out there somewhere," she writes.

When Nathan rediscovered "The Lonely Doll" a few years ago, however, the setups now seemed obsessive, the glamour unsettling, and the spanking Edith receives from the daddy bear perverse.

"What is this girl doing alone in this house?" Nathan wondered aloud in a telephone interview. "Why is she less upset about the spanking than the fear that the bears will abandon her?" Questions like these led Nathan to the bedside of the indigent, nearly comatose Wright (who died in 2001) and -- thanks to a cache of bizarre photographic self-portraits -- into Wright's own emotionally stunting childhood, whose central characters (the father and brother who abandoned her, the neglectful mother with whom she had a "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"-type relationship) reappeared, or failed to appear, in 10 "Lonely Doll" books."

Unlike many children's books authors, Dare Wright knew exactly what kids care -- and worry -- about most," says Nathan. "Misbehaving. Breaking the rules. Wishing their parents wouldn't leave them home, and worrying they won't ever come back. . .. What might have come off as cutesy shots of a doll and teddy bears emerged in Dare's hands as moody, claustrophobic, a little sinister. This helps explain the book's lasting allure."

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