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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

If you like a book, don't meet the author. 

Or don’t read his or her biography. Raymond Chandler’s advice could not be sager in the case of many authors of beloved children’s classics. (Celebrities on the children’s book bandwagon take note) Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson and J.M. Barrie (despite the utter fabrication that is Finding Neverland) had very bizarre, suspect aspects to their lives. After discovering certain dark truths about them, you find yourself wishing you could expunge the details from your memory so you can continue enjoying their stories in innocent peace without the disturbing subtext of their personal lives.

Even when I was little, however, the stories of Hans Christian Anderson sickened me with their sadism and misogyny. One of his nastiest tales is The Red Shoes, about a little girl who pays the ultimate price for her frivolity when she wears red dancing shoes because she prefers them to her plain, but sensible, wooden clogs. When she dons the shoes she forgets to pay attention in church and begins to dance with joy because they are so beautiful. Soon she finds she cannot stop dancing because the shoes are cursed! She dances night and day and the shoes fill with blood from her feet. She is about to die of exhaustion when a 'kindly' executioner takes pity upon her and chops off her feet. Even the amputation is not severe enough of a punishment for the girl’s sins of vanity and materialism. When she finally truly, thoroughly repents in church after hearing the beauty of the choir, Little Miss High and Mighty Fine Airs dies in shame of a broken heart. She then ascends to heaven, where no one cares what kind of shoes she wears. What a beautiful story. And his classic taleThe Little Mermaid? The price the mermaid pays for for exchanging her tail for feet (and it’s implied, what goes in between them, which she desires so she can have a complete relationship with her beloved prince) is that her every footstep is agony. Each time she walks it's as if she is stepping on knives. Disney left that part out for some reason. And don’t even get me started on The Little Matchstick Girl, which gave me nightmares when I was a little girl.

A recent biography of a children’s author that you don’t want to miss, though, is Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll. Nathan chronicles the tragic, bizarre life of Dare Wright, the author of the best selling children’s classic The Lonely Doll, and it is riveting and offers great psychological insight into the creative processes of the author of the classic children's series. Born in 1914 to a socially prominent but unhappily married parents, Dare was whisked away by her mother after her parents divorce when she was 4. Dare never saw her father again, but developed an eerily close relationship with her mother, Edie, a narcissistic society portrait painter who treated Dare as little more than an extension of herself. Edie kept Dare isolated from other family and children during her childhood. As Dare grew older they would attend parties and take long trips abroad, accompanying each other arm in arm likeSebastian and Violet Venable. People often mistook them for a lesbian couple. Although the biographer doesn't believe the relationship was physically incestuous, at night the mother and daughter would sleep together, Edie hugging Dare tightly like she was her own living doll. Their life together was rich in fantasy, filled with dress up and make believe games. They would spend the days absorbed in creative endeavors like painting, photography and dress making in a world of their own making. Her mother took a lot of photographs of Dare when she was an adult posed in the nude.

Elegant, refined and beautiful, Dare had many suitors, but she could never leave mama for any of them and seemed to have suffered from retarded emotional growth and a chronic case of frigidity. (One beau reported that when he tried to kiss her she thrust a doll between them, warding him off like the doll was a crucifix and he a vampire.)

As a young woman, Dare did achieve independent success as a photographer. After a brief stint as a fashion model, Dare began working on the other side of the camera and became a photographer of some acclaim. She then created The Lonely Little Doll series, children's books illustrated by photographs about a little doll named Edith (Dare's mother's name). Edith is terribly lonely until two bears, a daddy and a baby, show up one day. Although the books are charming and were incredibly popular, they have a creepy, inescapable eroticism running throughout them. Edith’s lacy panties are almost always visible and her hair is often mussed in a sexy ‘bed-head’ style. There is an undeniable S&M bondage element in the series as well. A recurrent theme in their adventures is for Baby Bear to lead Edith astray. Disaster ensues and Papa Bear has to rescue them from their foolishness. He always punishes Edith with a good spanking over his knee, her lacy panties provocatively visible. Edith also gets tied up a lot in her adventures. Despite the blatant eroticism, the books obviously resonated with little girls. The series was wildly popular, among the top selling children's books in the 50s and 60s.

Tragically, Dare was unable to heal herself through her art, although the psychodymanics that play out in her work are fascinating. When her mother died, Dare, in her sixties, found herself adrift and lost. Alone in her New York apartment/studio, she retreated into alcoholism and fantasy. When she would venture outside of her apartment she often stationed herself like a bag lady on a bench in Central Park, her mangy blonde wig askew, surrounded by vagrant suitors. She was trustingly childlike and would often bring homeless men home to stay with her, asking her horrified maid, “Isn’t he so handsome?” Her friends were helpless to stop her descent. After she was raped and beaten by one of the vagrants she had taken in (Nathan surmises that this was Dare's only sexual encounter), her decline accelerated and she eventually had to be hospitalized permanently. She died two years later in the hospital at the age of 86.

Comments:
This American Life did a wonderful examination of Dare Wright a couple years ago:

http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/00/153.html


--A Reader
 
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