Transcript

153:

Dolls
Transcript

Originally aired 03.03.2000

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

As a species, something drives us to want to make inanimate things seem alive. There are statues where the whole idea seems to be to create a simulation of soft skin and sheer billowing cloth out of rock-- literally, out of a rock-- as if to prove this, too, can be human. There is just something about that moment when Pinocchio stops being a few strung together pieces of wood and starts to seem like he's really a little boy.

This week I caught a guy named Ronn Lucas, a ventriloquist who is best known for being able to make anything talk-- a banana, a box of breakfast cereal, a sock-- to ask him what he makes of all this. His dummies are named Buffalo Billy and Scorch.

Ronn Lucas

When I'm on stage talking to my puppets, I believe they're real. I believe to the point, as an actor believes in his character.

Ira Glass

Charles Ludlam, of the Ridiculous Theater, had a dummy called Walter. And he wrote at one point about Walter, he sometimes says unexpected things. Does that happen with you, with Billy or Scorch?

Ronn Lucas

It has happened to me. There are a couple moments, too. I started to get through a breakthrough as a comedian. I was working a series of comedy clubs. And someone asked me if I would do a military club. And I said, yeah, sure, not knowing what I was getting into. I worked for the enlisted men. And they were just really into what I was doing.

But then I went over to the officer's club. And these guys were wild. I guess it's part of the responsibility of command, is that when you get to hang out just with other officers, you can let yourself go. But performing, I couldn't do my script. I couldn't do the show I had planned. So I just started doing question and answer stuff. Don Rickles, ethnic jokes, nothing that would really hurt anybody. But I was picking on everybody equally.

I had to preface that before I got to where I-- So one guy was an officer. And he was from Puerto Rico. I said hey, where are you from? And the guy said, Puerto Rico. And the dummy goes, how many Puerto Ricans does it take to screw in a light bulb? And I'm thinking to myself, why did I have him say that? I don't have an answer.

Ira Glass

Then, in a wink, the dummy came up with an answer. One funny enough to make an audience laugh in an officer's nightclub. But I have to say, not so funny that I want to alienate our lovely multicultural audience.

Ira Glass

And why is it so pleasurable for something inanimate to suddenly become alive through a voice coming out of it?

Ronn Lucas

It is fascinating to hold a fork in your hand and wonder what it would say. I found myself doing that not too long ago around a table with some other ventriloquists.

Ira Glass

And what did it say?

Ronn Lucas

And it said, your thumb is on my butt.

Ira Glass

Right. Of course. Exactly.

Ronn Lucas

I treated it more like a person. I didn't think of it as a utility, or what it was going to do. I saw it as a human form. And my thumb was in the wrong place.

Ira Glass

Which is exactly the point. Every object Ronn Lucas makes speak, he pretends is a person. This is exactly what we're doing as a species all the time. Turning things into people. And it begins when we're children, playing with dolls. That's true for men and women. Today on our program, what that's all about.

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, stories of dolls, dolls of all sorts, and what is it all about?

Act One, Thank Heaven for Little Girls-- Made of Plastic. The story of a company that has figured out all the different ways that girls like dolls, and is trying to sell to nearly every single way they can think of. Act Two, You Know What Mr. Bear Would Say. The author of a once-famous series of children's books about a doll, and how her life came to resemble a doll's. Act Three, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley tells the story of how, in this age when schools are eliminating the doll corner at younger and younger ages, it was playing with dolls that saved a kid in her class. Stay with us.

Act One. Thank Heaven For Little Girls — Made Of Plastic.

Ira Glass

Act One, Thank Heaven for Little Girls-- Made of Plastic. About a year ago, here in Chicago, just around the corner from all the fanciest stores that you can find for a three state radius-- Niketown, and the Sony Gallery, and Neiman Marcus, and all those kind-- a company began an experiment in marketing dolls to little girls. They opened a store, the only one that they have opened anywhere. This American Life producer Susan Burton headed down to American Girl Place.

Susan Burton

It's American Girl Place, not American Girl store. The word place was what thrilled me before I had ever set foot inside. It seemed to connote a project of such grand scale. Build a monument on the Magnificent Mile, and they will come.

You see them on Saturday afternoons downtown, swarms of little girls. What you notice first is their shopping bags, which are bright, Crayola marker red with American Girl Place stamped in white across the side. Austere, grown-up looking bags. Even if the bags are large, banging against their legs, the girls tend to carry them by themselves.

In good coats and tights and Mary Janes, they look like little girls pretending to be little girls. The question of what to wear to American Girl Place has clearly been given careful consideration. Some girls are dressed like their dolls.

Whitney Robertson

I have the purple 2000 millennium outfit. There are purple tights that are sparkly and a purple skirt that goes down to about my knees. I have a purple tank top with a purple cardigan.

Susan Burton

Whitney Robertson is 11 years old and came here from Saint Louis with her mother, Laura. She has short blond hair, braces. She moves with a heightened formality. It's as if she is wearing something magical and doesn't dare disturb the spell.

Laura Robertson

The most interesting thing is when she got her braces this year at Christmas time, she had to have purple-- what do you call them, spacers?

Whitney Robertson

The purple rubber bands. Because I got my braces a few days after Christmas, so I knew I got the 2000 outfit. So that's the only reason I got purple. Otherwise would have gotten my favorite color, blue.

Laura Robertson

So she was totally American Girl.

Susan Burton

Whitney and her mother have come to American Girl Place, not to Chicago, in the same way that you go to Disney World, rather than to Orlando. This is Whitney's first time here. Her parents gave her the trip for Christmas.

Whitney Robertson

There was a series of presents. The first one was a necklace that said, northern expressions. And I really didn't get it at the time, but it was a clue there we go north from Saint Louis. And then the next one was something from AG. I think it was a necklace.

Susan Burton

AG. American Girl.

Whitney Robertson

And then the next one was airline tickets to the AG Place.

Laura Robertson

Whitney had this questioning look on her face, like, what? And then it dawned on her. And she just went, oh my gosh, and started to cry.

Whitney Robertson

True.

Susan Burton

In the store's first year, about 40% of it's million visitors have come from out of town. This is retail as theme park. Destination shopping. There is a concierge desk, coat checks on both the first and third floors. There is a cafe, and a clothing department, a museum, and a live musical, loads of furniture and accessories, shelves of souvenirs, and, of course, the dolls themselves, which cost $82 each.

A former school teacher with a storybook name, Pleasant Rowland, thought up the American Girl dolls about 15 years ago. There are six historic dolls. Each represents a different era, and is accompanied by a series of chapter books about her life and times.

Samantha, the most popular doll, is a Victorian girl. Molly misses her father, who is fighting in World War II. Addie escaped slavery and moved north to Philadelphia. The girls are spunky and independent, and the books are full of historical detail. Quiting bees, suffragettes, victory gardens.

About 5 million dolls have been sold since 1986, mostly by catalog. The company won't say to whom, but as a fourth grade teacher, Whitney's mother has noticed which girls tend to own the dolls.

Laura Robertson

I teach in a poorer area outside of Saint Louis. Most of the people would be lower middle class. I would say about 5% of my 9 to 10-year-olds right now. Now, my daughter's school, who is in the more middle class, maybe upper middle class, area, probably a good 80%--

Whitney Robertson

80%. Out of the whole school.

Laura Robertson

Out of the whole school. Yes. Because you'll see them wearing the t-shirts. You'll see them carrying the dolls. And they talk about it a lot. And it's a big thing.

Susan Burton

The crowd in the store seems well off. Mostly, but not entirely, white. One girl, who must be all of seven, with elegant upswept hair and a long burgundy coat, carries her wire shopping basket around all day with the authority of a duty free heiress.

Whitney didn't even like dolls, her mother tells me, until she got the first Samantha book three years ago. The history drew Whitney into the doll. And lots of other girls I talked to do seem to genuinely like, and learn from, the books. But mostly, the girls play with these dolls the way they play with any dolls. They insert them into various domestic dramas. New school. Orphan. The universally popular "my girl's coming over to your girl's house."

And they do their hair. I hear that the problem with Molly is that her pigtails always fall out, that most girls prefer to undo Kirsten's braids.

Whitney Robertson

You get a little piece of the hair, and you brush it from the underside with a certain kind of brush for five minutes. And then it turns out more shiny than it was, and it won't be as frizzy.

Susan Burton

The ingenious thing about American Girl Place is not only that they seem to understand what a girl wants to do when she plays with her doll, but that they know how to participate in the game with her. It's as if the marketers have stepped into the center of a girl's dream and are selling to her from a perch in her own unconscious. The doll hair care products in this store rival a beauty salon's offerings. Employees roam the floor, dispensing styling tips.

Whitney Robertson

Frizzy.

Laura Robertson

The lady was showing them down there how to brush their hair, and how they could put it up into little curlers.

Susan Burton

Again, Whitney's mother, Laura.

Laura Robertson

And put water on it, and it would be shinier and it would be curly. I mean, they were taking the time to do this down there. Unbelievable.

Susan Burton

American Girl Place knows what girls want. And these days, this includes a look-alike doll. The American Girls of Today are available in 20 different skin, hair, and eye color combinations. Almost every single girl I talked to with a Today doll says she picked the one she did because it looked like her. And the Today accessories are varied enough to allow any girl to pursue her particular obsession.

Carrie

I'm pretty set, because I knew I wanted the wheelchair and the cast. I've been wanting one for about a year.

Mother

True. We're not sure why. The medical thing. I don't know.

Carrie

--husky right there.

Susan Burton

That's Carrie. She's eight. She and her sister got the wheelchair yesterday. They've come back for the Apres-Ski set, which includes a tic-tac-toe board, a tiny thermos, and, most important, a bright yellow cast. They also want the dog sled, for accidents. They were in the midst of a complicated disaster narrative. A sort of Wild America meets Little House docudrama, which they began during their car trip to Chicago. Carrie needs the cast for a related story.

Carrie

Because we're playing a game. And they're going on a camping trip. Horseback riding. And on the way back, she falls and gets stomped on the leg.

Susan Burton

Then there are the collectors, the mint in boxers. By making the dolls collectible, American Girl Place can keep girls buying dolls long past the age they normally would. Their families can be a little spooky. I meet one grandmother who pulls from her handbag photographs of her granddaughter's closet. Yes, photos of a closet, filled with American Girl accessories. The stepgrandmother, who is also in the store, tells me that the girl has everything for Kirsten.

Grandmother

For a while there, she thought that this was too babyish for her, so got out of it. But then I think she has realized that this is something that you collect, and you can just enjoy your whole life, really. I was telling her about Demi Moore, that she has a collection of dolls, and she has a special house for all her dolls. So it's just a nice hobby.

Susan Burton

Downstairs on the first floor, Whitney and her mother look at the dioramas. There are glassed-in living rooms filled with period furniture, one for each historic character, and display cases of accessories and clothing.

Laura Robertson

Samantha's bathing outfit. How would you like to be over at Lake Carlyle in the summer, when it's 104, and have to wear something like that?

Whitney Robertson

I mean, it's basically a dress.

Susan Burton

Girls move past the dioramas in chronological order, as if in a museum. But not in a desultory field trip shuffle. They love this stuff. A girl dressed as Samantha lingers before Samantha's showcase, posing for pictures, staring at the doll's nightstand and her tiny copy of The Wizard of Oz. These items are called realia, which is the perfect word to describe what's so compelling about American Girl. Everything you buy makes the world of the doll more real. It makes her more real, which is what a lot of girls wish about their dolls.

Announcer

And now, our last contestant, Miss Samantha Parkington.

Susan Burton

In the musical review-- the theater is just past the dioramas-- the dolls are literally brought to life, channeled through six rosy-cheeked, middle school-age girls who act out stories the audience already knows from the American Girl books.

After the musical, I have tea with Whitney and her mother. The cafe is elegant, in a cartoonish way. Dark pink carpet, lamps studded with plastic Gerbera daisies, overstuffed striped chairs. There is a harpist playing a Backstreet Boys song. Scones and tea sandwiches are served on tiered platters. Girls sip from iced pink lemonade. They sit up straight. They're giggly and polite.

There is a way in which the whole American Girl Place experience seems orchestrated around this moment, that hour when a girl plays out her own story book scene, steps into the illustration. Whitney evaluates the menu. Then she says this.

Whitney Robertson

In the theater and in the American Girl Place, the employees make the dolls feel like they're real, and make you feel like they're real. And it's really, really neat.

Susan Burton

What do they do that makes the dolls feel real?

Whitney Robertson

In the tea and the lunch, in the cafe room, they get a chair for the doll, and if she has a dress on, fix the dress and set her in it, and then put her on the table.

Susan Burton

Almost everyone in the room clips one of these miniature chairs to her table. The girl at the table next to us neatly hangs Molly's winter coat over the back. And even though the chairs are for sale outside for $25, there's something lovely about seeing everyone engaged in the same game of pretend together.

Whitney is on the upper end of the American Girl demographic. She says that in sixth grade, a lot of kids think that dolls are babyish, that she doesn't take her around too many places. And as she gives Samantha a sip from a tiny teacup, slips the napkin holder-- that also serves as a scrunchy-- into her hair, it's clear that one of the things she likes so much about the store is that it's a public space for playing dolls, maybe the only such place anywhere.

It's almost 5 o'clock when we finish tea. And Whitney has to make her last purchases. She heads to the American Girl of Today room, which is the only place in the store where you see packs of seven-year-old girls shopping without their mothers. The atmosphere is that of a slumber party gone awry. The walls are painted black. It feels like a night club for little girls.

Whitney wants to get a fleece jacket for her doll, one that looks exactly like a fleece jacket from the Gap would if you threw it in the dryer for a month.

Laura Robertson

You sure that's absolutely what you want?

Whitney Robertson

Yep.

Laura Robertson

But it's not a theme outfit. I thought you wanted another theme outfit.

Whitney Robertson

I do. But I really want this one.

Laura Robertson

I would rather buy you a theme outfit.

Whitney Robertson

OK. Let's go get a theme outfit.

Susan Burton

A theme outfit means an historical outfit. Whitney's mother is pushing for the educational experience. We take the escalators down two floors to the turn of the century Samantha clothing. Whitney points at a striped dress with a pinafore.

Whitney Robertson

That's the birthday outfit. The pink-striped dress with the little pinafore thingy over it. I like that one.

Laura Robertson

$22.

Whitney Robertson

But I also like the plaid cape and gaiters.

Laura Robertson

I thought you liked the blue dress in the back?

Whitney Robertson

I do. But I like the regular clothes up there better.

Susan Burton

We head back up to the American Girl of Today room. Girls pulling out boxes, trying on slippers, crowding the aisles in a final shopping frenzy. This is the only thing in the store that's not a game of make believe believe. Buying.

Laura Robertson

What's the decision?

Whitney Robertson

I want the regular clothes, the AG of Today.

Susan Burton

Whitney shows us her final pick. It's an outfit the girls wore in the musical's finale, white overalls emblazoned with a silver star. She also has a doll-sized American Girl Place t-shirt and a snow dome that trills a song from the musical.

These accessories aren't about history, or anything other than the experience of coming to the store. The brand itself. One thing Whitney likes about the outfit she has bought for her doll, she tells me, is that it comes with a miniature red shopping bag stamped with the words American Girl Place. The cashier puts Whitney's items into a bright red sack of her own. And she and her mother head out to Michigan Avenue.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton.

[MUSIC - "AMERICAN GIRL," TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS]

Act Two. You Know What Mr Bear Would Say.

Jean Nathan

It was in the spring of 1997 that the artist's image floated into my mind, the cover of a children's book I hadn't seen, or even thought of, in more than 30 years. There it lodged, and there it remained. It felt as if it were a message, and its insistence startled me. After all, I live among the grown-ups now.

But the image just kept flashing in my mind. Pink and white gingham inset with a black and white photograph of Edith, the lonely doll, an open book between her spread, outstretched legs.

My own copy of The Lonely Doll was long lost. And I soon learned from a bookstore clerk, who gave me the name of the author, Dare Wright, that the book was out of print. The New York Public Library's computer listed three copies, all damaged or missing. When I called a children's book searcher listed in the phone book, she said she knew the book well, and would add my name to her waiting list.

Meaning to close the phone book, I found myself turning distractedly to the listings for the name Wright. And there, jumping out at me from blurred columns of typeface, was Wright, Dare. 11 East 80th Street, 249-6965. I don't think I could have been any more amazed if the address given had been, say, second to the right, and then straight on till morning, Peter Pan's address on the island of Neverland.

In the weeks to come, I dialed the number several times. There was never an answer. I also sent a letter expressing how much the book had meant to me as a child, and asking if she knew where I could find a copy. Several months later, I finally received The Lonely Doll from the book searcher.

Illustrated with black and white photographs, The Lonely Doll is the story of a doll named Edith, mired in loneliness, seemingly parentless, eating her cereal alone, going to bed alone, begging some pigeons on the windowsill to be her friends, and watching as they just fly away. One morning, two teddy bears, Mr. Bear and Little Bear, appear in her garden. They tell her they've come to be her friends. They move right in.

Home alone, one rainy day, Edith and Little Bear discover, behind a set of louvered doors, a grown-up woman's closet and dressing room. The identity of the woman, and her absence, are never explained. She might be Edith's mother, but from all indications Edith has no mother.

A frenzied dress-up session follows, in which Edith and Little Bear adorn themselves with rhinestones and pearls, a petticoat, and a hat with roses and ribbons, high-heeled shoes, a leopard handbag. In their recklessness, they knock over a vase with one long-stemmed rose. The water spills into a jewelry box, but they are oblivious.

Wielding a fully swiveled out lipstick, Little Bear goads Edith to put it on. She says she wouldn't dare. You know what Mr. Bear would say. Then, just as Little Bear uses the lipstick to scrawl "Mr. Bear is just a silly old thing" across the oval mirror, who should appear but Mr. Bear.

Spankings ensue, but the deeper issue striking terror in Edith is that her disobedience could jeopardize the whole arrangement, and that Edith would be, once again, abandoned and lonely. Yet when the little ones clean up the mess and promise never to do it again, Mr. Bear solemnly promises that he and Little Bear will stay with her forever and ever.

About the time the book arrived, I received a phone call from a woman named Brooke Ashley. She said my letter had been forwarded to her in California. She said she was Dare's unofficial goddaughter and legal guardian, and that Dare, now 84, was in a hospital on life support. She said she was coming to New York to begin closing up Dare's apartment. Did I want to meet her at 11 East 80th Street?

When I arrived at the apartment, Brooke met me at the door and led me to the living room. I was spellbound. The living room was filled with portraits, some life-sized, of a beautiful blond woman. That's Dare, Brooke said. They were all painted by her mother. Dare, I was shocked to realize, looked very much like Edith, the lonely doll. And Edith, I learned, was named for Dare's mother.

As I left, Brooke gave me Dare's fat, leather-bound scrapbook, containing the record of her publishing career, including jacket covers, reviews, and other articles relating to the first 12 of her 19 books for children. The Lonely Doll was her first book. I had never known of the rest.

The Lonely Doll received mountains of publicity when it was first published in 1957. It was serialized in Good Housekeeping. It climbed the children's best seller list in the New York Times. It was translated into 6 foreign languages, and remained in print, in various formats, for 35 years.

I sorted through the piles of clippings and photographs I had been given by Brooke. Mostly, they were photographs of Dare. There were magnificent photos of Dare playing dress-up in elaborate costumes. But the most startling ones depicted Dare across a spectrum of ages in what could be described as undress, or partially so. These photos were just as posed as those of her in costume.

Dare, as I just began to discover, had lived in her own version of a wonderland. I spent the next two years talking to anyone I could find who knew her, trying to make sense of the world I had stumbled into.

In 1917, when Dare was three, her parents divorced. Her father was given custody of Dare's five-year-old brother, Blaine. Her parents seem to have made a pact that the brother and sister should never see each other again.

Dare and her mother moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother put a doll made by the Italian company Lenci on will call at Halle Brothers, a department store near their home, until she could make the full $11.50 payment. The two named the doll Edith.

Edie, as Dare's mother was known, was a portrait painter of some renown. Those who sat for her included Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, and Greta Garbo. And in 1924, one of her subjects offered her the use of the penthouse of his Cleveland office building as her studio. For the next 45 years, its 1,500 square feet with a northern exposure skylight would be her home. The same year she moved in, Edie enrolled Dare as a boarding student in a private girls' school.

Dare graduated from high school in 1934 and moved to New York to attend drama and art school. She didn't know that her brother, Blaine, was also living in the city. Their uncle orchestrated a reunion in Central Park of the 22-year-old tall, handsome Blaine and the 19-year-old newly-golden Dare. According to one of Dare's cousins, Blaine and Dare fell in love. They even considered concealing their brother and sister relationship in order to marry, an idea they eventually dropped.

Dare tried, with little success, to be an actress, and then went on to work as a fashion model, including a stint as the Maidenform bra girl. Soon she switched to the other side of the camera, and her fashion photography began appearing in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Town and Country.

In the early '40s, Blaine introduced Dare to a British friend of his, named Philip Sandeman, whose family produced port and sherry. Though tall, blond, and dazzlingly beautiful, Dare was strangely childlike, avoidant, and shy, and seemed somehow confused by her powers over men.

Philip was ideal for Dare. Throughout their five year courtship, he remained at a safe distance. First there was the war, and afterward he lived across the ocean. They were engaged, but a week before the wedding, Philip called things off.

In the years that followed, Dare's close friend, Donald Sewell, said, men always did beat a path to her door. Dare wasn't interested. She never seemed quite of this world, he said. She was ethereal, somehow above normal courtship.

Throughout all of this, Dare seems to have hung onto the dream that Philip would come back to her. Edie no doubt fanned this fantasy. Dare sent Philip's mother photographs of alluring portraits Edie painted of her in this period. In all of them, Dare had posed in low-cut white gowns. Edie also did many portraits of Philip, painting him from Dare's photographs. These were signed by both mother and daughter.

Dare also staged elaborate photographs of herself, seated at her dressing table, a sort of shrine to Philip, with a pencil drawing of him that she had sketched, and a bottle of Sandeman sherry. Clutched in her hands is a letter he had sent to her. She is turned, glancing at the camera wistfully, hopefully. But in 1951, at the age of 30, Philip was killed flying in a demonstration airshow.

After Philip's death, Dare rented her first New York apartment, having lived until then in a series of hotel rooms. She hung her portraits of Philip throughout the apartment, with one by the front door. She made voluminous drapes for the windows and installed smoked glass mirrors. Her all-white boudoir was fitted out with a taffeta canopied princess bed. And next to that, set off by louvered doors, was a dressing room with a vanity table, an oval mirror, and a large closet.

Dare and her mother were virtually inseparable. Dare made frequent visits to her mother's penthouse in Cleveland. And Edie spent at least one week a month in New York with Dare, sleeping, as was their custom, in the same bed. They seemed to have no idea of the oddness of this arrangement. As Edie told Brooke, I reach over and pat her little bottom in the night.

Now that Dare had her own apartment, Edie sent along her belongings, including her childhood dolls. After the first, and biggest, trauma of Dare's life, losing her father and brother, consolation had come in the form of Edith, her doll. Now, after the second, losing Philip, Edith was back again.

Edith was a mess. Her wig was yellowed and tangled, and her clothes were in shreds. Dare quickly set about giving her a completely new look. Long, straight blond hair, usually worn tied up in a high ponytail, and gold hoop earrings. Edith the doll now looked very like Dare herself.

I don't think of Edith as a doll, Dare told an interviewer. She's a personality in her own right. A suitor told me that one day it began with Dare chiding, you didn't say hello to Edith, as though he had rudely neglected to acknowledge a human presence. Another time, when he tried to kiss her, she held the doll out in front of her to block his advances.

Dare also acquired some teddy bears in this period, after her brother went on a drunken shopping spree with Dorothy Tivis Pollack, a former model, who headed the Figureheads modeling agency where Dare was registered for a time. Blaine was drunk, Dorothy told me, and got weird, as he always did when he drank. We passed FAO Schwarz, and he saw a teddy bear in the window. He decided I had to have one. In we went.

But when he saw the bears, he said it would be terrible to buy just one, because the bear would be lonely. With that, he directed the saleswoman to pack up the entire lot, about a dozen stuffed bears. Hundreds of dollars of bears. Since Dare's apartment was just around the corner, we went over there, carrying all these damn teddy bears.

Within minutes of their arrival, Dorothy recalled, Blaine and Dare were seated on the floor, surrounded by bears, telling bear stories in various bear voices. Soon Dare added Edith, the doll, to the party.

Edith, Dare later told an interviewer, looked so happy with the bears that she decided to photograph them all together. Soon, she was making them into a book. She thought up a storyline, made Edith outfits, and photographed her doll and bears in her apartment and around New York. In all her poses, Edith appears to be an animated, thinking, feeling little girl.

The story of the lonely doll was, in some measure, Dare's own story. The book and her life share the same set of themes. Seeking love and approval, fearing abandonment, risking separation and autonomy. In other words, the issues inherent in growing up. But in the book, she found a way to make it right, removing a mother from the proceedings, and providing her alter ego, Edith, with love and rescue in the form of two mail teddy bears.

With the publication of The Lonely Doll, and the 18 books that followed, came recognition that Dare had never experienced, and with which she seemed highly uncomfortable. She would have been 43 in 1957, the year the book was published. 48 when she gave her age as 35 to the Saturday Evening Post.

Her mother, Edie, however, was completely at home with all the attention. The two became a sort of team, with Edie in the assistant's role. They adored traveling, and built it into the story lines of Dare's books, the most elaborate one being Lona: A Fairy Tale. For this, they traveled throughout Europe, scouting out scenery for the story of a princess who must overcome the spell of an evil wizard who has changed her into a tiny doll. Dare herself posed as the princess in her full-size incarnation. She would set up the shot, focus the camera, don her gown, and have her mother trip the shutter.

Even on vacations, they lugged along cameras, tripods, even movie cameras. I have yet to make my way through the dozens of 16 millimeter films. They're soundless, as mute as the photographs, but so much more chilling. Edie is never without a lit cigarette, and always appears in a cloud of smoke. In one scene, she gesticulates in the air with a paint brush, as though waving a magic wand. And how strange to see Dare move for the first time, with none of the grace I would have imagined. Her movements are awkward, jerky, as if she where crippled in some way.

In the '50s, Edie and Dare began photographing Dare naked. The obsessive nature of this game is evidenced by the fact that the same pose would be photographed again and again, using a variety of cameras and film. The most extraordinary is a series of Dare on the sand, wearing nothing but a pearl necklace, her limp body tangled up in driftwood, shells and seaweed. Whether face up or face down, in all of them she looks as though she were dead, and had just washed up on shore with the tide.

No one I spoke to knew about these photos, but nearly everyone was aware of the extreme closeness of the mother-daughter relationship. Almost no one viewed Edie's influence as benign. Blaine's friend, Dorothy, recalled shouting matches when she and Blaine came to visit Dare and Edie. Blaine would see Dare all dressed up like a fairy princess and scream at his mother, my sister's not a doll.

In July 1975, Edie, age 92, died in her sleep in her daughter's bed, with Dare, then 61, by her side. For the first time in her life, Dare had a chance to forge a self distinct from the one Edie had imposed. Instead, after her mother's death, Dare seem to fall apart. She ate less and less, her body became more like a pre-adolescent's, and she wore clothing, makeup and hairstyles suitable for a much younger woman. She withdrew.

She began to host ghostly gatherings alone in her apartment of those she had loved, lining up photographs of her mother, her father and Philip on her living room couch. Seating herself in an armchair opposite, she would spend hours talking to the pictures. Sometimes she would talk to a photograph of Philip all day long, said the nurse who began caring for her in 1987.

In 1994, she suffered respiratory failure while undergoing medical tests, and has been hospitalized at a long-term care facility ever since. I have been to see her there, immobile, tucked tightly into bed, her waxen head propped up on pillows, her arms resting on her stomach. A tube comes out of her throat, hooked up to a network of clanking machines.

She is still beautiful, even in this hideous circumstance. She is Edith, as if under an evil wizard's spell. The golden hoop earrings, the high ponytail gathered to one side, ending in a long yellowing white braid.

When The Lonely Doll was reissued last fall, I brought her a copy, which I read aloud to her on each visit, holding the book so she can see the photographs. What she actually hears or sees is impossible to know, but if I glance at her face while I read, a look of childlike wonderment has come over it. From the moment I hold up the book's cover, her mouth breaks open into her widest smile.

Ira Glass

A version of Jean Nathan's story first appeared in the literary journal Tin House. She's working on a book about Dare Wright to be published by Random House.

Coming up, girl turns helicopter into baby and other true stories, in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, dolls.

Vivian Paley

Most important, from the beginning, they are characters to be nurtured. Hugging it, feeling it against your cheek, rocking it, just having it. It's a bulwark against loneliness.

Ira Glass

Vivian Paley was a kindergarten teacher for decades, won the MacArthur Genius Grant for her many books about the stories that children invent, and the way they play, and what it's about. She says, children use dolls and they make up stories for similar reason, to act out moments and feelings that are knocking around in their heads. In her classroom, Vivian Paley would have her students invent stories and then act them out. And she says, there's one idea that comes up in small children's stories more than any other.

Vivian Paley

So many of the stories that young children tell have to do with an animal or a little girl or boy being lonely, and walking in the woods, and finding someone to play with. It is the universal, most successful story. And if you have a kindergarten class, or a preschool class, or a first grade class, and-- although this would never happen-- but let's say, all 24 children told this story.

There was a lonely deer. He had no one to play with. And then a cougar came up and said, I'll be your friend. Next story. There was a lonely boy. He had no one to play with. And on and on.

Not one child in the class would say, what, again? Haven't we had enough of that already? No. They would say, more. More. Tell us again that when you're lonely, someone's going to come up and say, I'll play with you.

Ira Glass

Vivian Paley says that it's by making up stories together that small children become friends. In one of her books, she tells the story of one of the children in her classroom who used a doll and a story to isolate himself from other students, and how it was through other stories and dolls that other children finally pulled him out of his isolation.

The doll in this case was a toy helicopter. Vivian now tells the story with actors recreating scenes from her classroom from transcriptions of what really occurred.

Vivian Paley

Every day in the corner of the classroom, nestled between the black cabinet and the bay window bench, Jason arranges big wooden blocks into walls and crouches behind them. He calls this his airport. The walls surround him, high enough so he can barely be seen over the top.

Jason

This blade is turning around. Now you're going faster. Now you're going faster. Now you're going to crash. Now you're going off the ground. And now you're going up, up, up. Now you're going loud. Brrrrm. Now you're going to land. OK. All safely.

Vivian Paley

Jason plays alone. He tells stories to himself. He seems unaware of our habits and customs. He wails in fright if his helicopter is touched, and he breaks up our talk with ear-splitting noises.

Jason

[MAKING NOISES]

Vivian Paley

His helicopter story isolates him. If you ask him a question, he says his helicopter is broken. If you suggest an activity, he rushes away to fix his helicopter. He hasn't learned to listen to anyone else's story, and stories are the way children get to know each other.

Jason

[MAKING NOISES]

Joseph

Pretend a bad alligator peeked downstairs.

Simon

Yeah, and then we hiss him. Then we fighted him.

Joseph

But who's the alligator? Hey, Jason. You're the alligator. OK, Jason?

Jason

Up, up, up. Down, down, down. Oh, we're going to crash.

Vivian Paley

Children usually take part in each other's stories because they need friends and they want to be part of a drama. If Jason would agree to be the alligator, Joseph and Simon would later tell their families, Jason is my friend. It's that easy when it works.

Simon

Jason, look at me. You want to be an alligator or not?

Jason

This is a rescue helicopter. Someone broke it. I have to fix the blades.

Joseph

I got an idea, Jason. Your helicopter has to rescue us, OK? Help, help. A monster alligator in the dark. Save me, helicopter. To the rescue. Save the day.

Vivian Paley

Jason is silent, bent over his helicopter. Joseph glares at him. His best logic isn't working, and he's puzzled.

Vivian Paley

I heard Joseph call for help, Jason. Can your helicopter save the snakes?

Jason

My blade is broken. Someone broke this blade.

Vivian Paley

Can you show Joseph and Simon how you fix it?

Jason

I can't show someone how you fix it.

Vivian Paley

He calls the children someone. After two months, he refers to no one but me by name. He enters the classroom feeling different, frightened, attacked, that he must defend himself. But every child knows these feelings, in one way or another.

Every day, after I've collected 10 or 12 stories, we act the stories out. I read each story out loud, and the children take different roles. The stage where we do this is a taped square in the center of the story room rug. It is sacrosanct when stories are performed. The children learn to keep off the stage unless they are in the story.

Jason refuses to follow the rule, and it upsets every one. His motor tunes up as each story begins, and within a sentence or two he is flying around the stage. He does this as we act out Simon's story.

Jason

[MAKING NOISES]

Vivian Paley

Simon, is there a helicopter in this story?

Simon

No.

Vivian Paley

Then you mustn't come on stage, Jason.

Jason has heard this reasoning before. I ask this question all the time when he forges on stage. Is there a helicopter in this story? The answer is always no.

Vivian Paley

Simon, is there a helicopter in your story? Do the squirrels see a helicopter?

Simon

No. Yeah. They do. They heard it flying over there, then it lands, on this spot, right here.

Jason

[MAKING NOISES] I turn off the motor.

Vivian Paley

Jason stops, just where Simon pointed. He has deliberately furthered another child's story. Today, Jason has listened.

The next day, I tell Jason, you turned off your motor when Simon told you to land. Now you know all about stories. Do you want to tell one? He says yes, and launches right in.

Jason

And a helicopter, a turbo prop. It's flying.

Vivian Paley

How could his first story be anything else? In the story room, Jason zooms around the rug as I read his story. He continues to fly several moments after I'm done reading.

Vivian Paley

I wonder if the helicopter sees another plane?

Jason

Someone.

Vivian Paley

Which someone?

Jason

Squirrel someone.

Simon

He means me. I'm the plane, right?

Vivian Paley

Jason nods, and the two aircraft zoom around the room. Chins forward, arms in motion, the two boys fly together in formation.

Young children see themselves always inside a story. A young child will spend easily 3/4 of his time in fantasy play. It's through stories and fantasies that children understand the world. It is their intuitive approach to all occasions. It is the way they think.

Jason still plays alone.

Jason

I want to. I always have to be a helicopter. But you always tell me not to.

Vivian Paley

I didn't tell you not to be a helicopter, Jason. But Simon asked you to come into his squirrelly hole. And I thought you didn't hear him since you didn't answer.

Jason

Because that squirrelly guy is outside the window.

Simon

I'm not outside. Don't say that.

Vivian Paley

Jason seems surprised that he's gotten such an intense response.

Jason

That squirrel someone is outside.

Simon

I hate you, Jason. You're never my friend.

Vivian Paley

Jason still doesn't play with the other children. But one day, he points at Simon.

Jason

Someone's hiding in my airport.

Simon

No. I'm not in there.

Jason

Simon is in my airport.

Simon

You're lying, you doody head.

Jason

Simon is in my airport.

Simon

Don't say my name. Tell him not to, teacher.

Vivian Paley

Jason, Simon doesn't want you to pretend he's in your airport. Do you really want him to come in? Really come in?

Jason

No.

Vivian Paley

Jason, can I help you find someone to play inside your airport? Teachers do that, you know. Once I helped Simon find a mother squirrel. Remember, Simon?

Jason

I don't want a mother squirrel.

Vivian Paley

Who do you want?

Jason

Someone hiding in my airport.

Vivian Paley

OK. Listen everyone. Jason needs someone to hide in his airport. Who will do that?

Samantha

Only if I can be the mother.

Jason

It's a helicopter house.

Samantha

I'll be the mother, and you be the baby.

Jason

No.

Samantha

I'm She-Ra and you're the helicopter?

Jason

Yes.

Vivian Paley

Samantha climbs behind the wall of blocks gingerly, and sits down next to Jason.

Jason

My blades are broken. I'm fixing them.

Samantha

We have to make beds. I'll get the pillows. Save my place.

Vivian Paley

Jason covers Samantha's place with one hand, and blows on the helicopter blades.

Jason

[BLOWS] Turn around. Turn around. Ooh, not such a good spinning. Kick the house down. Kick the house down.

Samantha

Lie down, little helicopter.

Vivian Paley

She has pillows and sheets, and she makes Jason into a baby as delicately as she can.

Jason

Kick the house down.

Samantha

Shh, little helicopter.

Vivian Paley

With this one episode, Samantha launches a wholehearted pursuit of Jason that, more than any other event in the school year, brings him out of the helicopter house, and into the social life of the classroom. She is determined to make Jason into her baby, however he may object.

Other times, Jason shows he's unable to join the other children's fantasy play. When he wanders into a game the boys are playing, he doesn't understand what they're doing, and everyone yells at him to get out.

Joseph

Don't go there, Jason. You're breaking up the marshway.

Alex

You're breaking up the marshway.

Joseph

Get out, Jason.

Alex

Don't. It's the marshway.

Jason

I'm going there now because-- because-- there isn't a--

Alex

No, Jason. You don't even know what school is.

Vivian Paley

Jason starts to cry. This is also a very emotional moment for me. Alex is right. Jason has interrupted play in an illogical way, in a way that shows he doesn't know that a story is going on. And Alex knows enough to say, you don't know what school is.

Which is to say, you don't know what story is. You don't know what fantasy is. You don't know what the most logical relationship between human beings is. Because stories work by the most basic logic, logic a child can understand. It is not too much to say that the only time a child understands everything is in a story.

As the weeks pass, Samantha's pursuit of Jason grows more inventive.

Samantha

I'm putting you in my story, Jason. Come here and listen.

Jason

I don't want to.

Samantha

Yes, you have to. Or I won't give you a piece of gum when my daddy buys some.

Vivian Paley

Jason sits down next to Samantha and watches as she dictates her story. If a teacher had threatened him in that way, he would have withdrawn. When Samantha threatens him, his interest in Samantha's story is heightened. He correctly interprets her warning as a sign of friendship, and the story proves him correct.

Samantha

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Then a helicopter came. Then the little girl said hello to the helicopter. Then a kitty says hello to the helicopter. Then the kitty, and the girl, and the helicopter are friends.

Vivian Paley

After she's done, Jason gathers up a pile of papers for his helicopter drawings.

Samantha

Don't draw now, Jason. You want to be my husband?

Jason

No, because I'm busy.

Samantha

Or the baby, or the cook? Do you want to make a birthday cake? Do you want to be dead, but then you come alive? Remember, you liked it that time?

Vivian Paley

As Samantha imagines other scenes, she doesn't notice that Jason has stopped drawing, and instead, has cut out a large oval shape.

Jason

This is your cape, Samantha. Be a queen. I'm the king.

Vivian Paley

But when I glance at their block castle a while later, Jason seems to be the queen's baby. Does Samantha continue to push Jason into the baby role because he appears babyish to her? I doubt it. I've seen too many mature children prefer the baby crib in play. Samantha's motives, I think, are simple and understandable. She likes being the mother and she's fond of Jason. To express her true feelings, she must act the role of his mother. The mother-baby or father-baby relationship spells love most dramatically for many children. By year's end, Samantha will have moved to the big sister-little sister version of the same emotion.

Samantha

No, you dope. You [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Vivian Paley

Once changes begin, they happen fast. In one week in April, Jason is a she-baby airplane on Monday, a smaller person looking for Easter eggs on Tuesday, a morning and night boy on Wednesday, an angry fighting person on Thursday. And on Friday, he finds a remarkable new role for his helicopter that takes my breath away in admiration and wonder.

Samantha

Do you want to play, Jason?

Jason

Yes. You sit there. I made a two seater. Wait. A three seater. One more seat it needs.

Samantha

Why?

Jason

Because I'm going to pick up someone at school, because not anyone will come to pick them up and walk them home.

Vivian Paley

Jason is letting someone else into the helicopter. And when his helicopter finally emerges from its house, he gives it a single task. To take a mother and her child home after school. Underlying this fantasy is a basic fear. No one has arrived to take the school child home. The child is lost at school.

Jason

I'm going to pick up someone at school. Because not anyone will come to pick them up and walk them home. They're going to hold everyone's hand. One kid's going to hold the other kid's hand.

Samantha

And I'm the mom, OK?

Jason

Yes. And everyone, when I get out of school, I'm going to pick them up in my airplane.

Child

I'll be the kid, Jason. OK?

Jason

Yes, you're the kid. Hold your mom's hand. I'm flying you home.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, Vivian Paley's book, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, from which this was adapted, is published by Harvard University Press. The children's dialogue was reenacted from classroom transcripts by Joe Robinson, Jason [? Bogart, ?] [? Aisha ?] [? Harmon, ?] [? Matt ?] [? Kady, ?] Anna [? Klumsky ?] Beth [? Iams, ?] and Jenny [? Banachefski, ?] who played Jason. Funding came from the University of Chicago's William Benton Broadcast Project, Claudia [? Daily, ?] and the late Louis Friedman, supervising producers.

Our program was produced today by Susan Burton and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Blue Chevigny, and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and conciliary Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Eric [? Harverston. ?] Musical help from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you know, you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website at www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This week a photo on there of Dare Wright. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who can be found every morning in his office--

Jean Nathan

Seated on the floor, surrounded by bears, telling bear stories in various bear voices.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.