While searching for a copy of a book she adored as a girl, journalist Jean Nathan stumbled onto the sad, compelling life of its author, Dare Wright. In the 1950s and ’60s, Wright had written a popular but eerie series of children’s books featuring a glamorous doll and her makeshift teddy bear family. Joining a recent spate of biographies about children’s book authors, Secret Life of a Lonely Doll probes the dark psychological recesses of Wright’s life, from her tumultuous childhood to her success as a fashion photographer to her eventual Miss Havisham-style unraveling.
Her childhood was marred by family dissolution: After her parents split, Dare’s father and brother left her with her mother, Edie, a self-obsessed portrait artist who absorbed Dare into a suffocating fantasy world. Edie treated Dare as a doll, dressing her up for numerous portraits and photos; later Dare returned the favor by naming her actual doll Edith. Even while Dare was an adult with a thriving career, in a sophisticated social milieu, her life revolved around her mother, with whom she often shared a bed. Engagements were broken off, suitors scared away by Dare’s unwillingness to go beyond playful friendship. Eventually Dare found a creative way of restaging her primal traumas and adult anxieties in children’s books that remain equal parts sweet and sinister.
Nathan sometimes trolls too hard for detail, seemingly retracing Wright’s every move. But her sympathetic, graceful style seems appropriate for this private, elusive figure who kept such porous boundaries between her real and imaginary worlds.