Friday, March 5, 2010

A Doll Story

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz

Madame Alexander Wendy Doll

For years, I have collected various automated toys that sing, dance or do other tricks. In particular, I had a white bear that was dressed in 1950’s “Grease” attire, a deep pink poodle skirt, pale pink satin jacket and neck tie, and a flowing pink bow in its elegantly coiffed hair. When you pressed its left hand, it sang a tune from “Grease”, which was amusing and unusual. Why did I love this bear? It reminded me of the times when my family could not afford such toys for us, a time when my only doll was a second-hand one which was bald and whom I named Anna.

Despite those drawbacks, I loved that doll for many years. She was the best-dressed doll in our neighborhood as I sewed her tiny garments by hand based on my imagination as well as what I saw about me and the cloth remnants which were available at Woolworth’s Five and Dime Store for ninety-nine cents.

Finally, I even got Anna a makeover with a wig from the local toy hobby store in Miami Shores. I remember visiting the store each week to make sure the wig was still there. And sure enough, it remained on the shelf amongst other doll wigs of various shapes, sizes and colors, pristine in its cellophane box. It took months and months of saving my weekly allowance to finally get it at the cost of $4.98 and to glue it steadfastly to Anna’s head. This was shortly before her eventual demise at the hands of my younger sister Diane who, one day, dismantled her in a fit of childish rage.

In 1955, my mother took my sisters and me on a trip to visit her family in England. She scrimped and saved to purchase all the essentials for the trip on layaway. Every week we would trek by bus to downtown Miami to the Richard’s Department Store and make a payment for the items held on layaway. These included three giant 36” dolls, one for each of us, intended to show her family that she wasn’t doing that badly, despite real evidence to the contrary.

My youngest sister, Jennifer, even had a black doll which became the rage when we arrived in England. No one, in what amounted to post-war England, had seen such giant beauties of that size, arrayed in fantastic evening attire and especially one of color. At the request of a relative, we left the dolls in Manchester, to provide entertainment for the locals. In return, our uncles purchased new Raleigh bicycles which we took home with us.

Later, I had a number of second-hand dolls which were either given to me or traded by me with other neighborhood children. One was a Madame Alexander doll which I could never have afforded otherwise. Her owner, Barbie, the doted upon daughter of Herman and Ida Rosenbaum, had tired of her as she had many other Madame Alexander dolls. She kindly let me adopt her oldest doll as she was scheduled to get a brand new one for her birthday.

So, lucky me, I got Wendy, for that was her name. She was 8” tall, had a beautiful pale face with pink cheeks, long-lashed eyes that blinked and lovely curled dark hair along with exquisite clothes which covered the full range of life’s activities. In the trade for the doll; however, I only got the bare doll and thereafter had to make her outfits myself. This I did with great relish and managed to make outfits for the other children’s dolls as well. However, Wendy was never as beloved as my demolished bald-headed Anna. One’s first doll, like one’s first love, is special and remains in one’s memory forever.

My Wendy doll was the creation of Bertha “Beatrice” Alexander who was born on March 9, 1895 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY, and who died on October 3, 1990. She was the talented and entrepreneurial daughter of Hannah Pepper and the step-daughter of Maurice Alexander. He was a Russian immigrant from Odessa, who in 1895 opened the first doll hospital in New York City, M. Alexander, which was located on Grand Street. The family lived above the doll hospital and due to its proximity, Beatrice and her younger sisters Rose, Florence and Jean, all adored dolls.

Madame Alexander and Her Dolls

Later, Beatrice and her husband, Philip Behrman, began creating the Madame Alexander dolls in 1923 and one was even modeled after their own daughter Mildred Alexander Birnbaum. The Alexander Company, where the dolls were manufactured, has been located at 615 West 131st Street, New York City, since 1956, and one can still visit there, although the company is now under new management.

As new dolls were created, they each had their own name and, I remember, all the girls in the neighborhood chattered constantly about what doll they were missing and which one they especially needed to complete their collection. The one who had the most Madame Alexander dolls was considered the queen of the block and she managed to lord it quite blatantly over the others.

Considered the ultimate doll purchase, the gorgeously attired Madame Alexander bride dolls were quite popular and often could be purchased with accompanying bridesmaids. What little girl could be without this treasure? Very often, the dolls were kept in their boxes to maintain them in prime mint
condition.
Madame Alexander Cosmopolitan Bride

In today’s world, where toys are so numerous and the choices for one’s dolls such as Barbie Dolls or other playthings are infinitesimal, Madame Alexander dolls are still cherished by legions of little girls and their mothers. In fact, my Wendy was passed down to my younger sisters when I had outgrown her and thereafter to someone else in the neighborhood.

And so, this doll story ends with the thought that dolls of whatever make, whether well-known like Madame Alexander, or little known or even homemade, were the initial life building blocks for little girls. They fired the imagination and helped to develop skills sometimes with limited resources. Many times, children managed with one special toy, one doll perhaps, that remained firmly rooted in their memory for a lifetime as Anna did with me.

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