Lonely Doll, Beautiful Island
A Lonely Doll on Ocracoke
A Barefoot Island: The Lonely Doll on Ocracoke”?
By Amelia Boldaji
Photos reprinted with the permission of Dare Wright Media, LLC
Ocracoke in the Fifties is a book I picked up on a whim. The author’s name, Dare Wright, seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I settled in to read the foreword. Wright, it turned out, was also the creator of a series of best-selling children’s books that began with The Lonely Doll in 1957.
The Lonely Doll is a book that fascinated me while I was growing up on the Outer Banks in the ’80s. In its broadest strokes it’s a classic children’s story (Edith is a lonely doll until she meets Mr. Bear and Little Bear, and after a troublesome adventure the three promise to live happily together forever), but there’s also a slightly darker, dreamlike air of mystery that surrounds aspects of this basic narrative that’s only heightened by the richly detailed black-and-white photographs that illustrate it.
It seems simplistic and yet also incredibly revealing to say that Wright told stories primarily through photographs. While there’s a certain poetry to much of her writing, I was often struck more by how suggestive her images are — to the extent that it almost seemed irrelevant whether I actually read the text. From a photograph of Edith and the bears building a sandcastle or standing at the foot of a towering Brooklyn Bridge, to one of Edith appearing to take a slow-motion tumble while climbing a patio wall, the images sprung to life like movie stills. It was likely these very qualities that captivated me when I was younger, but I found that pull was still there as an adult.
In my experience, children rarely, if ever, think much about the authors of their favorite books. In many ways, our initial allegiances are to the characters, and Edith was certainly one of my first loves. Until I realized that Wright’s only book intended for an adult audience celebrated her deep, decades-long connection with the Outer Banks, Wright had seemed — if not exactly fictional — not quite as real as her creations had been to my younger self.
But reality is often much more complicated than fiction, as Wright perhaps says best in the opening pages of Ocracoke. “Look, then,” she implores, “at these photographs of the island of Ocracoke — partly as it is, partly how it was, entirely as it appeared to me.” Like the books in The Lonely Doll series, Ocracoke is filled with her arresting black-and-white photographs, depicting everything from images of the Ocracoke Lighthouse and the island’s picket fences to the old Wahab Village Hotel, the once-wild Ocracoke ponies during penning season, and portrait after portrait of the local people who played a large part in making Wright feel at home there.
After tracking down Brook Ashley, Wright’s godchild and heir to her estate, I began piecing together a larger narrative of Wright’s life. Born Alice Dare Wright in 1914, she trained as an actress in New York City and was an accomplished model and fashion photographer before she turned to children’s books. She was also a deeply private person who appeared to be most comfortable behind rather than in front of the camera — a fact that might surprise those familiar with Wright’s large personal collection of glamorous self-portraits. After Wright’s parents separated, her brother went to live with their father, and their mother, Edie, raised Wright as an only child. A celebrated professional painter herself, Edie encouraged Wright’s creativity, and the two remained especially close throughout their lives.
In addition to pursuing a number of artistic projects, one of Wright and her mother’s shared pleasures was traveling. In 1947 — 10 years before The Lonely Doll was first published — Donald Seawell, Ashley’s father and a native North Carolinian, introduced them to Ocracoke, thinking they would relish the natural beauty and the seclusion the island had to offer. They did. From that year on they spent almost every summer there until 1969.
Not only did Wright and her mother enjoy exploring the untamed nooks of Ocracoke, Edith and the bears did too. Shortly after their annual Ocracoke trips began, Wright came across her childhood felt-covered Lenci doll that her mother had bought her decades earlier for $12.50 (a wildly extravagant expense at the time). Wright was inspired to remake the doll until it bore an uncanny resemblance to herself, complete with a platinum blonde wig, pierced ears and hand-sewn outfits. Wright also found two companion teddy bears that suited her imagination, and started staging a number of elaborate shoots on Ocracoke in the early ’50s with Edith and the bears.
Though Wright began taking these photographs purely for the joy of creating something new, many of them went into a miniature mockup that eventually became The Lonely Doll. During this period, Wright also made a second mini-mockup on Ocracoke, “The Barefoot Island,” which would become Holiday for Edith and the Bears, the first follow-up in her Lonely Doll series.
Thinking the mockups had potential, Seawell showed them to members of a private New York club, attracting the interest of several publishers. In 1957 Doubleday published The Lonely Doll and, the next year, Holiday, both to widespread acclaim. The Lonely Doll made The New York Times best-seller list for children’s books alongside Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and more than a half century later The Guardian named it one of the 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of all time.
Over nearly two more decades, Wright published 19 books, 10 of which feature Edith and the bears.
I hadn’t realized it before, but the final version of The Lonely Doll still includes images of Edith and the bears fishing and playing on the beach in Ocracoke, while Holiday was shot entirely on the island. Two of Wright’s other books, Look at a Gull and her only young-adult book, Lona, were also partially shot on Ocracoke, not to mention her 20th book, which was published posthumously 10 years ago, Ocracoke in the Fifties. Wright passed away in 2001, leaving a legacy of stories that generations of children continue to discover, or, like me, continue to rediscover and pass down to the other young readers in our lives.
It seems fitting, then, to let Wright have the final word.
When Edith and the Bears’ vacation comes to an end in Holiday, Edith doesn’t want to put her shoes back on and bemoans the fact that they have to leave. Though they can’t stay forever, as Little Bear suggests, Mr. Bear promises they can return to the island someday. In this happily ever after, there will always be a next time.
“And so they sailed away,” Wright writes, prompting Little Bear to ask, “‘How long is it ’till next time?’”
Dare Wright, New York City model, photographer and author, had a decades-long connection with Ocracoke and shot the photographs for a few of her best-selling Lonely Doll books on the island in the 1950s.