The women in my family on my mother’s side—my grandma Bunny, my great aunt Lillian, my mom—loved playing with dolls. Our multi-generational obsession epitomized something about us, our imaginativeness, perhaps, or some kind of precious, childlike desire to escape from reality into something beautiful, whimsical and safe.
We weren’t fashionistas ourselves, but we loved collecting clothes for our dolls. Our love may have appeared contradictory–even as my mom encouraged me to play catch with my brother and become a feminist who went to pro-choice rallies, even as my erudite grandma urged me to read the classics early and often. They often bestowed on me, at each birthday, a doll either handed-down or new.
But the combination of toughness and nurturing was embodied by Madame Alexander dolls, the prize of my collection—which were created by the company’s namesake, a Jewish woman who was a true business pioneer. Alexander’s story (she was born Bertha but changed her name to Beatrice and then Madame, for business) epitomizes a certain coveted mixture of strength and grace, as shown in Kveller’s video below.
My favorite story about Alexander is that she threatened her husband with divorce unless he joined her company to offer his skills. He joined her company.
Her wisdom about the value of playing with dolls resonates with me in particular, especially now when dolls are considered retrograde or creepy. “Dolls should contribute to a child’s understanding of people, other times and other places. Dolls should develop an appreciation of art and literature in a child,” she said.
She also had surprisingly liberal attitudes about doll-loving boys. “I don’t think a parent should ridicule boys when they show affection for little sister’s dolls. After all, the paternal instinct in men is an important as the maternal instinct in women, and it couldn’t be good to crush that instinct in a child.” (Read more of her gems at JWA). As a twin with a brother who shared my toys and vice-versa, I have found this logic unimpeachable.
So from preschool age until the cusp of middle school, I was a doll fanatic. I collected Barbies and flirted with trends like My Little Ponies—but the most enduring loves of my girlhood were the same kinds that my mom had loved before me: flimsy paper dolls and expensive Madame Alexander collectors items. What they had in common was a historical, literary bent: They took figures from the past and brought them to life on my bedroom floor. From “Little Women” to Rapunzel to a redheaded Gibson Girl, my dolls roamed the centuries.
My collecting began like this: when I was about six or seven, my grandmother gave me my mom’s favorite Madame Alexander (I renamed her Nikki Kelley because it was the early 90s, sorry)–she came to me in a straw satchel with an entire wardrobe, amassed over my mom’s entire girlhood. Nikki felt at that moment like a doll in a story, like something Anne of Green Gables or Sara Crewe from a “Little Princess” would have opened and treasured. The fact that she belonged to my mom, made the gift all the more poignant. She had deep brown eyes and honey hair, a rare and striking combination that I think about sometimes when I look at my baby son, who at a year has developed hazel-brown eyes and golden-chestnut hair.
I got my final doll, a dark-haired beauty in a raincoat, the day my other beloved grandmother Molly died—I was just shy of 12, suffering through the awkwardness of an early puberty and sadness over this impending loss. It was Hanukkah, but instead of being presented with this gift after the menorah was lit, I just went to the store with Grandma Bunny and picked the doll out.
And that was, in essence, the end of my doll collecting days. My Madame Alexanders and my mom’s, the ones who have survived beheadings and tangles and loss of limb, are in a box up in the closet, waiting for some young boy or girl of a new generation, maybe my son or maybe a niece or nephew, to give them life again.