Dare Wright and the Lonely Doll
If you are the goddaughter of Talullah Bankhead, a child actress and gifted writer, you have quite a tale to tell. If you are also the goddaughter of the famous and stunningly beautiful children’s book author Dare Wright, known not only for her bestselling books that relied on simple storytelling, posed stuffed animals, and extraordinary black and white photography, but also for a fascinating and lonely childhood, you have an even better tale to tell.
If that goddaughter is the heiress to 25,000 photos, letters, newspaper clips and other ephemera, and now a grandmother who feels she is finally able to tell this star-studded and tantalizing tale, you are Brook Ashley, the author of Dare Wright and the Lonely Doll.
Published on November 19, the book was meant to be a biography of Dare Wright, who stood the children’s book publishing world of the ‘50s and ‘60s on its head with her unique and unorthodox style, featuring anthropomorphic animals posed in ordinary settings and an extraordinary world of make-believe. What the reader gets, however, is also a charming, entertaining, disarming, and dramatic memoir from Ashley. Dare Wright and the Lonely Doll is a tantalizing twofer with an unexpected trajectory.
Sitting before a fire in her elegant and cozy Montecito home, Brook talks warmly, often emotionally, about why she has written the book. It’s a book whose story has been on her mind for seven decades, since she was a baby and dropped off in a basket on the doorstep of her godmother’s small New York apartment in a downtown hotel, by her debonair, charming father, the famous Broadway producer Donald Seawell, and her mother Eugenia Rawls, a glamorous and equally famous actress, a narcissist, who was oblivious to the role of motherhood.
The author recounts how, when she was a young child, she would walk to Dare’s apartment on the Upper East Side with her nanny and then by herself when at Brearley, an exclusive girls’ school. “There was a star inlaid in the foyer’s parquet floor. The minute I opened the apartment’s door and stepped on the star I knew I was entering into a fairytale.”
“But fairytales have ogres and monsters lurking behind trees,” writes Brook. In 1988, Brook, who was married and living in Washington, D.C., got a telephone call, telling her that Dare had been beaten and raped at age 76 by a homeless man she had befriended in Central Park.
“I wrote the book because I was the last person to know Dare and the one who knew her best. I wanted to be her advocate,” says the 73-year-old author. “I’d been working on the book for many years and actually had finished it. Two years ago, I showed it to Grace Rachow, a wonderful editor, who is president of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference.” “It’s frontloaded with very interesting information and wonderful photographs, but you need the book to start when you appear in Dare’s life,” Rachow told her. “Your book is really Dare Wright’s story as seen from a child, who grew up with her.” That’s when Brook knew that there was no one else but her to tell the story.
Brook goes on to say that a big part of her finding the force to rewrite what was such a personal and emotionally draining task is the technology now available to small publishers. The book is published by Dare Write Media, LLC, a company Brook formed with her husband, John Ogilvie, to protect Dare Wright’s legacy.
With Brook’s natural gift for storytelling and her photographer husband’s keen eye and ability to restore the vast collection of Dare’s photographs to a publishable state, the couple went ahead with the rewrite.
A longtime resident of Montecito, Brook is one of the town’s most prominent realtors and has occasionally dipped into her remarkable legacy to write about her complicated and extraordinarily precocious and sophisticated childhood. The 250-page book could not have been written without the trove of photos, meticulously selected by the couple. Nor could the photos selected be just a charming record of extraordinary lives in a coffee table book to be opened and shut at whim. Once begun, Dare Wright and the LonelyDoll must be devoured as the reader is led from a possible fairytale world into a world of secrets, betrayal and eventual violence that never take away from, but only add to, Ashley’s rich story. Imagine: Gloria Vanderbilt, the “poor little rich girl,” abandoned by her mother, coupled with Kay Thompson’s Eloise, who finds comfort living in the world’s most famous hotel, and Sister Parish, the society decorator, whose talent for recognizing style and knowing how to create it from nothing. Throw in Diana Vreeland, the infamously picky editor of Vogue, who might have used Dare on a cover of the magazine had she been granted an exclusive or spotted Dare’s beauty and unique talent, as other editors had.