By Hollace Ava Weiner
My daughter’s text message arrived on April 1, but it was no April Fool’s prank. Two weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, her 5-year-old was going stir-crazy.
“Mom, please video chat with Pauline,” she wrote. “Read her some books. It’s been hard to entertain her.”
Glad to oblige. But a children’s storybook takes at most five minutes. I was determined to keep my granddaughter’s attention for an hour while her mother, who lives 1,600 miles away in Jackson Heights, Queens, the country’s first COVID-19 epicenter, made dinner.
With my granddaughter on FaceTime, I wandered through my house in Fort Worth, aiming the phone’s camera at souvenirs and tchotchkes until I came to her mother’s collection of 17 Madame Alexander dolls. Arranged inside a glass-doored cabinet, these dolls with tailored dresses, bonnets, and aprons had been untouched for decades. Each doll was a gift from little Pauline’s great-grandmother and namesake.
No one had ever played with them.
“Take them out,” my granddaughter squealed. “Take off Scarlett’s bonnet and put it on Alice in Wonderland. … Take off Heidi’s aprons and tie them around Snow White. … Untie the blue ribbon in Alice’s hair.”
Did I dare? These were collector’s dolls, meant to be seen, not touched, tousled or trifled with. Yet I was desperate to keep my granddaughter engaged for the next hour.
Would Madame Alexander understand?
Despite the pretentious title, Madame Alexander was the nom de plume for Beatrice Alexander Behrman, a Jewish mother, a bubbie like me with a Russian immigrant father. She believed dolls play a role in a child’s educational development.
Desperate to keep my granddaughter engaged, I broke the taboo that bars touching, much less playing with, collector dolls. Alice’s blonde hair spilled down her back. The cameo at Scarlett O’Hara’s bodice looked prim and proper on Snow White. The Tin Man’s heart, a gift from the Wizard of Oz, looked even better dangling from the Queen of Hearts’ neck, for it matched her costume.
Playing with collector dolls was fun. And daring.
Feeling emboldened, I introduced Pauline to Jackie Kennedy, part of Madame Alexander’s First Lady series. I pointed out Jackie’s lustrous pearl earring, only to realize with alarm that there was no matching ear bob on her other lobe. Over the years, the glue had dried. The matching pearl had fallen off and rolled into oblivion.
And then I picked up the ice-skating doll, whom we named Sasha Cohen, after the 2004 Olympics silver-medal winner. As I lifted the skater, the blades on her white leather boots jangled onto the shelf. Just as with Jackie’s earring, the glue had dried out.
Although these dolls looked pristine, after 40 years behind a glass door they needed repair and care. When Pauline instructed me to take off Rhett Butler’s jacket, his arms came off with the sleeves! A teeny elastic — resembling an orthodontic rubber band — connected Rhett’s limbs to a metal rod inside his torso. Snow White needed new elastics, too. She couldn’t hold up her head.
In dollhouse terminology, these dolls needed to be “re-strung.” Their shoes and earrings needed a dab of Super Glue.
Madame Alexander knew all about the ailments and fragility of dolls. Her father had operated the country’s first doll hospital in a building on the Lower East Side. During the First World War, his business plummeted because dolls, primarily imported from Germany, were embargoed.
Sensing the demand for new dolls, Beatrice — whose given name was Bertha — began making cloth dolls with painted faces. The first was a Red Cross nurse. That doll proved so popular, she recruited her sisters, Jennie, Flora and Rosie, to help. Each doll had a profession, a story or a history. A cottage industry was born in the family’s kitchen.
And via daily FaceTime chats, a COVID curriculum evolved for me and my prekindergarten granddaughter.
Pauline was enamored with the Heidi doll, and I have the original book published in 1881, so I started reading it aloud. Pauline was enthralled and lay back on a pillow to listen. The cover of my book showed a girl somersaulting in the mountains, but her hair was brown. Our Heidi doll is towheaded. So, thanks to Amazon.com, I found a book with a blonde Heidi and ordered two copies — one sent to Pauline in Queens and the other to me in Fort Worth. When the books arrived, we continued turning the pages together.
It was easy to bring two more characters to life: Snow White and Alice in Wonderland. Pauline was already familiar with them, and she eagerly memorized the names of the dwarves, calling them “doorfs” as she tried to match each with his image in the Little Golden Book delivered to her door. My daughter complained that Snow White’s story is sexist. “Who wrote that?” she asked. “Why, the Brothers Grimm. It’s a classic,” I answered. It will give her something to rebel against, by and by.
Alice proved a more complex character. Lewis Carroll wrote the book in 1865. It continues to charm and challenge readers, directors and illustrators. Our pre-K curriculum was about to lead us through the looking glass. I discovered a British rendition, published by Igloobooks, in which Alice wears the familiar blue dress, blue headband and white apron, but she has the face of an ornery little girl. The White Rabbit looks agitated. The Mad Hatter resembles a nefarious character out of “Oliver Twist.” Pauline loved these illustrations. “They look like real people,” she said.
Who next beckoned from the doll shelf? The Betsy Ross doll and a book that led us to a breakthrough. On each page, the repetition of words like “clip, clip, clip,” “snip, snip, snip” and “stitch, stitch, stitch” had Pauline sounding out the words. My granddaughter was starting to read — and she loved it!
Madame Alexander would have beamed. According to “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” Beatrice Alexander (1895-1990) created dolls drawn from literature, music, art, film, and historic events to provide an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Already, Pauline and I had been humming Tchaikovsky’s music from “The Nutcracker Suite” to accompany a ballerina on the shelf.
The dolls also provided contemporary learning opportuni-ties about female empowerment and racial equality.
As we played with Jackie Kennedy and read the kid-lit biography “Just Being Jackie,” by Margaret Cardillo, Pauline was enthralled. When Jackie falls off a horse and into the mud on the first page, my granddaughter sounded out the words, “She dusted herself off and got right back on.” I was so proud.
There is no kid-lit book about Sasha Cohen, the Olympic ice skater, but her teenage autobiography has a dozen color photos of her performing spins that Pauline deemed “amazing.” I did discover a children’s book about a figure skater from the 1930s, Mabel Fairbanks, an African American orphan who broke the color barrier at New York City ice rinks. The story, by Rosa Vina, so absorbed Pauline that she asked for a coloring book about ice skaters.
As the days in quarantine stretched into weeks and months, Pauline and I turned our focus to Aladdin, a doll who clutches a magic lamp and is robed in Chinese silk pants. The book I selected with Aladdin’s tale begins with a preface about Scheherazade. She’s the storyteller who spins a story within a story, night after night, to beguile a powerful sultan. He beds a new bride each night and orders her death in the morning. The clever Scheherazade told the sultan stories until daybreak and then stopped with a cliffhanger so he would allow her to live another day to finish the tale. Scheherazade’s stories are endless. Her tales would keep Pauline and me moving forward through the duration of the lockdown.
In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, a collection of classic but long-dormant dolls gave us reasons to connect, read and kvell.
Hollace Ava Weiner, a journalist-turned-historian, is director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.