Dolls are not a luxury. They are as necessary to a child’s life as a loaf of bread.
Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman
Remember when our playthings had names; when our dolls were better dressed than we were; when they were children, friends, or the women we longed to become? Remember talking to them, pretending activities or taking them along on ours?
The First Lady of Doll Making was a first generation American. In 1895, the year she was born, her Russian immigrant father opened the first doll hospital in America…on the Lower East Side. These were early firsts in a life that was to be filled with them. (See Living Around for a second Madame Alexander story).
Bertha Alexander grew up surrounded by wounded porcelain figures and the patient expertise it took to make them whole again. Despite difficult circumstances, her parents instilled in the family limitless optimism, encouraging their children, even the girls, to go after their dreams. Bertha changed her name to Beatrice as soon as she was able, reaching for the romance and elegance of the “higher station” she hoped one day to achieve.
In 1912 at seventeen, following the conservative traditions of her day, Beatrice married Philip Behrman, by whom she was given a lifetime of love and support.
Then came World War I.
One of the by-products of the war was an embargo on German goods, including porcelain dolls, the mainstay of the Alexander family. Determined to survive, the four girls, under Beatrice’s direction, began to create Red Cross Nurse dolls out of muslin, stuffed with excelsior-dolls that wouldn’t break, to be sold in their father’s hospital shop. It was 1923. The Alexander Doll Company was born at the kitchen table.
A woman starting her own business was unheard of. Beatrice made her first sale to F.A.O. Schwarz the very same year, turning up on their doorstep unannounced with a primitive cloth version of her daughter, Mildred. Five years later, The Madame Alexander Doll Company (a name she felt evoked old world aristocracy) moved to larger quarters. Her husband left his own employ to partner his visionary wife.
In an effort to duplicate the success of the nurse doll, Madame turned to children’s literature. The trademark for a cloth Alice in Wonderland (after the Tenniel illustration) was obtained in 1930, way ahead of the now common practice of licensing. Three years later, the doll was reissued with the opening of the Paramount film. This was followed by a set of the Little Women (third photo from top), also conceived earlier, but brought to market in conjunction with the film. Hollywood almost inadvertently became a source. (And continues to be with shows like Ugly Betty, above, providing inspiration).
A 1936 prototype of Scarlett O’Hara that Madame created in response to the book emerged a full two years before the MGM release. The apocryphal story has studio casting influenced by the appearance of the doll, which they evidently secured early on. In fact, a remarkable resemblance exists between Vivien Leigh and the toy. Madame learned to make friends of movie people and columnists as well as buyers.
In the 1940s, Madame Alexander became a well known personality, “covered” by magazines and newspapers, making personal appearances. The company expanded widely and by 1957, there were 15,000 employees at three factories, two in the city and one in White Plains. Madame consolidated into an old Studebaker factory in Harlem where the company is now headquartered, occupying one pink and blue painted floor. Manufacturing has moved to Asia. Only prototypes and limited editions are made here. The headquarters also houses a functioning doll hospital run by the inimitable Greta who says she’s been there “since dirt.” I’m told her current tenure is fifty-six years!
In the late 1920s, in addition to utilizing cloth, Madame began to produce bodies made of composition: a mixture of sawdust, resin and paper mache. Without the time constraints of supervising body stuffing, elaborate costuming began to occupy her.
It’s a valued tradition that every figure be outfitted from underwear out with precision detailing. She’s attributed with developing the first dolls to have blinking eyes (ask Tasha—Latasha Sidibay, Assistant Manager/Client Relations–to show you how they work!) and of manufacturing the first with a woman’s body (not a little girl’s) and clothing (including the first doll-sized high heels.) Barbie came later! From 1947 to 1949 Her husband, Philip, worked beside chemical engineers to develop the first plastic dolls. The toy industry followed. You see what I mean about firsts?
Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman died in 1990 at the age of ninety-five, having worked till she was ninety-three. The banker who granted her first loan had attended her ninetieth birthday party.
With its finger historically on the pulse of popular culture and entertainment, from the Dionne Quintuplets to Princess Elizabeth, age eleven (Madame was the first to create a doll in honor of a living person), from Jackie Kennedy to The Desperate Housewives (Teri Hatcher doll, left, although Eva Longoria sells the best), from animated Disney characters to those inspired by beloved storybooks, art, history, geography, and fashion as well as baby dolls, TV shows, Broadway musical stars, and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, The Madame Alexander Doll Company has always created an extraordinarily wide range of friends and collectibles. (See The Addams Family, above). One set can be accrued by eating Happy Meals.
The company gives back to the community at large with one-of-a-kind doll donations that sell for many thousands of dollars at charity auctions, parties for these auctions, a DECA program open to high school students who want to go into business, and an intern opportunity for aspiring Madames.
Membership in The Madame Alexander Doll Club is $30 a year. (“We call it getting the bug,” Tasha commented smiling). A newsletter is snail-mailed regularly. Once or twice a year, conventions gather somewhere in the country. Additionally, some limited editions and special discounts are offered solely to members.
I’ve barely touched on the fascinating life of this extraordinary innovator. Suggested reading and photo credit: Madame Alexander Dolls, An American Legend by Stephanie Finnegan, Portfolio Press. A wonderful photograph-filled book about the woman, her life and company.
Read about Tours and Parties at Madame Alexander’s in our Living Around section. For more information, go to www.madamealexander.com