The Woman Behind the Dolls
Madame Alexander launched her iconic doll company 90 years ago—decades before Barbie was born
Until recently, I knew Madame Alexander dolls only as the vaguely terrifying collectables displayed behind closed glass doors in my sister-in-law Ellen’s childhood bedroom. They were to be admired, not played with. They’re still there, in the room my daughters share when we visit Wisconsin, watching in perfect, pristine, unblinking freakiness as the human children sleep.
A few summers ago, my mother-in-law let Josie and Maxie actually play with them. After an hour or so, the girls came to me, saucer-eyed; they’d broken one, a fact we had to hide from my mother-in-law until my husband managed to MacGyver it back together from the inside out with thick purple rubber bands from a bunch of broccoli.
But when I received an invitation to visit its showroom as part of a press event in honor of the company’s 90th anniversary, I was curious to learn more. In recent years I’d read a wonderful children’s novel loosely based on the Alexander family called The Doll Shop Downstairs, by Yona Zeldis McDonough; it was on my list of the best Jewish children’s books of 2009. Then my friend Barbara Bietz, children’s book author and chair of the Sydney Taylor Awards committee, told me she’s working on a nonfiction picture book about the real Madame Alexander, tentatively called An Unbreakable Doll. It turns out that Madame Alexander’s own story is just as fascinating as those of the iconic fictional characters she turned into dolls, like Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale, and Scarlett O’Hara.
Just three years after women won the right to vote, this Brooklyn-bred daughter of Russian immigrants started a business that became one of America’s biggest doll companies, employing 1,500 people at its peak. “Madame” was born in 1895 as Bertha; she changed her name to Beatrice in her 20s and added the schmancy-sounding Madame to help promote her business: An infinitely savvy businesswoman, she admired the Lenci line of dolls, created in Italy in 1919 by a woman who called herself “Madame Lenci”—Lenci being an anagram for the Latin Ludus est nobis constanter industria, meaning “play is our constant work.” Alexander agreed with this Piaget-like philosophy and also liked the Old-World elegance and intimations of royalty associated with her adopted title. In her heart, she was never Bertha from the block.
Gale Jarvis, the current president of Madame Alexander, is a former executive vice president at F.A.O. Schwarz who knew the founder back in the late 1980s. Jarvis—who refers to her as Madame, as everyone who knew her did—recalls her being still passionately involved in the company, though she was in her 90s by then. Jarvis remembers her, as everyone seems to, as intimidating but fair: “Madame would show up unannounced on the floor, and everyone was terrified,” Jarvis remembered fondly. “We had shelves labeled Madame Alexander, but the company had distribution problems at that point and we used the shelves for other dolls. She’d always be furious: ‘Why are other people’s dolls on my shelves?’ And the next day a truck would arrive with a new shipment.”
Alexander’s stepfather Maurice (or Morris) Alexander was born in Odessa and moved as a young man to Germany, where he apprenticed to a repairman of mechanical toys, clocks, and china. In America, he continued that business, selling and repairing dolls and tchotchkes. Back then, dolls were made of china and broke easily, so the Alexanders ran a doll hospital at 405 Grand Street on New York’s Lower East Side. The whole family pitched in.
When World War I hit, though, so did embargoes on German goods. Suddenly the family had little inventory to sell. Beatrice came up with the idea of creating cloth dolls that looked like Red Cross nurses, a nod to the war effort. The dolls were cost-effective to produce (the family sewed them around the kitchen table) and patriotic to boot, and the shop was saved.
It’s not surprising that Alexander was a creative problem-solver. The family prized education; Beatrice was valedictorian at Washington Irving High School at a time when most girls in her neighborhood worked in factories or took in piecework at home. She loved to read. As Bietz told me, “The doll shop was downstairs, the family lived upstairs, and there was a little plot of land in the back of the building. [Beatrice] convinced her mother to turn it into a little ‘secret garden,’ for her. She used to sit there and read, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dickens, Little Women—all of which later became inspiration for dolls.” Bietz also noted the disparity between Alexander’s life and those of her father’s clients. “Her family pinched pennies to make ends meet, while people came to them with their broken dolls in their beautiful carriages and clothing,” Bietz said. “Beatrice said to herself, ‘I’m gonna live like that someday.’ ”
A few years after graduating high school—married, with a husband and little daughter Mildred (another child died in the Spanish Flu epidemic)—Alexander decided to hire her sisters and create an entire doll company of her own. In 1923, she got a $1,600 loan and established the Alexander Doll Company. She eventually brought in her husband Philip (who’d been working at a hat-making company) by threatening to divorce him if he didn’t join her. “I meant it,” she later told Stephanie Finnegan and Lia Sargent, authors of Madame Alexander Dolls: An American Legend. “It seemed to me I can always get another man.”
Alexander became a big innovator in doll design. She invented “sleep eyes” and rooted hair and made some of the first plastic dolls, shortly after World War II. She created a variety of “sculpts,” sculpted doll faces, so that her dolls could be more expressive and differentiated than her competitors’. She made the first “fashion doll,” Cissy, in 1955, four years before Barbie debuted.
It’s fascinating to me that the Jewish community has so thoroughly claimed Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, yet knows so little about Madame Alexander. Maybe we prefer the notion that a Jewish woman like Handler created the iconic blue-eyed, blonde California bimbo doll, while Alexander’s influences were more literary and multicultural—and thus more typically intellectual and Jewish.
Alexander spent hours in the New York Public Library, researching costumes for dolls of different countries and historically accurate outfits for dolls from classic books. One of her big coups was accidental: Her Scarlett O’Hara doll happened to look just like Vivien Leigh, even though the doll came out two years before the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. Another big triumph came in 1953, when Madame Alexander produced a collectable set of 36 dolls to honor Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. There were royal family members, archbishops, pages, choirboys, and royal guard members. With typical devotion to detail, Alexander got the cloth for the dolls’ robes from the same British mill that produced the real coronation mantles. In the days before live satellite feeds, CBS actually used the dolls to act out the ceremony for viewers on air. Today, the set is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. (Other Madame Alexander dolls are in the Smithsonian.)
Madame Alexander has always had maniacal collectors, many of whom were at the April 30 press preview, salivating. But Alexander intended her dolls to be played with, not merely displayed. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, she said, “Dolls should contribute to a child’s understanding of people, other times and other places.” She was also supportive of boys who loved dolls, a progressive view for her day. “After all, the paternal instinct in men is an important as the maternal instinct in women,” she said.
Alexander was a philanthropist, too; she gave generously to Planned Parenthood (she used to take her favorite factory workers to Margaret Sanger’s clinic for health care and birth control), the Jewish Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, the Einstein College of Medicine, the American Technion Society, Women’s American ORT, and the American Friends of Hebrew University. At the end of her life, she was a big donor to Republican politicians.
Alas, the company went through some very bad times after Alexander sold it in 1988, at age 93. (She died two years later.) Today it seems to be on stronger footing. It was bought in 2012 by Kahn Lucas—more Jews!—a fourth-generation, family-led company that began in 1889 as the Triumph Shirt Company. Kahn Lucas sells girls’ clothes and Dollie & Me products: sets of American-Girl-sized contemporary dolls with matching dresses for girls and dolls. (It’s funny how everyone at Madame Alexander today desperately avoids saying the words “American Girl”—they purse their lips and say “the competition”; if they accidentally start saying the competitor’s name, they stop themselves mid-syllable. It’s like theater people and Macbeth.)
Kahn-Lucas keeps winning Supplier of the Year awards from big-box retailers, so Madame Alexander’s issues getting merch into stores are, one hopes, over. Today Madame Alexander also does big business in licensed characters like Fancy Nancy, Angelina Ballerina, and Pinkalicious, as well as alarmingly real-looking newborn baby dolls with birth certificates and hospital wristbands for kids to “adopt” (and get notices for well-baby checkups for, so they can come in for upselling!). The company just introduced a line of washable cloth dolls, which are not only a throwback to the original cloth Red Cross doll but also the only kind of doll I as a parent would ever buy. (Grandma is of course welcome to buy fancy dolls with rooted hair and sleep eyes. As far as I’m concerned, everything in my house that is not mammalian needs to be machine washable.)
Lest anyone worry that the company’s going too downmarket, collectors will still have plenty to fetishize: This year the company introduced a Madame Alexander Madame Alexander. Only 125 will be made, they sell for $1,500 each, and they are fabulous. They’re designed to look the way Madame did in 1923. Check out the fur stole, the rhinestone pin, the taffeta-lined, bugle-beaded georgette flapper dress, the red nails, the marcelled hair! My mother-in-law would plotz. This year, too, the company will reopen its iconic Doll Hospital, which closed at the end of last year when the company left its longtime headquarters in Harlem. (Ever the pioneer, Alexander had moved the factory there in the 1950s for the cheaper rent.)
While Alexander was the mother to zillions of dolls, her own daughter sometimes felt shunted aside. Mildred once said, “We had a lovely apartment across the street from the Bronx Park, but my mother was never home to enjoy it. … My mother was off on Sundays, but we didn’t really share any special routines on that day. She was exhausted from working six days a week, and she would relax by reading.” When you’re a visionary, work-life balance can prove elusive.
Knowing Alexander’s flaws, as well as her talents and generosity, makes her seem more real and resonant to me. Every working Jewish mother should know that she was one of us … inspiring and imperfect, the way we all are.
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