The Woman Behind the Dolls
Madame Alexander launched her iconic doll company 90 years ago—decades before Barbie was born
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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The Talmudic rabbis saw the world as a wedding—a place of charity and pleasures to be enjoyed while it lasts