Yes, Virginia, there really is (was) a Madame Alexander. But she didn’t come into the world with that title or name. She was known as Bertha when she was born in Brooklyn in 1895, the same year her stepfather opened a doll hospital. As a teenager she had hoped to go to Paris to study sculpting, but her parents lost their savings when their bank went under. So she married and got a job as a bookkeeper at a hat store. Once World War I started, an embargo on German products left the doll repair and retail business lacking for dolls. So Beatrice (she had since changed her name) rallied her sisters round the kitchen table to make their own. A brilliant marketer, Beatrice decided to make Red Cross Nurse dolls since the war was what everyone was thinking about. This was her first taste of success, and the rest is history (or should we say herstory as March is Women’s History Month).
I learned all these things and so much more about the woman who created the Alexander Doll Company in the beautiful book pictured above. I discovered it while looking for books on costume jewelry at my local library. It seems that Madame Alexander, the brand, has always been a part of my consciousness. From a very young age it was clear to me that Madame Alexander represented the finer things this life has to offer.
Marybel is my first memory of Madame Alexander. My sister had this very version. In fact, that’s the reason I checked out the library book; I was hoping to find her again. To me this doll represented a tragic figure. I was sure that whatever had caused the problem with her leg signaled the end was near for poor Marybel. This was not likely Madame’s intent; that’s just the kind of little kid I was. But my goodness Marybel was beautiful, and look at her accessories. Those sunglasses! They seem like an odd accessory for Marybel, but perhaps she did get out of the hospital now and then. Let’s hope so.
The book is by Stephanie Finnegan with photography by Walter Pfeiffer. It was published in 1999 by the Alexander Doll Company and Portfolio Press Corporation. One of my favorite dolls pictured in the book is this 1934 cloth version of Katherine Hepburn as Eva Lovelace in the movie Morning Glory. There is something so modern about this very old doll.
The 50’s were an exciting time for Madame Alexander. Yardley even used Madame’s dolls for advertising. But the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the thirty-six doll collection Madame created for the Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn must have been a real highlight. What a thrill it must have been to work for that window dressing team. The dolls were donated to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. You can see them here.
Madame Beatrice Alexander Berman passed away at the age of 95. The company she founded is now owned by Kahn Lucas, a clothing company with its own long history now focused on girl’s fashions and dolls (like the very special collector’s doll of Madame herself shown above).