Madame Alexan­der: The Cre­ator of the Icon­ic Amer­i­can Doll

  • Review
By – June 20, 2023

Before Ruth Han­dler intro­duced the Bar­bie doll, vision­ary entre­pre­neur Beat­rice Alexan­der Behrman rev­o­lu­tion­ized the indus­try with last­ing inno­va­tions: unbreak­able dolls, dolls based on lit­er­ary char­ac­ters and pop­u­lar cul­ture, and new stan­dards for dolls that made them aes­thet­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed, cher­ished play­things. This pic­ture book biog­ra­phy presents Alexan­der as both an ener­getic busi­ness­woman and a per­son who deeply under­stood what dolls meant to children.

Author Susan Gold­man Rubin sit­u­ates Alexander’s life with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty on New York City’s Low­er East Side, where her immi­grant father runs a doll hos­pi­tal. Beat­rice is a book­ish child who dreams of the char­ac­ters in her favorite sto­ries com­ing to life. Illus­tra­tions by Sarah Dvo­jack empha­size the idea that dolls have an almost human sta­tus. Sur­round­ed by shelves of dis­em­bod­ied heads, arms, and legs, the father and daugh­ter are as com­mit­ted to restor­ing life and health as real physicians.

As a young woman, Beat­rice is skilled in math, read­ing and writ­ing, and the arts. Read­ers learn how she finds oppor­tu­ni­ties when adver­si­ty strikes. Dur­ing World War I, Euro­pean-based doll pro­duc­tion becomes unavail­able to Amer­i­can con­sumers. Beat­rice con­vinces her fam­i­ly to pro­duce their own dolls out of cloth, which grows into a neigh­bor­hood success.

Mar­riage and fam­i­ly do not dis­cour­age Beat­rice from grow­ing her enter­prise. The busi­ness even­tu­al­ly requires its own fac­to­ry and show­room, and employs more than a thou­sand work­ers. Beat­rice returns to books she loved as a child, pro­duc­ing dolls based on the char­ac­ters in Lit­tle Women and many oth­er clas­sics. She even dares to mar­ket her baby dolls to the upscale FAO Schwarz toy store. There, she is con­scious of being a Jew­ish woman from the Low­er East Side,” since both sex­ism and class prej­u­dice pose as obsta­cles to expand­ing her line of prod­ucts. Dvo­jack shows a somber and neat­ly dressed Alexan­der watch­ing the Schwarz exec­u­tive as he judges the qual­i­ty of her doll. The expen­sive dolls stand­ing on the counter with their backs to the boss seem to be silent­ly wait­ing, too.

By the end of the book, Beat­rice Alexan­der Behrman has become con­fi­dent and high­ly respect­ed, demon­strat­ing out­stand­ing skills. Her child­hood love of dolls, and her recog­ni­tion of the role they play in children’s lives, remains the core of her mission.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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