Behrman, Madame Beatrice Alexander

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Behrman, Madame Beatrice Alexander

(1895-1990)
Alexander Doll Company

Overview

Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman, often referred to simply as "Madame Alexander," became known as the First Lady of dollmaking of the twentieth century. Her innovative, high quality dolls were first introduced in the 1920s, and over the next 65 years, Alexander designed a wide array of highly popular dolls that remain valuable collectors' items.

Personal Life

Beatrice Alexander Behrman was born on March 9, 1895, in Brooklyn, New York, as Bertha Alexander—a name she later changed because she thought Beatrice sounded more sophisticated. Her mother, Hannah Pepper, was born in Austria and lived in Russia for a time before immigrating to the United States as a young woman to escape Jewish persecution. Two stories circulate among Alexander's descendents regarding her mother's early life. Some relatives testify that Alexander's mother was pregnant with Beatrice when she arrived in the United States, having lost her first husband and other children to the violent Jewish persecution. Other descendents suggest that the couple arrived in the United States together, and Alexander's father died when Alexander was approximately a year and a half old. Regardless, it is certain that Alexander's mother was widowed and married again shortly after arriving in the United States. Maurice Alexander, another young Russian immigrant, became Alexander's much–adored step-father and the man she always considered her father. The family, including Alexander's three sisters, Rose, Florence, and Jean, grew up in the center of New York's thriving immigrant community of the Lower East Side on Grand Street.

Alexander was introduced to the world of dolls in infancy. In the same year as her birth, her stepfather opened the first doll hospital in the United States. At the turn of the century, dolls were made of porcelain, a very fragile, breakable substance. In the doll hospital, Alexander's father repaired the beloved dolls of innumerous grateful children. Before they were repaired, Alexander and her sisters often played with the broken dolls. Thus, Alexander's upbringing exposed her not only to the overwhelming poverty of the Lower End Side but also to the wealth and affluence of many of her father's customers. By the time she was eleven years old, Alexander knew she wanted to enjoy the finer things in life, often dreaming of riding in a carriage wearing a hat with ostrich feathers.

Shortly after graduating from high school as valedictorian on June 30, 1912, Alexander married Philip Behrman. She then completed a six–month accounting course and secured a position as a bookkeeper at the Irving Hat Stores. Behrman worked in the personnel department of a hat manufacturer. In 1915 the couple's daughter, Mildred, was born. Alexander's life was disrupted by the onset U.S. involvement in World War I. Although her family remained physically safe, the economic impact was devastating. Because most dolls (and doll parts) were manufactured in Europe (primarily Germany and France), the source of dolls dried up as did the market for doll repair. With the future of the doll hospital, and her parents' financial well–being, highly uncertain, Alexander became determined to keep the family business open.

Soliciting the help of her three sisters, Alexander began sewing cloth dolls to sell in her father's shop. The dolls, made of inexpensive cloth rather than expensive and often unavailable china, were a great success and provided enough additional income to keep the doll shop open during the war years. The first doll designed by Alexander was based on a Red Cross nurse, thus drawing on the common national interest in the war effort, and foreshadowed Alexander's life–long ability to select models for her dolls that appealed to the general public. After the war ended, Alexander and her sisters continued to gather around their parents' kitchen table to manufacture dolls. Devastated by the war, Europe could not yet provide an adequate number of dolls to the United States, and, having decided she enjoyed the doll business, Alexander moved to expand her efforts into a permanent venture. The work also provided an effective distraction to Alexander's grief over the death of her second daughter in infancy during an outbreak of Spanish flu in the early 1920s. In 1923 Alexander secured a $1,600 loan and established the Alexander Doll Company. Thus she began her career as the world's leading lady of dollmaking.

Over the next 60 years, Alexander Doll Company grew from four sisters sewing around the kitchen table to a multi–million dollar business, the largest American doll company and the largest employer on the Lower East Side. Alexander's husband eventually quit his job at the hat company on the insistence of his wife to join the family business, working alongside his wife until his death in 1966. Led by Alexander's high standards for quality, artistic skill in fashion design, and efficient management abilities, her dolls became not just high quality toys for children but also collectors' items of great value; the Madame Alexander Doll Club was formed in 1961, with membership growing to over 12,000 by the early 1990s. At some point, probably during the 1920s, an advertising executive who thought Alexander looked French dubbed her "Madame Alexander," a name of honor that remained throughout her lifetime.

Chronology: Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman

1895 : Born.

1912 : Married Philip Behrman.

1923 : Established Alexander Doll Company.

1936 : Created the Scarlet O'Hara doll.

1951 : Won the first of four consecutive Fashion Academy Gold Medals for design.

1953 : Developed a 36–doll series to honor the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

1955 : Introduced Cissy, the first full–figured 21–inch doll.

1957 : Introduced Cissette, a 10–inch version of the popular Cissy doll.

1988 : Officially retired and sold Alexander Doll Company.

1990 : Died.

Alexander won numerous awards during her lifetime for her fine craftsmanship and innovation in dollmaking. In 1951 she was honored with the Fashion Academy Gold Metal Award, winning again in 1952, 1953, and 1954. On United Nations Day, October 22, 1965, the United Nations honored her at New York's City Hall with a full display of her 42 authentically dressed international dolls. In 1981 the Anti–Defamation League bestowed on her the Distinguished Public Service Award, and in 1986 she received the first Doll Reader Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. FAO Schwartz, a high–end toy store, also bestowed on her a Lifetime Achievement Award, naming her the "First Lady of Dolls." She held a lifetime membership in the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, and her dolls have been on display around the world, including the Brooklyn Children's Museum of New York, the Congressional Club and the Smithsonian Institute, both in Washington, D.C., and the Children's Trust Museum in New Delhi, India. In February 2000, she was inducted into the American Toymakers Hall of Fame, and in 2001 the Jewish Women's Archives announced Alexander as one of three winners of the Women of Valor award.

Alexander remained actively involved in her company into her early nineties. However, during the 1970s, she gradually turned over daily operations to her son–in–law, Richard Birnbaum, and grandson, William Birnbaum. She spent more and more time at her second home in Palm Beach, Florida, making rare public appearances on the company's behalf. At the age of 93, Alexander sold her company to private investors, and she officially retired, although she did maintain a primarily honorary position as design consultant. Two years later, on October 3, 1990, Alexander died in her sleep at her home in Palm Beach; she was 95 years old.

Career Details

After establishing the Alexander Doll Company, Alexander increased production by hiring 16 people from her neighborhood to sew dolls at her kitchen table in the evenings after work. She was soon able to afford the $40 a month rent to move her business to a small shop down the street. The first doll produced by the new company was based on Alice in Wonderland; it first sold for $14.40 a dozen wholesale, but after complaints by the shopkeepers who would stop by the house to carry off baskets of dolls to stock their shelves, Alexander lowered the price to $13.50 a dozen. Barely staying afloat, Alexander's company hit several roadblocks in its infancy. First, in the late 1920s, a burst water tower flooded the shop; all the dolls and clothing had to be carefully dried and sold at cut–rate prices. Then, in the early 1930s the Great Depression hit. Unexpectedly, however, the business survived the economically difficult times, probably because Alexander's lifelike dolls provided people a pleasant escape from the harsh realities of their lives.

Many of Alexander's early doll designs were based on popular literary characters: Alice in Wonderland, Little Dorrit, Tiny Tim, the Three Little Pigs, and Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy, the four sisters from the classic Little Women. The Little Women series tied in with the release of the movie, thus adding to the dolls' popularity and introducing a marketing ploy Alexander would use again. Not only did the dollmaker work hard to identify models for her dolls that would appeal to the public, she also developed innovative design features that transformed the traditional flat–faced dolls into more lifelike creations. Even before switching from cloth to a moldable composite material made up of saw dust, resin, and paper–mache to create the dolls' heads, Alexander added three–dimensional characteristics to her cloth dolls' faces by devising new techniques of sculpting the cloth into noses, eyes, and cheeks. According to the Jewish Women's Archives, Alexander was ever attentive to the minutest details of her dolls' features: "I didn't want to make just ordinary dolls with unmeaning, empty smiles on their painted lips and a squeaky way of saying 'mama' after you pinched. I wanted to do dolls with souls. You have no idea how I labored over noses and mouths so that they would look real and individual." Alexander also introduced the use of rooted hair, sleep eyes, and walking dolls.

The Alexander Doll Company came to fame 1935 when Alexander announced that she had secured the right to produce a series of dolls based on the Dionne children, the world's first surviving quintuplets. The popular dolls were followed by the production of an entire line of clothing for the quintuplet dolls. Alexander also obtained the patent on a Scarlet O'Hara design based on the novel Gone With the Wind. She also developed dolls based on Walt Disney's "Snow White" and on England's Princess Elizabeth. By 1936, just 13 years after the creation of the company, Fortune magazine named Alexander Doll Company as one of the United States's three largest doll manufacturers.

In the early 1940s Alexander was once again leading the field in innovation as she was one of the first to begin using the revolutionary substance of plastic to manufacture dolls. Finally able to make the unbreakable doll, Alexander continued to focus on developing high quality artistic designs for her dolls and their clothing. For many of her creations, including the doll based on child star Margaret O'Brien, Alexander provided custom–made costume sets of clothing that modeled some of the most popular designs of the day. Alexander took the designing of her doll clothes very seriously, noting often that her dolls were merely mannequins so that she could display her design talents. In 1952 the department store Abraham and Straus commissioned Alexander to design a series of dolls based on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. After considerable research to ensure that her dolls and costumes were historically accurate, Alexander produced a 36–doll set that, along with the queen, included honor guards, choir boys, maids of honors, and the royal family. Alexander even purchased the fabric for the doll outfits at the same mill used by the queen herself. The doll set was priced at $25,000 in 1953.

Alexander made headlines again in 1955 when she introduced the world to the 20–inch Cissy doll, the first full–figured, high–fashion doll, complete with high heels and lacy undergarments. Cissy, on the market four years before Barbie, caused a stir and became an overwhelming success. Cissy was followed two years later by a 10–inch version, named Cissette. According to Doll Reader, Alexander boasted in a promotional brochure, "Cissette is jointed at the knee, hips, shoulder, and neck, and is so exquisitely modeled that she looks like a real person, tiny and perfect." The dolls, considered the hallmarks of the Alexander Doll Company, had their own catalog that offered innumerable accessories, including a complete wardrobe from hats and shoes to lingerie, casual wear to formal wear, and brass furnishings such as a bed, dining table and chairs, and a tea set.

Continuing to develop dolls based on literary, film, or real–life women over the next several decades, Alexander's creations included a 21–inch Jacqueline and a 15–inch Caroline doll, modeled after the presidential family, a 12–inch Nancy Drew doll, a series of dolls based on the film The Sound of Music, and a series of "First Ladies", commissioned to celebrate the United State's bicentennial. Despite the wide array of characters created by Alexander, each doll was produced carefully with the highest regard for quality. This often led to a much grander demand than supply; people would wait in line for hours simply to purchase an Alexander doll. But Alexander would never allow consumerism to thwart her commitment to excellence. She told Playthings magazine in a 1984 interview, "We cannot supply the demand for our dolls. I do not permit cutting corners that would diminish the quality. My slogan is: 'American dolls for American children.'" Along with her desire to bring high quality toys to American children, Alexander was also pleased by the collectors' desire for her work, telling Playthings, "Doll collectors are highly cultured people who have the capacity to appreciate my work."

Social and Economic Impact

Alexander had a complex relationship with her social and business surroundings. On one hand, she was a great woman entrepreneur during a time when the business world was unaccustomed to female competitors. Rather than marrying rich—the only way her mother envisioned the fulfillment of Alexander's dreams of wealth—Alexander built her doll company into a multi–million dollar business. Until her retirement, Alexander ran her company with an unfailing sense of style, business sense, and independence. On the other hand, even though she was a pioneer for women's place in industry, her products often left her at odds with the growing feminist movement, who viewed the pretty dolls as a step back for women's rights and self–worth. Alexander argued strongly that the dolls provided positive role models for girls, teaching them how to love others and themselves. Nonetheless, her love of high fashion and pretty hats with ostrich feathers did little to endear her to the feminist movement.

At its peak, the Alexander Doll Company employed some 1,500 people at numerous factories and produced over a million dolls annually, with annual sales topping $20 million by the mid–1980s. The company, having suffered some financial setbacks after Alexander sold it in 1988, was acquired by another group of investors. The company maintains a factory in Harlem, which employs 600 people, making it the area's largest private employer; the company continues to produce high quality dolls for high–end toy dealers and collectors. Original "Madame Alexander" dolls are often priced high at the auction block. For example, a mid–1950s Lucille Ball doll, originally priced at $49.95, sold at auction for $4,000. Since her death, the famous doll maker has been memorialized with the creation of a "Madame Alexander" doll that celebrates her incredible life.

Sources of Information

Bibliography

Alexander Doll Company. Available at http://www.alexanderdoll.com.

Ellias, Marian. "Madame Alexander: 'American Dolls for American Children.'" Playthings, July 1984.

Healy, Kathleen. "A Doll's House." Forbes, 28 December 1987.

"Madame Alexander." Jewish Women's Archives. Available at http://www.jwa.org.

"Madame Alexander, Legendary Dollmaker, Dead at 95." Playthings, November 1990.

"Madame Alexander Wins Lifetime Award." Playthings, 6 May 1986.

Schwartz, Benita. "The Little Debutante ... Madame Alexander's Cissette." Doll Reader, September 2000.

Shaw, Gayle, and Milton Shaw. "History of Madame Alexander and Alexander Doll Company." Treasures and Dolls. Available at http://www.alexanderdolls.com.