"Would the esteemed American artist be interested in designing some typical American lady heads for Meissen?"
The distinguished gentleman asking the question was the Honorable Herr Direktor of the Design Division of the famous German Porzellan Werke of Meissen in Saxony, Germany. It seems that this internationally renowned porcelain firm was considering producing a series of figurines, and wanted to include authentic types of American women. I naturally replied that I was both honored and enchanted by the suggestion.
This electrifying conversation occurred at an American Embassy tea in Berlin in January, 1933, shortly after the Nazi regime came into power. At that time, I was Chairman of Art for the American Women's Club of Berlin, and was involved in a series of informal lectures on German art.
Even these small lectures, given at the American Church, were attended by an S.S. representative as official Nazi observer. I was warned of this by the Director of the Berlin Art Library, who permitted me to select and use slides from his files. This kind and helpful member of the old regime cautioned: "Go easy when you get to Modem Art. Those now in power have formulated a policy against `Foreign Degeneracy'."
My husband Paul and I had been living in Berlin for only a short time. I had studied art history while living in Munich, in the midst of those wondrous museums. Then we had moved to Salzburg, Austria. The renowned summer Festivals, coupled with living in a thirteenth century one-time monastery, spurred me back to my painting. Paul was happily engrossed in his writing. Nothing could have been more beautiful and fulfilling than those brief years, although Paul and I had a combined American and English income of moderate proportions.
Our daily routine always began with breakfast in our favorite cafe on the nearby Mozart Platz. Dining on the terrace was possible at all times of the year, and newspapers and magazines of the world were magically supplied by the attentive Ober. From this delightful setting we could hear the glockenspiel, with its missing notes, chiming from the castle tower.
Then came the stock market crash of 1929. My father's investments were heavily involved, and were virtually wiped out. At the same time, Paul lost the income from his mother's estate in England.
By 1931, we were forced to reluctantly abandon our dream existence, which had been too good to be true. So we moved to Berlin. By this time, Hitler was already holding forth in the Munich Beer Halls. As we passed through Munich, we were stunned as we stood before the voting bulletins on that fateful night when Hitler won his tremendous majority in the National Government Elections.
In Berlin we found a studio, comfortable enough, but totally lacking in the romantic atmosphere to which we had become accustomed. We later learned that Hermann Goering and his family had an apartment in the same building.
However, our studio was not totally without charm. There was a vast glass expanse admitting the north light, and a large balcony facing directly toward the center of the city. In the same section of Berlin as our studio was the airfield frequently visited by the personal plane of the Fuhrer. While painting one late afternoon, bathed in the incredibly wonderful diffused light, I heard the roar of a plane overhead. I could clearly see the Hakenkreuz, or Crooked Cross, as Hitler's plane approached the airport. None of this seemed to intimidate me, however, and I painted some of my most imaginative watercolors on that incredibly beautiful afternoon.
Before long we were in contact with the American colony in Berlin. This contact was made through the American Women's Club and the American Church, which was fostering an interesting public relations program. Paul established a psychoanalysis service for professional people, which he had begun earlier in Munich. My watercolors gained the attention of a small but popular art gallery, and I was promised a one-man show. It seemed that life was taking on a new meaning for Paul and me.
On the night of February 27, 1933, we were roused by a huge red glare across that vast north window of our East Berlin studio. The Reichstag was burning! The fire was attributed to the Communists, of course!
That other-world life we had led in Salzburg seemed a hundred years ago. We were plunged into NOW! I shall never forget that gray day we stood along the main avenue in Potsdam, watching the inaugural parade for the new Fuhrer. I can still see the wan face of Von Papen as he walked solemnly along, with bowed head and halting steps. We stood in a damp, penetrating cold under a lowering gray sky, yet the shivers I felt were not all physical.
That evening we attended a rally in Berlin, where for the first time we experienced the hypnotic Hitler ego. At the end of Hitler's speech, there was a deafening roar, accompanied by thousands of arms raised in the Nazi salute. Since we had intruded upon the meeting, I decided to participate. I am left-handed and in the excitement I raised my left arm. This proved to be a terrible mistake, and my arm was slapped down harshly. For a moment I was not certain whether or not the arm was broken! But I was in error, since my gesture might have indicated treachery.
Later that evening the Fackelzug marched down the Unter Den Linden and through the Brandenburg Arch. The S.S. men were both impressive and frightening. The great, dark limbs of the linden trees stood out dramatically against the sky. Suddenly I saw that there were legs dangling from branches of almost every tree. After a moment I recognized the familiar leather shorts and colorful shirts of Bavarians, and could make out the grim, non-committal faces.
That Christmastime there was a gala and exciting Toy Fair. The new regime had been clever enough to invite peasants from all over Germany to bring their best wares for exhibition and sale during the Christmas season. The entire affair was artistic and absolutely non-commercial, with a great deal of color, music and gaiety. I had just won a prize of $100 in a State Lottery, and I happily indulged in spending every pfennig of it on these clever toys and lovely peasant fabrics. I was able to get some of these in the mail to my parents, to arrive in time for Christmas. I later learned that my father was delighted with the colorful, ferocious-looking nut-cracker that I sent him.
I don't remember seeing any dolls at the Fair, but perhaps I was not yet thinking of dolls.
In late February I received a cablegram from Philadelphia, informing me that my father was dying and wished to see me. I hastily disposed of my studio equipment and stored most of my personal belongings. Paul and I were able to book passage on the S.S. Hamburg, and we set sail from the port of Hamburg two days later. This was to be the first time that my father would not meet me at the pier in New York City.
We left Hamburg around noon under gray and ominous skies, growing heavier with storm. In the mid-Atlantic we experienced a full-fledged hurricane. The ship had for some time been rolling in mountainous and unbroken heights of gray water, which reminded me of molten lead. Each time the ship would sink into a trough of this terrifying wall of water which obliterated the sky, I thought of the molten sea of lead for lost souls in Dante's "Hell." Paul and I preferred to run the risk of being washed overboard rather than remain penned up inside the ship, with the panicked passengers and crashing china. We slipped out on deck and settled ourselves in deck chairs which were solidly roped to the inner rail of the ship. We were quite alone, the only ones so foolhardy as to be out on deck. The rolling of the ship increased, with water now pouring over the deck. We huddled in our deck chairs, awaiting the final wall of water that would wash us away. Suddenly, the great bolts of a hatch door were released and two pairs of arms grabbed us and hauled us inside. Our rescue was accompanied by a thunder of epithets that even Paul could not have equalled!
We stumbled into our stateroom and locked the door, feeling somewhat more secure than we had on deck. In a few minutes we saw through the porthole a monstrous water-spout that resembled a huge tornado. It was apparently no more than a mile from the ship! The captain, a noble gentleman of more than 50 years' experience at sea, turned the ship away from the storm center. We were driven northwest into that dreaded section of Greenland, a sea filled with icebergs. Paul and I had lost all sense of time. However, we were dry and warm, and there was food for those of us not too seasick to eat.
After thirteen days on a passage which normally took no more than six or seven days, we finally docked in New York City. I learned that my father had died on the day of the hurricane at sea, March 21st. He had always longed in secret for a career at sea. Perhaps his spirit had joined the old captain of the "Hamburg" in bringing us safely to port.
Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, I announced, "Paul, I am going to make toys that are as limber as this cat!" I have no idea what prompted the decision. I am sure that I was not consciously aware of the suggestion that had been made to me by the Meissen director in Berlin.
In October, 1933, my sedate old Cadillac was purring easily along the road toward Philadelphia. The gasoline for the trip, for which the Cadillac only yielded eight miles per gallon, was purchased on credit. But my hopes were high! In the back seat were three sets of "Topsy and Turvy" and "Mammy" dolls. Accompanying them were the other "passengers," carefully placed in a corner of the seat to avoid having their prim curls upset. These were three china-headed lady dolls, representing early Philadelphia. Their morning dresses of calico over ruffled petticoats had been properly and carefully researched.
As I drove alone on my first sales venture to promote my new idea in dolls, I drove forty-five miles before I got the courage to stop. I remembered an especially lovely gift and antique shop in Wayne, near the end of the so-called "main line."
Even before I had time to get out of the car and assist my "passengers" to disembark, a lady in a casually tailored, beautiful sweater and tweed skirt peered into the car and exclaimed, "Are these fantastic creatures coming to see me? I hope they are for sale!"
That removed all need for my carefully rehearsed "sales pitch." When I left the shop I felt that I was floating on air. Carrying a check for $250, and orders for another set of "Topsy-Turvy" dolls and a set of Philadelphia ladies, I was completely elated as I drove back to New Hope. It was difficult not to exceed the speed limit! I couldn't wait to, tell Paul that my amusing dolls had scored their first sales success. My loyalty to the spontaneous enthusiasm of the lady who owned the Wayne shop prompted me to make no further stops along the Lancaster Pike for the moment.
Later I paid a visit to our old friends at the Arts and Crafts Guild in Philadelphia. Several years earlier they had taken over our stock of Batik scarves when Paul and I suddenly decided to abandon that flourishing enterprise and go to Europe. During our stay in Europe, checks for the scarves consigned to them had softened many a financial crisis for us. Although I was not certain how my funny black dolls would be received in this timeless craft center, I sold them the last pair of "Topsy-Turvy" dolls and told them of my intention to make some very realistic child-dolls.
Paul beamed with happiness at my success, but warned that we would soon have to move. "Spook", our newly acquired cat, seemed to sense that, from now on, it might be hamburger instead of green beans at dinner time. She purred and rubbed against my ankles.
It didn't take long for us to find a new home. Driving back from Philadelphia along the old road to New Hope, I had noticed a tiny post office with a name "Holicong." Attached was a general store, and the setting was in the midst of a grove of great old trees. We contacted the owners, who were two sisters who had inherited the ancestral Quaker farm. After considerable questioning by the sisters, we were able to rent a tiny stone house on this venerable estate. This little house had previously been the workshop of Endicott, one of the very first American clockmakers. The owners of the estate were third generation. This was one of twenty estates which made up the village of Holicong. The two sisters had looked dubiously at Paul's long red beard, but seemed reassured by his honest blue eyes, and the fact that his father was a German Quaker with a home workshop on the Rhine.
We moved immediately into the little stone house, which consisted of two rooms on the ground floor, a bedroom tucked up under the dormer roof, and a cellar equipped with a temperamental old furnace. I established my doll-making workshop in one of the ground floor rooms, a delightful setting with a stone floor and a deep fireplace, complete with old iron kettle and grill. With a thick rug under foot, I would withstand the autumn chill. The kitchen, with its sunny dining cove, was ideal for Paul's writing. And Paul, bless him, enjoyed making our meals. My old Cadillac, which had sustained a leaky roof from a cloudburst in New Hope, was parked snugly in a tight little barn.
Excitedly completing the dolls for my first orders and making some additional samples, I felt I was prepared for my first sales venture into New York City. Everything was ready to go; Paul and I had gotten up very early on a bright and cold morning and as I waited, almost triumphantly, for Paul to bring the Cadillac around for the five-mile drive to the station, I enjoyed sniffing the fine frosty air. But after a few minutes, Paul came dashing from the barn, with his red beard flying and blue eyes flashing, and proclaimed, "She will not budge, and makes terrible noises!"
At that moment the milkman drove into our road and, after we explained our dilemma, he went to examine the old Cadillac. He poked something that caused a horrible moan, and explained, "Her heart is broken . . . cylinder cracked." But he added, "Hop in my wagon."
So, with bags of dolls jostling among the empty milk cans, we got to the train station on time.
Arriving in New York City at nine in the morning, amidst the rush and roar of Grand Central Station, I finally found help to get my unwieldy luggage and myself into a taxi. I stepped out of the taxi in front of my friend's smart apartment on East 58th Street, suddenly very self-conscious in the presence of an imperious doorman. My out-of-date luggage and well-worn suit seemed def i-
nitely out of place, and I had the feeling of having my sails lowered. However, after warm greetings from my friend, hot coffee, toasted brioche and a quick outline of my plans, my ego was revived. Electrified as always by the aura of this magnificent city, I was ready for the challenge. As I left the apartment, my friend's parting remark helped: "Dewees, with that look on your face you could sell a brass monkey to the Queen of England!"
Just what I needed to get past the doorman once more with those disreputable bags! He respectfully placed them and me in a taxi. So much for prestige. After this I must use the bus and carry my own baggage, until . . .?
I had previously made an appointment, by letter, to meet with the toy buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue at eleven that morning. As I arrived, the subtle and familiar fragrance greeted me, and bore me on a pink cloud up to the spacious toy department. Instead of going directly to the buyer's office, I stood before the gleaming showcases filled with elegantly attired dolls, staring at me patronizingly with their vapid eyes set in oversize heads. I felt like an uninvited guest at a royal reception.
Then a kindly and musical voice asked, "Are you Dewees Cochran?"
It sounded wonderful to hear my name called, especially in such a place. We went to the buyer's office, which was large and elegantly furnished. She was department manager as well as toy buyer. In the midst of these sumptuous surroundings, I suddenly wished for some genie to pull me and my "rag" friends through the floor. Instead of that, my fairy Godmother must have intervened. As I pulled "Topsy and Turvy" out of the bag, the buyer squealed with delight. She immediately gave me an order for one dozen pairs of dolls, providing I would assure her I would be able to fill a re-order in time for Christmas.
At that moment I wanted to go directly back to Holicong and begin a frenzy of production!
However, I had another appointment with the toy buyer at F.A.O. Schwarz. There, I received a totally different reaction to "Topsy and Turvy." The buyer said, "Young woman, you should be ashamed of yourself for ridiculing the black people." (He was a European, and did not understand that we love the black people, and appreciate their grace and agility.)
However, he continued, "You may have something with your clever cloth modeling." He carefully examined the "Philadelphia ladies" and placed an order for a half dozen of the smaller china-headed dolls, to be dressed in calico, ruffled pantalettes and those irresistible bonnets.
So far, so good! The next morning I had an appointment at Macy's. I felt that without the approval of Macy's, I could not possibly hope to succeed with my dolls. I went directly to the buyer's section and grimly took a chair, ninth in a row of cigar-smoking salesmen. One of them even offered me a cigar, which I had no difficulty in politely refusing.
By the time my name was called, I was groggy from the fumes. I was also positive of defeat, so I hurriedly unpacked just the "Topsy and Turvy" dolls. The buyer seemed totally bored. He grumbled, "How much?" I gave him my discount price, per handmade set.
"One-twelfth gross?" he queried, flipping the dolls around. I quickly answered, "No!" I put the dolls back into my bag.
I was inclined to try my luck with some of the exclusive children's shops, but decided that it was wiser to fill the orders needed for Christmas sales, already a big job for my one-man workshop.
In January I paid another visit to the buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue Her success in selling "Topsy and Turvy" was really big business, at least from my standpoint! She was still very enthusiastic about the dolls, but brought shivers down my spine when she said:
"Now you must design something else if you are serious about making dolls for children. The "Topsy and Turvy" dolls were bought by grown-ups for their own delight. In this day of psychology-conscious mothers, children are not given anything that might distort their minds."
Her comments were made in a rather off hand, tongue-in-cheek manner.
She quickly saw the despair on my face, and added, "Do something realistic, more life-like than these dolls in the case." I thought to myself, "This should be easy. These dolls have heads that are too large, hands taken from Renaissance cherubs and wigs that look like those you would see at a burlesque show. Above all, these dolls must not be handled because of the exaggerated finery of their dresses."
I murmured to the buyer that I accepted the challenge, and made my exit as cheerfully as possible. I had heard about a very special children's shop, Young Books, Inc., on Madison Avenue at 65th Street. I took the bus in front of Saks, and between that point and the time I reached Young Books, I came up with the idea:
WHY NOT MAKE A DOLL TO ORDER, TO LOOK JUST LIKE A SPECIFIC CHILD!
Inside this extremely chic little shop, I unpacked my funny cargo with a great deal of enthusiasm. The thought of my friend's comments about the "brass n}onkey," along with my earlier successes, gave me a great deal of confidence and courage. "Topsy and Turvy" sprawled happily and unabashed in their tissue paper, while the demure little china-head children in their pantalettes looked very much at home in this proper environment.
I selected a small white cloth doll I had costumed as "Little Miss Park Avenue," and launched into my idea of making model dolls to look just like real children. I explained that these would be ordered by the adoring parents just as they would order a portrait.
The young woman in charge called someone from the balcony. She explained my idea to the other lady, and almost in chorus the two asked, "How soon can you have one made?"
"As soon as I have a subject!" I answered.
"Leave us that little rag doll to put in the window and we will have orders for you tomorrow. And, oh yes! We want to place an order for some "Topsy-Turvy" sets and the pantalette girl."
Trembling with excitement and incredulity, I returned to my friend's apartment on East 58th Street. The next morning at 10:30, I received a call from the Young Books shop: "Will you go to the apartment of Mrs. Irving Berlin? She wants to order dolls made for her two little girls."
I hurriedly left the apartment and hailed a taxi. When I arrived at the Berlin apartment, I was greeted by a very gracious and beautiful young woman, and two very excited children. I made a number of sketches, noted eye color, took hair samples, and sketched the dresses to be copied. The business portion of this transaction would be taken care of by Young Books, Inc.
Doll-portraits of the children of Irving Berlin, whose songs filled the air all over America. As I left the apartment, I realized that I could not make the faces of such special children from cambric fabric.
The next day, having lunch with an interior decorator friend, I explained my dilemma. She suggested an amazing type of wood from South America, which was available in a variety of weights and textures. After lunch, I went with her to her studio and she gave me a chunk of this wood about the size of my fist. On the way home, I purchased an X-acto knife with a variety of blades. On the train from New York to New Hope that evening, I tried carving a doll's head from balsa wood.
I knew that in order to follow up on my initial success in the doll-making venture, we must move to New York City without delay. One of the people at Young Books made a suggestion about an available apartment not far away. It proved exactly the right place! It was on the fourth floor of a nice old house on Madison Avenue near 69th Street. The three-flight walk-up offered a reasonable rent and an enchanting atmosphere. The apartment had extremely deep windows to the east, with old-fashioned inside shutters that folded in sections and were wonderfully adjustable for lighting.
Paul was completely dazed by the things that were happening so fast . . . my success in selling the dolls to several outlets, the balsa wood head, the move to New York, and my constant babble about everything that had happened.
Paul and I were up very late, planning our move. About midnight, we received a long distance call from Young Books in New York: "Come right back! We have three more Portrait Doll orders, and we have sold "Little Miss Park Avenue," which was our only sample!"
The very next day we sold "The Duchess," our faithful old Cadillac, for twenty dollars. We realized we had to do something about "Spook" who we felt would never adapt to city life. Once more, our kindly milkman came to the rescue, offering a home to our affectionate little black cat.
Things happened so fast that we had no time to weep over leaving our little old house and the fine expanse of the estate. By January 15th we had packed everything and sent it by local express to our new apartment at 820 Madison Avenue, New York City. But I did feel a sense of gratitude to Endicott and his clocks. I knew that the spirit I had felt in that little house had infused me with the resourcefulness and creativity I needed to endure those first trials in the New York marketplace.
As soon as we arrived in New York City, I visited Young Books to find out about the details of the orders. The orders were indeed diverse! A stunning young woman who lived at the chic Carlisle Hotel wanted two dolls made in her likeness. These were to be gifts for two suitors. She was not able to decide which of the two she wished to marry, and temporarily wanted to keep both on the string. The other order was for a doll in the likeness of the daughter of a prominent New York family. My "Little Miss Park Avenue" had been purchased by the owner of an East 57th Street art gallery.
I made those first carved balsa wood doll heads, their silk bodies stuffed with kapok, the real hair wigs and carefully handsewn costumes, with my head in the clouds. My sheer exuberance for the project overshadowed the shortcomings of the materials I used to execute these very important first orders.
When these doll likenesses were delivered, the recipients were gracious and charming, and seemed very pleased with the results. However, I knew that I simply had to find something other than balsa wood to use for the heads. But it was Paul, not I, who found the answer. His habit of thoroughly reading newspapers from cover to cover, for which I sometimes scolded him, led him to a small ad for a new type of crack-filler. It was advertised as a remarkable substance containing wood pulp along with a pliable, quick-drying substance of great durability and with very slight flexibility. Paul clipped the ad and hurried to the office of the representative for this material, high in the formidable beehive of Radio City.
Paul entered the small office and found a young man bent over a table, using modeling tools and rough plaster molds. He was at once friendly, and explained to Paul that he was experimenting with the compound as a possible material for marionette heads. They could be light in weight, but at the same time unbreakable and, best of all, could be reproduced in plaster molds. Paul explained my success with portrait dolls, and my dilemma over finding a suitable medium for the heads. The young man was very enthusiastic about my project, and gave Paul a large can of this crack-filler called Plastic Wood, along with a can of thinner. Once again, Paul had hit the nine pin!
I had done some modeling at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, supplemental to my major interest in painting and illustration, but I had never taken time to learn the craft of mold-making. However, luck was with me once again. I located an excellent art supply studio in New York City which specialized in the tools and materials needed for mold-making. The owners, three genial brothers named Ettl, had published a comprehensive publication containing sound information and instruction on the subject. Using this as a guide, I modeled heads in plasticine, allowing for slight undercuts. This made the heads suitable for a two-piece mold.
The moist plaster molds which were made over these models were removed and rubbed evenly on the inside with a thin layer of petroleum jelly. Then, the Plastic Wood was quickly worked into each half of the mold, to an even thickness of about a quarter of an inch. The Plastic Wood air dries very quickly. Therefore, it was advisable to continue firming the material in the mold under cold water. Then, by binding the two parts together as soon as they were removed from the water, they would dry in one piece and avoid any shrinkage. Slow-drying at room temperature, while the material was still in the mold, took between twelve and twenty-four hours. There was no distortion, and a very even shrinkage which was allowed for by the slight undercuts in the original model.
Our initial excitement over the accurate reproduction of the heads when first removed from the mold was dampened somewhat as eventual "pockmarks" developed. These were caused by air bubbles, possibly from uneven pressure or uneven thickness of the material. But then, we didn't expect it to be easy, otherwise the market would be flooded with such products. I was still fascinated with this casting material that was so durable, and my dream of making realistic dolls seemed close to reality. The texture of the material was similar to wood, and a very fine finish was obtained by filling and buffing. Also, I could make slight variations for even more accuracy.
One of the first experimental heads that I created was that of a little girl about six years old, with broad cheekbones and tapering chin. This little face was adaptable to many varied characterizations, so I developed a series of six little American girls, representing the periods from the Puritans to modern times. I selected the years 1600, 1776, 1810, 1860, 1900, and the current year, and designed appropriate costumes to represent the children of those times. I took particular delight in changing their personalities to express the period represented. I did this by the manner in which I painted the features of the face and, more significantly, by changes in the hair-styles. I used mohair for the wigs, because I had not yet discovered the wizardry of a talented toupee-maker who used real hair.
I also created a head for a three-year old girl for this series, and completed two or three examples dressed as "Little Blue Shoes" in Kate Greenaway style. I enjoyed making these little "character" dolls, but by now orders for portrait dolls were coming in so fast that I could not do both.
I was fortunate enough to receive national publicity in December, 1934. Frances Wright (Caroe) had "discovered" me through Young Books. Her interest, combined with that of the people at Young Books, resulted in a photograph of one of my dolls being included in the shopping
Deueer with two of the "farts", with Plastic Wood heads, stuffed silk bodies, and human hair wigs.
My idea for portrait dolls seemed to be very appealing to everyone, and the publicity was spreading rapidly. I feared that some clever manufacturer might find a way to "mass produce" in quantity. I was determined to protect my idea in so far as I could, so subsequently I came up with a possible method of doing just that.
Paul and I were soon spending five or six days each week at the library. He had found a great deal of material that he wanted for research on the early mystics. I almost forgot our pressing need to earn a living, and I continued my study of American children. I amassed a great collection of pictures and photographs from all possible sources. The library maintained an incredible file of current clippings, and these could be borrowed. I contacted the three major modeling studios in New York, and they were most helpful in lending photographs of children. From these photographs, I made models of six children, whom I later invited to come to my studio to be photographed with the dolls made from their photographs.
I identified the six different types of faces with the letters A through F. Paul maintained that my interest did not go beyond proving my "type" theory. But as we walked along the streets, I would often interrupt Paul, crying excitedly, "Look at that little face! It is the fourth one we have seen this morning that is exactly my type D."
So I completed my first set of the "Basic Types of American Children," stealing time from the portrait-doll and character doll orders that were piling up.
Soon after the Harper's Bazaar publicity, I was visited by an agent of the Alexander Doll Company. Mme. Alexander asked that I come to her factory for an interview. Although I was determined not to take a job, and was chilled at the thought of working in a factory, I agreed to visit Mme. Alexander. She was gracious and very pretty, with black hair and expressive black eyes. Altogether, she was very persuasive and hard to resist. Her firm had never had a designer, per se, but that is what she invited me to become. I would design doll heads, soft body dolls, original characters, costumes, animals, etc. I hesitantly agreed to a three-month contract on a trial basis. I specified that I would only work five days per week.
The main floor of the Alexander factory was a cacophony of sound. Sewing machines whirred from all directions, and in the distance the buzz of cutting machines supplied an overtone, all of which were very distracting. However, there was a pleasant little "cage" which succeeded in closing out some of the distractions and created a sense of privacy. We named it "The Studio."
During my stay at the Alexander Doll Company, I had several times shown M. Alexander
my set of six "Look-Alike" heads. I knew they were unique and so did she. The idea was submitted to a fabricator in Chicago, and Mme. Alexander had the wit and taste to show me the result.
My comment was, "Effigies will never put it over," and that was that.
By the end of 1935, inquiries and orders for my Portrait Dolls came in steadily. And the publicity was very favorable.
From the New Yorker: "Saks Fifth Avenue. We are crazy about this toy shop. It has prize Cochran dolls of all time . . . a shiny faced pet with long straight locks to comb out, and amusing clothes. The same type doll, a model of your own little girl can be made up to order from a photograph. . ."
From the New York Sun, December 16, 1935: "Portrait Dolls. Something new in dolls, which could easily become a family heirloom passed on to your little girl and to her own great-great grandchildren, has just been introduced in New York. By a sculpture process, a clever woman up on Madison Avenue has undertaken to make dolls in replicas of little girls (but not life-size). This can be done from a sitting of the child, or from a photograph of her, either full face or profile. Hair can be matched precisely, and her exact clothes reproduced."
From the New York American, December 19, 1935: "How would you like to have your baby immortalized at his or her cute age, any year from one to ten? An American artist, Dewees Cochran, just returned from a decade of painting among the mountains of Salzburg, Austria, has deserted oils and pastels for three-dimensional portraits of children. They are dolls, really, but they are replicas of your own child if you order a portrait. Or they are character studies of other children. But never the empty-faced expressionless doll, as this artist who lives at the top of a mountain of stairs at 830 Madison Avenue creates them, as she says, out of joy. . ."
When Frances Wright (Caroe) visited my apartment for an interview, she was extremely impressed by the beautiful photographs of my dolls that had been taken by Hans Van Nes. She enlisted his work for her new section of Vogue magazine called "Shop Hound." This exclusive section of Vogue was not paid advertising, but a "Who's Who in the Marketplace." A product selected for this exclusive section involved a photograph and a brief but well-written description of the product. My little "children" were most fortunate to be featured in the fall issue of this exclusive section. This first appearance of my dolls in this elite showcase opened a number of previously locked doors for Dewees Cochran dolls.
A most significant contact was made with a New York City lady, Mrs. John McCall, who had a great deal of enthusiasm for my dolls. This contact resulted in my rendering a portrait doll of her granddaughter, and her purchase of several of my series of "American Maids." By early fall, Mrs. McCall had arranged for me to have an interview with the vice president of F.A.O. Schwarz. He displayed such interest and approval of my "Look-Alike" dolls that he immediately gave me an introduction to Messrs. Baum and Fleishaker of the EFF-AN-BEE Doll Company. Mr. Bernard Baum, the president, showed a special interest in my dolls, and expressed his intent to produce the finest dolls their plant could possibly manufacture, based on my ideas and models. I signed an agreement with the EFF-AN-BEE firm in December of this eventful year. The contract was for a period of three years, and was contingent upon my providing samples which were to be ready for the March Toy Fair. This meant my producing six twenty-one inch dolls, completely dressed and wigged, by the first week in March.
Everything else had to be put aside!
I had no choice but to make up the entire dolls, including all body parts, from plastic wood. Up to this time I had only made heads using this medium.
I got busy at once on a body model for a girl of about eight years of age.
If you would like to read more about the life of this amazing
lady and skilled Doll Maker then buy her book:
"As If They Might Speak" by Dewees Cochran
This book presents, in text and pictures, the life and work of Dewees Cochran. She created and produced the finest dolls ever seen in America or, for that matter the world. AS IF THEY MIGHT SPEAK is designed in large artbook format and includes these features:
The autobiography of Dewees Cochran.
Hundreds of illustrations in color and black-and-white, which provide a detailed pictorial reference for doll-collectors.
The chronological listing of the various types of dolls produced by Dewees Cochran.
Pictorial reproductions of the enourmous publicity received by this artist from the 1930's until 1978.
A detailed and informative section showing the exact techniques used in her production of dolls.
Order Dewees Cochran's Book for only $60