Saving Mrs. O’Neill

For Kitty...

For Kitty…my last day at Tonner.

Many of my friends in the doll world will tell similar stories about the strong friendships they have made over the years – and that some such friends are held in familial reverence. This doesn’t surprise me at all. We all know non-blood relations that we feel are part of our families. My doll family began with the Madame Alexander Doll Club, and that gave way to the Gene Marshall online audience, which led me to Robert Tonner and Tyler Wentworth. It was the Alexander Doll Club that introduced me to Tonner…it was Gene Marshall that paved the way for Tyler. To this day, I still have many friends from all of these communities – many I feel are as close as family.

We are Family...

We are Family…

Odd that I never fell into the Barbie Community until many years later…seeing as that group pretty much established the modern adult doll-collecting social network (Alexander may actually be older, but there’s a very different feel to that group – one that makes you feel like you are staying at a feared grandmother’s home instead of a trusted cousin’s). The Robert Tonner Collector’s Club wasn’t very different from Alexander in the sense of an almost cult-ish gathering of one doll maker and its admirers.

Rocking it at Gene Convention...

Rocking it at Gene Convention…

On the other hand, Barbie and the subsequent Gene Marshall fan base – now they knew how to throw a party as men and women would unite in a bacchanalian festival celebrating their goddess. Alcohol separated the Alexander/Tonner collectors from the more wild abandon seen in modern fashion doll collectives, and despite the simple concept of manners’ existence to make others’ feel at ease with one another, one could be certain you were being judged by the breadth and depth of your collection, or whether or not you were in the doll maker’s inner circle. I’m certain there is a reason why wine is served more frequently at such doll collecting conventions.

Take that, you Wendy Collector!

Take that, you Wendy Collector!

At the Madame Alexander 75th Anniversary Convention in Orlando, FL – I invited my mother and sister to join in the celebration, and I was aghast at the rudeness of the more senior members of the group to my kin. “How many vintage Alexanders do you have,” one would ask – followed by “Oh – no one actually owns any of those Alexander dolls anymore.” I was even told by the president of the Madame Alexander Doll Club, “You actually bought those? That was the ugliest sculpt the company ever produced.” Nice manners, babe. Needless to say, my mother and sister never felt any desire to be a part of that group ever again…and neither did I.

S35C-409062711591b

Yes, but don’t talk to Janet Reno…she has an awful collection…

When living in Washington, DC, I grew so very close to a number of Gene Marshall Collectors, and I became part of the Capitol Gene Club. We were a group of enthusiastic, talented and devoted admirers of Mel Odom’s Gene Marshall doll. Inspired as a club, we wanted to make a big splash at the 1999 Gene Convention. Over the course of weeks (perhaps even months) virtually every member poured his/her heart and soul into the creation of a Gene-scale diorama using our fictional ‘Christiana d’Amour’ character (a hybrid of Edith Head and Christian Dior). We wanted the fashion designer to actually be Christian Dior, and even went so far as to contact Dior in Paris to ask permission, of which they denied – hence our hybrid character. The scale salon was an architect-designed boutique inspired by Dior’s Parisian showroom in the 1950s, and the guest of honor was Gene Marshall at a private showing of the newest collection. Fashions were modeled, gowns were displayed on dress forms, jewelry and accessories covered the silk duchess-lined settee where Miss Marshall and an unnamed kleptomaniac friend sat – all being guided by the visionary splendor of Christiana d’Amour, herself.

Capitol Gene

Capitol Gene

The diorama would be offered as a donation from our club to the convention charity auction to benefit the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. And all our little group of bright-eyed artisans wanted was recognition, and mutual love from our fellow Gene collectors – members of our family, too. Puddings, we were on our way into Gene’s history – and it felt good (despite the dark shadow cast upon us by the disappearance and ultimate death of John F. Kennedy, Jr.). What could go wrong?

Painting the floor, with TV going and news of John-John's plane...

Painting the floor, with TV going and news of John-John’s plane…

Let me tell you what went wrong. The diorama (appropriately named, no?) was very large. It required a fair amount of design planning to disassemble, reassemble for photography, disassemble, store, transport to New Jersey in a Jeep Wrangler, and re-assemble again with the convention’s organizer harping over us because of the time it took from her schedule. Nasty, jealous people began whispering about our club’s intentions – some would call them ‘mean girls‘ though some were mean men.

Set up's a breeze!

Set up’s a breeze!

Then during the auction itself, an anointed member of the Gene Team and auctioneer, not only took it upon himself to personally ridicule the diorama – but he did just about everything he could to discourage anyone from actually bidding on it. We were horrified. So I did what any natural attention whore would do, I thrust myself upward and began to parade one of the diorama dolls throughout the banquet room filled with hundreds of Gene Illuminati. This petty little asshole may have found his personal comedy routine, but it would not be at the expense of Capitol Gene and its labor of love. I mean, really…what human being does something like that during an event where the sole purpose is to raise money for charity? Hell, we even offered free shipping!

Our pride and joy...

Our pride and joy…

FAO Schwarz offered a one-of-a-kind Gene Marshall townhouse for some criminal figure during Gene’s heyday – so don’t tell me it was too big or too expensive. Nope…this was something I had already encountered in the Alexander Doll Club, and would experience even more of it later – this was dolly politics…and it was just as ugly then as your ugliest doll. The diorama eventually sold to Joan Greene, team leader for Ashton-Drake’s Gene Team. We felt somewhat redeemed, but as the dust settled, we still felt keenly stung…and hurt…by members of our own ‘family‘. Exactly what became of that diorama and its contents is a mystery even today…

Christiana d'Amour Salon Diorama by Capitol Gene Club 1999

Christiana d’Amour Salon Diorama by Capitol Gene Club 1999

When Robert Tonner introduced Tyler Wentworth in 1999, I finally found my way in. You see…I was going to be a part of this snotty, mightier-than-though, elitist doll world come hell or high water (remember ‘hell-hath-no-fury‘, though why I would want to be a part of such a group is mystifying – let me just say that the bad eggs from which the doll world gets its bad reputation are not the majority). Well, that and there was this little nuance of being an attention whore.

Since Robert Tonner was my friend, I virtually had my foot in the door. My history with Tyler is worthy of its own series of posts, which we will get to, kittens…but for now, and the purposes of this post, we’ll stick to my third doll family – the online collectors and their internet wonderland.

Today Show, anyone?

Today Show, anyone?

It started in AOL chat rooms – then morphed into eGroups (aka Yahoo Groups) – then bulletin boards became the rage. But before forums such as Vicky’s became the monsters they would eventually become…Yahoo Groups incubated much of the early online drama manifestation. Not very much unlike today, you had moderators, know-it-alls (raising my hand), flamers, and innocent lambs awaiting the online slaughter at the mercy of unhappy, yet criminally intelligent bullies who also happened to collect dolls and live on the web. But we were family, and we knew a great deal about everything from how to deal with life-threatening illnesses, special needs for our pets, prayer practices, and of course, the dolls, themselves. I fought my way, tooth and nail up those hierarchies, stepping over the carcasses of lesser collectors that couldn’t hold a candle to the wit and power of the cheerleaders – so some went off and created their own private groups. When I accessed one such group under an alias (and I did that often in those days), what I discovered was not only horrifying, but retch-worthy at best. Here was a group of people, that for the sheer ‘fun‘ of it, were saying the most terrible things about me, Tonner…and oh-so-many others that they hated. Yes…it was one of the first organized instances of hate groups within the doll world.

Does this gown make me look fat?

Hate this, bitch.

I was accused of all kinds of disgusting crimes against doll-humanity (if there is such a thing) – people actually labeled me as Robert Tonner’s paramour; and me not knowing what that meant, I had to look it up – but you can just click here. It was not true – not even close – just a sick invention of some twisted little mind hell-bent on being hateful. This group of people exist even today…and they are all around us. You still see them from time to time crawl out from underneath his/her web-based rock to weave such venomous hatred, discord and lies – all simply for vacuous amusement or worse yet, for this false belief that it’s one’s right to freedom of speech. Morons. The funny part is…I know them, who they are, what they have said…and even have copies of it – nearly 20 years of them! I am the doll world’s Edward Snowdon. Bow down, bitches

Would I lie to you?

I am truly honored by this title.

I am still not entirely certain if I left the collectors…or if they left me…when I went to work for Tonner. I know many who absolutely hated me because I got the opportunity they not only wanted, but felt they were the better choice. And when you cross that collector/ manufacturer fence…boy, does everything change – and we’ll be covering more of that relationship later, my dears. But despite others’ betting they could have done a better job, I can firmly dismiss it and say you would lose that bet. So have a seat with me in my therapy group, and we’ll put all of it behind us.

Terrible things happen to wizards who meddle with movie props...

Terrible things happen to wizards who meddle with collectors…

Now, it may seem quite contrary that I would spend this time focusing on the negative when I really want to get to the core of doll play, and why we, as adults, are so drawn to this very personal hobby. Yes…yes it does. But to appreciate the rise and triumph of the cheerleaders, you must first understand our plight…and the things that we face as challenges in our hobby.  We are Lady Hamilton. And as such, I share my story with those who think they’re new when they sing like Ariel, and say they want to be a part of their world, as did I. But I digress yet again

Be careful what you wish for...

Be careful what you wish for…

Family is a sometimes unfortunate noun that encompasses those who may or may not be blood relations. Oooo, good…we’ve narrowed that one down. You can read the definitions of ‘family’ here – but you know as well as I that a family usually consists of people – that is, ‘human beings‘ (whoa now – not so fast there). Pets are family, too…and so are tangible things like houses and property, especially if they have been passed from one generation to the next. Hell, if a house can be a character in a book, it can certainly be a family member, too.

Our friends can be considered a part of the family, and when you view the doll collecting world, you will find many such families that have evolved over the years. But what about the dolls, themselves – can they be family, too? Think beyond the norm of plastic miniatures, and more into the mind of the characters created to bring fictional lives to inanimate objects.

My idea.

Yes, but are they family?

Are dolls possessions, or are they something more? I’ll ask this simple question – and yet for some, it seems quite easy to answer. After seeing ‘Saving Mr. Banks‘ (and thoroughly loving it), something occurred to me I have known all along. Dolls are our family, too, much in the same way pets and friends are. To the non-doll collector, I am certain this statement alone would draw sharp critical ridicule, only to find that they probably have some inanimate item in his/her possession that they cherish like a family member. Everyone is a hypocrite on some level.

I am not Matt O'Neill.

I am not Matt O’Neill.

Dolls can be a divided exception, however – yes, they can be considered ‘inanimate’, but for most, they do have some kind of ‘life’ as well. It’s all perceived, though – in the mind of its beholder. But you cannot deny the overwhelming power such inanimate objects hold over the human psyche. Consider a wedding ring, a childhood toy, your father’s belt, a bottle of perfume, or an item owned by a loved one. Say what you will about material possessions – that they are only possessions – but in the end there are things in your world – with or without intrinsic value – that without any doubt have a part of your soul attached to it.

No, no...just objects.

No, no…just objects.

They’re just things, stuff, objects, material…when you’re dead, they won’t matter anymore…to you. How many people have something that was his or her mother’s, grand-mother’s, great-grandmother’s, etc.?

These trophies mean nothing to me...

These trophies mean nothing to me…

In my days of unemployment, financial ruin, and bankruptcy – I lost almost everything – my house, my dolls, my pride – eventually, my cherished cats (family members without a question). And sweetie, I had a shit load of stuff, too. Be that as it may, the predicament of my loss had little to do with actually losing my job; it had virtually everything to do with choices I made in and for my life. Life decisions’ consequences that left me in a highly fragile and vulnerable position once unemployed. I blame no one but myself, and that action alone can play some serious shit in your head like an old scratchy record. And when you are also a highly emotional person who is strongly attached to his possessions because of the memories, people and places of which they represent – losing them is like losing parts of your soul. Maybe not as bad as losing your big toe – but painful, nonetheless. There’s a reason Lord Voldemort split his soul into pieces

You won't be needing those...

You won’t be needing those…

This is what brings me back to family. In the decision making process of exactly what would be hauled away by 1-800-GOT-JUNK, I had to take deep personal inventory of things that mattered more than others – mostly items that had familial relevance. I am content to say that many items of significant personal memory fit conveniently into a 10′ by 7′ by 5′ UBox. Alas, some things of emotional importance had to be sacrificed. The dolls weren’t so lucky, either…but I still have a few that have personal and significant meaning. Stop and think…not only had I acquired a highly significant collection of modern fashion and child dolls, but I received (as a part of my Tonner work agreement) one of everything the company produced, save one-of-a-kind dolls (and I even got a few of those, including factory variants, cast-offs, never-produced items – think of it). Arguably, I had one of the most important Tyler Wentworth collections known to her creator and her fans. And as much as I would love to plug my book, only 500 were printed (and there is that unfortunate reality involving the book’s margins – it was intentional, I say!).  Well, it may be in the Library of Congress, but so is this. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of the book – but it’s not exactly Gone With The Wind, now is it?

They'll only collect dust anyway...

They’ll only collect dust anyway…

At one point years before being laid off from Tonner, I counted as personal inventory over one thousand dolls of various makes and styles in my personal collection. Today…I have 48…six of them are Tyler, herself – a seventh is from Tyler’s world. And that, my puddings…is it.

I made the cut...

I made the cut…

Every single doll I have today represents an actual memory of a time and place in my life with one or more people – family, so to speak. So these life moments in fabulous fashions, or silly fairytale frocks, all have just a little of my soul in them, too…and a little of the soul from people in my life that make my memories (particularly those with Tyler Wentworth), special. I may have fallen in love with Barbie as a child, but it was with Tyler that I pledged my life. Think I’m being dramatic? You’d be right…but it’s still true.

I did not.

I didn’t make it…

I suppose it’s somewhat cliché to say one has a doll owned by a grandmother when she was a child, and one that’s been in the family for generations. This story always delivers variants from family heirlooms to those crumbling cloth and/or wood creations that miraculously stay intact over the decades. But the story is the same, and the doll holds something so dear within it’s ‘inanimate’ confines, it virtually endears the doll with a living soul. There are many reasons people collect dolls – and this has to be one of the most profound and deeply personal reasons: the doll has become a part of cherished memories – dare I say it – a part of one’s family?

Who are you calling inanimate?

Who are you calling inanimate?

Such was the case when I fell head over heels for Tyler. I was going to work with her…and I did. I knew everything about her world, both written and imagined – I even helped to contribute to her very essence as a character. Tyler was a friend, a partner, a muse and a sister – she was family to me. I can even boldly say that when Tyler was pushed away in favor of that shrewd doyenne of ennui, Ellowyne – I was aghast. How could anyone ignore Tyler – how could anyone just marry her off to Matt and reduce her to a mere back-page product to be forgotten along the lines of so many other come-and-go collections that barely even had a chance to clutch a zephyr of breath into its fictional lungs? I hated Ellowyne – kinda still do. And you know, that’s all the world needs right now – just a little more hate.

Funny, too…that it had nothing really to do with Ellowyne as a doll – she was original-ish – beautifully crafted – and well-marketed (and not by my own doing, I’m sad to say – but that’s another story). Ellowyne tempted and enchanted the creator…and he became bored with Tyler and her world in favor of Ellowyne. How ironic that ennui would be the reason. Ellowyne killed Tyler. But these are dolls, right? Right.

Innocent until proven guilty...

Innocent until proven guilty…

Ellowyne wasn’t the only reason Tyler died. Her fans had a hand in her death, too. Before you start protesting in defense of yourselves, let me just say there are many, many reasons collectors also lose interest. Tastes change, for one – with everyone. You can bitch, whine and moan that not enough Tyler stuff was made…but if you’d actually bought it when it was made, the company would still be making it (queue anyone who understands business). Sure, you bought in the beginning; but the product diminished as the buyers diminished.

You all have your own personal salvation story of how Tyler could have survived – but none of it matters one damned bit, because you didn’t create her. The fact is and will always be, nothing lasts forever – at least in the physical as we understand it. So before you attach your highly personal emotions to an inanimate object and proudly proclaim, ’til death do us partstop. Breathe. Relax. Fix yourself some cheese blintzes and pour a glass (or two) of wine. This isn’t really about saving the doll, now is it?

Some dolls need saving...

Some dolls need saving…

A friend of mine showed me a little covered box she made for her daughter many years ago – on the box, was this hand-written message:

This is a very special gift
That you can never see
The reason it’s so special
Is, it’s just for you from me.
When ever you are lonely
Or even feeling blue
You only have to hold this gift
And know I think of you.
You can never unwrap it
Please leave the ribbon tied
Just hold the box close to your heart
And feel the love inside.

Just a box...

Just a box…

So the next time you hear someone say, “you can’t take it with you,” kindly ask with just a hint of mint in your sarcasm, “how do you know?” After all…aren’t our memories a part of our souls? And can’t things be a part of our family?

Just a book...

Just a book…

(Saving Mr. Banks Spoiler!!!) “You think (she) has come to save the children?” It’s not the…children

Of course it’s not the children, otherwise, why would we be saving ‘Mr. Banks’? Because Mr. Banks represents more than a father…he represents a single connection to a memory…one that is connected with love, and with that becomes a vast amount more. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, Joni Mitchell told us, and yet – this is a myth. I now know exactly what I’ve got – do you?

It's a jolly holiday with Mary...

It’s a jolly holiday with Mary…

11 thoughts on “Saving Mrs. O’Neill

  1. Fantastic entry, Tom–yet again! Thought provoking, entertaining, informative, and just enough bitchiness! My dolls ARE my family, indeed!

  2. You have shared a thought provoking and insightful peek into the emotions behind collecting. I surely see/hear myself in your words! How did you know??

  3. Incredible article. You are such a talented writer. Being a sentimental person / collector / artist, I saw myself in your article SO many times. How many times have I uttered, “I will keep this doll forever until they pry it out of my cold, dead hands,” only to have one of my beloved human family members fall ill, and the cherished doll leaves the island. In fact, my introduction to repainting, and Tyler Wentworth followed the sale of my heirloom vintage Barbie collection (due to enormous medical debt.) I still remember the names of all the dolls I’ve ever repainted (and they are in the thousands,) and for the most part, I remember every person I sold them to because most of the sales brought a new family member into my life. My family and friends marvel at my memory for doll-related things because I can’t remember where I put my glasses (which is why I have 3 pairs–which are often all lost at once, but that’s another story.) It’s a labor of love, and yes, dolls ARE family. I love your blog, and love you. xo Laurie — the tie-dyed sheep of the family. I suspect that you are a tie-dyed sheep too. 🙂

  4. I love it….I”M YOUR BIGGEST FAN….and I know that you are a size queen…and therefore it matter….lol. I’m now following your blog religiously…like that time I took up Buddhism for a week. xoxoxo, f

  5. Tom, your posts are wonderful, insightful, entertaining an informative! I never knew much about the “inner” doll circles as I only became a collector “after Sydney”, but it would have been fun knowing you, or about you earlier in my doll collecting years. I can’t wait to read more of your writings!

  6. Pingback: It’s Not Lying, It’s Marketing… | tommydoll

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