On Monday I mentioned that I would tell you about The Doll Empress who I met quite a few years ago. She must not be confused with The Doll Lady. I have changed her name here for reasons you will see when you read the following story.
I call her Bitzi because she did go by a cute nickname, but there was nothing Bitzi about her love for dolls.
The directions to her house were wrong—I knew that when she gave them to me, but she sounded fragile or confused enough that I thought I’d wing it and see if I could find her place myself. All I need is the address, I thought. I ended up driving back and forth on her rural street until I noticed a dirt road which seemed to disappear into the horizon. I figured I’d try driving down that path since she had mentioned a dirt road.
Sure enough it turned into a sort of primitive cul-de-sac, ending at a gray barn, flanked by houses, trailers, and outbuildings. She had told me to honk when I got there because her dog would greet me barking. So I did honk. The big piebald dog was there almost immediately, barking on schedule. I waited quite some time for her to appear, but I ended up honking again before she finally came out.
When she approached my car I realized why it took her so long. She was walking very, very slowly. Her face was remarkably unwrinkled for 75, her eyebrows jet black, and her gray hair unnaturally robust. It didn’t occur to me until later that her hair might be a wig.
Her greeting was taciturn at best. I followed her into the house, taking a last look for the moment at her property which I mentally labeled “hillbilly compound” (judge me kindly, please). The county dump was neater and less overrun by sad-looking objects.
We entered the house by the cluttered kitchen and through the dining room while I heard about her three cats and three husbands. Later I learned about her three religions. We entered the front room. The one main wall of the room had been outfitted with a wooden shelving unit, fronted by Plexiglas.
When I read about Bitzi in the local paper, the reporter described her place as a doll museum. Museums conjure up organized collections, patterns of objects, on shelves. But these shelves were hardly organized. Perhaps at one time she had tried to organize because I did see small groupings of Kewpies, of Barbies, of baby dolls; but at some point she must have given up re-arranging and had resorted to tucking dolls into cases somewhat randomly.
I had sought out Bitzi when I realized that my own doll collection had defined itself into specific types of dolls. I was here because Bitzi said she had a huge Red Riding Hood collection and was interested in selling some. She also claimed to have a lot of Korean dolls, something I really wanted to see.
My Red Riding Hood dolls
We leisurely strolled through the front room, admiring dolls along the way. I thought of it as a “front room” instead of a living room because surely no one could actually live in a room walled by pairs of staring eyes. Next, we entered a side room with doll cases, a bedroom walled with what she called “boys’ toys” (confiding that this was her 2nd husband’s collection), and then eventually back across the house to what must have been her own bedroom.
By this point it was obvious to me that the only living spaces in the house were the tiny kitchen and the bed. Her 3rd husband must have spent most of his time outside.
I felt uncomfortable pressed between the doll case and her partially-made bed. The room smelled musty–like bedding or clothes not washed often enough. Some of her dolls were beautiful, some in bad condition, and most from the 20th century. I realized we had spent at least an hour in her house, but I had not seen one sign of a Red Riding Hood or Korean doll. Still, I’d seen hundreds and hundreds of dolls and some pretty cool toy trucks and cars.
Was this it then? Maybe she was lonely, so had told me she had dolls she didn’t really own. We walked back outside, crossing the porch area in front. I counted six small refrigerators stacked on the porch, along with numerous other appliances, tools, and junk. A sweet-looking black and white cat followed us briefly, while a gray cat sat licking its hindquarters on top of one of the refrigerators.
We went around to the other side of the house to what Bitzi referred to as the sun porch. She started to stumble on the high steps as one foot slipped out of the men’s corduroy bedroom slippers she was wearing. Once inside she showed me how they had walled up the sun porch from the rest of the house because the cats kept coming in. The plywood was unadorned.
The sun porch was one long room with perhaps one small window, hardly a “porch” of any kind. Near the entrance she had a diorama of witches, fairies, and other woodland creatures, created by a man she described as a hermit who lives in the mountains near Idyllwild. She also had a few of his magnificent dolls which looked like Queen Elizabeth clones.
The same shelves as in the house lined the walls of the tunnel-like porch, floor to ceiling, and dolls overwhelmed the shelves. She had lots of Ginnys, little fashionable dolls from the 1950s with movable arms and legs. One unit was stacked with Ginnys in boxes from floor to ceiling. Who could be enjoying dolls which were stacked in dust-covered boxes? She explained that the boxes didn’t have windows. I guessed that meant that sunlight couldn’t damage the dolls or their outfits. Almost every Madame Alexander doll ever made was on display in this area.
Bitzi asked me some personal questions such as did I have a job, what does my husband do, and she apologized for being so nosy. She talked about her life and herself. A self-confessed OCD “beauty addict,” she admitted that she couldn’t be “allowed out of the house” or she would buy whatever she liked.
By now I’d been nervously checking my watch every so often because I had to pick my kids up for after-school activities. I’d been with Bitzi over two hours. Finally, we were at the end of the porch. I sighed with relief and followed her outside. The fresh air was good when I inhaled deeply. The porch air had been stale and dusty.
“Well, thank you so much,” I said.
Bitzi threw her arm out and spun it, vaguely pointing to the barn and all the other outbuildings, as she did so. “Aren’t you going to see the rest of my dolls? We haven’t gotten to the Red Riding Hoods and the Korean dolls yet.”
Well, dear readers, I moved swiftly through the barn for the next hour, eventually buying a couple of dolls from my childhood era. In one room of the barn, 19th century oak furniture pieces were crammed together and every drawer was overflowing with doll parts. In one dresser, each drawer held legs, arranged by size by drawer. Another chest held arms and another heads. If only I’d had an iPhone in those days–and the nerve to snap some shots!
By now I knew my kids would be beside themselves and I absolutely had to leave. I promised Bitzi I’d be back another day to see the dolls in the other buildings–and particularly the Red Riding Hoods and the Korean dolls.
But I never went back. I never wanted to go back.
Unlike Bitzi, I can say no to dolls. I can set a boundary and usually stick to it. But something about witnessing the results of her
passion obsession made me feel queasy. I want to always remember to know when enough is enough–of dolls and cats. Of anything. If I can’t say no to myself, how can I say no to anybody else when they ask for something unreasonable?
A few years later, Bitzi contacted me by letter, asking if I would be interested in buying parts of her collection as she was moving in with her children. I didn’t respond. I still feel like a heel about that.
More recently, I discovered that Bitzi was a famous doll collector. Her collection was eventually auctioned off by Theriault’s in 2008. Some of the dolls sold for thousands of dollars each. But what I saw that day at Bitzi’s was that she loved all the dolls equally: the $20 dolls and the $4,000 ones.