Beauty Addiction

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.

Red Riding Hoods

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.

47 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Dolls, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

47 responses to “Beauty Addiction

  1. What a strange, but also fascinating, way to live. Seems like a perfect setting for a number of stories. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

    • I think strange and fascinating, too. I think it would be absolutely suffocating, but then I guess if you’re so focused on surrounding yourself with “beauty,” then it must seem normal. So true about truth being stranger than fiction. The setting is great for a story btw. A horror story ;).

  2. That would have been an amazing collection to see. I bet you’ve often wished you could have seen the rest, out in her barn.

    • Sometimes my mind wanders off to the hidden treasures in those outbuildings and the rest of the barn, but then I mentally slap myself really hard!

  3. I’d have wanted to run out of there at the first opportunity

    • Hahaha, I can just see you running out of there, Derrick! As I said to Carrie above, I think you could set a horror story/movie on Bitzi’s compound very easily!

  4. OMG !!!! You are not allowed to head down dirt paths to vaguely described m locations by yourself, Missy!! Not even in search of Red Riding Hood.

    You wrote this so well, I got the creeps just sitting here in my clutter-free-in-comparison, non-musty smelling abode! I love the first hour in an antique store them I get the creeps there too!!

    Finally I recognized a doll other than Barbies. I had no Barbies (way too expensive) but my sister and I each had a Ginny doll. We also had a larger doll that I think was Rosemary (?) . Those were our only dolls. We played far more with paper dolls that we made by cutting out the models and clothing from the Sears catalog. Money and real dolls were scarce but our stairs were populated with Sears paper dolls 😘

    Since you’ve tipped the scales on cat adoptions, you are also not allowed a second or third husband. Egads, Luanne !!!

    • Oh Sammy, you are a witty lady! One husband is enough for me. It might be just him, though, if you know what I mean.
      My Barbie was a fake, if that makes you feel any better. She was actually a Miss Suzette as they were cheaper in Grant’s basement than Barbies. (Suzette had a prettier face than Barbie–just sayin’)
      Paper dolls. Those were the days. What kids play with those any more? Here is my favorite paper doll: http://dontwelookalike.com/2012/09/10/an-american-girls-family-tree/
      Did I ever show you that before? Yup, my daughter was a paper doll.
      You were lucky to have the Sears catalog, btw. We didn’t have one–or JC Penney either. But we did get the one for trading stamps haha. Remember those?

      • Oh my gosh, how exciting was that?!? Thank you so much for the link. What a thrill. I knew you had at least one adopted child but didn’t want to pry. Only to find out she’s a celebrity in her own right!! What a heart-warming piece of your family lore for future Castle historians to read about Marisha being chosen as an American girl paper doll.

        I’ve bookmarked the page to show Raqi. She loves AGs and just received Grace for her birthday. Her family is best friends with a family who adopted a daughter about 7 years ago from China so Marisha’s story will resonate on several levels.

        Since Marisha and Raqi both expect to be singers, dancers and actors ( along with Olympic gymnast!) I’m sure they will bump into each other on-stage later in their careers. Wait till they figure out Mom and Mima are blog buddies who grew up only 30 miles apart!

        Do you think 9 is too young for the American Girl magazine? I’ve thought about ordering it, but I’ve looked at their books and some of them are more advanced topics than I’d want Raqi to be exposed to right now. I gave her their ‘Feelings’ book recently and am holding a couple for later this year if she’s ready. It’s so hard to know with girls – she’s growing up too quickly as it is!!

  5. What a story, Luanne! I don’t think I would have lasted that long inside the house. 🙂

  6. Your bravery paved way to an interesting story. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Luanne you write so well I was reading with such interest and sadness for Bitzi. It happens to many people doesn’t it. Hoarders that have an obsession. I know I would have felt so uncomfortable going through the collection as Im a decluttering freak, I cannot create art in clutter. I would have wanted to tidy it all up. Thank you for sharing her story.

    • Ah thanks, Kath. That was nice of you say. Yes, it really was sad from my perspective. I suspect that though she seemed happy with her dolls that it wasn’t a happiness that lasted, but rather an addiction that had to be constantly fed. Rather awful. I also don’t like to work in clutter unless it’s right then in-the-moment clutter.

  8. Fascinating story, Luanne. It made me sad though. I just pictured that woman surrounded by her dolls, lonely and kind of creepy. I would have been overwhelmed by all the dolls and clutter.

    • I think she suffered from the same problems as most addicts–emptiness at the center, loneliness, and the anxiety to keep feeding the addiction. But that might be my interpretation. Maybe she was really happy.

      • Well, I guess I was in tune with your interpretation. It seems to me though that if she was really happy you would have picked up on that, and the atmosphere would have been different.

        • That’s exactly it. And as I mentioned when she greeted me, she wasn’t very friendly and sure didn’t look happy. She only got very chatty and content while she was showing me all the dolls.

  9. What a story! I hadn’t really taken the time to consider how important dolls have been to me and other girls until your series. I really appreciate this!
    When my grandmother moved in with us (disaster) she told my aunt to come get her cat and her dolls. Aunt Rachel had a huge collection of original Ginnys and Barbies! We coveted them as kids. My grandfather built a three story apartment house for the dolls with working lamps (and shades), upholstered furniture and tiny pots and pans (not plastic). My grandmother whittled tiny wooden kittens for the dolls and my aunt kept all of the early 60’s clothing in perfect condition.

    My aunt didn’t come in time so my grandmother gave us the doll collection and put the poor cat down. To this day my aunt holds a resentment towards us (rightly so) because while we played and played with the collection we weren’t gentle with it and eventually everything got lost or broken.

    • Oh, what a story! I LOVE the 3 story apartment house! I love doll houses and miniature furnishings. How wonderful!! And how fun to play with all those great dolls! The only part of the story I don’t like is the poor cat. Yikes!!! How long did your aunt wait to come, by the way or don’t you know?

  10. I can envision the mustiness and the claustrophobic feelings closing in. Quite the tale!

  11. Fascinating story, Wonderfully well written. I like best the end and your observation that Bitzi loved all her dolls equally no matter their cost. She does sound like a shadowy character.

    • Viv, thank you so much for your kind words. I might be reading too much into her life, but I can’t believe it was a happy way to live–always needing more and more.

  12. Wow — that’s quite a story. I would have loved to see that place, but I probably couldn’t have looked at dolls for more than two hours at a time. It’s too bad she had no control over her buying, but the results were kind of amazing. (Hey there, little Ginnies!!)

    • I remember wandering through all those Ginny dolls, thinking of you, WJ! The results were definitely amazing, especially for her kids after the auction, I’ll bet ;).

  13. OK I just have to mention that “Beauty Addiction” is the name of a wig, LOL!

    And wow what a great story! I can get this way about wigs, as you can probably tell since I’m on a tear with them at the moment; for me, it’s about just wanting to SEE one and know what it looks like. Wigs are difficult to buy in stores and half the time you can’t try them on anyway, so the only way to know is to buy it and see. I feel a lot of anticipation as I open the box for the first time and put it on, and then it’s over! That’s why i started making videos, to at least do something with all of them…it’s why I started the pictures too!

    • Oh, that is funny that it’s the name of a wig! I think the videos and the photos are a great way to make use of something that you enjoy collecting. I’m not sure if most collectors are like that or if they just like the accumulation and the showing off. One day when I have more time I’d like to fool around with taking pix of my dolls or even creating art out of some dolls.

  14. We have talked about dolls before, Luanne but this story was amazing. You wrote this with care, building to where you could see your frustrating time spent with Bitzi.
    The interecting part to me was how she lived practically insqualor, Luanne. She still could not stop herself from collecting dolls. My mom had hoped she was collecting for our inheritance. She had about a dozen which brought a good amount of money but sadly after looking up holiday barbies. Princess Diana dolls and Ashton Drake dolls. Found she paid more than their vslur. Almost all of them were kept in original boxes. We sold 200 to a collector with a truck for $250. I have played with my own little women, barbies and 3 ginny dolls. I sold my walking little miss echo doll. Just makes me sad but mom only had one doll whilegrowing up

    • Robin, I’ve heard that about many doll collectors–that they felt deprived as children. Maybe it helped your mother get over only having the one doll.
      About the value not being there, I think that’s the case with a lot of collecting. People think their collections will be worth money, but very few items turn out to have value. I think many people are guided by what they like and what they hope, more than by what real knowledge of the field shows. I prefer to just collect what I like with very real limitations and not worry about what they will be worth when I’m old or when I’m gone. My kids aren’t going to go through the dolls item by item, I’m pretty sure. They will get rid of them in a group, I’d bet.

      • Luanne, mom made up with this as you guessed. This happened more during years she had Carrie and Felicia as granddaughters. It was fun for her and probably filled her heart with hope to pass on something of worth.
        It was nice to choose one I liked that seemed to fit the little girls. Randy and Rich made more on large, classic unrusted Tonka trucks and odd things like Dad’s oil cans and freon in cans. 🙂
        I had a few misspellings with my last comment made using new cell phone which I am trying more often to read and check the words. This comment may have been rushed. I think you can guess ‘worth’ in one part of the reply.
        I think your Red Riding Hood dolls are very special. I gave a Madame Alexander “Mary Poppins” to my Filipino friend, Felda, after she mentioned her daughter aged loved the newer movie, “Saving Mr. Banks.” Although from 1965 and never been out of box, eBay listed not even same price as a brand new 2015 M.E. doll. Kridia loved it and plays with it. I stuck a $5 bill in her tiny cloth bag she had. Not like the suitcase in the movie, where she pulled a bunch of things out, showing her magic.

  15. What a great story, Luanne. You’re right – there is a fine line between a collector and someone who is obsessed with something! I laughed at the part where you said her 3rd husband must have spent most of his time outside. What a full house 🙂

    • You know when I read what you wrote here, I thought of something. When I get “obsessed” with something it doesn’t stay at a fever pitch very long if at all. That is really good to keep me from turning in a Bitzi. But it’s not so good if you think that people who really accomplish big things are those obsessive types who never let their focus get diluted or allow their attention to wane.
      Haha, he WAS outside when i was there, too. The whole time.

  16. What a word potrait you paint in this story. I felt the creepiness. And kept waiting for you to find a treasure.

  17. It’s like we were walking with you into this place where details mattered and accreted normally, then the barn and outbuildings loomed, bursting with an infinite number of dolls. We didn’t even need the creepy music! Plus, I think you’re brave!

  18. What a fascinating story! And how brave you were to go on that “tour” with Bitzi. My imagination would have made it a horror story from the moment I found the dirt road 😉 While you may feel bad that you never returned or answered her letter, isn’t it a relief to know she had family? Family that she could move in with? I’m sure she was lonely, but then again, since she had no shortage of husbands, maybe being alone was fine with her. Hard to say but there’s definitely something very poignant and eery in her story. You told it so well 🙂

    • I was pretty scared that I was lost on the road. I always panic when I get lost, which is pretty much wherever I go. It was a relief but also a shock to learn she had children that wanted her to live with them. I hope things went well (are going?) for her with them. she was a pretty independent spirit. The thought of her living with children and without her dolls is a little disconcerting.

  19. Yikes! Bitzi reminds me of the collector we are dealing with now – if you multiplied the collections a gazillion times!! People do strange things. 🙂

    • Hahaha, I hope you are having fun!!! What a time though to be dealing with the collector–when you have health issues to deal with. People do very strange things. And we always want to know WHY. But sometimes there is no knowable why. At least not one we can understand because it isn’t “lineal.” If that makes any sense.

      • Sadly, it makes perfect sense. Pretty is the “thing” person so she is really the one who deals with this…I have enough to worry about just keeping up with words…:)

        • That makes sense to me. My husband is more of a thing person than I am. That’s how my actual collection-collection of dolls started–a way to keep me occupied while he hunted through antique stores, country roads and other byways 😉 for the stuff he likes.

  20. Aged 8. Not sure where the # went. This can be silly and sorry about this annoying lack of good proofreading, Luanne.

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