A couple weeks ago, I watched an episode of Museum Secrets while riding an old exercise bike in front of the TV on a rainy day. This particular episode explored the Imperial War Museum in London: the technological development of illusory army fatigues, for instance, or how physicists developed a way to locate German artillery during WWI using sound alone. The stories were somewhat confusing—most revolved around complicated science that the show tried to make accessible to the layman. They lacked character, an emotional tug, someone to root for. I almost changed the channel, until the camera focused on two handmade cloth dolls in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the museum, a gallery devoted to medals and awards for bravery. Dolls, I thought. Yes, here is a story. Dolls are curiosities, rather than necessities of war or scientific tools, right? I was compelled by the very idea: dolls and war; childhood innocence and the complete despair of wartime prisoners; home life and the front.
And indeed, there was a fascinating story: In 1939, Odette Sansom was living with her three young daughters in Somerset, her husband already serving in the British army, when she responded to a call for photographs and old postcards exhibiting the French coastline for intelligence-gathering purposes. In her note, Odette wrote that she was French by birth and familiar with Boulogne, where she had lived for several years. Shortly thereafter, she was recruited by the War Office as an undercover agent and began intensive training to prepare for her fieldwork in Occupied France. She landed in the French Riviera in early November of 1942, immediately contacting Peter Churchill, who headed the SOE in the area (Britain’s Special Operations Executive).
On November 11, just days after her arrival, the Germans invaded Vichy France and the Gestapo became more aggressive in its hunt to eradicate British spies in the region. Odette and Churchill moved their operation to the Alps, where, in mid-April 1943, they were both arrested by Sergeant Hugo Bleicher. The two were sent to Fresnes prison in Paris and Odette, condemned to death, was tortured by the Gestapo for information regarding her fellow spies. She brilliantly said that she was married to Peter Churchill, and that he was a relative of the British Prime Minister—making them both very valuable prisoners (Two small, but valuable, white lies. Eventually, years later, Odette would divorce her husband and marry in Peter Churchill in reality.).
According to Museum Secrets, Odette and the other women confined to Fresnes prison were forced to sew German army uniforms. Odette joined the sewing group, but refused to contribute to the German war effort. Instead, she made these dolls—which she gave as a gift to the German chaplain at the prison, a man who was kind to her and helped her by transmitting messages to Peter Churchill.
In May 1944, Odette was moved from the prison to a series of German concentration camps, where many of her fellow female spies were executed. She was placed in solitary confinement and starved, but when the Allies began winning the war, the commander of her camp decided to use her—a very important prisoner—for leverage. In exchange for her life, he wanted his own sentence mitigated. He did indeed give her up to the Allies, but was eventually sentenced to death because of evidence presented by Odette at the Nuremberg Trials. Odette, for her part, survived the war and was the first woman awarded the George Cross. She was famously depicted in Herbert Wilcox’s film, Odette, and her dolls are displayed as a testament to her bravery.
My curiosity piqued, I came back to the Museum at Fort Missoula to do some exploring! We don’t have dolls made by WWII spies, as far as I know, but we certainly have a substantial collection of 20th century dolls, dollhouses and doll clothes, and each of them, undoubtedly, has a story of some kind. There’s a cloth doll of Teddy Roosevelt dressed up in hunting gear, paper dolls modeled after Grace Kelley, early Barbie’s and drawings done on felt of Kewpie dolls. Some of the dolls, like Odette’s, were made by hand. Take this cornhusk doll made by Irene Paeth circa 1940—just a few years older than Odette’s dolls! Irene donated the doll to the museum in 2007, shortly before her death in February of 2008. According to her obituary, Irene, a long-time resident of both the Chicago area and Sparta, Wisconsin, also donated two life-size dolls to the Monroe County Historical Society in Sparta. What a curious web! I love the link that Irene’s donations creates between two otherwise unrelated historical societies.
Irene’s doll is beautiful and fragile. She wears a faded purple dress cinched at the waist and has brown hair composed of corn silk. In fact, she’s inspired me, already, to google “How to make a cornhusk doll” and I intend to try it out as soon as the four ears of corn in my garden are ready to eat!
Another recent doll donation consists of a collection of Nancy Ann dolls—not entirely handmade, per se, but historically interesting nonetheless. These highly collectible dolls are small, measuring between 3¾” and 7”. Some are bisque, meaning that they are older and generally more valuable (depending on condition) while others are plastic with “sleep eyes,” meaning that they’re newer. Each doll represents a different character—maybe Cinderella, from the Fairytale line; maybe a Russian peasant, from the International line; maybe a nun. Nancy Ann Abbott began designing dolls in 1936, just before the start of WWII. The first series, the Hush-a-Bye babies, were produced in Japan, although by 1939 production moved to California, where artists painted the facial features on each doll by hand. As the Nancy Ann website describes it, as the war got underway, “the government felt the dolls were necessary for morale and demand for the dolls was high. Many were sent by convoy to Hawaii where soldiers were able to buy the dolls and send them home to their loved ones. By the late 1940s, the company was producing the largest doll volume in the nation.” Yet another fascinating intersection of dolls and war!
I’ll sign off with a quote from Madame Alexander, whose historical and literary dolls I collected as a child (My favorite? Eliza Doolittle.): “Dolls should contribute to a child’s understanding of people, other times and other places.” What better time, then, to safeguard the production of dolls than during war, when the world so desperately needs to cultivate empathy in both children and adults?
P.S. If you want to hear yet another intriguing story about a brilliant doll maker (and an early female entrepreneur), check out Marjorie Ingall’s article on Madame Alexander. What a powerhouse! http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/131508/the-woman-behind-the-dolls
P.P.S. Tune in next week to see what the WWII detainees at Fort Missoula were creating during the war years.