07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

All Dolled Up

The New York Doll Hospital on the east side of Lexington Avenue, between 61st and 62nd Streets, is no longer. As I walked by the second floor walk-up on the last Saturday in May, I was taken by the spooky scene of a truckload full of unwanted dolls, some whole, many disassembled, some boxed, more bagged. Two somber African-American men dressed in matching black shirts and dark pants were the doll undertakers. They removed the remains -- no longer loved, no longer wanted.


The doll doctor died on April 24, 2009 after a long illness, according to an obituary in the New York Times. He was 83 years old. The doll hospital had been in his family since the early 1900s.


Not far from the battered black truck with its white cab stood a woman of a certain age, clad in dark clothing, looking remorseful. I assumed she was the hospital owner. She didn't want me to take pictures nor did she offer to chat. I offered my sincere condolences when a second younger woman arrived on the scene. She stood by her mother's side and seemed less affected than her elder by the hospital closure. The second woman invited me to snap to my camera's content.


Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue at 49th Street, American Girl Place New York prepared the gleaming multi-level store for its newest arrival -- Jewish-American Rebecca Rubin -- who went on sale the following day. Rebecca is the 15th doll in the wildly popular historical doll series, which matches dolls of a particular era with stories that define their times. Rebecca's past is that of a Lower East Side girl, before trendy set in. Hers was a time when immigrants from Eastern Europe lived in tenements and spoke little if any English converse among themselves almost fluently in Yiddish. Her story dates back to 1914, just a few years, in essence, after the doll hospital opened.

Living the American Dream, Rebecca is on her way to well-to-do-homes throughout the world.

At the same time, the truckload of old and broken dolls was on the move, too -- to the Hunt's Point Dump, according to the truck driver who'd been hired to haul away the remains. The unwanted dolls, made of porcelain, cotton, plastic and metal, wore their love in broken limbs, dirt marks, knotted hair, scratched faces and deformities that no doubt came from being hugged too much. Their made-up names, make-believe identities and memories of tea parties with stuffed animals reside in the hearts and minds of the people to whom they once belonged. Remembered, maybe, but never to be reunited.


Conversely, nine-year old Rebecca comes with a published story from the get-go, as long as the potential owner is willing/able to cough up a tidy $95 without tax. Real tea
parties, brunch, lunch or dinner can be had at one of seven American Girl
where the dolls sit in a "Treat Seat" next to their "girls."
Should something go wrong with an American Girl Doll - her hair matted, her arm pulled out of a socket - there is a hospital in Middleton, Wis. where American Girl Doll doctors are on call to admit and replace an eye or appendage. The dolls are nursed back to good health and cleaned. Within two weeks, the dolls are returned to their owners with a certificate of good health, a hospital gown and i.d. ready to be loved for a lifetime--or until next time...

Dolls have been modernized, commercialized, but no matter how precise the trappings of their birth or how grisly the scene of their death, their life cycle is always the same. They will play a role in the imagination of children. And for a time, they will be loved. Their futures have yet to be written.