Companies & Industries

The Making of a Madame Alexander Doll


Collectors worldwide cherish these classic dolls first created by a visionary Manhattan dollmaker in 1923

What Est?e Lauder was to cosmetics, Beatrice Alexander Behrman was to dolls. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants, Behrman created an aura of glamour for herself by assuming the title "Madame" and founded the Alexander Doll Co. out of her kitchen in 1923. Behrman was no stranger to dolls: Her father, Maurice, founded what is believed to be America's first doll hospital on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Like Lauder in the beauty business, Madame Alexander was a pioneer who understood the importance of innovation in helping her products stand out. She was the first to create dolls using hard plastic, the first to produce dolls with "sleep" eyes??nes that open and close??nd is credited with being the first to introduce a doll that walked. Nothing about a doll escaped Madame's notice: "Love is the details" was a favorite expression of hers.

Ahead of Her Time

Long before the licensing boom, Madame Alexander recognized the appeal of characters from books and movies. Among her early successes were dolls based on Alice in Wonderland and Little Women, whose releases were timed to coincide with 1930s-era films based on the books. Another hit: a Scarlett O'Hara doll, released in 1937, that bore an uncanny resemblance to Vivien Leigh, who portrayed Scarlett in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind.

Behrman moved on to creating dolls based on real-life personalities, including Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her coronation in 1953 and international celebrities the Dionne quintuplets. Followers of fashion cheered in 1955 when Behrman unveiled Cissy, which the company claims was the first doll to have an adult figure and to wear haute couture. (Are you listening, Barbie?) Cosmetics company Yardley chose Cissy as its "spokeswoman" for a highly successful magazine ad campaign in the 1950s.

But time doesn't stand still and neither does Alexander Doll. In keeping with today's popular culture, the dollmaker now boasts a line based on characters from Desperate Housewives. Yes, the women of Wisteria Lane have joined a stable of dolls that includes Elphaba and Glinda, the two witches featured in the Broadway musical Wicked; the children's book character Eloise, who has returned to the Plaza (even if it's being converted from a hotel into condos); and a line of Cinderella dolls inspired by the American Ballet Theatre.

Alexander Doll's collaboration with TV and movies is a two-way street: Sometimes it's the dolls who have starring roles, as they did in an episode of Sex & the City and in the thriller Hide and Seek starring Robert DeNiro and Dakota Fanning.

A Harlem Landmark

One of the keys to the company's staying power was its visionary founder's partnerships with Fifth Avenue toy retailer FAO Schwarz, which began in 1923, and Walt Disney (DIS), which started in 1933. In 1986, Schwarz paid tribute to Madame Alexander by naming her the "First Lady of Dolls."

Like many toymakers, Alexander Doll has outsourced much of its manufacturing to China to take advantage of cheap labor. But its design studio remains in Harlem, where the company moved to a former Studebaker factory in 1956. The Harlem facility also houses the doll hospital that Behrman's father founded, as well as a gallery with more than 600 dolls on display that is open to the public and available for birthday parties. It also has a company store offering discontinued models. A doll that might cost $94.95 at retail can be had here for about half the price (www.madamealexander.com).

Beatrice Behrman died in 1990 at the age of 95, but her legacy lives on in exhibits of museums, such as the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Children's Museum, and in the private collections of doll lovers around the world, who won't settle for anything less than a Madame Alexander. If truth be told, more Alexander dolls are in the hands of adults than children, who aren't old enough to appreciate their quality and design.

Click here to follow the making of a prototype for the blonde, freckle-faced doll who is outfitted for "A Trip to the Candy Shoppe." The 8-inch Maggie, part of Alexander's Americana collection, sells for $94.95 on Amazon.com and comes with a matching candy cabinet.

Gagnier is a senior copy editor at BusinessWeek.com.

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