Publicity shot of Beatrice Alexander for the Alexander Doll Company, circa 1920s
March 9, 1895
New York City, New York, U.S.
October 3, 1990 (aged 95)|
Palm Beach, Florida, U.S.
|Other names||Madame Alexander|
|Education||Washington Irving High School, New York City|
|Occupation||Founder and owner|
|Employer||Alexander Doll Company|
|Known for||Collectible dolls|
Bertha "Beatrice" Alexander Behrman (March 9, 1895 – October 3, 1990), known as Madame Alexander, was an American dollmaker. Founder and owner of the Alexander Doll Company in New York City for 65 years, she introduced new materials and innovative designs to create lifelike dolls based on famous people and characters in books, films, music, and art. Among her notable creations were the Scarlett O'Hara doll, the Dionne quintuplets dolls, and a 36-doll set of the royal family and their guests at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. During her stewardship, the company produced more than 5,000 dolls, many of which became collector's items.
Early life and family
Bertha Alexander was born on New York City's Lower East Side to Hannah Pepper, an Austrian native who had emigrated to the United States via Russia. Bertha's father either died in a pogrom in Russia from which her mother escaped, or he emigrated with Hannah and died in New York when Bertha was about one and a half years old. In New York, Hannah remarried to Maurice Alexander, a Russian–Jewish immigrant, whom Bertha considered her real father, and had three more daughters. Maurice operated the first "doll hospital" in the United States, repairing the porcelain dolls of wealthy clients.
In June 1912, shortly after graduating from Washington Irving High School, Bertha married Philip Behrman, who worked in the office of a hat company. Bertha enrolled in a six-month commercial course and then began working as a bookkeeper for the Irving Hat Stores.
Alexander crafted her first doll during World War I. Due to the embargo on German-made products during wartime, porcelain dolls were no longer available and Maurice's doll hospital was on precarious footing. Alexander suggested creating a Red Cross Nurse cloth doll with hand-painted, three-dimensional facial features. She and her sisters sewed a variety of these dolls to sell in the doll hospital, priced at $1.98 apiece, thus rescuing the family's livelihood. She and her sisters continued producing cloth dolls after the war ended.
In 1923, with a $1,600 loan, she established the Alexander Doll Company in a one-room studio, employing her sisters and neighbors, a total of 16 people. In the mid-1920s, she entreated her husband to quit his job and become the company manager, threatening him with divorce if he refused. Later that decade, she acquired a $5,000 loan to move the business to a storefront. In 1936, Fortune magazine listed the Alexander Doll Company as one of the top three doll manufactures in the United States; the company would go on to become the largest dollmaker in the country, operating out of several factories and employing 1,500 at its peak. During the 1980s, Alexander Doll Company released more than one million dolls annually.
With a savvy eye for marketing and innovation, Alexander became a leader in the American dollmaking industry. In 1947 she began producing dolls from hard plastic, and in the 1960s turned to vinyl plastic, which rendered a more lifelike appearance. She introduced "eyes with lashes that closed and fingers with knuckles", and rooted hair that could be styled. She researched historical and cultural dress to fashion accurately-detailed dolls' clothing, and insisted on quality workmanship. Materials used to clothe the dolls were made of "silks, velvets, satins and other fine fabrics".
Alexander was noted for creating doll collections based on notable people and characters in books, films, music, and art. In the 1930s, for example, she reissued her Alice in Wonderland cloth doll and those of the four March sisters from Little Women to coincide with the film releases of these classics. In 1935 she procured a license from the Canadian government to craft dolls based on the Dionne quintuplets, which were big sellers and helped the business expand. She also obtained the trademarks to produce dolls replicating such famous figures as Margaret O'Brien, Jacqueline Kennedy, Coco Chanel, and Marlo Thomas. For the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Alexander produced a collection of 36 dolls with authentic coronation outfits replicating the royal family and guests. Then valued at $25,000, this collection was donated to the Brooklyn Children's Museum. In the 1960s she debuted a collection of international dolls garbed in the native costumes of every member nation of the United Nations. In 1955 she unveiled the first fashion doll, Cissy, with a large bosom and high-heeled shoes, four years before Barbie was released.
While Alexander intended her dolls to be playthings rather than museum pieces, many became collector's items. Older models sell for as much as $5,000. Two of her dolls – the Madame doll, a character from the American Revolution, and the Scarlett O'Hara doll, a character from the American Civil War – were added to the Smithsonian Institution in 1968. Madame Alexander dolls are also on permanent exhibition at the Congressional Club in Washington, D.C., and the Children's Trust Museum in New Delhi.
Alexander supported such institutions as B'nai B'rith, Weizmann Institute of Science, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Planned Parenthood, Jewish Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, and American Friends of Hebrew University. She was vice president and trustee of the Women's League for Israel, which dedicated a rose garden in her honor at one of its residences in Jerusalem. In later life, she donated to Republican Party candidates.
Awards and honors
Alexander received four Fashion Academy Gold Medals from 1951 through 1954 for her doll clothing design. In 1986 Doll Reader magazine gave Alexander its Lifetime Achievement award, and FAO Schwarz named her the "First Lady of Dolls". In 2000 she was posthumously inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. In 2011 the New Rochelle Walk of Fame honored her with a historical signboard. In 2013 the Alexander Doll Company issued a Madame Alexander doll in her likeness, dressed in the style of the 1920s and priced at $1,499.95 retail.
In her twenties, Bertha renamed herself Beatrice, a more "romantic"-sounding name. In the late 1920s she began styling herself as "Madame Alexander", a name that was also appended to her doll collection.
She and her husband, Phillip Behrman (d. 1966) had two children; their second child died during the 1918 flu pandemic. Their surviving daughter, Mildred, was active in the Alexander Doll Company, as was Mildred's husband, Richard Birnbaum, and their son, William Alexander Birnbaum, who served as president of the Alexander Doll Company until 1994.
- Goddu 2004, p. 57.
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- Goddu 2004, p. 58.
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- Herlocher 2005, p. 27.
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