The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Galerie Dennis Cooper presents … Morton Bartlett’s Secret Children


The man who played with dolls

‘In 1993, Marion Harris, a New York art and antiques dealer, made the discovery of her life: In a booth at the Pier Show, a major antiques fair in New York, she came upon a collection of dolls and doll parts in boxes, along with stacks of old photographs. The material had been removed from a townhouse in Boston’s South End after the death of its elderly owner, a man named Morton Bartlett, a Harvard University dropout and Boston-based commercial photographer and graphic designer.

‘There were expertly tailored clothes for the dolls and hundreds of professional-quality photographs of the dolls in evocatively staged and dramatically lighted situations. In some of the pictures, the female dolls appeared nude, revealing all their anatomically accurate parts. The common perception, based on Bartlett’s work and sketchy information about his life, has been that he was a deeply eccentric, reclusive, lifelong bachelor who, working in near-total secrecy, sublimated his irregular desires into figurative substitutes for the love objects that he lacked in real life.

‘Whatever Bartlett’s real motivations may have been, what we have is the work he left behind. Bartlett invested a great deal of effort into making his dolls realistic. He used medical growth charts and anatomy books to ensure that his figures were correct in every detail. Yet the dolls are not feats of what would later be called “super realism.” They still have the artificial, toylike look of dolls and mannequins. This is a big part of their appeal — that they can seem so obviously unreal and yet so captivatingly alive at the same time.

‘In a brief autobiography Bartlett wrote for Harvard’s class of 1932 25th anniversary report — quoted in full in Harris’s book — Bartlett mentioned, “My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies — to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.” He didn’t specify exactly what urges he had in mind, but one naturally wonders, was he managing forbidden desires by sublimating them into his art? Was he a real-life version of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, creating his own artificial Lolitas? Or was he externalizing a part of his own psyche — opening himself up to and setting free his own inner, feminine child?

‘Unless there comes to light some new material such as letters, a diary, or an abandoned novel, we’ll probably never know what Bartlett himself thought he was doing or what his deepest desires were. What we do know is that he created some beautiful, mysterious, and unnerving works of art — objects and images that continue to tease and beguile with Sphinx-like allure.’ — Ken Johnson, Boston Globe



@ Wikipedia
@ Marion Harris Gallery
The Mysterious Life and Work of Morton Bartlett and His ‘Family’ of Dolls
Book: ‘Morton Bartlett: Secret Universe III’
Morton Bartlett’s secret dolls
Meet Morton Bartlett, The Harvard Man Who Secretly Made Life-Size Dolls
La famille composée de Morton Bartlett
Book: ‘Family found: The lifetime obsession of self-taught artist, Morton Bartlett’
Review of “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett”
morton bartlett’s likenesses of children
Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett
Les enfants fantasmes de Morton Bartlett
The Problem of Morton Bartlett



Short documentary

You are there: JULIE SAUL GALLERY – Morton Bartlett


Guy and Dolls


‘What of the darker questions about Bartlett? His longtime close friends Jean and Kahlil Gibran of Boston insist that he was neither an antisocial eccentric nor a psychosexual deviant. Moreover, they say he was not a naive outsider artist. (Kahlil, a well-known sculptor, was a cousin of Kahlil Gibran who wrote the famous book of poetry “The Prophet.”)

‘For almost 10 years, from about 1955 to 1964, the Gibrans and Bartlett lived in the same apartment building at 15 Fayette St., where Bartlett produced most of his dolls. When the Gibrans married in 1957, Bartlett was their best man. When their building was sold in 1964 and they had to leave, Bartlett and the Gibrans found new homes near each other in the South End, and they remained close until Bartlett’s death.

‘The Gibrans swear Bartlett was no pedophile. When it came to his romantic life, Kahlil Gibran, who still lives in Boston, says Bartlett dated women.

‘”Never did we see a young model or child in his studio or anything that would cast aspersions on his character,” said Kahlil during a recent telephone interview.

‘”He photographed Kahlil’s sculptures for his catalogs, and he used to come with us to art openings,” said Jean Gibran. “He knew all about art and artists — he couldn’t have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him.”

‘As for the dolls, say the Gibrans, they were no secret. “We knew about the dolls. He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them,” said Jean Gibran. “He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll.” And what about the dolls’ anatomic details? “He was ahead of his time,” she said.

‘In fact, Bartlett had a direct connection to the toy industry, but apparently he never took advantage of it. He designed catalogs for M. Sharf and Co., a major Boston-headquartered toy distributor. In the ’50s and ’60s, the company was owned and operated by two of Bartlett’s former Harvard classmates who were brothers. Fred Sharf, a son of one of the owners and now head of the company (which is under a new name and no longer involved in toys), recalls visiting Bartlett’s studio in the ’60s to deal with the catalog’s production.

‘”I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing anything about dolls,” said Sharf, who is himself a major Boston-based collector of folk art. “When his work surfaced in the world of folk art, I was flabbergasted.”

‘Sharf doubts that Bartlett wanted to mass-produce his dolls. “You’d think we would have known about it, since we were in the toy business,” he said. “We could have put him in touch with Mattel or Madame Alexander Dolls if he’d asked. But he never did. I think his interest in dolls was strictly his own personal mishigas.”‘ — Ken Johnson

















































p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi, D! Thanks, yeah, and it hasn’t stopped. The hacker is still relentlessly at it 24/7 as of as recently as — let me check — two seconds ago. Ah, formatting, so you’re close! Bated breath. Everyone seems to be talking about ‘It’s a Sin’ on social media. I appreciate your love sniper. Love dressing up like an issue of SCAB at a costume ball and being so convincing that everyone accidentally tears him to shreds trying to read him but at least he wins the prize for best costume posthumously, G. ** David Ehrenstein, Oh, I don’t know. I wasn’t speaking about what I know of your tome. I just know that sometimes I wonder why a certain American book hasn’t been published in France and people will say it’s probably because it’s considered too American and that the French won’t relate to it, but have no idea what that means. ** Misanthrope, Hi. I think Siratori is pretty cult and unknown-ish even among experimental US writers maybe. The novel Schuyler wrote with Ashbery — ‘Nest of Ninnies’ — is really great too. Ugh, yeah, get your mom thoroughly checked out or have her get herself checked out maximally. As someone with several friends who are serious hypochondriacs, I say patients can definitely be wrong about themselves. ** _Black_Acrylic, I’m glad Santa was able to locate you. Urgh, re: the as-yet still unknown departure date. Stay tough. Did you get your laptop? ** Bill, Hi. Mm, I only read ‘Creature’ a couple of weeks ago, so I might’ve referenced it back when, but I hadn’t become a recommender at that point unless I was just assuming. I like her novel, but I do maybe like the book of stories even better, yeah. Grumbling will keep you young when used judiciously. ** Jack Skelley, Peanut butter and Skelley sandwich! Oh, yeah, I think Cain is a good example of what I think I was saying the other night, yes. It’s weird about Tom Wolfe because his early non-fiction books were quite wild and pretty great. But then he got old, I guess, inside as well as out. I couldn’t get through his fiction books, but ‘Electric Kool Acid …’ and ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake…’ are swell. Yes, someone please shove a nuclear bomb down the hacker’s throat ASAP. ** Steve Erickson, Thanks. It’s not over, unfortunately, it’s still tireless and relentless. Mm, I don’t know, is there a reason to watch the Billie Eilish documentary? I just finally watched the Britney Spears doc last night. Cool about your Trouser Press/Sophie gig. Hm, I wonder if she’ll make that big a mark. The heat of a recent, tragic death can make objectivity a toughie. Curious to read your hypothesis. ** John Newton, Hi, John. That site was linked in the post, but thanks. I don’t know how many people actually dig into the ‘Further’ sections. Congrats on your editing gig! What are you editing? And I hope you like ‘HHU’. ** Brian O’Connell, Hi, Brian. So many excellent books out there these days, it’s crazy. Ah, I see, about the gig, but it does sound interesting. Editing a film is my favorite part of making a film. They usually announce new restrictions here on Thursdays, so a couple of nail-biting days to go yet. Happy you loved ‘Death in Venice’. I think it’s my fave Visconti too, if push came to shove. It’s so intensely what it is. And Dirk Bogarde is so over the top/amazing in it. My Monday? Dealing with the ongoing hacking and trying not to worry about it. Some new fiction fiddling. Made later in the week friends-seeing plans. Watched the Britney Spears documentary for some reason. She really has gotten railroaded, wow. Received materials for the next Zoom book club meeting: a Leonora Carrington story, a piece of Edouard Leve’s ‘Autoportrait’, and Roy Andersson’s film ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’. Today … not entirely sure. Something. Is schoolwork bearing down on your today, or did you get some breathing room? ** Right. A post about the curious doll-making artist Morton Bartlett, a big favorite of my collaborator/ friend Gisele Vienne. Would seem to be of possible interest? See you tomorrow.

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  1. Dennis, Nothing like seeing some of these at the foot of your bed or right next to it when you wake up during the night. That was my first thought anyway.

    Just saw that about the hacking attempt. I’ve gotten a couple Dark Web notifications recently from Norton. Seems they got an old password I haven’t used in years. Strangely, I’m now getting emails with that password in it, going, “We know your password” or some such. I just delete the emails and keep on keeping on.

    IOW, the hacking activity seems to have really ramped up lately all over the place. I wonder what’s going on.

    One thing that’s interesting, too, about What’s for Dinner? is that there’s no exposition or backstory. Makes for interesting reading. Other than the old lady going, “Well, back in my day…” to everything, it’s all in the present. I like it. I’ve been thinking about doing the same for the next novel I write. I think it would be effective for various reasons.

    I’ll add that Schuyler-Ashberry to my list.

    Seems my mom is feeling the slightest bit better. Thanks.

    Ha, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac myself. Eek. Though I’ve slowly gotten to the point where I’m like, if I’m not immobile, I’m not gonna worry about it.

  2. Hi!!

    Jesus… This is seriously nerve-racking.

    I really liked “It’s a Sin” – I’ve seen tons of AIDS movies and series, and I think it had some thoughts others didn’t. Or just a slightly different way of presenting them. And of course… almost all the boys are beautiful in it. It’s shallow, but I guess it’s an aspect too.

    Haha, oh my god! This is an amazing and flattering love; poor him! Well… love going back in time and *unbirthing* the hacker in a rundown hospital, Od.

  3. Speaking of dolls, It’s Karen Carpenter’s Birthday

    Dennis did you get my e-mail?

    I love visconti’s “Death n Venice” too. As I may have mentioned “The Damned” was a difficult and complicated shoot and during the editing Visconti wrote to Dirk Bogarde telling him he’d cut a number of his scenes out of the move because he’d falen in love with Helmut berger and wanted to make him a star — which he did. He told Bogarde “Don’t Worry, I’ll make it up to you.” And tthus “Death in Venice” in which Bogarde is the entire film.

    Tom Wolfe was a fscis hack. I eviscerated him HERE,

  4. Woah, Bartlett is a great artist and it’s no surprise that Gisele is a fan. These pics of his work are endlessly fascinating.

    The big news is that I got a bed at Chapel Allerton and am there right now! Had the news relayed this very morning, was then bundled into an ambulance and brought to this very well-appointed hospital in the suburbs of Leeds where I’m staying for however long it takes. So far I’ve seen their physios and will probably get a better idea tomorrow as to how long all this will take. Think it might be a couple of weeks but I’m definitely in the right place here.

  5. I’ve never come across Bartlett’s dolls before this post. Some amazing work here; the expressive faces especially.

    That zoom book club sounds great, Dennis. Which Leonora Carrington story are you reading? Regular zoom chats with friends are fine, but sometimes the energy flags when they’re freeform. I’ve had occasional zoom pow-wows after we’ve seen overlapping film festival offerings; these tend to be more interesting.


  6. Super Duper Dennis Cooper — Dolls are hawt. Funny how John Zorn keyed-in to these. Totes agree with you about T Wolfe, but will also cop to having consumed Bonfire of the Vanities in one night… on acid! Somehow mainlined in the membrane. On this same topic (trad vs. distressed narrative), I just read Thomas Moore’s Alone. Its emotion is powered by stylistic oomph. Very inspiring & I shall tell him so.

  7. I finished a review of Stanley Kwan’s CENTER STAGE, which is finally getting a US release this month, today, and weirdly, the movie made me think of FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS. Of course, Kwan is a far better filmmaker, but the media’s treatment of female celebrities as punching bags in 1930s China and 2000s America seemed very similar. I think the mainstream media may have improved – can you imagine the NY Times inviting Britney, much less Lil Kim or Foxy Brown, to write an op-ed in the ’90s, which they did with Megan Thee Stallion last year? – but there are plenty of individuals on social media willing to take up the slack.

    I’ve heard mixed word on the Eilish documentary, but you put her album on your 2019 top 10 list, so I thought it’d be of interest.

    Do you remember Curved Air? There have been several recent reissues of their first few albums, and I’ve gotten into AIR CONDITIONING. They pulled off a mix of Jefferson Airplane-cum-Yes prog-rock and classical influences much better than most of their peers, at least on that album.

    • Steve! I’m listening to Curved Air at this moment!
      You jolted my memory. Especially their number “Vivaldi” which seems to pull from The Four Seasons.
      thanks !!

  8. Brian O’Connell

    March 3, 2021 at 5:10 am

    Hey, Dennis,

    This is totally weird and fascinating and amazing. Very unsettling, and also kind of…beautiful? In this man’s single-minded drive to create, without it ever being seen, just for himself. But also kind of vaguely pervy and unsettling at any rate. Lot of conflicting feelings in today’s post. I loved it. Think I’ll bookmark it and do a deeper dive when I have the time.

    Yes, the gig is interesting, I don’t mean to do a disservice to it. I mean I like editing, so it’s nice that I have an opportunity to do it in a way that’s constructive. Yeah, I think editing is my favorite part of the process too. Not that I’ve made films, really (obviously not on the scale you guys do), but we had to do short film projects in high school, and editing was always the least stressful part of the whole thing. The hard work is done, it’s just shaping the material, and that’s more fun and satisfying than when you’re actually having to generate things from scratch during pre-production and the shooting phase. Anyway, I agree, is what I’ve been trying to say.

    Ah, all the prayers for Thursday, then. Yes, “intensely what it is” is exactly right. And Dirk Bogarde, man, I think it’s maybe one of the great screen performances I’ve seen. He conveys so much with so little! People have been telling me to check out his movies for ages. This was my first real experience with him, other than “The Damned”, where he’s not really central. So I have “The Night Porter” and “Victim” and “The Servant” queued up to check out too.

    Your Monday sounds pretty okay, barring the persistent hacker nightmare, of course. Yeah, I saw that Britney Spears documentary too. I didn’t really know anything about her beforehand. I thought it was pretty horrifying, if not particularly exceptional as a documentary. Wow, quite the line-up for Zoom. I keep meaning to read Carrington’s prose, as we’ve probably discussed before. And Roy Andersson is a major filmmaker I have yet to engage with. Do let us know if it’s good?

    Today was more work-heavy then yesterday, but “work” was a two page English essay on Shirley Jackson and watching and responding to “A Woman Under the Influence”, so it wasn’t too bad. But on that latter, you know, I’m starting to think Cassavetes just isn’t really my scene. Don’t get me wrong, they’re amazingly acted movies and really impressive and I find all the behind-the-scenes really interesting and inspiring. But I feel more admiration for them than I do enjoyment or investment. Not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because my preference in film, especially lately, skews way more toward an overtly artificial/stylized approach than a naturalist one. (But naturalism is just another type of formalism, so…) I’m not sure. Have to think it over. Any thoughts on that particular split—the formalist/naturalist one, I mean?

    Wow that’s a long scrawl. Hope it doesn’t bother you too much. In the meantime, happy middle-of-the-week!

  9. Thanks Dennis I had read about this artist and his dolls before. I am editing poems for a friend.

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