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World's 'best dressed doll' born in Lincoln

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Terri Lee dolls

Terri Lee was among the first companies to commercially produce African American dolls.

Today, little girls want dolls that do everything a real baby can do: walk, crawl, cry, eat, gurgle, wet and even “breastfeed.”

But in 1946, the doll on every little girl’s wish list was Terri Lee -- the chubby-cheeked, brown-eyed, lips-pursed-in-a- permanent-pout toddler.

Known as the “best dressed doll in the world” for her exquisitely detailed hand-sewn garments, Terri Lee broke new ground in the world of dolls, crossing ethnic and gender lines in an era that was not necessarily ready for it.

Terri Lee was a national sensation -- but she was Lincoln born and made.

In its heyday, the downtown Terri Lee factory employed 190 people working around-the-clock to attach her limbs; implant and coif her wigs; hand-paint her eyes, lashes, brows and lips; and work to keep up with the 3,000 doll orders coming in each week.

Fire snuffed out her rapid rise to fame, but today Terri Lee dolls still occasionally are manufactured but in much smaller numbers. And the dolls of yore -- the original Terri Lee, Jerri, Patty-Jo, Benjie and Bonnie Lou -- sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars in the collectors’ market.

The story behind Terri Lee reads like a novel: Two talented and enterprising young women create a doll empire only to succumb to greed, rivalry, deception and tragedy.

The dolls and the story are now part of a new exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum, 15th and P streets, running through Sept. 1.

The exhibit was made possible by a donation of roughly 290 Terri Lee dolls and her numerous accessories and furniture pieces by Marilyn McCoy Carney, former publisher/owner of the Wahoo, Waverly, Ashland and David City newspapers, and a longtime doll collector.

“Marilyn was downsizing and was ready for the dolls to go to a new home,” said Tina Koeppe, exhibit coordinator for the museum.

At the heart of Carney’s decision was an unwavering desire to keep her Terri Lee collection together and in Lincoln.

Prior to Carney’s donation, the museum had only a handful of Terri Lee Dolls and photographs, Koeppe said.

Just by happenstance, the museum was discussing the creation of a Terri Lee exhibit, when Carney contacted them with an offer they could not refuse.

“I just happened to arrive at the right time,” Carney recalled in a telephone interview. “I wanted to donate all my dolls, and not just a few.”

Carney was 10 when she received her first Terri Lee doll. She had very few dolls, and Terri Lee became her treasured companion.

Carney began collecting the dolls when she was in her 30s and continued for the next 35 to 40 years.

She is just one of many passionate Terri Lee collectors.

The Terri Lee story

Terri Lee dolls actually began with an artist -- Maxine Sunderman Runci, an Omaha native. Runci was working as a sculptor in Los Angeles, creating mannequin heads for a high-end department store, when she decided to create a small mannequin -- a doll -- that children could play with. She made the doll’s face to look like her young daughter, Drienne, at the age of 14 months.

In 1946, Runci boarded a train to New York City for the American International Toy Fair with her clay and plaster of paris prototypes. On the way, she stopped in Nebraska to see her family and showed the doll to her aunt Violet “Vi” Lee Gradwohl.

Like Runci, who had worked in an Omaha doll hospital, Gradwohl also repaired dolls for the Lincoln social welfare toy shop. She had repaired hundreds of dolls, said Koeppe, and saw how few the offerings were for girls.

The conventional dolls of the 1940s were poorly made, unattractive and easily broken, Gradwohl recalled in a Nov. 11, 1951, article in the Lincoln Journal and Star.

“Many of the dolls she repaired did not seem designed for actual play,” Koeppe said. “Glass eyes often became stuck and porcelain fingers snapped off.”

She also disliked that all dolls had blue eyes. Her own daughter, Terri Lee, had brown eyes.

Gradwohl joined her niece on the trip to New York City, but they were turned away from the prestigious toy fair because they were not registered as vendors, Koeppe said. Another toy manufacturer displayed the doll for them, and the doll was a huge hit.

Yet, no one snapped up the opportunity to manufacture the doll. So on the train ride home, Gradwohl and Runci came up with a plan: Why not make the dolls ourselves?

They agreed the doll would look like Drienne, but would be called Terri Lee, after Gradwohl’s daughter.

Runci returned to Los Angeles and created a doll mold. In Lincoln, Gradwohl began marketing the doll, purchasing materials and hiring workers to sew the doll’s clothes. She enlisted her hairdresser Ben Myers, from Ben’s Your Hairdresser at 211 S. 13th St., to make the doll’s wigs out of a plastic fiber called celanese.

The very first factory was in Gradwohl’s kitchen. The very first dolls were “composite,” made of a mixture of glue and sawdust. However, in the aftermath of World War II, sawdust was hard to get, so she improvised using ground corncobs, Koeppe said.

But the ground corncobs attracted moisture, and the paint cracked on the dolls.

“Violet decided to experiment with a new material called plastic,” Koeppe said.

That fall, Montgomery Ward featured the Terri Lee doll in its 1946 Christmas catalog.

A marketing genius, Gradwohl advertised the dolls as a girl's companion and “the best friend of children across America.” She referred to doll owners as “Little Mothers.” Every doll came with a lifetime guarantee and a blank admission certificate to the Terri Lee Doll Hospital, located within the Terri Lee factory. Little Mothers received birthday cards, were invited to join the Terri Lee Friendship Club and received special doll magazines. What’s more, Terri Lee had a vast collection of clothes -- more than 100 outfits and accessories.

Gradwohl’s marketing tugged on the heartstrings of parents, Koeppe said. These were people who had lived through the Depression of the 1930s and the rationing of the 1940s, she said.

“Families were starting to do well, and they were giving their kids everything they didn’t get to have,” Koeppe said.

Every outfit was hand-cut and sewn by Lincoln-area women. It was high-quality clothing with working buttons, real leather belts and shoes, even hats and mittens made out of real rabbit fur, Koeppe said.

“Violet coordinated some of the prints on Terri Lee’s costumes to match Steiff animals, adding tiny stuffed monkeys, poodles and Scotties to her line,” Koeppe said.

Terri Lee’s clothes were so well liked that many little girls’ mothers would copy the design and make matching outfits for their “little mother” daughters, Carney recalled.

Today, many of the same marketing techniques are employed by the wildly successful American Girl doll company.

Naysayers said the Terri Lee doll would never sell because of her “funny face.”

America provided them wrong -- with orders pouring in at a rate of nearly 3,000 a week, according to Lincoln Journal and Star archives.

By the end of 1946, more than 8,000 Terri Lee Dolls had sold.

But trouble was brewing in the empire.

“Around this time, Runci started to be left out,” Koeppe said. She received no money or credit for the doll. A promised trust fund for Drienne never materialized, according to Koeppe. And Gradwohl didn't attempt to correct people, when they incorrectly assumed that the Terri Lee doll was made to resemble her daughter Terri Lee.

The result was a family rift that never repaired.

Today, Drienne (Runci) Spencer lives in Paris, France. Koeppe interviewed her in May when she was putting together materials for the museum exhibit.

“Drienne said that her mother didn’t consider copyrighting her creation or challenging her aunt until it was too late,” Koeppe said. “She never imagined that her more assertive aunt would take credit or neglect to share the financial profits of the company.”

Hard feelings carried on for decades and divided many family members.

Meanwhile, business skyrocketed.

The company doubled its staff to several hundred employees in 1947. More dolls were added to the collection: Jerri Lee, “Terri’s adopted brother”; two Mexican dolls -- Guadalupe and Calypso; an Eskimo doll named Nanook; and two African-American dolls -- Benjie and Bonnie Lou (later named Patty-Jo).

The African-American dolls, in particular, were a bold move considering that many areas of the United States still were segregated, Koeppe said.

Gradwohl created the dolls because she didn’t like to see black girls forced to play with white dolls. She thought it fed on the stereotype of black mammies, Koeppe said.

In 1949, Gradwohl issued a Gene Autry doll. A huge fan of the cowboy crooner, Gradwohl convinced him to come to Lincoln to promote the doll.

Unfortunately, the Gene Autry doll was not that popular, Koeppe said. And he wasn’t made with the same craftsmanship and attention to detail that the Terri Lee line was known for.

What was popular though, was the doll’s Western wear -- which sold far better than the Gene Autry doll himself, Koeppe said.

Ever the entrepreneur, Gradwohl created new dolls and tried new technologies. She also was a woman of conviction and used her dolls to make social statements. One year she created the Heart Fund series of dolls and clothes -- dedicating proceeds to fight rheumatic fever, Koeppe said. Each year she had a different heart fund article of clothing.

The beginning of the end

Success, however, was short-lived. Just after 11 p.m. Dec. 15, 1951, Lincoln police responded to a burglar alarm at the Terri Lee plant, 2010 O St. They arrived to flames shooting from the building -- the alarm set off by heat.

The first firefighters arrived within two minutes, followed by a second alarm. By the time the fire was extinguished, the Terri Lee doll company and several adjoining businesses were in ruins.

The financial loss was $291,500 -- but the emotional loss was much greater. An estimated 150 dolls waiting for repair  were destroyed, as was a $250 mink coat -- a special order for a Terri Lee doll Christmas present. Gradwohl, who had watched the blaze from across the street, suffered shock and exposure and was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

The company scrambled to find and replace holiday orders lost in the blaze.

Plant manager Roy Bitler assured the community that the Terri Lee plant would be up and running in early January. After all, shortly before the fire, Gradwohl and her husband had contemplated finding a larger facility in Lincoln.

After the fire, Gradwohl had sworn she was getting out of the doll business. But she had a change of heart, Koeppe said, after receiving hundreds of letters from little girls, parents and shopkeepers.

However, the Gradwohls couldn't find a suitable place in Lincoln for a new factory, so Violet Gradwohl headed to California where two doll manufacturing plants were up for sale.

She settled in Apple Valley, 93 miles from Los Angeles, in a sprawling ranch decorated with Rudolph Valentino’s furniture, and raised thoroughbred horses. With the manufacturing plant in California, the business and clothing side of the company remained in Lincoln for another seven years.

Gradwohl continued to expand the business -- trying new materials, adding hard plastic dolls, vinyl dolls and baby dolls Linda Lee and Connie Lynn, named after her own granddaughters.

With each expansion came more debt. And Gradwohl, whose interests focused on her horses, hired some less than scrupulous managers. Lawsuits followed. Gradwohl's troubled marriage ended. Faithful friends and silent partners left.

“She just lost control of the factory,” Koeppe said.

One million dollars in debt, she hired a new financial adviser, Marvin James Miller. The handsome, charismatic young man was on probation for embezzlement and falsification of business records, and had recently received a $185,000 insurance claim after his carpet business was destroyed in a fire.

On Nov. 14, 1958, Gradwohl paid Miller $1,000 to audit her books. Six days later, fire raged through the California Terri Lee factory.

Investigators determined it was arson. Miller was arrested and convicted.

Although Gradwohl never was charged in the crime, rumors circulated that she was, at the very least, complicit, if not aware of Miller’s attempt to “solve” her problems. She received no insurance money, and with creditors at the door, Terri Lee Doll Company went into foreclosure. The 818-acre plant/ranch complex and all of its equipment were sold at auction in April 1959.

In the following years, Gradwohl worked with various companies to produce Terri Lee. Associations were brief and frequently litigious. Terri Lee’s standard of quality was never the same.

Gradwohl left California for Virginia in the 1960s to be closer to her daughter, Terri Lee Schrepel. Gradwohl died in 1972 at the age of 71.

Maxine Runci died in 1977 after a long successful artistic career.

Terri Lee Schrepel died in the fall of 1998.

Gradwohl and Runci never reconciled, said Koeppe, citing her interview with Drienne.

But Terri Lee and her dollmates were far from forgotten. In 1988, longtime collector Peggy Weidman Casper, of Omaha, wrote the book “Fashionable Terri Lee Dolls.” The comprehensive book gives an almost encyclopedic account of the dolls, the costumes and the ladies behind them.

It also sparked a renewed interest in the dolls and inspired collectors to seek out and find any remaining Terri Lee originals.

Marilyn Carney admits she easily could have sold her vast doll collection for a significant price. But her conviction that the collection  remain complete -- and in Nebraska -- inspired her to donate it instead to the Nebraska History Museum.

And last week, as she opened the exhibit to the public, she knew she had made the right decision.

“I am very happy to have other people be able to enjoy them. That’s what is making it really rewarding -- that other people can come and see and reminisce.”

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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