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Bridget Foley's Diary: John Waters' Pearl

The CFDA Fashion Awards host's witty opening remarks lead to a search for the backstory to Waters fashion muse, Brooklyn native Poor Pitiful Pearl.

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If one girl can emerge from a small Caribbean island to become fashion’s biggest star du jour, might not another, of outer borough provenance and humble means — pitiful even — emerge to take her place?

Step sideways, Rihanna, arriviste New Yorker that you are, and make way for John Waters’ fashion muse, Brooklyn native Poor Pitiful Pearl. In his witty opening CFDA remarks, Waters talked about the aesthetic he would embrace should he launch a fashion collection of his own. “I would also tell Women’s Wear Daily that my influences were more advanced than the usual ‘Mad Men,’ the art of subtraction or the urban gypsy…,” Waters offered. “Poor Pitiful Pearl — remember that great doll from the Fifties? That came dressed in a burlap bag and Nikita Khrushchev-style head scarf and [in] a grain brown box with wonderful copy, ‘This is Poor Pitiful Pearl?’ She is my muse.”

Looking at Pearl, it’s little wonder that so left-field a cultural chronicler as Waters would be smitten. Born into hardship, Pearl turned difficult circumstances to sartorial advantage — she went grungy before grunge and embraced mismatched black anklets back when Comme des Garçons were just three words in French. Like Orphan Annie and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Little Princess,” Pearl must have had an anonymous benefactor. She once owned a second frock, a party dress, though the particular Pearl here, whose travels have taken her to attics in Schenectady, N.Y.; Troy N.Y., and Brookline Mass., and most recently, to NYC, is not in possession of such finery.

A search for Pearl’s backstory led to a conversation with Arlene Jensen, an avid doll collector with her husband Don Jensen. After Mr. Jensen’s death last year, she sold their hundreds of dolls, maintaining the collection “was no longer fun.” Upon retiring in 1997, newspaperman Jensen wrote two books chronicling the output of Horsman Dolls. When an e-copy of the second, “Horsman Dolls: The Vinyl Era 1950 to Present,” didn’t arrive promptly from a bookseller, I located Mrs. Jensen through Kathy Troher, an editor at Jensen’s longtime employer, the Kenosha News.

It turns out Pearl’s lineage — not so shabby. She was created by an artist (one within the Condé Nast fold, no less.…) And she has another connection to our world: Her real-life inspiration was the daughter of a tailor from the Bronx.

I knew Pearl hailed from Brookglad Corp. in Brooklyn (toy boxes don’t lie), that her creation has been attributed by biographers of unconfirmed expertise (mostly sellers wanting to unload old dolls) to longtime New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, who also wrote children’s books, along the way creating Pearl’s far more famous relation, Shrek. Referencing her husband’s prose, Mrs. Jensen filled in the story. Steig did indeed create Pearl as a commission from Brookglad (also known as Glad Toys, later acquired by Horsman). Pearl was, Jensen wrote, “a Cinderella-like character…she had a face collectors described variously as wistful, sad, plain and even appealingly unattractive.”

If her look predates the Fifties, Cinderella wasn’t her only inspiration. The illustrator’s widow, Jeanne Steig, told Jensen that Pearl was based on a childhood friend, “a Jewish tailor’s daughter, Pearl Bimblick, who lived in the same apartment building at 1469 Webster Avenue in the Bronx about 1920 when both children were 12 years old.” If so, Bimblick was also the model for one of Steig’s Small Fry New Yorker characters, from which Steig drew for the doll, according to an article in “The Christian Science Monitor” on May 3, 1957.

The artist put a great deal of thought into Pearl and the relationship she would have with her eventual owners. Jensen referenced a Look magazine article (date unknown) in which Steig maintained that the doll universe should include not only glamour dolls to awe and baby dolls to be mothered, “but a plain, unfortunate doll on which kids could exercise their ready compassion.” Yet Steig also saw Pearl as “a spirited and resourceful girl who has fun and knows how to work out a good life for herself.”

How, you wonder? Just before deadline came an e-mail from Anne Scher at The Jewish Museum which housed a Steig exhibit for several months in 2007-08. Scher forwarded the “The Christian Science Monitor” piece rich with details about the urchin who, it seems, was not one to wallow in pathos nor to disavow the powers of reinvention.

Apparently, a blue organdy party dress wasn’t the only artifact to disappear from the trove of a certain upstate Pearl. At one time she also had in her possession a little self-help booklet illustrated by Steig himself. Pearl, it explained, needs “a refreshing bath; a hairdo; a nice dress; clean socks, and new shoes; a chance to admire herself,” while offering coiffure and other tips for Pearl’s new owner/friend/style consultant.

Rags, reinvention and a dad with straight pins and a tape measure. John Waters’ muse has been one of us all along.

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