Alice, the White Rabbit and I

It was the 1933 movie version of “Alice in Wonderland” that first introduced me to this Lewis Carroll classic. The bizarre characters didn’t frighten me because they were played by an all-star cast that was familiar to me. Even though I was a young child, I had gone to so many movies that I instantly recognized Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, and Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter. I barely recognized Cary Grant, who played the Mock Turtle, because he was just becoming famous. But I can still visualize cigar-chomping, frozen-faced Ned Sparks as the Caterpillar and moon-faced Jack Oakie as Tweedle Dum. Charlotte Henry, an actress I had never heard of, before or since, was Alice. Her costume—a mid-calf, puffed sleeved, Victorian girl’s dress with three rows of piping above the hem and overall, partly covered by a ruffled pinafore—was a big hit with us little girls, and we begged our mothers to make us an “Alice in Wonderland” outfit. (Mine was the color of what we used to call “Dutch blue.”)

By the time I was a teenager I had read both “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass.” I was beguiled by the quirky story and the tongue-in-cheek humor. I loved the puns and the White Rabbit’s exclamations when he was anxious about being late. I was simply convulsed with laughter each time I read the scene with Alice, the White Rabbit and Bill, the lizard, who was an outdoors laborer always being ordered about by the Rabbit. As for the Mad Tea Party episode, every phrase was and is still memorable. I enticed the little boy who lived next door to let me read aloud to him parts of “Alice.” I laughed so hard as I was reading that he followed suit, but I’m sure he didn’t understand the humor.

Many years later I met an artist who shared the same appreciation and love of “Alice” that I did. She had even mentally cast members of her family as characters in the book. Her sister reminded her of the Red Queen; a cousin thought of herself as a victim like the Dormouse and so on. It wasn’t surprising to hear that the artist eventually created many of the “Alice” characters as sculptures in clay. Each one was about two-and-a-half feet high. All of them resembled the famous John Tenniel illustrations in the original edition that had frightened my aunt and turned her off reading “Alice” in the early 1900s.

The sculptor was able to display her work in a posh Washington, D.C., gallery. Since she was determined to sell the entire collection at one time, the price was substantial.

The Alice characters created much amusement and appreciation by all the potential customers browsing through the exhibit, but the price may have been too high for most buyers of art. The artist wouldn’t sell individual sculptures; she wanted the entire collection to be a single purchase.

At that time, I was a children’s librarian. When the artist learned of our mutual feelings about “Alice,” she asked me if I knew of any institutions or museums that might be interested in acquiring her sculptures. I reflected for a while and then said, “You might try sending a letter to all the members of the Lewis Carroll Society.” Her face brightened and she nodded.

Some weeks later the art gallery called the artist and said that a woman had expressed an interest in purchasing just the Mad Tea Party sculptures for her father who was a Lewis Carroll aficionado and collected Carroll memorabilia. She refused the sale, however, because she insisted that all the sculptures belonged together. The potential customer went away, but returned in a few days. This visit she bought all the Alice sculptures and arranged for their delivery to her father’s estate on the Maryland Eastern Shore. All of us were happy—the sale was quite profitable to both the artist and the gallery. She and I were glad the entire group was going to the same place and to someone who would truly appreciate them. I was pleased that my suggestion had resulted in this satisfying conclusion.

And as the White Rabbit would have exclaimed, “Oh, my ears and whiskers!”