by Amy Abbott
My Chatty Cathy doll endured a ghastly accident in 1966 and a horrendous death in 1992—both on my watch. So when my brother handed me an exact replica of my treasured doll for my 64th birthday, I was overjoyed.
My Chatty Cathy had brunette hair, wiry and unruly, just like mine as a youngster. The new old doll, who arrived in her original box, wore Chatty’s red party dress. Shockingly, we discovered she was au naturel underneath, without the proper undergarments demanded of a righteous woman in the Sixties.
While Barbie is Mattel’s most famous doll, many children played with and enjoyed the toy company’s second most famous incarnation, Chatty Cathy. Cathy entered the doll marketplace in June 1960 with something different – she could talk. Pull a string in her back, and a squeaky, child-like voice would say, ”Tell me a story” or “I love you.” The recorded voice belonged to June Foray, one of the most recognized women in the animation world. Foray was the sound behind Looney Tunes’ Witch Hazel and Granny as well as Bullwinkle’s friend Rocket J. “Rocky” Squirrel.
My original twenty-inch dark-haired Chatty Cathy was a gift from Santa Claus on Christmas morning in 1963. Santa had a telepathic relationship with my maternal grandmother because hours later, Cathy received multiple handmade outfits at my grandparents’ home. Cathy received a wedding gown and veil and a purple gingham play dress.
Cathy was my constant companion as a child, even on family vacations. But then, she suffered a terrible blow on a sweltering, hot day at the Indiana Dunes. I left her in the rear window of our Chevy sedan. Her face melted to the window, stuck flat against the back glass. Her eyes melted shut, and her nose and mouth shoved off to the side of her now oblong face. Oh, the humanity. I was horrified – my Dad pried Cathy’s face from the glass and put her in the trunk of the car.
When we returned from vacation, Dad found a place with the unexpected name Doll Hospital in a nearby city. Cathy had a life-saving head transplant and came home new. I never really recovered from the trauma, and I kept Cathy close. Over time, her voice box slowed to a creepy crawl and eventually to a grinding noise. Then, she just stopped talking.
Mattel first introduced a blue-eyed, blonde-headed Cathy in 1960. In 1963 and 1964, Mattel added dark and auburn-haired versions and a doll with dark skin. Like the American Girls dolls of today, little girls wanted a doll who looked like them. My Chatty Cathy looked surprisingly like me with the wild hair, though my eyes are more green than blue. Our pale skin matched. While Mattel introduced three 12-inch fashion dolls of color – Francie, 1967; Christie, 1968; and Julia, 1969 – Black Barbie was not introduced until 1980.
Chatty Cathy moved with me several times, and I gave her to our son when he was two. Being good feminist parents, we encouraged our son to play with trucks and dolls. Giving a treasured doll to a two-year-old is a newcomer move. Our son enjoyed the trucks, and he dragged a naked Cathy around by her hair. One day the two-year-old was too much for the vintage doll, and for the second time, Cathy lost her head. The plastic of her skin and neck were now brittle. I knew it was time to say goodbye to my cherished friend, who had suffered so much on my watch.
My new vintage Cathy endures some common aging problems, as we are the same age. We’ve found her some Granny panties and appropriate pandemic Stay-At-Home clothing.
In her eyes, I sometimes sense a longing for Icy Hot ointment to rub on old plastic legs. Her skin lacks moisture, so like other women in their seventh decade, she’s liberal with the expensive skin treatments. Her hearing isn’t what it used to be, and like me, she’s content to be a hermit until the pandemic is over.