For a tale of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to excite the sympathetic imagination, we generally require that the saga begin with the hero swathed in rags, although a T-shirt will do in a pinch. And unless the story is a cautionary one, it will end with him laved in riches, having overcome Adversity and possibly Malice in his Dauntless Quest to lay his Sockdollager of a Product at the feet of the Public. The career of King Gillette, the inventor of the razor blade, presents us with such a tale. So too, I am delighted to report, does William Hoffman's "Fantasy," a biography of Xavier Roberts, the 27-year-old father of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
It is not, let me hasten to add, a story in the manner of Horatio Alger; Alger's protagonists all too often made their fortunes by rescuing a banker's daughter from a runaway horse. Nor is the book particularly well-written and free of padding, but this is a matter of small importance, for the tale of Xavier Roberts is one that virtually tells itself.
Born in north Georgia poverty to an itinerant carpenter and a quiltmaker of talent but no schooling, Roberts, like the vast majority of his kind, owes his wealth to an insight of stunning simplicity and unprecedented brilliance -- or, in Roberts' case, to a small clutch of such insights, most of them accidental.
Browsing through a library book at the age of 19, Roberts came upon a reference to the old German craft of needle-molding, a method of sculpting cloth; he was already adept at pottery and at his mother's avocation of quiltmaking. Moved by who knows what impulse, he immediately sat down, knocked off a number of dolls, christened them the Little People (they were born in a cabbage patch, he said), and put them on display at the gift shop he managed in a nearby state park.
No two were alike; each was equipped with a name and a biography. Some people found them as ugly as a mud fence but others found them irresistible. Among the latter was Xavier Roberts himself; he hit upon the idea of having the dolls adopted rather than purchased -- a stroke of pure genius -- because he could hardly bear to part with them. In addition, he administered an oath to each of his customers and sent the doll a card on its first birthday.
That was it. That was all there was to it. That was the fortune. (It helped, of course, that Xavier Roberts was extremely fond of money.) It may be audacious to say that he had struck a mystical chord (and with it, gold) deep in the human psyche, but the notion takes on a certain plausibility in view of the Cabbage Patch Riots of the past Christmas season.
Everything that followed Robert's first sale -- the establishment of "adoption centers" across the length and breadth of the land, the founding of Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Ga., and the issuance of its unbearably saccharine newsletter, and the triumphantly successful franchising of the dolls' manufacture to Coleco, the Connecticut toy company -- were simply means to an end, just as the fact that the Kids appreciated in value, some of them dramatically so, was merely an agreeable side-effect.
As Hoffman points out, dolls are an old and important part of human culture. In a stunning one-liner, he claims that both Socrates and William Penn were doll aficionados, a point that he regrettably fails to pursue. The Catholic church once executed a doll; in England, Punch and Judy were banned from the realm for making sly remarks about the monarch. Roberts was mining a very rich and ancient vein indeed, and his Kids arrived on the scene at what appears to have been the perfect psychological moment, when the nation was surfeited with beeping plastic that talked back to its owners and sometimes defeated them. Xavier Roberts, it seemed, had found the antidote.
As one might expect, certain adoption organizations expressed their horror, others were delighted, and still others attempted to strike a solemn balance. (How France ever achieved its reputation as the homeland of the goofy controversy is one of life's minor mysteries.) For whatever it happens to be worth, at least one adoptive parent (the author of this essay) suspects it may be no bad thing for adoption to be treated as a delightful event. Hoffman reports that Roberts has become stinking rich. Good for him.