The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee
Botz first describes how she learned about the Nutshell Studies when she was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She was making a video about women who collected dollhouses, including a prosecutor who loved the houses but wanted no dolls. This woman directed Botz to the Baltimore ME's Office, so she visited and soon found herself fascinated with the macabre creations. "I was blown away," she said in an interview. "I was amazed. My visit happened to be on my birthday, and it brought together all these different interests of mine: I was interested in dollhouses and miniatures and crime, and I saw in the Studies an uncanny combination of sweetness and sinister. They're these amazing little worlds that I immediately lost myself inside."
In her book, she writes, "I was entranced by the details: the porcelain doll with a broken arm in the attic, the grains of sugar on the kitchen floor, the fallen book with a flying witch on the cover. I was also riveted by the miniature corpses." She found it somewhat ironic that she was taking photographs of three-dimensional objects that had, themselves, been inspired by photographs of actual crime scenes. "My photographs simultaneously moved the models further from and closer to their source."
Inevitably, Botz wanted to know more about the woman who had devised and created them. She interview a number of people, including Alton Mosher, Lee's commissioned carpenter, who still had one of the few unfinished models. Botz also spoke with Lee's daughter-in-law, Percy Lee, before the woman died, with descendants, and with police officers who had gone through the Harvard training seminars that involved the models. "I talked with Bill Baker, who's now an editor of Harvard Associates in Police Science. He knew Frances Glessner Lee; she rode around with him to some of his cases, and he trained on the models. They still have the seminars for police officers and he's quite active in that. He gave me names of some of the older officers who had gone through the seminars."
It took seven years to do the interviews and research, take the 500-plus close-up photographs, and put together the book, but once it was done Botz provided a comprehensive, even definitive, portrait. To accomplish this, she went to the homes in which Lee had lived and sought clues about her in the meticulous dioramas. She even did a rubbing from Lee's tombstone. Unsure about just how to tell Lee's story, she settled for a fact-based narrative surrounded by the diorama photographs, which in themselves offer a great deal about what Frances Glessner Lee was like as a person. As Richard Woodward says in the introduction, "the idea that a mature woman had taken a fancy plaything for little girls and turned it into a grim, bloodstained teaching tool for grown men must have seemed distinctly odd."
Asked for her impression of Frances Glessner Lee, now that all is said and done, Botz said, "I admire her efforts to improve crime investigation, and the fact that during that early period she advanced in a male-dominated field. From an individual standpoint, she's very complex and fascinating. As I learned from her family, she was very difficult to get along with, and this is in part because she was a brilliant woman who lived most of her life according to what was expected of an upper class woman. Lee's presence in the Nutshells has always been overwhelming for me. The Nutshells are over-determined objects that reveal Lee's own personal experience of space and forensics."