History: The cutest little viral sensation who put Oak Cliff on the map in 1954

Opposite: A Look magazine spread about Anita Rae Bartlett from November 1954. (Photo Look Magazine, November 1954 by John Vachon)
A Look magazine spread about Anita Rae Bartlett from November 1954. (Photo Look Magazine, November 1954 by John Vachon)

The story of a cancer-stricken Oak Cliff girl who touched the world

Anything can go viral if it’s cute enough — that video of an otter eating breakfast, for example — or sometimes, things that are so touching that you just have to share them.

The story of a kid who saves his allowance to buy groceries for the local food bank, maybe.

In Anita Rae Bartlett’s case, there was a little of all that and more.

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Bartlett went viral before the internet, in 1954.

The little girl lived with her family in Oak Cliff, and she was cute as a box full of kittens. Charming as Shirley Temple.

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On her fourth birthday, on Aug. 9, 1954, she was the subject of a local story that went out over the newswire. It was accompanied by a photo, by John Mazziotta of the Dallas News, of a doe-eyed Anita holding her puppy, Jinks.

It’s hard to tell how many newspapers picked it up, but it’s certain that the story appeared in news markets from coast to coast.

Let’s put the sad part up front: Little Anita Rae Bartlett’s story does not end well.

A.C. Bartlett decorates a Christmas tree with his daughter in this December 1954 news wire photo. (Photo courtesy of United press telephoto)
A.C. Bartlett decorates a Christmas tree with his daughter in this December 1954 news wire photo. (Photo courtesy of United press telephoto)

She had been diagnosed with nephroblastoma, a rare type of kidney cancer that was then called Wilm’s tumor. She was an only child, and her parents, A.C. and Dorothy, relocated from Fort Sill, Okla. to Dallas, where their daughter could receive “X-Ray therapy.”

The wire story described her as “brown-eyed, curly haired and dimpled” and said she “flirted” with a photographer and recited, “Big brown eyes and a cute little figger/Stand back, boys, till I get a little bigger.” The wire service also filmed a newsreel featuring Anita.

The girl first became ill in May 1954, and surgeons removed a tumor “as big as her head” as well as her right kidney. But the cancer already had spread, and doctors gave her six months to live.

The girl was lively, though, and her parents gave her everything they could, going broke to pay for treatments and eschewing work to spend every moment with her.

After she became a viral sensation, Liberace, the girl’s favorite performer, wrote to her many times. He sent her a white toy piano and two one-of-a-kind records made just for her.

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Pope Pius XII prayed for her and sent her a silver medallion.

A contestant won money for her on the TV game show “Strike It Rich.”

In London, a little girl also named Anita emptied her piggy bank and sent her shillings to Dallas. A local florist sent a fresh bouquet to Anita every day.

Look magazine ran a four-page spread dedicated to the girl in its Nov. 30, 1954 issue. After that, she became even more famous.

Marines in Cuba pooled their money to send her a Christmas doll. The Embassy Marine Detachment in Vienna, Austria named her their “sweetheart.”

Letters from all over the world and gifts of clothes and toys poured into the home where the Bartletts lived on Brandon Street.

The treatments prolonged her life, but by the end of the year, she had deteriorated.

On Thursday, Jan. 20, 1955, Anita was taken to the Green Clinic and Hospital at 1107 W. Jefferson, where she died.

By that time, she was a household name. The headline on her news obituary read, “Anita Rae loses in cancer fight.”

Some of her many toys were given to an orphan, 6-year-old Cheryl Hambrick of Oak Cliff, who also had been in the news after her mother died of cancer and her father perished in a house fire.

Anita Rae Bartlett’s name disappears from newspaper archives after January 1955.

But for a little while, she was America’s sweetheart.

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