Scandal tainted long career of Barbie's creator

Gorgeous blonde actresses Patricia Clarkson and Emma Thompson turn 50 this year. So does another famous flaxen-haired beauty: the iconic, sometimes controversial, always curvaceous Barbie doll.

On Valentine's Day, Barbie was feted at Fashion Week in New York City. On March 9, the anniversary of the doll's debut at the New York Toy Fair, toy company Mattel will host a party at a life-size Malibu Dream House.

Robin Gerber has written a biography of the brains behind Barbie, Ruth Handler: Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.

Today, Barbie dolls are sold in 140 countries at an astonishing rate of three dolls a second, according to Forbes magazine. But at that first Toy Fair, the outlook was far from bright.

Handler, who founded Mattel in 1944 with husband Elliot and Harold "Matt" Matson, was inspired to create the doll during a post-WWII era dominated by baby dolls and paper dolls.

After observing her own daughter, Barbara, at play, Handler thought a more lifelike, sturdy alternative would spark girls' imaginations and prove highly profitable for Mattel.

A 1956 trip to Europe was the impetus. While in Lucerne, Switzerland, with 15-year-old Barbara, Handler saw in a shop window a hard plastic doll named Lilli. Lilli, originally marketed as a sex toy, was sold in different outfits. Ruth knew she could do better by designing a more appealing toy and selling clothing and accessories separately.

At the time, men dominated the toy industry, and many thought Barbie's prodigious bust would be off-putting to conservative parents. But Handler hired motivational researcher and branding pioneer Ernest Dichter to help her create a strategy for Barbie.

Gerber writes, "If Ruth's fellow toymakers underestimated anything about her … it was her competitive drive. She liked to win, and she intended to do so with the Barbie doll."

When Barbie TV commercials launched in March 1959, the doll was presented as a model-like toy that could help girls learn to be fashionable. Although the Toy Fair reception was disappointing, by summer the commercials had triggered astonishing demand. In fact, Gerber writes, it took Mattel three years to catch up.

Barbie was — and remains — a success story. But the doll is just one example of Handler's tenacity and drive, and Gerber does a masterful job of detailing her creativity and persistence and Mattel's steady expansion.

During her tenure at Mattel, Handler brought important, profitable changes to the toy industry. For example:

•In the 1950s, the industry was dependent on Christmas for 80% of sales. Handler understood that companies with a year-round strategy would thrive, so about $500,000 — Mattel's net worth at the time — was spent on advertising during the TV show The Mickey Mouse Club. The risk paid off: The company shipped 1 million Burp Gun toys at $4 each, which, Gerber notes, matched the previous year's sales volume for all toys.

•Because it took six weeks to get sales results from stores, Handler devised the "retail detail": Employees traveled to stores, set up Mattel displays and brought back sales data in a day or less.

•Handler "changed the consumer from parent to child," Gerber writes, by marketing Mattel's products directly to the youngsters who pestered their parents.

Handler's reputation was tainted by a corporate scandal in 1971. That year, Mattel was in talks to purchase Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Mattel executives falsified invoices, bills, even customer signatures to paint a rosier picture of the company's finances.

Handler blamed executive vice president Seymour Rosenberg. However, Gerber writes, "Rosenberg likely masterminded the initial scheme. The evidence is strong that Ruth knew about it." She eventually pleaded no contest to charges the government levied against her in January 1978, including mail fraud and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but continued to publicly maintain her innocence.

Handler's business acumen extended beyond toys. After a mastectomy in 1971, she saw a need for comfortable and lifelike prostheses. She created and sold a product called Nearly Me to customers worldwide.

By 1994, Handler's professional reputation was somewhat redeemed. Gerber writes that she was "brought back into the Mattel fold after 20 years of exile," wrote her autobiography, Dream Doll, and befriended Mattel CEO Jill Barad, who asked Handler to be a company spokeswoman.

Handler died in 2002 at age 85, after a lifetime of invention and reinvention. Sadly, she outlived her son Ken (for whom Barbie's beau was named). Although Handler likely never completely recovered from the shame of the 1970s corporate scandal, Gerber writes, "Ruth personified her own ideal for Barbie, a woman who defied convention and culture to realize her dreams."

Barbie and Ruth is a story worth reading on many counts: the history of the toy industry and Handler's achievements, and the lessons of behaving unethically are still relevant today.

Berger has crafted a biography-cum-business book that will resonate with a readers ranging from Barbie aficionados to business people and, of course, those who are both.