'Toy Monster' details Barbie-maker Mattel's dark side

ByABC News
February 22, 2009, 7:24 PM

— -- Jerry Oppenheimer's bibliography reads like a Who's Who of powerful, sometimes vilified women. Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Walters and Paris Hilton have all starred in his celebrity biographies.

Rather than write a straight history of Mattel, Oppenheimer focuses on the outsize personalities that helped form and shape it. The exposé opens with an eye-scorching description of the sexual exploits perpetrated in the Playboy Mansion-esque home of early Mattel contract designer Jack Ryan, whom Oppenheimer calls the "Father of Barbie."

Oppenheimer indicates that Ryan's personal obsession with the female form figured prominently in the tiny-waisted, long-legged, buxom shape of Barbie. Ryan applied his libertine philosophy to work, Oppenheimer writes, hiring pretty women to help his designers and engineers "be more creative and thrive."

Ryan, a former Raytheon missile designer, was responsible for engineering Barbie's breakthrough bendability and speaking voice, but it was Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler who first wanted the company to make a three-dimensional doll girls could dress in real clothes.

Oppenheimer writes that in 1956, Ruth and her husband, Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler, took a European vacation after "reaping substantial profits thanks in part to being one of the first toy companies to shrewdly gamble advertising dollars on TV commercials." A plastic burlesque doll in Germany called Bild-Lilli caught Ruth Handler's eye. Bild-Lilli became the source of one of the many Mattel legal battles highlighted in the book:

German patent holder G&H. G&H sued Mattel in 1961 over patent infringement, claiming Barbie was "a direct take-off and copy of" Bild-Lilli. The case was dismissed and Mattel bought G&H's Bild-Lilli copyrights for $21,600. G&H also took legal action against Mattel in 2001.