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

ByMichelle Archer, Special for USA TODAY
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.

To this list, add another famous blonde: Barbie, or more precisely, Mattel MAT, the company that makes the iconic fashion doll. And with a title like Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel, it doesn't take a Magic 8 Ball to predict that Oppenheimer has unearthed some dirt on the largest toy company in the USA.

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.

•Ryan and Mattel. The designer who helped develop Chatty Cathy, Ken and Hot Wheels during a 20-year relationship with Mattel, claimed the company had understated royalty payments to him by almost $24 million. In 1980, after nearly 10 years of legal wrestling, Ryan and Mattel settled for $10 million.

•Handler indictment. Ruth Handler pleaded no contest to a 10-count indictment that alleged she influenced the price of Mattel stock by falsifying company records regarding sales and earnings from 1971 to 1973 and was sentenced to five years probation and 2,500 hours of community service and fined $57,000.

Oppenheimer writes that because of the bogus earnings reports, stockholders filed five class-action lawsuits against Mattel, resulting in a $30 million settlement — the largest in a securities case at that point.

•Polly Pocket. Oppenheimer writes that Mattel has settled with two families whose children needed emergency surgery after swallowing tiny magnets embedded in the hands and feet of Polly Pocket dolls. The settlement amount was secret, and the dolls have since been redesigned, but many of Oppenheimer's interview subjects take the stance that Mattel should have recalled the product sooner.

•Bratz and MGA. Since 2004, lawsuits have been fired back and forth between MGA, the maker of the popular Bratz dolls, and Mattel. Oppenheimer covers a May 2008 settlement between Mattel and Carter Bryant, a former Mattel employee who designed the Bratz dolls for rival company MGA, as well as the $100 million copyright-infringement lawsuit Mattel won against MGA last summer.

Oppenheimer devotes considerable space to "flamboyant and ambitious" Jill Barad, who climbed the ranks at Mattel, promoted to Barbie marketing director in 1982, co-president of Mattel USA in 1990 and CEO in 1997. In 2000, Barad was ousted but received a $50 million golden parachute, Oppenheimer writes.

Current CEO Robert Eckert receives scrutiny as well, taken to task by Oppenheimer for the handling of recalled products and the Chinese lead-paint scandal.

Despite all the positive hoopla surrounding Barbie's 50th birthday coming up in March, Toy Monster may make it hard for anyone to look her in the eye, let alone buy her.

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