Bar­bie and Ruth: The Sto­ry of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Cre­at­ed Her

Robin Ger­ber
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
Bar­bie, that tall blonde turn­ing 50 this year, still has wide eyes and an invit­ing smile, but the sto­ry behind the silken doll is any­thing but sac­cha­rine. Accord­ing to this new biog­ra­phy, Barbie’s cre­ator was more pit bull than princess bride, a hot­head­ed mar­ket­ing genius.

Petite pow­er­house Ruth Han­dler found­ed Mat­tel and built it into an inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned toy empire with her toy design­er hus­band Elliott. But when she want­ed to sell an adult-bod­ied” doll for aspi­ra­tional lit­tle girls in the 1950’s, she squashed naysay­ers and pushed it through with her trade­mark tenac­i­ty. The biog­ra­phy reads like a well-researched tabloid into the seami­er cor­ners of the toy indus­try and Ruth’s own per­son­al­i­ty. She could inspire love or hate but nev­er neu­tral­i­ty. 

Bar­bie, the ubquitious icon whose cul­tur­al con­tro­ver­sy often over­shad­ows her prove­nance, is the prod­uct of Handler’s bux­om body and steel trap busi­ness brain, a cou­pling she exploit­ed from the helm of Mat­tel. Handler’s stom­ach for risk-tak­ing — like the time when she com­mit­ted the company’s entire net worth to air com­mer­cials on ABC’s new show, the Mick­ey Mouse Club — paid off until it didn’t. She and Elliott were forced out of the com­pa­ny they built amid accu­sa­tions of fal­si­fy­ing finan­cial doc­u­ments. She took the brunt of the fall, pay­ing a hefty fine and serv­ing a long com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice stint. 

Handler’s sto­ry doesn’t end there. The 10th and youngest child of Pol­ish immi­grants who set­tled in Col­orado, Han­dler spent her gold­en years bat­tling breast can­cer and build­ing anoth­er suc­cess­ful busi­ness — this time to man­u­fac­ture and mar­ket pros­thet­ic breasts— until her death in 2002 at age 85

In this com­pre­hen­sive account of entre­pre­neur­ial chutz­pah, Han­dler comes across as utter­ly human and any­thing but grandmotherly.

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