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

Collins Business  2009

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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