Miller's 'Toy Wars': Barbie vs. G.I. Joe

January 25, 1998|By M. G. Lord | M. G. Lord,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies that Make Them," by G. Wayne Miller. Times Books. 348 pages. $25.

Backstage at the toy industry is no place for children. It is filled with greedy brutes who have zero respect for under-age consumers. In "Toy Wars," G. Wayne Miller, a novelist and reporter for the Providence Journal, paints an unflinching portrait of this unsavory terrain.

Permitted behind the scenes by executives of Hasbro, which makes G.I. Joe, Miller has constructed a swiftly moving narrative with all the elements of a mini series: a hero, Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld; an antagonist, Mattel CEO John Ammerman; a climactic battle, Mattel's hostile bid to annex Hasbro, and a resolution, from which the hero emerges transformed. Miller is a graceful writer with a mastery of structure; he is particularly adept conveying each player's back story without slowing down the plot. Yet for all his ability to craft a silk purse, he is hampered by his subject. The Hassenfeld clan, which founded Hasbro in 1910, is a bunch of sow's ears.

In terms of weirdness, the Hassenfelds are in the same league as the Addams family, and to present them sympathetically, Miller must gloss over really bizarre behavior.

For starters, there is the family's aggressive denial of the homosexuality of their elder son, Stephen, who ran Hasbro from 1980 until his death from AIDS in 1989. Stephen was, to be sure, severely closeted and seemingly self-hating.

Yet in 1989, when his weight had plummeted, he had suffered multiple infections and his live-in partner, who persuaded him to chuck the company's dowdy corporate apartment in favor of snazzy digs in Manhattan's Museum Towers, begged him to confide his illness to his baby brother, he refused.

Nor did Alan, the baby brother and Hasbro heir apparent, confront him. "We never interfered with each other's personal lives unless advice was asked," Alan explains. One has to wonder: Was Alan insanely homophobic or just dim?

After Stephen's death, Miller works to establish Alan as a hero - difficult, because Alan, a rich kid with a sense of entitlement, waffles under pressure.

But Miller has a trump card. When Alan is attacked by a bottom-line-obsessed bully - Mattel Capo John Ammerman, he becomes an underdog. In contrast to Ammerman's ruthlessness, Alan looks sweet. Readers will cheer when Hasbro shareholders reject Ammerman and support Alan.

"Toy Wars" will interest parents and students of business history. tTC Miller's digressions can be as engaging as his main story, when, for instance, he reveals the back door through which "The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers," an unlikely hit, weaseled its way onto television.

Although the square-off with Mattel - what one wag terms "Barbies at the Gate" - is the climax of the book, I wish it had come earlier. It was refreshing to root for someone - even, given the realities of the toy industry, the lesser of two creeps.

M.G. Lord wrote "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll." Formerly a columnist and syndicated political cartoonist, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She is working on a cultural history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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