Barbie creator Handler, 85, dies

Marketing genius co-founded Mattel toys

April 28, 2002|By Elaine Woo | Elaine Woo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - Ruth Handler, the entrepreneur and marketing genius who co-founded Mattel and created the Barbie doll, one of the world's most enduring and popular toys, died yesterday.

Mrs. Handler was 85 and died at a Los Angeles hospital of complications after colon surgery about three months ago, said her husband, Elliot.

The Southern California resident defied prevailing trends in the toy industry of the late 1950s when she proposed an alternative to the flat-chested baby dolls then marketed to girls.

Barbie, a teen-age doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust, became not only a best-selling toy with more than 1 billion sold in 150 countries, but a cultural icon analyzed by scholars, attacked by feminists and showcased in the Smithsonian Institution.

Although best known for her pivotal role as Barbie's inventor, Mrs. Handler devoted her later years to a second trailblazing career: manufacturing and marketing artificial breasts for women who had undergone mastectomy.

Herself a breast cancer survivor, she personally sold and fitted the prosthesis and crisscrossed the country as a spokeswoman for early detection of the disease in the 1970s, when it was still a taboo subject.

Born Ruth Mosko, she was the youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants who settled in Denver. Her father was a blacksmith who deserted the Russian army. Her mother was an illiterate woman who arrived in the United States in the steerage section of a steamship. Her mother's health was so frail that the young Ruth was raised by an older sister.

When she was 19, she left Denver for a vacation in Hollywood and wound up staying. Her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, followed her west and married her in 1938.

When he made some simple housewares to furnish their apartment, Mrs. Handler convinced him to produce more for sale. They bought some workshop equipment and launched a giftware business in their garage. With Mrs. Handler showing the product line to local stores, sales reached $2 million within a few years.

In 1942 they teamed up with another industrial designer, Harold "Matt" Mattson, to launch a business manufacturing picture frames. They later launched a sideline making dollhouse furniture. Within a few years, the company turned profitable and began to specialize in toys. It was called Mattel, a name fashioned from the "Matt" in Mattson and the "El" in Elliot.

In the late 1950s, noting her daughter Barbara's fascination with paper dolls of teen-agers and career women, Mrs. Handler realized there was a void in the market. She began to wonder if a three-dimensional version of the adult paper figures would have appeal. This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Mrs. Handler believed, it would have to have breasts.

Mrs. Handler's dream made its debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. "Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model" was named after her daughter. Mattel sold more than 350,000 the first year, and orders soon backed up for the doll, which retailed for $3.

By 1970, however, Mrs. Handler's world began to unravel. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. New corporate managers began to diversify Mattel away from toys, and their machinations resulted in the Handlers' ousting in 1975 from the company they had founded.

After being forced out of Mattel, she founded a new company, but not to make toys.

Ruthton Corp. was the result of the humiliation Mrs. Handler experienced when she sought to restore her appearance to its pre-mastectomy state.

The resulting Nearly Me prosthetic breast was made of liquid silicone enclosed in polyurethane and had a rigid foam backing. By 1980, sales of the Nearly Me artificial breast had surpassed $1 million. In 1991, the Handlers sold the company to a division of Kimberly-Clark.

Her son, Ken, died of a brain tumor in 1994. She is survived by her husband of 63 years; her daughter, Barbara Segal; one brother, Aaron Mosko; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Elaine Woo writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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