Ruth Handler: Sex Toys, Financial Crimes and the Origin of Barbie

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Let's Go Party

By Anthony Breznican

Ruth Handler displays the 40th Anniversary Barbie in 1999.

MATT CAMPBELL/Getty Images

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Ruth Handler, the grandmotherly figure played by Rhea Perlman in the new Barbie movie, offers compassion and wisdom to Margot Robbie in a moment when her blissful doll-come-to-life faces an existential crisis. Handler seems to know Barbie better than she knows herself, as she should. It’s a moment in which the doll literally meets her maker.

Perlman, best known as the sarcastic waitress Carla from Cheers, appears in the Greta Gerwig –directed film as Ruth Handler—a real-life legend in the toy business who helped turn Mattel into a global powerhouse, in large part thanks to Barbie, introduced in 1959. The real Handler died in 2002 at the age of 85, so her appearance in the movie is more whimsical than realistic. But the movie does included several details that are genuine. The full truth of her life, in many cases, is even stranger than even the most die-hard Barbie fans may realize.

Perlman’s character tells Barbie that she had a mastectomy. That’s true ; Handler had breast cancer in the 1970s. She also used the plastics know-how she’d gathered from years in the toy business to devise prosthetic devices for other women like her and launched an entirely new business, Nearly Me, which still sells products today.

The movie version of Ruth Handler also bitterly alludes to her being forced out of Mattel due to a clash over financial problems. This is played for laughs, but it’s based on truth as well. The scandal engulfed not just Handler but others who were employed at the toy manufacturer. “ 4 Ex‐Officers of Mattel Among 5 Indicted on Conspiracy Charges ,” read the 1978 headline in The New York Times.

The Times reported that Handler had been accused of falsifying “internal business records concerning earnings and sales in 1971, 1972 and 1973 so that they could influence the market price of Mattel stock.”

Handler was a trailblazer in an era when society relegated most women to the role of housewife, and her business acumen made her a formidable executive and strategist. Yet as Robin Gerber writes in her 2009 biography, Barbie and Ruth, “She had also allowed padding and other falsifying of the company books, and her protestations of innocence, her refusal to take responsibility, made the prosecution determined to push for a severe sentence.”

Handler ultimately dropped her resistance and pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $57,000 in fines and five years of probation, with the judge mandating 500 hours of community service per year. In Barbie and Ruth, Gerber writes that the judge told Handler her actions were “exploitive, parasitic, and disgraceful to anything in society.” The author further characterizes the combined 2,500 hours as “the longest public service sentence ever handed out.”

Handler could have gotten 41 years in prison, but she still found her comparatively light sentence to be severe. She wanted to create a giveaway program of her Nearly Me prosthetics for underprivileged cancer patients who might otherwise be unable to afford them, but the judge rejected that proposal. According to Gerber, after participating in scrupulously tabulated charity work that she found “humiliating,” Handler was eventually assigned the task of using her business know-how to give other convicts job training. The program was considered a success, and in 1982, the judge agreed to cut short Handler’s sentence by a year and a half.

Handler’s creation of Barbie isn’t closely documented in the movie, which takes a more fanciful approach to the toy universe. Various Barbies and Kens exist in a separate dimension where life is idyllic and the problems of the real world seldom interfere.

In the real world, Ruth married her husband, Elliot Handler, in 1938, and they started a business making home goods, often utilizing plastics. In the 1940s, they entered a partnership with industrial designer Harold Matson to create a new business manufacturing picture frames, according to the Los Angeles Times . Using the same materials, they branched off into another enterprise creating smaller furnishings—this time for dollhouses.

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The company was called Mattel, a combination of their partner’s last name and her husband’s first. Toys became the main event for the firm, and Ruth was inspired by their daughter, Barbara, (the namesake of Barbie) to create a doll who was a grown-up—not a baby—so that young girls could use them as projections of their own future selves.

“This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Handler believed, it would have to have breasts,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in its 2002 obituary for Handler . “When she took the idea to Mattel’s executives, who were men, they sneered that no mother would buy her daughter a grown-up doll with a bosom. ‘Our guys all said, ‘Naw, no good,’’ she recalled. ‘I tried more than once and nobody was interested, and I gave up.’”

Years passed, and Ruth became inspired again during a vacation to Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1956. Her then 15-year-old daughter, Barbara, drew her attention to a plastic doll in a toy-shop window. These were “Lilli” dolls, which had an hourglass physique and could be dressed in different outfits. Ruth saw potential not just to sell dolls, but to sell a nearly endless array of accessories for those dolls.

There was little innocent about the “Lilli” dolls, however. The character “was not primarily a child’s toy in Europe. She started life as a sex toy ,” Gerber wrote in Barbie and Ruth. “She originated in a comic strip in a tawdry gossip-sheet newspaper called Bild-Zeitung. Lilli pursued rich men by striking provocative poses in revealing clothes and spouting comic-strip bubbles of suggestive dialogue. ”

The “Lilli” cartoonist, Reinhard Beuthien, and designer Max Weissbrodt “saw the potential in taking Lilli off the page and making her a lascivious three-dimensional toy,” Gerber wrote. “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”

Handler and Mattel tamed “Lilli” into Barbie, releasing their own version of the doll in 1959. It was a massive hit, reportedly selling around 350,000 units in its first year alone.

“Half of our buyers really didn’t like it,” Ruth Handler told the BBC in a 1997 interview . “The men felt that women would not buy a doll with a woman’s body—with breasts and narrow waistlines and narrow ankles, this adult sexy-looking doll. Men felt that their wives would not want it and that it wouldn’t be right for a child to have that. They were wrong. Women, on the other hand, instantly flipped for that doll. The dolls no sooner landed on the counter than they were snatched up by the women buying them for their daughters.”

German manufacturer Greiner & Hausser and rival toymakers Louis Marx and Company also apparently flipped. Louis Marx held the “Lilli” license and noticed the similarities to their doll, resulting in a 1961 lawsuit against Mattel. That suit was settled in 1963, and a year later Mattel purchased the “Lilli” license from original German manufacturer Greiner & Hausser “for three lump-sum payments totaling 85,000 Deutschmarks (worth at that time approximately $21,600),” according to court records .

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As a result, Mattel agreed not to market any dolls under the “Lilli” name, and G&H agreed not to make any dolls similar in appearance to Barbie.

Despite inspiring her name, Handler's daughter Barbara had complicated feelings about being linked to the doll. “It was just very odd,” Barbara told the BBC in the same 1997 interview . “People were coming up to me, asking me for my autograph. When people came up and say to me, ‘Oh, you’re the real Barbie,’ I couldn’t understand it because that’s just a name that was given to the doll. A lot of people thought that they modeled it after me and they made it look like me, and that I was supposed to be it. That’s not true.”

The truth about Barbie’s origin is in dispute, however, with another woman claiming credit belongs to her own father.

Ann Ryan, the daughter of Jack Ryan, who was then vice president of research and design at Mattel, has a podcast called Dream House: The Real Story of Jack Ryan , in which she claims that her late father was wrongly stripped of credit for his role in devising the doll. She notes that her mother, Barbara, went by the nickname “Barbie.”

Mattel’s patent for Barbie , filed July 24, 1959, even has J.W. Ryan’s name listed on the document.

“My father was always obsessed with the image of the perfect woman, and then he married one whose name happened to be Barbie. The choice of the name for the Barbie doll was my father’s, absolutely, not Ruth Handler’s decision,” Ann Ryan recently told the New York Post.

Jack Ryan actually had five wives during his life, including a marriage to the socialite celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor. He died by suicide in 1991 after suffering from a severe stroke. Three years after his death, Ruth Handler published her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll , in which she told her version of the Barbie doll creation story.

“My father was dead and wasn’t around to dispute anything that Ruth had written in her book, and it was very frustrating to me and other members of the Ryan family,” Ann told the New York Post. “What she wrote was overwhelming and such a shock. It was all bullshit.”

None of this is addressed by the Barbie movie, by the way. But clearly there’s enough drama for a behind-the-scenes tell-all that stands alone.

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Single Line Text

Let's Go Party. By Anthony Breznican. Ruth Handler displays the 40th Anniversary Barbie in 1999. MATT CAMPBELL/Getty Images. Save this story. Save. Save this story. Save. Ruth Handler, the grandmotherly figure played by Rhea Perlman in the new Barbie movie, offers compassion and wisdom to Margot Robbie in a moment when her blissful doll-come-to-life faces an existential crisis. Handler seems to know Barbie better than she knows herself, as she should. It’s a moment in which the doll literally meets her maker. Perlman, best known as the sarcastic waitress Carla from Cheers, appears in the Greta Gerwig –directed film as Ruth Handler—a real-life legend in the toy business who helped turn Mattel into a global powerhouse, in large part thanks to Barbie, introduced in 1959. The real Handler died in 2002 at the age of 85, so her appearance in the movie is more whimsical than realistic. But the movie does included several details that are genuine. The full truth of her life, in many cases, is even stranger than even the most die-hard Barbie fans may realize. Perlman’s character tells Barbie that she had a mastectomy. That’s true ; Handler had breast cancer in the 1970s. She also used the plastics know-how she’d gathered from years in the toy business to devise prosthetic devices for other women like her and launched an entirely new business, Nearly Me, which still sells products today. The movie version of Ruth Handler also bitterly alludes to her being forced out of Mattel due to a clash over financial problems. This is played for laughs, but it’s based on truth as well. The scandal engulfed not just Handler but others who were employed at the toy manufacturer. “ 4 Ex‐Officers of Mattel Among 5 Indicted on Conspiracy Charges ,” read the 1978 headline in The New York Times. The Times reported that Handler had been accused of falsifying “internal business records concerning earnings and sales in 1971, 1972 and 1973 so that they could influence the market price of Mattel stock.” Handler was a trailblazer in an era when society relegated most women to the role of housewife, and her business acumen made her a formidable executive and strategist. Yet as Robin Gerber writes in her 2009 biography, Barbie and Ruth, “She had also allowed padding and other falsifying of the company books, and her protestations of innocence, her refusal to take responsibility, made the prosecution determined to push for a severe sentence.” Handler ultimately dropped her resistance and pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $57,000 in fines and five years of probation, with the judge mandating 500 hours of community service per year. In Barbie and Ruth, Gerber writes that the judge told Handler her actions were “exploitive, parasitic, and disgraceful to anything in society.” The author further characterizes the combined 2,500 hours as “the longest public service sentence ever handed out.” Handler could have gotten 41 years in prison, but she still found her comparatively light sentence to be severe. She wanted to create a giveaway program of her Nearly Me prosthetics for underprivileged cancer patients who might otherwise be unable to afford them, but the judge rejected that proposal. According to Gerber, after participating in scrupulously tabulated charity work that she found “humiliating,” Handler was eventually assigned the task of using her business know-how to give other convicts job training. The program was considered a success, and in 1982, the judge agreed to cut short Handler’s sentence by a year and a half. Handler’s creation of Barbie isn’t closely documented in the movie, which takes a more fanciful approach to the toy universe. Various Barbies and Kens exist in a separate dimension where life is idyllic and the problems of the real world seldom interfere. In the real world, Ruth married her husband, Elliot Handler, in 1938, and they started a business making home goods, often utilizing plastics. In the 1940s, they entered a partnership with industrial designer Harold Matson to create a new business manufacturing picture frames, according to the Los Angeles Times . Using the same materials, they branched off into another enterprise creating smaller furnishings—this time for dollhouses. Vanity Fair’s “It’s Raining Teens” Cover at 20: Where Are They Now? Vanity Fair ’s “It’s Raining Teens” Cover at 20: Where Are They Now? By Savannah Walsh. Red, White & Royal Blue May Be “the Most Expensive Bit of Fan Fiction Ever” Red, White & Royal Blue May Be “the Most Expensive Bit of Fan Fiction Ever” By Savannah Walsh. The Cast of Oppenheimer and the Real People They Play The Cast of Oppenheimer and the Real People They Play By Hillary Busis. The company was called Mattel, a combination of their partner’s last name and her husband’s first. Toys became the main event for the firm, and Ruth was inspired by their daughter, Barbara, (the namesake of Barbie) to create a doll who was a grown-up—not a baby—so that young girls could use them as projections of their own future selves. “This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Handler believed, it would have to have breasts,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in its 2002 obituary for Handler . “When she took the idea to Mattel’s executives, who were men, they sneered that no mother would buy her daughter a grown-up doll with a bosom. ‘Our guys all said, ‘Naw, no good,’’ she recalled. ‘I tried more than once and nobody was interested, and I gave up.’” Years passed, and Ruth became inspired again during a vacation to Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1956. Her then 15-year-old daughter, Barbara, drew her attention to a plastic doll in a toy-shop window. These were “Lilli” dolls, which had an hourglass physique and could be dressed in different outfits. Ruth saw potential not just to sell dolls, but to sell a nearly endless array of accessories for those dolls. There was little innocent about the “Lilli” dolls, however. The character “was not primarily a child’s toy in Europe. She started life as a sex toy ,” Gerber wrote in Barbie and Ruth. “She originated in a comic strip in a tawdry gossip-sheet newspaper called Bild-Zeitung. Lilli pursued rich men by striking provocative poses in revealing clothes and spouting comic-strip bubbles of suggestive dialogue. ” The “Lilli” cartoonist, Reinhard Beuthien, and designer Max Weissbrodt “saw the potential in taking Lilli off the page and making her a lascivious three-dimensional toy,” Gerber wrote. “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.” Handler and Mattel tamed “Lilli” into Barbie, releasing their own version of the doll in 1959. It was a massive hit, reportedly selling around 350,000 units in its first year alone. “Half of our buyers really didn’t like it,” Ruth Handler told the BBC in a 1997 interview . “The men felt that women would not buy a doll with a woman’s body—with breasts and narrow waistlines and narrow ankles, this adult sexy-looking doll. Men felt that their wives would not want it and that it wouldn’t be right for a child to have that. They were wrong. Women, on the other hand, instantly flipped for that doll. The dolls no sooner landed on the counter than they were snatched up by the women buying them for their daughters.” German manufacturer Greiner & Hausser and rival toymakers Louis Marx and Company also apparently flipped. Louis Marx held the “Lilli” license and noticed the similarities to their doll, resulting in a 1961 lawsuit against Mattel. That suit was settled in 1963, and a year later Mattel purchased the “Lilli” license from original German manufacturer Greiner & Hausser “for three lump-sum payments totaling 85,000 Deutschmarks (worth at that time approximately $21,600),” according to court records . Vanity Fair’s “It’s Raining Teens” Cover at 20: Where Are They Now? Vanity Fair ’s “It’s Raining Teens” Cover at 20: Where Are They Now? By Savannah Walsh. Red, White & Royal Blue May Be “the Most Expensive Bit of Fan Fiction Ever” Red, White & Royal Blue May Be “the Most Expensive Bit of Fan Fiction Ever” By Savannah Walsh. The Cast of Oppenheimer and the Real People They Play The Cast of Oppenheimer and the Real People They Play By Hillary Busis. As a result, Mattel agreed not to market any dolls under the “Lilli” name, and G&H agreed not to make any dolls similar in appearance to Barbie. Despite inspiring her name, Handler's daughter Barbara had complicated feelings about being linked to the doll. “It was just very odd,” Barbara told the BBC in the same 1997 interview . “People were coming up to me, asking me for my autograph. When people came up and say to me, ‘Oh, you’re the real Barbie,’ I couldn’t understand it because that’s just a name that was given to the doll. A lot of people thought that they modeled it after me and they made it look like me, and that I was supposed to be it. That’s not true.” The truth about Barbie’s origin is in dispute, however, with another woman claiming credit belongs to her own father. Ann Ryan, the daughter of Jack Ryan, who was then vice president of research and design at Mattel, has a podcast called Dream House: The Real Story of Jack Ryan , in which she claims that her late father was wrongly stripped of credit for his role in devising the doll. She notes that her mother, Barbara, went by the nickname “Barbie.” Mattel’s patent for Barbie , filed July 24, 1959, even has J.W. Ryan’s name listed on the document. “My father was always obsessed with the image of the perfect woman, and then he married one whose name happened to be Barbie. The choice of the name for the Barbie doll was my father’s, absolutely, not Ruth Handler’s decision,” Ann Ryan recently told the New York Post. Jack Ryan actually had five wives during his life, including a marriage to the socialite celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor. He died by suicide in 1991 after suffering from a severe stroke. Three years after his death, Ruth Handler published her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll , in which she told her version of the Barbie doll creation story. “My father was dead and wasn’t around to dispute anything that Ruth had written in her book, and it was very frustrating to me and other members of the Ryan family,” Ann told the New York Post. “What she wrote was overwhelming and such a shock. It was all bullshit.” None of this is addressed by the Barbie movie, by the way. But clearly there’s enough drama for a behind-the-scenes tell-all that stands alone. More Great Stories From Vanity Fair. “It’s Raining Teens” at 20 : Where Are They Now? The Best TV Shows of 2023, So Far. Sex Toys, Financial Crimes, and the Origin of Barbie. That Sound You Hear Is Donald Trump Screaming, Crying, and Throwing Up in a Mar-a-Lago Bathroom. Ivanka Trump Is Not Letting Her Dad’s Mounting Legal Woes Ruin Her Summer. Inside the Actors Strike Press Apocalypse : “The Celebrity Factory Has Shut Down” Is All This Amateur Therapy-Speak Just Making Us Lonelier? From the Archive: Too Hepburn for Hollywood (2006)