Books: Celebrating Barbie at 50

No one thinks a lot about the prepubescent Barbie, but she was young once too, and she's got a doozy of a nativity narrative. It goes like this: during a family trip to Switzerland in 1956, Ruth Handler, the 10th child of Polish immigrants and the petite, tenacious founder of Mattel, was strolling through the charming streets of Lucerne when she spied a plastic doll hanging in a store window. For years, Handler had been dreaming of a plaything for her daughter—an adult doll for little girls who desperately wanted to be big girls—and she found it at last in the form of a voluptuous German toy named Bild-Lilli. The doll was based on the tart heroine of a comic strip in a tabloid newspaper, but if Handler knew about Lilli's origins, she didn't care. She finally had the model she needed to coax her male-dominated design team into creating a woman in full. Three years later, in 1959, Handler launched her billion-dollar baby—and enough irate feminist tracts to fill countless women's studies courses.

Barbie turns 50 next month, and to celebrate there are two new books, each with a vastly different story about who deserves the credit for her evolution from German gag gift to American icon. The characters are as provocative and polarizing as Barbie herself. According to "Barbie and Ruth," author Robin Gerber's hagiographic new account, the doll's birthright belongs to Handler, the curvaceous entrepreneur who was pushed out of Mattel in 1975. An alternate history of Barbie, told in Jerry Oppenheimer's "Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel," stars a man named Jack Ryan, the self-destructive, bipolar designer who blueprinted the Barbie doll joint by joint and held all the patents (and who was also pushed out of the company, only to spend the rest of his life mourning his tarnished legacy). The narratives don't often line up, but they are in total agreement about their subjects' shared passions: Barbie dolls and large breasts.

In her half century of existence, Barbie has become something of a Rorschach test for views about modern feminine identity. Either she's a sunny, self-confident, good-time girl—Doris Day in miniature—or, more commonly, she's the original bimbo, a relic of postwar paternalism that teaches its young owners to worship at the altar of blond hair, peach skin and formidable cleavage atop a waistline the size of a pinkie ring. Barbie has evolved ever so slightly over the years. Originally cast as a glamorous teen fashion model, she's now available in all the colors of the Benetton rainbow and dabbles in a variety of professions. But Gerber says that Handler was much more passionate about using Barbie's looks to inspire young girls. She hewed startlingly close to the doll's sex-shop origins, fussing for months over the pickiest details—the color of her lips, the tiny zippers on her dresses and especially those epic breasts. For Handler, a doll with breasts was important for little girls' self-esteem, because it gave them an opportunity to fantasize about the kind of adult women they wanted to become.

Jack Ryan—a Yale-educated missile engineer (which is pretty funny, if you think about it) who was plucked from a defense contractor to design toys for Mattel—barely rates a few pages in Gerber's book, a common oversight that Oppenheimer aims to correct. He calls Ryan the "Father of Barbie" (The New York Times once dubbed him "Mattel's real secret weapon"), a man who has been unfairly "relegated to the toy attic," Oppenheimer told NEWSWEEK. "I feel like I stumbled upon Barbie-gate here." A little overblown? Maybe. But as the saying goes, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and in Ryan, Oppenheimer has found a great one. Oppenheimer doesn't dispute the tale of Barbie's less-than-immaculate conception in Lucerne, but he says that after Handler brought Bild-Lilli back to the United States, she handed her off to Ryan and left the work of actually building Barbie to him. The two constantly locked horns, but they were in total agreement about protecting Barbie's most prominent assets. Ryan once tried to tell Mattel's Japanese manufacturer that he didn't want the doll to have nipples because they made the breasts too lifelike for the modest tastes of American mothers. Frustrated by the language barrier, Ryan snatched up a Swiss file and ground the nipples off the prototype. "When he talked about Barbie, it was like listening to a sexual pervert talk about a sexual episode," Stephen Gnass, a friend of Ryan's, tells Oppenheimer. "He got a little glow, was animated, had a twinkle in his eye."

The cleverness of Oppenheimer's book is that it manages to make a compelling antihero out of such a loathsome creature. According to Ryan's second wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor—you just can't make this stuff up—the man was "a full-blown '70s-style swinger into wife swapping and sundry sexual pursuits." He even encouraged his girlfriends to dabble in plastic surgery to fit his tastes. In one particularly disgusting episode, Oppenheimer describes how Ryan customized a girlfriend with "facial reconstruction, breast augmentation, and vaginaplasty," then retrofitted the front seat of his Rolls-Royce so that it could face backward. He wanted the backseat passengers, and everyone else in Beverly Hills, to be able to ogle his pretty lady, too. (Ryan's daughter told Oppenheimer that the story sounded extreme, even for her father.) Another of Ryan's wives—there were five in all—died of anorexia; Oppenheimer implies that Ryan had divorced her after she got fat.

The struggle over credit for Barbie eventually tore Handler and Ryan apart. After he was pushed out of the company, Ryan sued Mattel for royalties and soon after that suffered a stroke. Oppenheimer says that the spat launched Ryan on a path to suicide, a moment that is described with apt hyperbole in the book: "The most the stricken Ryan could do, or wanted to do, was lie in bed isolated from the world and watch television. One of the last programs he saw was an interview with Ruth Handler … taking credit for the Barbie doll." The antipathy was mutual. In her own autobiography, "Dream Doll," Handler barely mentions Ryan. When The New York Times published a short piece in 1994 about Barbie's 35th anniversary that gave Ryan credit for the doll, Handler dashed off an angry letter to the editor saying the story "contained an inaccuracy. The late Jack Ryan was not Barbie's creator. My husband, Elliot, and I were the founders of Mattel Toys, and I was the creator of the Barbie doll. Jack Ryan, in his role as head of the research-and-development department, managed some of the design work relating to the doll and her accessories." The ultimate insult: he was only in charge of the accessories.

Handler faced struggles of her own. In the midst of an SEC investigation into Mattel's financial statements, she was pushed out of Mattel, and in 1978 she was convicted of filing false financial reports. By that time, she had suffered a cruel fate: in 1970 she lost a breast to cancer. But that just gave her a reason to start another successful business. Disgusted by the "unsightly blobs" on the market, Gerber told NEWSWEEK, Handler founded Nearly Me, which makes prosthetic breasts for women who have undergone mastectomies. She dashed across the country visiting department stores—starting with Neiman Marcus in Dallas—personally fitting grateful customers. "She loved to put a breast on someone," Elliot Handler told the author. "[It] brought her back to life." Ruth hit the talk-show circuit. She routinely ripped open her blouse during interviews, daring the host to tell her which breast was real. Merv Griffin couldn't have been happier.

Though both these books are entertaining, it's hard to know how much to believe them. Oppenheimer seems to specialize in Kitty Kelley–like takedowns of powerful women. He's also written dishy histories of Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour and the Clintons' marriage. Gerber has the reverse motivation. She travels the country giving motivational speeches to women's groups, and it's sometimes hard not to feel as if she's less than objective, in part because she sees Handler as a sales tool. "Generally I feel that we don't know enough about women's history, and so I have always written about women," says Gerber. "So I was actually looking for a woman subject who had been overlooked."

But in the end, does it matter who invented Barbie? Perhaps not, but her creator undoubtedly made a mark on American culture. Fifty years after her birth, millions of girls are playing with Barbie—no matter how much their progressive parents wish they wouldn't. Whoever engineered her little parts, Handler's idea— that young girls wanted to imagine being adults—was inspired, and may have been more constructive than people think, especially in the '50s and '60s. "Women needed a chance to not be playing at mothers all the time," Gerber says. America's toy chests have never been the same.