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On Barbie's 50th, New Book Looks at Woman Behind the Doll

She has a figure that is inconceivable in the real world and a wardrobe designed by top names in the fashion world. She has had 50 nationalities and more than 100 careers, and all before her 50th birthday.

An icon is born

Barbie made her first appearance on March 9, 1959, at New York's Toy Fair, where buyers place orders for merchandise. They were not buying, says Robin Gerber, author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her. "They were all male buyers and they looked at her and said, 'Mothers will never buy their daughters a doll with breasts like this.'"

Gerber says things turned around for the Mattel Company when girls across the U.S. tuned into "The Mickey Mouse Club" on television and saw a commercial for Barbie, who was marketed as a fashion model. "When little girls got out of school, a few months after toy fair, they started demanding that their mothers buy them the doll," Gerber says. "It took Mattel three years to catch up with the demand."

Woman behind the doll

The marketing plan that targeted girls directly, and Barbie herself - who was inspired by a German doll designed for adult men - were revolutionary concepts. The woman behind them both was Ruth Handler.

Handler had observed her daughter Barbara - for whom the doll is named - playing with adult paper dolls. She knew a three-dimensional fashion doll would be hit.

Today 90 percent of American girls have at least one Barbie, and the doll is sold in more than 150 countries.

Handler, who died in 2002 from breast cancer, founded Mattel with her husband, Elliot, in 1945. He usually came up with designs for the toys; she took care of everything else.

"Ruth was actually terribly unique in founding a company from the beginning," says Gerber. Most women who ran companies in 1945 - and they were very few - inherited them from fathers or husbands. But Ruth built Mattel from the ground up. "She was the sales and marketing force behind it, and she was exceptionally brilliant about business."

Controversy and rebirth of a career

It's ironic that a powerful businesswoman, ahead of her time, created a toy that has been vilified for projecting an inappropriate image for young girls. Just this month, a lawmaker in West Virginia introduced legislation banning Barbie in his state because the doll puts what he called "undue importance on physical beauty to the detriment of intellectual and emotional development."

Gerber has an answer to that: "Buy the doll and tell them the story of this incredible woman who was strong and powerful and did what she wanted to do, who was the creator."

Gerber says Ruth Handler understood that Barbie allows little girls to play at being big girls. "They play with the doll as an astronaut, as a NASCAR driver, as whatever they can imagine."

Although Barbie proved a big success for Mattel, Ruth Handler was forced out of the company in 1975, after falsifying the books and being convicted of corporate fraud. At the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy.

Gerber says Handler may have been down, but not for long. "Out of this horrible hole that she had partially dug for herself, she came back founding a new company, making prosthetics that would go inside a bra for women who had had mastectomies." The company, Nearly Me, is still around today.

And so, of course, is Barbie. Although sales have been down due to the current recession, Robin Gerber predicts Barbie will be around for another 50 year