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The American dream comes in many shapes and colors, limited only by one's imagination and work ethic. Ruth Handler, the daughter of poor Russian-Jewish èmigrès, is a prime example. She turned a Swiss toy sex doll into a quintessentially American icon -- Barbie -- one so well-known that more than a billion have been sold. Barbie is so much a part of the American landscape that in 1976, she was included in the American bicentennial time capsule.
The voyage from humble beginnings to great wealth, and the creation of Mattel Inc., a company with sales exceeding $5 billion, was not smooth sailing. It began in fairly rough waters. Ruth was born in 1916 in Denver, the 10th child of parents so poor that they sent her to live with her oldest sister, Sarah. Sarah's husband owned a drugstore and they were of comfortable means. In 1932, on her 16th birthday, Ruth got a new Ford coupe from Sarah. And while driving her new car, Ruth met her kindred spirit, Izzy Handler, a poor art student.
They were perfectly matched: He was shy, an artistic dreamer; she was a loaded pistol. When Ruth moved to Los Angeles to work as a stenographer, Izzy followed. They were married in 1938. More than a marriage, it was a matchless business partnership. At Ruth's suggestion, Izzy changed his name to Elliot.
While living in a cheap apartment, Elliot decided to make some furniture out of Lucite and Plexiglas. His work was so good, Ruth told him, "If you can make that stuff for us, you can make it to sell." They rented an old Chinese laundry and hocked their lives to purchase tools. Ruth was the sales force. Persistent and adept, she soon earned her stripes, booking a huge order from Douglas Aircraft for Elliot's specially designed Plexiglas clock with a DC-3 motif.