by Anne Barrowclough
Barbie: Her Secret Story
“I like your nose”, Rolf Hausser tells me as he tucks into his egg and chips and sips his lager. “It is just like my Lilli’s nose.”
Rolf’s wife, Lilly, smiles fondly at him. She knows, as I do, that he is talking with such affection not about her, but about another Lilli he made famous 45 years ago.
Barbie, the curvaceous blonde doll beloved by little girls around the world, has become an icon of American feminity. Somewhere between a child and a woman, she is the very essence of the American girl next door, She is also the most long-lived toy on the world market, a fact that was celebrated throughout the globe when she turned 40 this year.
But in a tiny Bavarian village there was no celebration, only bitterness and regret. In the Hausser home Rolf and Lillly ignored the global celebration and instead railed to each other, as they have so many times over the past four decades, about how badly they have been treated by history - or to be more accurate, by Barbie’s secret history.
Like many stars, Barbie is not quite what she seems. Not only is she older than her official age, but Barbie is not her real name - and what’s more, she’s even not American, but German.
Barbie’s real name is, in fact, Lilli. She is 45, not 40, and was born in a small town near Nuremberg. But instead of making his fortune when his doll was adopted worldwide, Rolf Hausser, the toymaker who devised her, lost everything he owned.
The secret story of the Barbie doll is one of corporate America pitted against postwar Germany, of small-town naivety versus big business determination. Above all, it is a story of tragedy: the tragedy of an bitter old man who cannot move on from the events of four decades ago; a man who has been wiped from Barbie’s history so thoroughly that only a handful of people in the world know that he was the true creator of Barbie the doll.
You might have thought that Rolf Hausser, now aged 90, would have decided that a mellow old age would be preferable to one of rage. But it soon becomes clear that Barbie is his obsession, the fuel, perhaps, that continues to energize him.
Ramrod straight, with matching cravat and handkerchief, he is still an imposing figure despite his years. His wife - chic, elegant, charming - touches his neck lovingly as he arranges himself on the white sofa. If it were not for the fact that Lilly is independently wealthy -she inherited the fortune of her parents, who were also toy manufacturers - this couple would probably be living in penury. As it is, theirs is the largest house on the street, with luxurious furnishings and extensive grounds.
But Rolf is bitter that he has had to live on his wife’s money for decades, and still more bitter that his part in the story of Barbie has been ignored for 40 years. “I have remained silent for all these years”, he begins, “but now I think it is time that people knew how badly I have been betrayed.”
It was in 1952 that Lilli was born in her first incarnation - as a cartoon character for the daily German newspaper Bild Zeitung. The cartoonist Reinhold Beuthin had been ordered by the paper’s editor to draw something - anything - to fill a space left by a story that had been dropped. Beuthin drew a cherub but was told: “Readers don’t want to see pictures of babies.”
Keeping the innocence of the cherub’s face, he went to work on the body and within an hour had come up with Lilli, a character a bit like The Mirror’s famous Jane - sexy without being sexual, risqué but not rude. Above all, she was essentially innocent, with a snub nose and a face like an angel. She was named Lilli, according to Rolf Hausser, because that was the first name Beuthin came up with.
Lilli was supposed to be a one-day wonder but the day after she appeared Beuthin’s mailbag was so huge that the newspaper’s editors realized they would be mad to kill her off so soon. Lilli soon became an institution - like Jane, a much loved part of the reader’s lives. By 1955 she was so popular that Beuthin suggested that a doll be made for visitors to the newspaper. He went to 12 manufacturers, asking each to try to turn his cartoon character into a doll. They all failed and Beuthin was close to despair when he was finally told about Rolf Hausser.
Hausser was an important man in his home town of Neustadt. His father, Otto, a frustrated musician, had started making toys in 1912 when his own father told him that he would not be allowed to be a musician but had to go into the family’s construction business. Making toys was Otto’s compromise between business and art, and he went on to invent Elastolene, the material that many toy manufacturers were to use to make models, such as toy soldiers, throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Otto and his brother Max built up their company, O&M Hausser, to be one of the most respected in Germany. When Rolf and his brother Kurt took over they expanded it further until their company owned no fewer than three factories, all dedicated to turning out model trains, farm animal and soldiers - in the 1940s catalogue that Rolf proudly shows me there are dragoons of marching Wehrmacht soldiers and even model Adolf Hitlers.
Rold, who knew about Lilli, was fascinated by the idea of making a doll the shape of a mature woman and agreed to put his chief designer, Max Weissbrodt, on to it. When Beuthin saw the first mold, he told the toymaker: “ You are the only person who could realize my ideas:” When he opened his office door and his two children, who had been waiting outside for a “surprise”, fell on the doll with delight, crying “There’s our Lilli”, the men knew that they had created something special.
Lilli the doll went on the market on August 12, 1955, and became an overnight sensation. Unlike any other doll of her time, she was not a baby but a fully grown modern young woman. And - revolutionary in doll terms- she had flexible legs, unlike conventional dolls, whose limbs were rigid. She became popular all over Western Europe, and was also sold in America and Britain - although in much smaller quantities.
“Lilli was symbolic of her time She was sexy young, innocent, fresh,” says Rolf Hausser now. “She was independant but, and this is most important, no one could say she wasn’t a virgin.”
Within weeks there were so many orders that O&M Hausser could not fulfill them all. Lilli had 100 different outfits, all made by Martha Maar, Rolf’s mother-in-law and the owner of the doll’s clothing compagny MMM: Lilli had beach clothes, ski wear and formal dresses. She also had miniskirts years before they came into fashion.
Demands came from all over Europe - many from wealthy women who wanted personalized Lillis. Rolf still remembers the woman who wanted - and got - a Lilli dressed in mink, for which she paid thousands of marks.
Lilli goes to America and is renamed...Barbie
As he talks, Rolf is frequently diverted by memories. Going to a locked cabinet, he tenderly takes out the first Lilli mold - even her eyelashes are carved in detail. Or he lays toy soldiers and Indians carefully on the table between us. Once he interrupts a conversation to fetch the 80-year-old violin that his father made by hand, and plays a haunting melody on it, his eyes closed, his mind in another place. Yet he has much that he wants to say. After all, he has kept this to himself for nearly 40 years and he wants to make sure the detail is all there. And that I take down - even the exact description of how Lilli’s neck and legs were made so flexible, and how they made sure that she would never have a bad hair day (he sketches the design for her hair on a beer mat for me over lunch).
Most of all, of course, he wants to talk about what happened when a woman called Ruth Handler saw his doll in a shop window in Lucerne, where she was on holiday with her husband Eliot, daughter Barbara and son Ken in 1956.
Ruth and Elliot Handler were the co-founders and directors of Mattel, a big toy manufacturer in the United States. When Barbara, then 15, pointed out the Lilli doll, which was sitting in the shop window, dressed in ski clothes and a rope swing, Mrs Handler was intrigued. She had never before seen a doll that was a mature adult figure, and at once saw the potential for the American market. She bought a doll and took it home in her suitcase.
Back in the States, Mrs Handler sent two of her employees to Japan with instructions to find a manufacturer who could make a similar doll. By 1959 the doll had been perfected and was being sold in America, having being renamed Barbie, after Ruth’s daughter’s.