"Something like" Lilli
Ruth Handler has always admitted she that she took Lilli back to America with her, and that Barbie was inspired by the German doll. However, she insists that the doll’s likeness were only approximate. In a recent interview with Radio 4 she stressed that she had asked the Japanese manufacturers to make a doll that was only “something like” Lilli. Yet when you put an original Barbie and a Lilli together, they seem largely identical.
Rolf Hausser, of course, had no idea that a version of his Lilli, with American clothes and a new name, was rising to the top of the toys charts in the US: “I knew nothing about what was happening in America. We didn’t even have a radio and there was nothing in the newspapers here about Barbie.”
The first he heard about Barbie was when he visited a toy shop in Nuremberg in 1963. There was an array of Barbie dolls, and when he asked the shop owner if he could get one for him, he was told yes, but only from an outlet in Italy.
“I was outraged when I saw this doll. This was my Lilli with a different name. What had these people done? Had they stolen my doll? I didn’t know what happened”.
The following year, 1964 - eight years after Ruth Handler had taken Lilli back to America in her suitcase, and five years after Barbie went on sale in America, Rolf Hausser saw a large advertisment in the German newspapers announcing the arrival of the Barbie doll in Germany. Shortly afterwards, at the annual toy fair in Nuremberg, he saw on the Mattel stand a large selection of Barbie dolls. “I was furious that they had taken my Lilli doll and used her like this, but I still didn’t know how just popular she was”.
He decided that he had to sue Mattel in every European country where Barbie was being sold. Still not understanding how popular Barbie was in the US, and what a phenomenom she was about to become, he was desperate to save his own corner of the European toy market. But his brother Kurt, aware of the influence of the rival toy giant, persuaded him that taking Mattel to court would end in financial ruin for the smaller German company. Instead, he suggested that O&M Hausser sell the doll’s patent - probably the worst thing the company could have done.
“I had no choice but to sell the patent", Hausser says now, with great bitterness. “Even then Mattel was a multimillion-dollar corporation and by comparison I was nothing. Even if a judge had my patent in front of him so he could see that Barbie was my Lilli, he would decide in favour of Mattel”. He adds: “If it was down to me I would have gone to court just on principle. But my brother Kurt refused to go with me because it would be such a financial disaster”.
“They also claimed that they had sold only a few Barbie dolls, and although I didn’t believe them, I could not prove otherwise. I certainly had no idea just how big the doll was in America". (In fact, two years earlier, some 351,000 Barbie dolls had been sold in the US, according to Mme Hanquez-Maincent, who has documentation from Mattel in Germany.)
“The men then asked me to go to Frankfurt to continue negotiations with someone who had more authority than them. I flew there a few days later. But when I arrived, there was no interpreter. I refused to negotiate with someone who couldn’t even understand what I was saying so eventually thay found a translator. Then they brought out a contract that they had already prepared for me to sign - but it was in English so I could not understand it properly. Of course, I refused to sign.
“We spent all day in negotiations. I wanted 1 per cent of the sale profit, but they wanted me to sell all rights for a lump sum. At 5.30pm we were still arguing but the interpreter said that she had to go home so we had to sign within 10 minutes. I sold the full rights. If I had known just how many Barbies Mattel had sold in the US I would never have agreed to disposing of the rights of my doll.”
"Without Lilli there would never have been a Barbie doll"
In the end Hausser sold the world rights to his doll for DM 69,500, about £20,000 by today’s exchange rates. Although this sum was not tiny in 1964, it was a fraction of what Hausser would have earned had Mattel agreed to the percentage deal Rolf wanted.
The consequences of signing such an agreement were dire; O&M Hausser was soon to go bust. Without Lilli, who had become their mainstay, the company suffered huge losses and soon went into debt. The Mattel payment was not nearly enough to save the company - it went into liquidation just months after the deal was struck, and Rolf Hausser was declared bankrupt. He claims that it took him another 20 years to pay for all his debts.
He is clearly still angry that he was persuaded to sell his full rights to his doll, but acknowledges that if he had not, sales of Lilli would have plummeted anyway in the face of the tremendous success of Barbie.
“I can’t say that Mattel sent me bankrupcy. Indirectly I believe that it was responsible for me losing all my money”, he says.
But a spokesman of Mattel dismisses his complaints. “As far as we are concerned this was sorted out 35 years ago and settled to the satisfaction of all parties. If Mr Hausser has any complaints, he should come to us”, she says.
But that’s not good enough for Hausser. “I felt at the time that Lilli had been stolen from me, and this is what I still believe. I was just a German toymaker without any power".
“That year I had to close down the company. We lost everything. I wasn’t able to work for 20 years because any money I made would just go straight back to my creditors. I finally paid off all my debts in 1982, but by then I was in my seventies and it was too late for me to find another career.
“But what I am really angry about, so angry I can’t describe it to you in words, is that nobody has ever admitted that I am the man who inspired Barbie. On Barbie’s 40th anniversary Mattel had a lot of publicity but my part in her history has simply been wiped out”. He leans towards me as he says this, his lunch forgotten, tears in his eyes. Across the table his wife is nodding gently, her face set. She lived through this with her husband, and has heard him tell the tale hundreds of times since, but her eyes, too, shine with unshed tears.
Later we go to the closed-down factory, part of which is now a nightclub called “The Factory”, and Hausser shows us around his old kingdom with such pride that one could believe that it all still belonged to him. But the pride disguises his anger, and his shame at losing all his father had set out to accomplish nearly 100 years ago.
“If I had never made Lilli, there would never have been a Barbie doll and I would still be the head of one of Germany’s top toy companies. Instead, everything my father suffered so much to built up has gone and I am nothing".
© Anne Barrowclough.