Q. How did Ruth view her role, rare for the time, as a working mother?
A. She found it very hard. She felt that few women were suited to the stress involved in being a homemaker and business leader, but she didn’t feel she had any choice. She said she would have been a very unhappy and mixed-up woman if she hadn’t worked. She didn’t like cooking and wasn’t good at it, and she had a rocky relationship with her only daughter, Barbara. She was, of course, wealthy enough to afford help with the children and housework, and her family helped out as well.
Q. You say Elliot and Ruth were a great love story. How so?
A. They met when they were 16 years old, and it was truly love at first sight. They couldn’t be apart, and they created a life where they worked together and capitalized on each other’s strengths. For most of the Mattel’s history, Ruth had the title of vice president. But, as she said, she founded Mattel, and she was the one in charge of the company other than research and design, which was Elliot’s territory. Elliot held the title of president, but this had more to do with gender than reality. They did collaborate closely on decisions throughout their time at Mattel. They were together for more than 65 years, building a company, raising two children, surviving the legal case and loss of their company, Ruth’s breast cancer, and the death of their son. When I interviewed Elliot, it was clear that he was as in love with Ruth on the day she died as on the day he married her.
Q. Ruth was convicted of corporate fraud in 1978. Based on your research, do you think she was guilty?
A. She had a big ethical blind spot. In 1970 she had a bad quarter and didn’t want Wall Street to know, so she cooked the books and falsified the corporate earnings in order to keep the stock price up. Eventually she was caught. She always denied it, and I don’t think she instigated the fraud. But she certainly knew the amount of earnings was overstated. There’s no way a woman who knew where every company penny was going could miss the fact that millions of dollars of claimed sales didn’t really exist. I think she believed that she could get away with it because Mattel would recover and no one would ever know. After 25 years of success, it’s easy to see why she believed that, but that doesn’t make it right.
Q. How did Ruth put her tragedies behind her and find redemption?
A. She never did put her resentments completely behind her. Late in her life, Ruth had her own revelation that the truest form of fulfillment comes when you have suffered. She said only people like her who had really suffered could understand what true happiness meant. She started helping other women with breast cancer by fitting them with these prostheses so they didn’t feel ashamed of their bodies. She got great satisfaction from that. Up till then, she had thought that running a company was the only thing that could save her.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.