In her 43 years Barbie has been a babysitter, a paleontologist and a U.S. Marine. But Ruth Handler never let on which of her creation's incarnations was her favorite. "There were so many," says Handler's husband, Elliot, 86. "A nurse, a pilot...she never said."
Maybe that's because as a career woman, Barbie could never top her maker. Handler, who died at 85 on April 27 of complications from colon surgery, revolutionized the toy trade with the busty billion-seller, launching an American icon and an empire for the Mattel toy company. Says daughter Barbara Segal, 60: "She was a dynamic lady ahead of her time."
The daughter of Polish immigrants, the Denver native co-founded Mattel with her industrial-designer husband and another partner in 1945. Barbie was born in 1959 after Handler, the firm's marketing whiz, noticed her daughter preferred adult paper dolls to baby dolls. Using a curvy German figurine (a spinoff from a salacious cartoon) as a model, Handler named the 11½-in blonde after Barbara. Beau Ken (named for Handler's son, who died in 1994) followed in 1961. But Barbie stayed a working woman. "My whole philosophy," Handler wrote, "was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be."
Handler rebounded from '70s woes—she battled breast cancer, then was ousted from Mattel over charges of accounting fraud—with another creation: a line of realistic prosthetic breasts she developed after undergoing a mastectomy. Says her husband: "She was brilliant and brave."