One summer afternoon, I joined
Hassenfeld, former chairman and CEO of toy and entertainment giant
He was, and he knew it. He enjoyed being Kid Number One, as he sometimes called himself -- Pinocchio, he even said when feeling particularly impish. And he delighted in likening himself to Mr. Potato Head -- "Pot Head," he affectionately called it -- the whimsical toy that against odds became a national sensation the year it was introduced, 1952, when Hassenfeld was 4 and his only brother, Stephen, 10, was already dreaming of running Hasbro. On weekends and holidays, Stephen insisted on visiting the factories with the boys' father, Merrill, who was running the toy company in the post-war years. The younger brother only wanted to have fun.
Then, that is.
An hour or so into the lunch, Hassenfeld invited questions of himself.
"I want to hear a little bit more about your vision," one student said.
"I don't know if I can give you a real answer, but I won't give you a Trump answer, either," Hassenfeld joked.
The students laughed. They seemed no more enamored of the former reality-show host than was Hassenfeld, for whom the mere mention of the 45th president could prompt a denunciation of
Hassenfeld answered the students.
"The success of my family has always been through working in the toy industry and the entertainment industry, with children and families," he said. "I believe that if you're going to give back, your philanthropy should be related to things that are close to your heart."
Children, in other words.
Hassenfeld discussed some of the new Brown institute's specialties: among other health issues, the rise in incidences of autism and asthma troubled him. Budget issues in "a school, a region, or a town" resulting in cutting child-nutrition programs did, too. And there were other matters that also bothered him that he did not mention but which he addressed philanthropically and with political activism.
The students were curious about Hassenfeld's motivation.
"All of these things I do because I have a debt to repay," he told them.
The promise to repay it, as they probably did not know, had been written in blood more than a century before, in a place far away.
At one point as we dined overlooking beautiful
I imagined an excursion one might take.
If you travelled north on the bay, you would reach the city of Providence, founded in 1636 by
Further up the
The company's founders, brothers Hillel and
When they founded Hassenfeld Brothers, a
But the first Hassenfeld brothers expanded beyond textile remnants to pencil boxes, which they began to fill with writing instruments and rulers. On the eve of the Second World War, they used their boxes for play medical equipment, marketing them as junior doctor and nurse kits. The war brought Junior Air Raid Warden Kits. But until Mr. Potato Head, introduced in 1952, Hasbro still showed little indication of the corporation it would become. The toy and games industry then was ruled by heavyweights Marx, Ideal, Lionel, and
Pot Head, the first toy advertised on network TV and Hasbro's first monster hit, began a decade of unprecedented success for the company, which broadened its offerings and forged partnerships with
And then came the fiasco of Flubber, which sold wildly when introduced in 1962 and crashed and burned the next year in a national scandal (the putty-like compound caused skin rashes, prompting lawsuits, scathing headlines, and a
Merrill's prayers were answered with G.I. Joe, arguably the iconic boys' toy of all time.
Just as the character would in the heroic storylines surrounding his introduction the next year, G.I. Joe became an unprecedented best-seller. From record loss, Hasbro earned a record profit of almost
The company would continue to grow, albeit erratically with a succession of hits and misses characteristic of the toy and entertainment business -- and another near-fatal blow in the late 1970s as the Vietnam War and the skyrocketing price of plastic forced G.I. Joe into the bunkers. Enter Stephen, who steered Hasbro to Fortune 500 glory in the 1980s by building internally and acquiring
When Stephen died in 1989 at age 47 of AIDS, a disease he had kept secret from
Some thought Kid Number One was ill-suited to run Hasbro.
Some thought he would kill it, and he almost did, though not for many years.
Alan was no Stephen, close as they were as siblings.
As a young man, Alan had wanted nothing to do with business, his family's or anyone else's. He wanted to be a writer or world-traveler -- ideally, both, an adventure-seeking novelist roaming the globe and finding romance as he went. And then he volunteered for several months at an inner-city school named for
I'm making a difference, he thought.
He was 19 years old.
Now there he was in 1989, 40 years old and chairman and CEO of a mighty company -- and an executive who gave some investors the shivers. Well, he did wear those penny loafers and colorful wristbands, one in memory of and promise to his first love, a teenaged girl left comatose in an accident who died as Alan, 18, stood vigil by her hospital bed. He did dance with Barney, the goofy purple plaything, at company meetings. He did try to see the good in everyone and he did take highly public stands against government corruption and for global human rights, regardless of how such crusades might affect the bottom line.
And he christened himself Kid Number One, which surely was no name that any of the straitlaced types who ran rival
But the last Hassenfeld brother made believers as the company continued to prosper and Alan acquired more crown jewels --
Alan's unlikely success as a CEO is told in my bestselling book "Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them," published in 1998.
And there the story ended -- my role as its teller, anyway.
In the years that followed, Hassenfeld and I have remained close.
I watched as Hasbro under Alan's later stewardship plateaued, then nosedived, resurrecting painful memories of Flubber. I knew Alan blamed some of his own decisions for the company's potentially fatal difficulties as the 20th century closed and how, putting pride and ego aside -- not something you see every day in the corporate world -- he decided to step down as CEO, leaving Hasbro in the hands of his long-time Number Two:
Once again, the person who never intended to enter business morphed, this time from a part- to full-time philanthropist and social-justice and human-rights champion -- a return, in essence, to the teenager who had made a difference. Only this time, he had not just conviction but deep pockets, including major holdings in a company whose stock at times in 2019 traded at more than
So he closed his office at Hasbro headquarters, opened a headquarters for the
He was inspired by the legacy of his grandfather and great-uncle, the first Hassenfeld brothers, and his own father and his brother, Stephen, especially. Father Merrill died at work of a heart attack at age 61 in 1979, when Alan was just 30 but already entrusted with building Hasbro's international business, which Stephen would need during the ascent to the Fortune 500. A community leader and benefactor, like his father, Henry, Merrill left his estate -- smaller than outsiders would have guessed -- to his family only. He explained his rationale in a letter to his wife and children intended to be read after his passing.
Nearly four decades later, Alan could recall it nearly verbatim. It encapsulated Merrill's son's own philosophy.
"Dad said, 'You'll be surprised to see that in my whole life I've been very philanthropic but I'm not leaving anything to charity,'" Alan said. "I leave it all to you because in my lifetime, I have believed in living charity. And to do things today while you're alive and able to see the fruits.'"
Alan's own heart attack years later gave the son further perspective.
"The first day of the future is today," he said. "If you don't feed children today, if you don't educate people today, there won't be a future. So what are you saving your money for?"
More publicly, Hassenfeld also continued as an advocate for better healthcare, gun control, abortion rights, and political and ethics reform, among other issues -- a man willing to commit not only his fortune but his voice to the common good, sometimes to the scorn of letter-writing and social media-trolling critics who mocked him as a bleeding heart, or worse.
Sometimes, cloaked in their cowardly anonymity, the trolls exhibited anti-Semitism that echoed that of which Henry and
"They are a traitorous group to the American People... ALL a bunch of Jews BTW, all want our guns. History shows this jewish inlfuence will be the downfall of this country. They (jews) look upon all of us as Goyim, wake up folks."
This quote is verbatim, spelling and grammar as written.
But Hassenfeld was not deterred by such ugliness. His family never had been. Hassenfelds had survived worse.
And from that survival, they had embraced the Judaic tenet of
Every Hassenfeld -- brothers, sisters, wives -- had a debt to repay.
Alan was repaying it with generosity and humor -- and some of the humor derived from the toy with which he most closely associated. Hassenfeld was often asked to name his favorite plaything, and he always responded that they were "all my children" and no good parent would ever single out one, but in truth, he placed Pot Head first among equals and not only because it was Hasbro's oldest toy still on the market and was roughly his age. Like Hassenfeld, Mr. Potato Head had continually transformed himself, becoming a succession of characters that suited his ambitions and reflected, if you will, what was beneath his skin.
Originally sold as plastic eyes, ears, mouths, and noses intended to be stuck into actual vegetables, Mr. Potato Head eventually was sold with a plastic body. Mrs. Potato Head appeared in 1953, a year after her husband, and the couple brought forth daughter Yam and son Spud, a playful sort of all-American family that mirrored the consumer aspirations and gender roles of the post-war nation with its blossoming Baby Boom. Later Potato Heads flew to the moon, joined the circus, time-travelled back to the Wild West, and took many more exotic (and mundane) journeys. Following the blockbuster movie "Toy Story," released in 1995 while Hassenfeld was CEO, the toy has been reinvented in themes including Star Wars, Iron Man, Batman, The
In one way or another, to greater or lesser degree, Hassenfeld has embraced the spirit of many of those things -- though, he would have you know, "never
View Hassenfeld in a certain soft light and with a touch of imagination, and you can almost see a physical resemblance to his favorite toy. Visit Hassenfeld's office at Hassenfeld Family Initiatives, and you find it decorated with Mr. Potato Head sets, figures, and cartoons, alongside G.I. Joes, Monopoly games, and other Hasbro products and mementos. You could lose an hour exploring them all, and I have. Hassenfeld's office qualifies as a mini toy museum, albeit one heavily flavored by the company the first brothers founded.
Attractively framed, several of the Pot Head cartoons grace the brick walls.
One is by Garfield creator
"To: ALAN – Best Wishes! –
Another cartoon on Hassenfeld's wall, "The Mr. Potato Head Murder Trial," drawn by Bizarro creator
"If it pleases the court," the prosecutor says, "the prosecution would like to enter the following items into evidence: a knife, a fork, sour cream, butter, chives, bacon bits..."
For birthday greetings, Hassenfeld might send a Mr. Potato Head card with a depiction of the toy standing at a bathroom urinal. "Oh great, I left it at home!" the toy is saying. "Getting older can make you a little forgetful," the card declares, and then, inside: "At least you don't have detachable parts. Happy birthday."
Yes, Pot Head's humor was Hassenfeld's. Or was it vice-versa?
It could be difficult to say. Hassenfeld sometimes spoke of Mr. Potato Head as a person, giving the toy a human voice and moral authority, as if it had a conscience matching Hassenfeld's. In an era of narcissism and self-serving men in power, a conscience counted.
"Toy Wars" was published in 1998, when
Thus, "Kid Number One" is really both prequel and sequel, a new contribution to the literature of an industry unlike any other, and the real people and fictional characters -- a century and a half's worth of toy, game and screen icons -- that created and maintain it. Having become an elder statesman of that world, Hassenfeld is uncommonly qualified to serve as tour guide.
So this book is many interwoven stories -- some entertaining, some educational, some historical, some inspirational to those who share Hassenfeld's belief in
The first opens on that bloody Easter Sunday in 1903, when Christian mobs in Kishinev, now the city of Chi?inau,
If you go ...
What: Launch party and signing for "Kid Number One"
Where: Blackstone Valley Visitors Center,
Admission: Free and open to the public
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