Getty Images
Getty Images

5 Artistic Rivalries That Got Ugly

Getty Images
Getty Images

by Elizabeth Lunday

1. Voltaire exposes Rousseau as a Deadbeat Dad (5 times over?!)

They say you're not paranoid if someone's really out to get you. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was paranoid, but Voltaire was really out to get him, too. The two philosopher/writers started sniping at each other in the 1750s. At the time, Voltaire was an established leader of French philosophical circles and Rousseau (yet to write The Social Contract and Émile) was just a newbie. But the balance of power began to shift when Voltaire moved to Rousseau's native city of Geneva in 1754. Although Rousseau had left Geneva in 1728, he remained devoted to the city's strict Calvinist standards, which included a ban on public plays. So when he heard Voltaire was not only putting on private dramas but also urging city authorities to admit plays into the city, Rousseau wrote an outraged letter condemning theatricals. In return, an annoyed Voltaire wrote to his philosopher friends saying that Rousseau had only criticized the theater because Rousseau had written a bad play.

Rousseau went off the deep end. He dipped his pen in vitriol and scratched out a letter to Voltaire that began, bluntly enough, "I do not like you, sir." He went on to outline all the (perceived) slights he'd received from Voltaire and concluded, "In a word, I hate you." Voltaire thought Rousseau had lost his mind and publicly advised his fellow philosopher a course of soothing baths and restorative broths. Henceforth, Voltaire would miss no opportunity to slam his enemy. He mocked the plots of Rousseau's novels, insinuated Rousseau had inflated his resume, and bashed Rousseau's book Julie as "silly, middle-class, dirty-minded, and boring." Finally, in 1764, Voltaire wielded the most powerful weapon he possessed—a secret about Rousseau he'd picked up in Geneva. Using a pseudonym, Voltaire wrote an open letter accusing Rousseau of abandoning his five children at the door of an orphanage. The accusation was shocking—and true.

Rousseau, in a politician-worthy statement of denial, could only claim, "I have never exposed, or caused to be exposed, any infant at the door of an orphanage." He was telling the truth, but only because the children had been taken inside the orphanage. Further scrambling to justify his actions, Rousseau responded with his book Confessions, now recognized as one of the first true autobiographies. An ugly quarrel, it seems, marked the invention of a new literary form.

2. 100 Years of Attitude: Mario Vargas Llosa punches Gabriel García Márquez in the face

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Colombian Nobel-prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa together helped to revolutionize Spanish-language literature with their forays into magical realism. The two met in 1967 and immediately became inseparable. In 1971, Vargas Llosa wrote a book-length study of García Márquez' work. García Márquez became the godfather of Vargas Llosa's son.

Then, at a 1976 film premiere in Mexico City, García Márquez spotted his pal Vargas Llosa sitting a few rows back and went to greet him.

"Mario!" he exclaimed with open arms, just before Vargas Llosa punched him in the face.

The two authors have neither spoken to, nor seen, each other since. For years, that is all anyone has known about it. What hasn't been known, however, is why. The men have only said the quarrel was "personal." Much of the speculation has focused on politics. (At one time, both were supporters of Fidel Castro, but Vargas Llosa grew disillusioned with the dictator.) Others have suggested Vargas Llosa was jealous of his friend's world fame. But the cold war hit the papers again this January after a Spanish newspaper announced that the 40th-anniversary edition of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude would include an introduction by Vargas Llosa. Headlines announced that the feud was over—except that it wasn't. García Márquez' literary agent explained that Vargas Llosa had only allowed an out-of-print 1971 essay about García Márquez to be included in the volume. Hardly a reconciliation, but it meant the feud was news once again. And that's when the story behind the Mexico City fight started to come out. Turns out, the quarrel wasn't about literary fame or political leanings. As we all should have guessed, it was about a woman.

The trouble started, sources say, when Vargas Llosa fell madly in love with a Swedish stewardess. He ran off to Stockholm with her, leaving behind his wife, Patricia (who was, incidentally, also his first cousin). Devastated, Patricia went to her husband's best friend for advice. The first thing García Márquez reportedly did was suggest she divorce her husband. Then he "consoled" her. (It has been suggested this "consolation" involved more than a pat on the back.)

Eventually, Vargas Llosa returned home from Sweden and reconciled with his wife. Apparently, Patricia told all. The authors' next encounter was at the theater. After landing his punch, Vargas Llosa supposedly shouted, "How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!" And while neither author has confirmed this version of the events, the brouhaha has Latin American literary types buzzing yet again.

3. Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy

One January night in 1980, playwright Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes) sat up in bed while watching The Dick Cavett Show. Novelist and critic Mary McCarthy was on the program discussing books when Cavett asked her which writers she considered overrated. "Lillian Hellman," McCarthy promptly replied. "Everything "¦ every word she writes is a lie, including "˜and' and "˜the.'"

Hellman may have been 74 years old, nearly blind, and unable to walk, but she could still use the telephone. She called her attorney and ordered him to sue McCarthy— along with Cavett, the show's producer, and the station—for $2.25 million in libel. The result was a public slug-fest, with all of America's writers taking sides. Norman Mailer tried to act as a peacemaker via an article in The New York Times, but it only proved to annoy both sides. Hellman even offered to drop the suit if McCarthy publicly apologized, to which McCarthy responded, "But that would be lying."

To the surprise of everyone, including Hellman's attorneys, the New York Supreme Court refused McCarthy's request to dismiss the case on May 10, 1984. Sadly, Hellman didn't have long to enjoy her victory; she died less than two months later. McCarthy, who'd been facing financial ruin, was less than satisfied, complaining, "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court." Since then, the case has been remembered in legal circles as raising important free speech issues. As Harper's magazine quipped, "If you can't call Lillian Hellman a liar on national TV, what's the First Amendment all about?"

4. Dueling Pianos: Johann Mattheson almost kills George Frideric Handel

Johann Mattheson met fellow composer George Frideric Handel in 1703, when the 21-year-old Handel moved to Hamburg to take the position of violinist and harpsichordist for the opera-house orchestra. This made Handel something of a young celebrity, but Mattheson was something of a celebrity himself, being a former child prodigy and a popular local composer. The two hung out quite a bit, and Mattheson even gave Handel advice on writing his first opera.

But the friendship hit a roadblock in December 1704, when Mattheson premiered his third opera, Cleopatra. Mattheson not only wrote and conducted the piece but also sang the part of Antonius. (Busy guy, Johann.) During the first three-quarters of the performance, Mattheson was on stage. But half an hour before the end, Antonius commits suicide, which left Mattheson at loose ends. Deciding to take over at the harpsichord, he headed for the orchestra pit and whispered to Handel, then tickling the ivories, to scoot over. A very much miffed Handel refused to give way.

History doesn't note the effect of the musicians' brawl on the performance, but it does record that Mattheson challenged Handel to a duel. According to Mattheson, the two retired to the street, took up swords, and started slashing. Also according to Mattheson, his sword broke when it struck one of Handel's large metal coat buttons, which is the only reason George's life was spared. Either way, Handel went on to bigger and better things (Messiah, for one), while Mattheson remained in Hamburg churning out oratorios. Watching Handel's rise from afar, he once complained that Handel had stolen the melody from one of his operas. (Probably a true charge, actually, as Handel was notorious for "borrowing" melodies.) Finally, toward the end of his life, Mattheson filled his autobiography with stories of his world-famous buddy, taking as much credit as possible for himself.

5. Domed for Failure: Lorenzo Ghiberti vs. Filippo Brunelleschi

The trouble between famed sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti started in 1401, and, according to some art historians, the Italian Renaissance started then, too. It was the year the two up-and-coming artists were among those asked to enter a competition to design a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery at the Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti ended up getting the job, but the details are debatable. He claimed the committee voted unanimously in his favor, but there's evidence that when officials asked the two artists to work together on the project, Brunelleschi scoffed at the offer and stormed off to Rome to study Classical architecture.
Who would have known, then, that Ghiberti and Brunelleschi would find themselves in competition again in 1418—this time to design a dome for the same cathedral. When the artists displayed their models, it was no contest. Brunelleschi's dome was not only architecturally elegant, it was structurally superior. Ghiberti, however, was the town's golden boy, so while Brunelleschi was given the main responsibility for the project, Ghiberti was awarded the same salary just for assisting.

That's how matters stood at the dome until 1423, just as a major piece of structural support was to begin construction. Armed with a cunning plan, Brunelleschi began complaining of a pain in his side and staggered home to bed. Naturally, the workmen turned to Ghiberti. While the bewildered artist tried to figure out Brunelleschi's model, the supposedly ill artist sat at home issuing reports of his imminent death. Then, miracle of miracles, Brunelleschi made a complete recovery. Rising from his bed a healed man, he inspected Ghiberti's work and announced it a shoddy piece of construction that would cause the entire structure to collapse. He ordered Ghiberti's work demolished and executed his own plans, which elegantly solved the structural problem.

Soon thereafter, Ghiberti was fired from the cathedral project. He never again attempted architecture, concentrating instead on refining his sculptures. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi saw the cathedral completed in 1436. It was the first dome ever built without a supporting frame, the largest dome in existence at the time, and remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

John Ueland
How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire
John Ueland
John Ueland

On an unseasonably warm day in April 1954, hundreds of women in cowboy hats gathered outside Tupperware’s Florida headquarters to dig for buried treasure. There, in a nearby swampy area dubbed the “Forest of Spades,” 600 shovels stood at the ready. The excitement was palpable. At the appointed signal, the women raced for the roped-off soil, grabbed shovels, and began to hunt frantically for loot.

It was the pinnacle of the inaugural Tupperware Jubilee, a five-day, gold-rush-themed affair celebrating all things Tupperware. No expense was spared: To give the event a Western feel, frontier-style buildings with false fronts had been erected and bulls and horses were trucked in. The women, and a smattering of men, had traveled from all across the country to participate. A collection of Tupperware dealers, distributors, and sales managers, they made the pilgrimage for the motivational speeches, sales instruction, and especially for the bizarre bonding rituals.

For five hours that day, they prospected for mink stoles and freezer units, gold watches and diamond rings. One of them, Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, dug up a toy car. When she saw the real Ford it represented, she planted her face against the hood and began to weep, repeating, “I love everybody.” Four women fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. It was understandable, considering that the total cash value of all the prizes buried in the Florida dirt was $75,000.

Presiding over the treasure hunt was the general sales manager of the Tupperware Home Parties division, a 40-year-old woman named Brownie Wise. For hours, she cheered on the ladies from a loudspeaker with an air of royalty. As she watched them hop on shovels and unearth the rewards of their labors, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Wise took satisfaction in seeing her hard work pay off—once again. The jubilee, which she had organized, had all the pizzazz and spirit expected of an official Tupperware event. The media agreed: Network news was there to cover it, and Life magazine ran a photo essay highlighting the excitement and glamour.

Clearly, there’s more to Tupperware than leftovers. The story of the ubiquitous plastic container is a story of innovation and reinvention: how a new kind of plastic, made from an industrial waste material, ended up a symbol of female empowerment. The product ushered women into the workforce, encouraging them to make their own money, better their families, and win accolades and prizes without fear of being branded that 1950s anathema, “the career woman.”

Digging in the dirt for a gold watch may not mesh with today’s concept of a successful working woman, but at the time, the near-religious fervor seen at the jubilees and other Tupperware gatherings demonstrated just how ground-breaking the company’s sales plan was—the product became a multimillion dollar success not by exploiting women, but by embracing and boosting them. All of this was because of Brownie Wise. The story of Tupperware is her story.

Brownie Wise, named for her big, brown eyes, was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as a teen she traveled with her mother, who organized union rallies. While touring the Deep South, Brownie started giving speeches at her mother’s rallies and soon proved to be a gifted and motivating orator. She “awed people,” writes Bob Kealing in his biography Tupperware Unsealed. “[They] were surprised that someone so young could deliver a speech like a pastor.”

Wise was married briefly, but by 27, she was a divorced single mom in suburban Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a secretary at Bendix Aviation, a company that made parts for navy torpedo planes. It was a decent but unfulfilling job. On the side, Wise penned an advice column for the Detroit News, writing under the alter ego “Hibiscus.” A housewife who led an idyllic life with her child and husband in a home called “Lovehaven,” Hibiscus had everything Wise did not. But what Wise did possess was an endless fountain of determination. As she wrote in a journal at that time, “I wanted to be a successful human being.”

It all started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed that she could do better. At the time, Stanley was experimenting with a peculiar sales model: home parties. A New Hampshire mop salesman had watched his numbers fly through the roof after he invited a bunch of women over for a party that included a mop demonstration. The company encouraged other salesmen to try the strategy, but many of them delegated the party-hosting to their wives. Thinking it’d be a fun job on the side, Wise started selling Stanley products at parties too. Before long, she was making enough money to quit her job at Bendix.

Wise was blessed with the gift of gab, and her special blend of folksy real talk and motherly encouragement helped her rise through Stanley’s ranks. Soon she was in management and hoping to ascend even higher. But those illusions were quashed at a meeting with Stanley head Frank Beveridge, who told Wise she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said. Wise returned home furious. The rejection lit a fire in her—she vowed that someday, somehow, she would prove Beveridge wrong.

She didn’t know that the key to fulfilling this dream would be in plastic food-storage containers. Wise first glimpsed Tupperware at a sales meeting. One of her coworkers had seen the products gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first, Wise didn’t think they were anything special. But when she accidentally knocked a Tupperware bowl off the table, she realized its full potential: Instead of breaking, it bounced.

It seemed like magic. Tupperware was unlike any home product she’d seen before. It was attractive, coming in pastel colors and flexible shapes, almost like art. More importantly, it was functional—no other competing product even came close. Convinced of its potential, Wise traded in her Stanley brooms in 1949 and started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. What she didn’t intend, exactly, was to kindle a revolution.


The most amazing thing about Tupperware wasn’t that it extended the life of leftovers and a family’s budget, although it did both remarkably well. It was, above all, a career maker. When women came to one of Wise’s parties, they were more than just convinced to buy the product— Wise was such a charming host that she persuaded many buyers to also become Tupperware salespeople. The more parties Wise hosted, the more tricks she learned to convert women into Tupperware faithful. Putting people on waiting lists, for instance, made them more eager to buy, so she signed them up regardless of whether the product was available. She also discovered that throwing containers full of liquid across the room made customers reach straight for their checkbooks. Amassing more and more saleswomen, Wise encouraged her followers to do the same. By October 1949, she had 19 recruits, enough to move her supplies out of her house and into a larger warehouse. Driven by the idea of making money simply by throwing parties for friends and neighbors, the women in Wise’s workforce ballooned in number. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the no-nonsense founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.

Tupperware, true to its name, was Tupper’s masterpiece, and he was counting on it to make his dreams come true. Having grown up in a poor Massachusetts farm family, he had vowed to make a million dollars by the time he was 30. He hadn’t. He did have a host of esoteric inventions—among them, a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone—under his belt. But with a wife and family to support, he’d concentrated on a practical career in plastics, first at DuPont and then at a company of his own, which made parts for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. When the war ended, Tupper decided to buy cheap surpluses left over from wartime manufacturing. He figured he’d be able to do something with them.

That’s how he ended up with a glob of greasy black polyethylene, a smelly waste product left behind when metal is created from ore. Tupper took it and, after months of trial and error, wrangled the slag into submission, creating a light-weight plastic that refused to break. Tupper dubbed it “Poly-T,” and, taking inspiration from the way paint cans sealed, created a flexible container with a noiseless lid that snapped on. He called the box Tupperware. He patented the seal in 1949 and rolled out 14 products he called the “Millionaire Line.” The only problem? He couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

At least not until Wise came along. Her sales record was remarkable—in 1949, she’d rung up $150,000 in orders and was offered a promotion: distribution rights to the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son, Jerry, and her mother. She found a store space, and by May she’d opened her business and was scouting for new salespeople.

Still, not everything was going smoothly. Along with disputes over turf with other distributors, she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays, and product shortages. In March of 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury. It was the first time they’d spoken, but she was too livid for niceties; she ripped into him immediately. This was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Did he not understand how crucial it was that the problems be fixed immediately? Tupper assured her that he’d fix any issues and then asked a favor: He wanted to hear her sales secrets.

The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her selling technique. It was pointless, she explained, to think that people would see Tupperware on store shelves or in catalogs and want to buy it. Instead, people had to touch it, squeeze it, drop it, seal it. They had to experience Tupperware from a trusted friend or neighbor. She gave a bold prescription for saving Tupper’s business: Ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.

Tupper took the advice to heart. So much, in fact, that the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. Wise had reached her goal: She had become an executive. It was a perfect fit, too. She had a stellar track record—she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere—and Tupper was bowled over by her charm. “You talk a lot and everybody listens,” he said.

“She was the yin to Tupper’s yang,” Kealing writes. “Where he was fussy and reclusive, Wise lived to mingle with and inspire the dealer workforce.” They were a match made in sales heaven. Or so it seemed.


In 1952, the first full year of Wise’s watch, Tupperware sales rocketed. Wholesale orders exceeded $2 million. During the last half of the year, sales tripled. Tupperware parties did exactly what Wise promised they would, and she became the company’s shining star. That year, Tupper gave her a salary of $20,933.33, more than she had ever made. For her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. Even more remarkably, he gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted. So Wise traveled the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences, and announcing contests and doling out prizes for incentive—including, sometimes, her own clothes.

By the looks of it, most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands' authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

Wise was something of an early Oprah, giving away fantastic prizes, operating in a grass-roots, word-of-mouth fashion and showing rather than telling other women how to succeed in the comfort of their own homes. The fact that she made many women understand the benefits of becoming salespeople, building the brand further, simply made her a fantastic executive.

Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly. In her prime, she wrote a morale-boosting newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool. She even convinced Tupper to move the company headquarters to Florida. When Tupper bought property in Kissimmee, Wise turned it into a Mecca-like pilgrimage site for Tupperware devotees.

Part of the power of Wise’s sales technique, which at times seemed more faith than business, was that it gave the impression that the sky was the limit, and it relied on collective power. This wasn’t just the traditional salesperson’s dog-eat-dog world: Instead, the group was a “family” that helped one another climb to the top. Women who had previously only had their names in print upon birth or marriage were being recognized for their success, with their names, photographs, and accomplishments appearing in Wise’s newsletters. Along with making their own money, they received rewards—top distributors got cars—and the chance to collaborate with other women in a friendly but competitive environment. Wise increased the fervor with her annual jubilees, which had their own rituals, like candlelit graduation ceremonies and group sing-alongs featuring choruses of “I’ve got that Tupper feeling deep in my heart.”

“No woman got praised for scrubbing floors,” Elsie Mortland, who became Tupperware’s Home Kitchen Demonstrator, told Kealing in an interview in 2005. “But when they got praised for selling Tupperware, they had something to be proud of.”

Wise was the head of the household, and the Tupperware ladies all wanted to be a part of her extended family. Success was limited only by how hard a person was willing to work, a belief that Wise preached passionately. Unfortunately, she had been duped into thinking her boss shared that opinion.


As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper. The piece credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales and seemed to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.

Tupper had never craved the spotlight; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office to avoid attracting attention. But he was keen to ensure that his product, not an employee, received the lion’s share of any attention. And somewhere along the way, Wise had started to upstage the plastic containers she helped make famous. After the Business Week article, Tupper wrote a note to Wise that contained a glimmer of the storm that was to come: “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!”

The good press continued but, in 1955, after several powerful distributors left the company, sales began to lag. Hard times strained Wise and Tupper’s relationship. By 1956, angry letters were flying back and forth between them, and at one point, Tupper stopped taking Wise’s calls. Her complaints and frank criticisms, previously helpful, had become jabs he couldn’t endure. He also started to believe that she was costing him money, irked that she had her own side business selling self-help books at company events. More to the point, he started to suspect that if he tried selling the company—which he was planning to do—having a female executive would get in the way.

Finally, in 1958, Tupper flew to Florida and fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She didn’t own her house and was ordered to vacate. She had no stocks in the company; she didn’t even own many of the clothes she wore. The man she’d helped make a millionaire didn’t seem to care: Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history and buried the 600 remaining copies of her book in an unmarked pit behind Tupperware’s Florida headquarters. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million, divorced his wife, and bought an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Wise, on the other hand, tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She led a quiet life with her horses, pottery, and her son until she died at her home in Kissimmee in 1992.

Her influence, however, has not waned. Today, according to the PBS American Experience documentary Tupperware!, the product is sold in about 100 countries, while “every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world.” In this respect, the Golden Age of Tupperware hasn’t ended so much as it has solidified. When was the last time you stored food in a plastic container with a sealing mechanism? Tupperware is so much a part of our food culture that we don’t even think about its continuing influence, and yet we still rely on it daily.

This story is one of reinvention too: a useless plastic reimagined into something needed, of food being stored in wholly new ways, of women emerging from their kitchens to showcase their worth and proclaim their identities, of sales techniques evolving to embrace the customer, and of the singular character of Brownie Wise, who changed what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Because of that, as Houston Post writer Napoleon Hill wrote in 1956, “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”

Early in Wise’s tenure at the company, Tupper presented her with a piece of the raw polyethylene he’d used to make Tupperware. She saw it as poetic proof of his vision: He had created something beautiful from this unappealing glob of plastic, using nothing but imagination and persistence. It was “the best sales story I have ever heard in all my life,” she wrote. She considered “Poly,” as Tupper called it, a prized possession and would have her women touch it for good luck, telling them, “Just get your fingers on it, wish for what you want. Know it’s going to come true, and then get out and work like everything ... and it will!”


More from mental floss studios