10 Ruthless Rock Managers

By Bill DeMain

They've got bad hair and big cigars, and they want their 10 percent. Meet the world's most notorious music managers.

1. The Kingmaker: Colonel Tom Parker

Strange but true: Elvis Presley never performed overseas. The reason? Manager Tom Parker said so. Although Parker blamed security issues and the hassles of touring internationally, in truth, the Colonel was an illegal alien. If he left the country, he risked being exposed and barred re-entry.

Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands, Parker immigrated to the United States in the early 1930s and worked as a traveling carny. In the circus, he learned the two secrets of getting people into the tent: Always have a gimmick, and always appeal to the lowest common denominator. (Think of Presley's salacious hip thrusts and his legacy of cinematic fluff.)

Parker first managed country music stars such as Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold, but then found his big-top sensation—Elvis. Not willing to settle for the standard 10 percent fee, Parker cut himself in for 25 percent (and eventually 50 percent). Along the way, he invented the hallmarks of celebrity management—money up front, total media control, and massive merchandising. He was so cutthroat that when Elvis overdosed in 1977, the Colonel practically went straight from the funeral in Memphis to New York to negotiate deals for Elvis memorabilia.

During Elvis' final years as a Vegas perennial, Parker became addicted to gambling. When the Colonel died in 1997, he had less than $1 million of the estimated $100 million he made during his lifetime. He'd gambled the rest away.

2. The Wannabe Rock Star: Tony Defries

Tony Defries' hero was Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker. So in 1970, when Defries saw a new king of rock in 23-year-old David Bowie, he pounced on the opportunity. The fearless Defries got Bowie signed to Elvis' label, RCA, then spent lavishly on publicity stunts. He famously flew a plane full of American journalists first-class to London, where they watched Bowie perform his fantasy album Ziggy Stardust at the Dorchester Hotel. The press was then granted a private audience with Bowie in his suite, where he was still decked out in full glam-rock regalia. For his troubles, Defries took half the earnings.

Unlike the Colonel, who was a family man, Defries lived extravagantly. With his eight Manhattan apartments, karate-suit-wearing bodyguards, and crushed-velvet suits, Defries was more of a rock star than Bowie. In fact, at the height of his Ziggy fame, Bowie often borrowed money from Defries just to buy groceries. "I slaved and made nothing," Bowie said after dumping Defries in 1975. The divorce wasn't easy. In addition to 50 percent of all back royalties, Bowie surrendered 16 percent of future gross earnings through 1982.

3. The Bear: Albert Grossman

bearsville-records-grossman.jpgAlbert Grossman was known as The Bear. And depending on when you met him, he could be a Teddy or a grizzly. In the late 1950s, he was more of a Teddy. A music lover with a booming voice and a master's degree in economics, Grossman opened a club in Chicago, where he nurtured the careers of folk singers such as Odetta, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan.

But when Grossman moved into personal management in the 1960s, the grizzly emerged. He used his bulky 6-foot frame and unnerving stare to intimidate record labels into parting with vast fortunes. Elektra Records honcho Bob Krasnow told Musician magazine, "What you see today in the music business is the result of Albert. He changed the whole idea of what a negotiation was all about."

With a taste for fine living, the grizzly got greedy. Bob Dylan disapproved, and their relationship grew bitter. With Grossman in mind, Dylan wrote the lyrics, "I pity the poor immigrant who falls in love with wealth and turns his back on me." He terminated Grossman's services a few months later in 1971.

But that was hardly the end of their relationship. The Bear trailed Dylan for more a decade, filing a multimillion dollar lawsuit for back royalties. At the time of his death in 1987, Grossman was still pursuing the money. In Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, Dylan said, "He was kind of like a Colonel Parker figure. You could smell him coming."

4. The Micromanager: Robert Stigwood

As a junior partner in Brian Epstein's music empire, Robert Stigwood was almost given the opportunity to manage The Beatles. Unfortunately for him, the group rebelled. As Paul McCartney told him, "If you somehow manage to pull this off, we can promise you one thing. We will record "˜God Save the Queen' for every single record we make from now on, and we'll sing it out of tune."

But perhaps The Beatles weren't aware of just how hard he worked. For Stigwood, management meant working for your artists 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He traveled with his two most famous bands—a power-rock trio called Cream and a pop-disco trio called the Bee Gees—playing the role of father, confessor, and babysitter all at once. He'd hang out in the studio while they recorded and help them pick out five-button suits after work. In fact, Stigwood may have been a little too hands-on. In 1980, after 13 years under his care, the Bee Gees sued, claiming that Stigwood had withheld $75 million in royalties. Stigwood countersued, and they settled out of court, trading barbs in the press.

5. The Al Capone of Pop: Don Arden

Don Arden once had his henchmen dangle fellow manager Robert Stigwood out a fourth-floor window. Why? Arden suspected Stigwood of trying to steal one of his bands. Known as the "Al Capone of Pop," Arden swaggered through 1960s London, skimming cream off the top of every royalty check he could get his hands on. Even when one of his most successful bands, The Small Faces, was bringing in loads of cash, he only offered them an allowance of £20 a week.

In the early 1970s, Arden launched Jet Records for the English heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Then, in 1979, lead singer Ozzy Osbourne was fired from the group. Arden didn't seem too bothered. That is, until he discovered that his daughter, Sharon, who'd been working for him, had picked up Ozzy as a client. Angry that she'd stolen business from him, Arden reportedly sicced his vicious Dobermans on her. Sharon was pregnant at the time and lost the child. However, she held on to Ozzy's business and later married the rock star.

In 1987, Don Arden faced trial for blackmailing business associates, but was acquitted. As for Sharon, she and her father reconciled after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2001. He passed away in 2007.

6. The Evil Dentist: Allen Klein

The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein might have built a financial empire, but it collapsed two years after he died in 1967. And that's when money-vulture Allen Klein swooped in to pick it clean.

The brash, barrel-shaped former accountant cut his teeth in the music business in the early 1960s. Once dubbed the "Robin Hood of Pop," Klein made an early name for himself by reaping millions in misappropriated royalties for clients such as crooner Bobby Darin and soul legend Sam Cooke. By the time he met The Beatles, he was negotiating megadeals for The Rolling Stones. John Lennon admired his street smarts, and George and Ringo followed suit. But Paul never fell prey to his charms. In fact, he often had nightmares about Klein in which the manager surfaced as an evil dentist.

Indeed, Klein didn't hesitate to pull teeth. The moment he took control of The Beatles, he gutted the band's production company, firing whomever he deemed superfluous. He then negotiated lucrative publishing and recording deals for the band and nabbed excessive commissions. In 1973, lawsuits from John, Paul, George, and Ringo began piling in.

Throughout the years, Klein soured several relationships. He was dropped by The Rolling Stones for unethical behavior in the 1960s and investigated by the IRS in the 1970s for embezzling money from George Harrison's benefit show The Concert for Bangladesh. In 1997, Klein was still up to his old tricks, suing British indie rock group The Verve over their hit "Bittersweet Symphony." The band had sampled orchestration from "The Last Time," a recording by The Rolling Stones that Klein controlled. After winning the lawsuit, Klein licensed The Verve's masterpiece to Nike for millions. Now age 76, Klein lives in Los Angeles, where he has one remaining client—wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector.

7. The Royal Pain: Malcolm McLaren

"The music wasn't important," Malcolm McLaren once said. "It was a declaration of intent and an attitude." In 1975, when McLaren took on a pub band named The Swankers (soon renamed the Sex Pistols), the intent was chaos, and the attitude was infamously punk. Eschewing the pomp of 1970s rock, The Sex Pistols played fast, hard music that condemned authority—the perfect style for manager McLaren, who lived to be a lightning rod.

In May 1977, the Sex Pistols released the incendiary song "God Save The Queen." Swiping its name from the British national anthem, the spitfire single equated the royal family with a "fascist regime" and derided the Queen as "no human being." With Britain in tumult, McLaren booked the Pistols on a boat trip down the Thames, where they performed outside the Houses of Parliament. The police raided the party, only adding to the glory of the chaos. The happening was McLaren's masterpiece.

8. The Muscle: Peter Grant

A bearded behemoth, Peter Grant was 300 lbs. of pure intimidation. He once beat up a music promoter who tried to stiff one of his singers after a show. Six policemen attempted to restrain him, but he pummeled them to the ground, too.

Born in London in 1935, Grant had a Dickensian childhood, replete with the trials of war, poverty, and heartbreak. But it all made him stronger. By the time he was a teenager, he was so big that he wrestled professionally (performing under the name Prince Mario Alassio). Grant soon parlayed this strength into management muscle, strong-arming for rock "˜n' roll legends Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But he didn't discover his destiny until he became the manager and unofficial fifth member of Led Zeppelin.

Although he was feared and loathed in many circles, Grant had one truly admirable trait—he believed the artist mattered most. In 1968, he finessed Atlantic Records into coughing up an unprecedented $200,000 advance for Zeppelin's five-year recording contract, plus the highest royalty rate ever negotiated for a band (five times that of The Beatles). He rode the Zeppelin high through the 1970s. But when the band's drummer, John Bonham, died in 1980, Grant was traumatized. He retreated behind the moat surrounding his mansion and binged on cocaine and junk food for the rest of the decade.

9. The Man Behind the Boy Bands: Lou Pearlman

pearlman.jpgWhen Lou Pearlman was arrested in 2007 for embezzling more than $300 million from investors, decades of scamming and swindling came to an end. And apparently, he did it all with a televangelist's flair. Pearlman's former publicist, Jay Marose, once said of him, "You could "¦ hold a Bible in one hand and tell him your name, and he could tell you you were wrong and make you believe it."

For years, the rotund New Yorker lined his pockets with the proceeds of dodgy business ventures. He was the advertising genius behind the Jordache Jeans' blimp and its inaugural flight, which lasted one minute before crashing into a garbage dump. He also built a fake aviation company by showing photos of model planes to investors. But he found his calling when he started managing a group of Chippendales dancers in the 1980s. After working with the topless beefcakes for several years, he happened to meet the New Kids on the Block in 1992, and the combination led Pearlman to an epiphany.

Using newspaper ads and casting calls for teenage boys who could sing and dance, Pearlman formed the Backstreet Boys and *NSync. Within three years, the prefab quintets ruled popular music. "Big Poppa" Pearlman reveled in the glory, paying for his boys' clothing, housing, and tours. But he didn't pay the bands. As Justin Timberlake later said, "We were being monetarily raped by a Svengali."

Amid lawsuits and allegations of sexual misconduct, Pearlman stayed afloat with pump-n-dump stock schemes. When the jig was up, he fled the country. In May 2008, however, Pearlman appeared in court, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

10. The Pimp Daddy: Joe Simpson

simpson.jpgWhen Joe Simpson's name appears in the media, it's usually preceded by phrases like "out-of-control stage parent" and "pimp daddy." Harsh? Maybe. But after he delivered his two daughters, Jessica and Ashlee, into the sleazy arms of reality television and hawked racy photos of them to the tabloids, maybe not.

Joe Simpson operates under the philosophy that "a song doesn't sell a record; people sell records." He used Jessica's and Ashlee's MTV reality shows to peddle CDs, movies, and cosmetics. Jessica alone grossed more than $35 million in 2004. Although daddy is coy about percentages, there's no doubt he gets a sizable cut. How else could a former youth minister afford a Porsche, a mansion in Encino, and Steven Seagal's wardrobe?

Weathering debacles like Ashlee's Saturday Night Live lip-synch scandal and Jessica's cinematic flops (Blonde Ambition, Employee Of The Month), Joe plunders on. He and his wife, Tina, who works as the girls' stylist, are currently plotting a country music career for Jessica and album number three for Ashlee. Despite the ambitious blitz, Joe contends, "My first responsibility is to be a father before I'm a manager. It's complicated, but it's worked so far."

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!”


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