Saturday, October 29, 2016

Book Review: Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire by Bob Kealing

Book Synopsis
The incredible story of Brownie Wise, the Southern single mother—and postwar #Girlboss—who built, and lost, a Tupperware home-party empire

Before Mary Kay, Martha Stewart, and Joy Mangano, there was Brownie Wise, the charismatic Tupperware executive who converted postwar optimism into a record-breaking sales engine powered by American housewives. In Life of the Party, Bob Kealing offers the definitive portrait of Wise, a plucky businesswoman who divorced her alcoholic husband, started her own successful business, and eventually caught the eye of Tupperware inventor, Earl Tupper, whose plastic containers were collecting dust on store shelves.

The Tupperware Party that Wise popularized, a master-class in the soft sell, drove Tupperware’s sales to soaring heights. It also gave minimally educated and economically invisible postwar women, including some African-American women, an acceptable outlet for making their own money for their families—and for being rewarded for their efforts. With the people skills of Dale Carnegie, the looks of Doris Day, and the magnetism of Eva Peron, Wise was as popular among her many devoted followers as she was among the press, and she become the first woman to appear on the cover of BusinessWeek in 1954. Then, at the height of her success, Wise’s ascent ended as quickly as it began. Earl Tupper fired her under mysterious circumstances, wrote her out of Tupperware’s success story, and left her with a pittance. He walked away with a fortune and she disappeared—until now.

Originally published as Tupperware Unsealed by the University Press of Florida in 2008—and optioned by Sony Pictures, with Sandra Bullock attached to star—this revised and updated edition is perfectly timed to take advantage of renewed interest in this long-overlooked American business icon.

My Review
I've wanted to read Life of the Party since I first read about it.  I have a great fascination with all things retro, and was interested in the story of Tupperware promised by this book.  What I did not know is that the story of Brownie Wise was even more interesting.

Brownie Wise was born in Buford, Georgia, near Atlanta.  She grew up to marry a handsome automotive executive and move to Detroit.  They had a son, and some happiness before her husband's mood swings became too much to bear.  After five turbulent years together, they divorced. Brownie became an executive secretary at Bendix, and wrote an advice column in the local newspaper under the name Hibiscus.  As a way to supplement her income, she began working part-time as a sales representative for Stanley Home Products.

It turned out that Brownie had a gift for selling, and for motivating others to sell.  When she was unable to advance within the Stanley company because she was a woman, she began selling Tupperware.  That is when her life really changed.  She did so well that Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware and owner of the company, offered her a job as a distributor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Brownie was thrilled to be able to move back to the south with her son and mother.  After moving to Florida, her reach within the Tupperware company only grew.

Eventually, unfortunately, there was a strong clash of wills and personalities between Earl Tupper, the consummate businessman, and Brownie Wise, the consummate salesperson and marketer.  She was fired suddenly and her life changed.

This was such an interesting read.  I found Brownie Wise's sale and marketing strategies inspiring.  She worked so hard and kept such a positive approach to business.

I also loved the retro aspects of this story -- tales of Tupperware parties and early pastel Tupperware products.  The products were sold at home parties with hostesses and saleswomen working together.  They offered games, prizes, and refreshments to guests.  Guests learned about Tupperware by seeing it in person.  The product was often demonstrated by tossing a full, sealed Tupperware container across the room;  guests could see that it remained tightly sealed, even under these circumstances.

The small details of 1950's life and vintage Florida were also interesting.  For instance, on her move to Florida, Brownie and her son Jerry travelled to St. Augustine and Marineland on their way to Fort Lauderdale.  

There were small black and white photos throughout the book, which made it even more interesting and only added to the nostalgic appeal of this story.

I would recommend Life of the Party to readers who enjoy retro theme books, women's history, and inspiring memoirs.  This was a very enjoyable read!    

Author Bio
Bob Kealing is an Edward R. Murrow and four-time Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist based in Orlando Florida at WESH-TV. He has appeared on national programs such as Dateline NBC, the Today Show, CBS This Morning, and has appeared as a guest on NPR, CNN, MSNBC, NBC and C-SPAN. The author of four non-fiction books, Kealing’s research led to the establishment of the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, a literary landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, and Gram Parsons Derry Down, a Florida Heritage site honoring the pioneering country rock musician in his birthplace, Winter Haven.  Kealing lives north of Orlando with his wife, son and daughter.

I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books.

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