Chapter 1 of Split:
upon a time, growing up in rent-controlled, city-owned subsidized housing on Greenwich Street and West 11th, there
lived five brothers. Their mother said one was hard working, one was serious, one was sensitive, one was brilliant, and
one was gentle. Their father said one was conceited, one was cold, one was weird, one was a sissy, and one was a nervous
Why was he always surrounded by incompetence? Twenty-four
hours a day, seven days a week. Hair stylists who don’t know how to style hair. Subway conductors who don’t
know how to conduct. Taxi drivers who can’t drive. Electricians who can’t wire a simple three-way switch
without getting it wrong three times before they get it right. Janitors who can’t empty a wastebasket or dispose
of the remains from the paper shredder without leaving traces all over the office. Assistants who can’t type, can’t
spell, and can’t get to work on time.
And now, worst of all, highly-paid product developers who can’t conduct even the simplest market research. People
so inept they have to use their budgets to hire high-priced consultants to unearth information that he could have
spouted off in his sleep. People who then don’t even read those expensive research reports before preparing
their presentations for him. Him, the president of the company.
What precisely was Phelps thinking in recommending that Wilkie Toys get “more
deeply” into computer gaming software? He read the first line of the executive summary in Phelps’ report:
At this juncture, Wilkie Toys has the amazing opportunity to
increase its investment in our computer games division, a part of the company that has shown strong growth in recent years
and which offers much potential for continued growth as the Baby Boom on the East Coast shows no signs of slowing down and
computers are more ubiquitus than ever. With our high-quality reputation assured in the marketplace, our continued market
penetration is assured, along with continued high levels of profitability based on solid performance in gross margin.
It was almost laughable:
the combination of ignorance and ass-kissing. Yes, he was always talking about the importance of “profitability”
and “gross margin”—so Phelps, like the good ladder-climber he was, had made sure to work both terms into
the opening paragraph. But “Baby Boom”? Had no one told Phelps that the phrase is reserved for children
born after World War II, and that youth spending power in the early 21st century rests with Generation Y—those
spoiled kids whose wallets are stuffed with cash, and sometimes credit cards, by absentee parents? Not that Generation
Y mattered much to Wilkie Toys; he’d built the entire company, from the ground up, on selling toys geared toward adults.
His father—never one to look on the bright side of anything—had been fond of pointing out that toys had been few
during the Depression, and that he’d played with his train set and wooden blocks for nearly twenty years. He’d
expected his own kids—all five of the boys—to get similar mileage from any toys they received from aunts and uncles.
If Dad felt the toys weren’t being properly cared for or fully appreciated, he’d take them away and donate them
to St. Vincent’s orphanage. He remembered his youngest brother sobbing, begging Dad not to give away his Lincoln
Logs, which he’d left strewn about the floor of the bedroom he shared with his two older brothers. But you didn’t
get a second chance with Dad, and Lincoln Logs were never seen in the apartment again.
His own favorites had been
the craft-oriented toys that his Aunt Sophie had given him for every birthday and Christmas. A Greenwich Village artist
supported by the philanthropic Goode Foundation, Aunt Sophie had seen “artistic talent” in him from the time he
was a child, and she wanted to encourage it. But Dad didn’t always approve of such gifts; boys should be out playing
football and baseball, not sitting at the kitchen table swirling pieces of paper around and splattering them with washable
paint. So Dad took away the swirl art kit on a pretext (he’d been “too fidgety” in church, Dad said)
and told him to read a book instead.
Perhaps it was the taboo of the forbidden “artistic” toys that helped him develop his market sense. After
learning young that some toys were “OK” while others were “inappropriate” for him, he couldn’t
pass any person, of any age, playing with any sort of toy, without thinking: What would Dad think about this situation? The
checkers the old men played in Washington Square Park would probably be OK with Dad, because you could play that game outdoors;
Dad, who’d grown up on a farm in Connecticut, always felt that people in New York City spent way too much time inside. Mah
jongg would be all right for sisters, if he’d had any; but it wouldn’t be all right for boys. It was always
the old Jewish ladies who were playing mah jongg, which made it a girls’ game that boys shouldn’t be bothered
with. Operation would be acceptable to Dad because it promoted the desire to be a doctor, an admirable career goal. Mr.
Potato Head would be simply unacceptable in all ways; Dad would consider the various configurations of lips, eyebrows, and
eyes too akin to cosmetics, which were for girls. When he was a teenager and all the kids at school were playing Twister,
he knew better than to take part: Dad would be highly disturbed by the possibility that he might touch another boy in an inappropriate
way during the contortions required by the game.
But it was exactly through viewing all toys through his father’s eyes that he came to understand the needs
and desired they filled. Little girls simply wanted to be like their Mommies, hence the popularity of soft plush dolls. As
they got older, they wanted to be more like their big sisters, hence the popularity of Barbie and other slender, busty dolls
that they could dress up and make over. The first time he’d seen a Cabbage Patch Kid, during his days of studying
business administration at City College, he’d thought: Holy cow, these things are going to go through the roof! With
their individualized birth certificates and names, they were the perfect toy for the 1980s, the perfect gift for parents to
give their little angels. Because a Cabbage Patch Kid was one-of-a-kind. No mass-produced, off-the-assembly line
doll for little Heather or Nicole! No, little Heather or Nicole deserved something as unique as she herself was: a “registered”
Cabbage Patch Doll of her very own, a sign of Mommy’s love for and devotion to her little girl!
And that was when it hit him: The purpose of toys had changed. When
he’d been a child, toys had been about kids. But no more…now toys were more about the parents. The
80s were all about money, about earning (or at least amassing) lots of it; and newly rich yuppies wanted only the best for
their kids, since the kids’ toys were a reflection on them and their earning power. The big toy manufacturers,
he thought, were going about it the wrong way: They were advertising their wares on Saturday morning TV, hoping that kids
would beg their parents for the latest gadget or doo-dad. But it was the parents to whom the toy companies should be
After this epiphany,
he couldn’t wait to finish his degree and see if he could make a go of selling overpriced toys to adults with too much
disposable income. He worked two jobs while he earned his B.A. and saved every spare penny.
Six months after graduating, Wilkie Toys opened its doors
on lower Fifth Avenue. The rent was astronomical, but if you wanted to sell overpriced wares to the wealthy, you had
to be where they could find you. He’d spent the last year commissioning exquisitely handcrafted chess sets, backgammon
kits, mah jongg tiles, Parcheesi-type games, and cribbage boards from small independent craftsmen all over South America and
Asia. These were proudly displayed in the window, along with a small, elegant, hand-lettered placard that read:
Only the finest.
who entered the store found not only beautiful board games, but also hundreds of unique, one-of-a-kind dolls he’d ordered
from individual doll makers in the Middle East and Africa. A few of the games were his own inventions, carefully crafted
by vendors in China. A game for would-be businessmen and women featured real currency of all denominations from all over
the world; he’d had a hell of a time getting marks out of Germany and rubles out of Russia, but there they were, in
living color, each one hand washed and then ironed to look new.
Of course, he’d advertised only in the most exclusive publications, including the Sunday New York Times magazine.
He sold out his entire inventory within two weeks of opening the store. Now, two decades later, he was the president
and sole proprietor of Wilkie Toys International, with retail outlets on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Beverly Hills’
Rodeo Drive, and Chicago’s Million Dollar Mile. His stores in London, Hong Kong, and Paris were doing even better
than his U.S. stores, and his catalog and Internet sales had gone though the roof since he launched them a few years earlier. His
first million had been earned with blood, sweat, and tears; but that was a long time ago, and now he wasn’t even sure
how many millions he had in the bank, in investments, and in offshore holding corporations.
Still, if you’d
asked his father how he earned his living, Dad would have said, “He sells toys.”