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The Maybelline Story: And the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It
Synopses & Reviews
In1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel's lashes and brows, Tom Lyle Williams watched in fascination as she performed what she called 'a secret of the harem'—mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applying it to her lashes and brows. Mabel's simple beauty trick ignited Tom Lyle's imagination and he started what would become a billion-dollar business, one that remains a viable American icon after nearly a century. He named it Maybelline in her honor. Throughout the twentieth century, the Maybelline company inflated, collapsed, endured, and thrived in tandem with the nation's upheavals—as did the family that nurtured it. Tom Lyle Williams—to avoid unwanted scrutiny of his private life—cloistered himself behind the gates of his Rudolph Valentino Villa and ran his empire from the shadows. Now, after nearly a century of silence, this true story celebrates the life of an American entrepreneur, a man forced to remain behind a mask—using his sister-in-law Evelyn Boecher—to be his front.
Stories of the-great-man-and-how-he-did-it serve as a traditional mainstay of biographies, but with the strong women's book-buying market, a resurgence of interest in memoirs that focus on relationships more than a single man and his accomplishments are more likely to be discussed in women's book groups. The Maybelline Story combines the best of both approaches: a man whose vision rocketed him to success along with the woman held in his orbit.
In the way that Rhett Butler ignored the criticism of his peers to carve his own destiny, Tom Lyle Williams shares similar grit and daring. But Rhett without Scarlet wouldn't be much of a story. Evelyn Williams provides the energy of an antagonist. Like Scarlet, we sometimes hate her and want to shake her, but sometimes, we must admit that we hold a grudging respect; we get a kick out of her and even occasionally, love her for her guts and tenacity, and certainly because she carved out a life for herself and insisted on having a voice, even if she was a fly in the ointment for others.
The Maybelline story provides other kinds of classic literary satisfaction. We are especially fascinated to slip vicariously into the lives of the rich and privileged yet cheer for the underdog who overcomes obstacles to astound doubters with his success. We are enthralled with the historical sweep of events whose repercussions live on to the present, all elements of The Maybelline Story—which reads like a juicy novel, but is in fact a family memoir, distilled from nine hundred pages of family accounts from the 1920's to present.
An engrossing and captivating saga that spans four generations and reveals the humanity, the glamour, and the seedy underside of a family intoxicated by the quest for power, wealth, and physical perfection. It is a fascinating and inspiring tale of ambition, luck, greed, secrecy—and surprisingly, above all, love and forgiveness, a tale both epic and intimate, alive with the clash, the hustle, the music, and dance of American enterprise.
THE MAYBELLINE STORY AND THE SPIRITED FAMILY DYNASTY BEHIND IT
If the beauty business sells illusion, no one sold it better than Tom Lyle Williams, originally a country boy from Kentucky, and a born entrepreneur. At age ten in 1906, he traded goods for profit, yet also had an eye for beauty. As a teenager working at the Nickelodeon, he marveled at the glamour of legendary actresses of the time, so different from the local farming folk. Ridiculed in his hometown for being a handsome showoff, he fled Morganfield for Chicago, determined to succeed in a business of his own.
His eureka moment came in 1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel's lashes and brows. The nineteen-year-old watched in fascination as Mabel performed what she called 'a secret of the harem'—mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applying it to her lashes and brows. Mabel's simple beauty trick ignited the eventual billion-dollar business Tom Lyle named Maybelline in her honor. With an inexpensive chemistry set and $500 borrowed from his brother Noel, Tom Lyle created a new beauty product—cake mascara and eyebrow liner—and built his idea into a fortune virtually overnight.
Tom Lyle brought all four siblings into the company, including brother Preston's wife, Evelyn Boecher—who became Tom Lyle's lifelong fascination and muse. Sharing an immediate chemistry, they considered themselves soul mates and maintained a fifty-year friendship that 'nobody could come between.' Publically calling her the 'true Ms. Maybelline," Tom Lyle kept Evelyn on the payroll and based many products and advertising campaigns on the woman she represented: beautiful, self-assured, sophisticated, and daring.
Maybelline inflated, collapsed, endured, and thrived in tandem with the nation's upheavals. In the 1920s, eye makeup was considered the 'province of whores and homosexuals.' Unfazed, Tom Lyle proclaimed, 'with Maybelline, every woman can be beautiful.' Women joining the work force in World War I rebelled against Prohibition and flocked to purchase Maybelline, which conveyed a provocative, but no longer sinful, eroticism. Money gushed in, and the Williams family depended on Tom Lyle financially. He happily became the doting family Godfather.
With the inevitable financial Crash of 1929, the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties vanished along with the vamps who loaded up on Maybelline's seventy-five-cent mascara. A cultural war began, reining in the freedom of flappers and limiting women to home and church. Glamour—of all things—became the enemy. Certain women's magazines refused to publish Maybelline ads. By 1933 sales dwindled disastrously, and the president of Tom Lyle's bank informed him that he'd lost his personal fortune of two and a half million dollars.
Tom Lyle had suffered losses before and bounced back, but this one threatened to sink his spirit. It would be Evelyn who rallied him, and urged the Maybelline team to tighten belts, work even harder and make do. Tom Lyle, who had always paid cash, borrowed thirty thousand dollars to restructure.
Tom Lyle alchemized his dreamy adolescent obsession with movie stars into gold. Maybelline became the first business to target the movie-going crowd as primary consumers of his product. A hard day's work saw him meeting the kind of screen goddesses he'd worshipped as a youth and offering them contracts to endorse Maybelline: Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and later Ava Gardner appeared as gorgeous advertisements in movie magazines. Ten-cent sample sizes allowed women to hold onto personal beauty even though they had to cut all other luxuries during the Depression.
No sooner had Tom Lyle paid the loan back than a new threat loomed. By 1934, Congress drafted two bills to monitor the cosmetics industry and its 'homosexual corruption of American womanhood.' Although he kept it a highly guarded secret, Tom Lyle knew he wouldn't stand a chance of shielding his true sexuality against a witch-hunting press. The business would be wiped out and his family disgraced. In a teen-age marriage he had fathered a son, but in Chicago he fell into a lifelong bond with his partner in business and in life, Emory Shaver. To protect his family from scandal, Tom Lyle retreated to California and moved into Rudolph Valentino's former estate.
Tom Lyle's brother Noel and marketing genius Harold 'Rags' Ragland still operated out of Chicago, but Tom Lyle and Emory ran the empire from a distance with the help of an MGM art director, Arnold Anderson, who set up a state-of-the-art studio. After hours, they entertained discreet guests around his hotel-sized pool, cloistered behind the hundred palms of Villa Valentino in Hollywood. To this day, Tom Lyle's name and his story remain virtually unknown—a man who gave women everywhere a face…rarely showing his own.
From the Villa studio came Technicolor airbrushed photos of stars' faces so flattering and popular that producers came to Tom Lyle to ask that he promote a certain starlet in a current movie. Betty Grable posed for Maybelline in what became one of the most effective ploys in advertising: before-and-after photos, which Tom Lyle and Emory pioneered. With the help of Rags Ragland, Tom Lyle was also the first to create cosmetic displays in dime and drug stores across the nation. Maybelline became the largest eye beauty retailer in America, provoking Revlon's Charles Revson to accuse them of monopolizing the market.
By the early 1940s America had hauled itself out of an economic pit: Bing crooned, Fred and Ginger danced gloriously, and Carmen Miranda sang and sambaed with fruit on her head. Life was fun again and no one wanted to think about war, but Pearl Harbor plunged America into battles in the Pacific and Europe. Though supply rationing threatened to close down Maybelline production, Tom Lyle convinced military brass that pin-up girls helped the boys remember what they were fighting for, so FDR allowed Maybelline access to petroleum jelly for beauty products. There might be a shortage of oil, sugar and shoes, but not glamour. Tom Lyle not only saved the wartime cosmetics industry, he launched a profitable ad campaign based on beauty and patriotism.
Meanwhile, Preston Williams died at the young age of 36 from colon cancer, leaving Evelyn and their 13-year-old son Bill stranded and stunned. On the day of Preston's funeral, Tom Lyle surprised Evelyn with a two-carat diamond ring, promising to take care of her for life. She and Bill moved to California to be near him, never acknowledging the true nature of Tom's relationship with Emory. Evelyn continued pressing Tom Lyle to expand Maybelline, and with the television era upon them, saw to it that Maybelline went after the market. The result was 'before and after' commercials for 'The Perry Como Hour,' Miss America and other beauty contests, and exclusive coverage of special events like Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier's wedding in Monaco. All helped to catapult Maybelline into a household name.
The burgeoning younger generations in the extended Williams family were raised with every advantage. Bill Williams married Pauline and in 1947 Sharrie Williams, heir to the Maybelline legacy, was born into a world of intense materialism and vanity. At 16, Tom Lyle asked Sharrie to test a new product, the mascara wand. When she pronounced it superior to cake mascara, Maybelline Ultra-Lash mascara went into mass production, all but annihilating the competition. Millions upon millions rolled into Maybelline's treasury. The international market expanded off the charts.
Tom Lyle sold a major stake to Maybelline in 1967 (eventually owned by L'Oreal) for over a hundred million dollars, almost two billion in today's currency. Tom Lyle passed away a decade later.
After losing much of her inheritance to a nefarious husband, Evelyn masterminded a dramatic comeback with the Maybelline Playhouse, which opened in 1978 to a full audience of Hollywood notables. However, within 24 hours the former 'Miss Maybelline' was dead, due to a mysterious and still unsolved arson murder. Bizarrely, her thirteen wigs lay neatly outside on the manicured lawns of her Maybelline manor.
The tumultuous Maybelline legacy lived on, however, in her granddaughter Sharrie. She'd been inducted at an early age into the cult of beauty at any cost, and grew up struggling with issues of self-esteem, which she sought to quell in the same way her parents and grandparents tamed their demons: with alcohol. But in the end, she couldn't write Family, Dearest: she loved these people too much. She understood their pain, frustrations, and confusion—and felt richer for the experience.
Now, after nearly a century of silence, this true story of Maybelline celebrates the life of an American entrepreneur and the dynamic and charismatic family that buoyed it throughout the years—including the reigning "Miss Maybelline"—author Sharrie Williams.
In 1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel's lashes and brows, Tom Lyle Williams watched in fascination as she performed a 'secret of the harem'-mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and apply it to her lashes and brows. Mabel's simple beauty trick ignited Tom Lyle's imagination and he started what would become a billion-dollar business, one that remains a viable American icon after nearly a century. He named it Maybelline in her honor.Throughout the 20th century, the Maybelline Company inflated, collapsed, endured, and thrived in tandem with the nation's upheavals-as did the family that nurtured it. Setting up shop first in Chicago, Williams later, to avoid unwanted scrutiny of his private life, cloistered himself behind the gates of his Rudolph Valentino Villa and ran his empire from a distance.Now after nearly a century of silence, this true story celebrates the life of an American entrepreneur, a man whose vision rocketed him to success along with the woman held in his orbit, Evelyn Boecher-who became his lifelong fascination and muse. Captivated by her 'roaring charisma, ' he affectionately called her the 'real Miss Maybelline' and based many of his advertising campaigns on the woman she represented: commandingly beautiful, hard-boiled and daring. Evelyn masterminded a life of vanity, but would fall prey to fortune hunters and a mysterious murder that even today remains unsolved.A fascinating and inspiring story of ambition, luck, secrecy-and surprisingly, above all, love and forgiveness, a tale both epic and intimate, alive with the clash, the hustle, the music, and dance of American enterprise.
About the Author
Sharrie Williams, heir to the Maybelline legacy, is Tom Lyle Williams's grandniece and Evelyn Boecher Williams's granddaughter. Growing up in their homes, and steward of the vast Maybelline archives, Williams tells the story of the birth of the Maybelline empire and dishes intimate and never-before-told details about the fascinating family dynasty behind it. Biographer Youngs is the author of 36 books published in 28 languages.
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