Elizabeth Arden

Elizabeth Arden (ca. 1878-1966) was instrumental in the development of the modern cosmetics and beauty salon industry. She was also an astute businesswoman.

The 30 years of prosperity that followed the bitter depression of 1893 to 1897 set Americans on the road to the "affluent society" and swept away the old ideas of behavior that had ruled the Victorian age. Particularly notable was the greater freedom achieved by women, who entered the world of daily affairs and began to pay increasing attention to their personal appearance. No one capitalized more effectively on these fundamental trends than Elizabeth Arden, whose dictum to American women— "hold fast to youth and beauty"—helped to create the modern cosmetics and beauty salon industry and made her the sole owner of a $60 million business.

Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham in 1878 (?) in Woodbridge, a suburb of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to immigrant parents, her father Scottish and her mother English. Growing up in poverty, she was not able to finish high school but instead drifted from one job to another. In 1908 she moved to New York, where her brother lived. Her entree into the beauty salon business was fortuitous: she took a clerical job in a shop that specialized in "facials," facial massage aided by simple oils and creams and embodying virtually no cosmetic applications. Although Graham was 30 by then, she looked 20 for she was blessed with a smooth, cream complexion. This was her only qualification for taking up the "art of the healing hands," but it was all she needed.

Within a year she and a friend had opened their own shop on Fifth Avenue, a boulevard that was already exchanging its staid mansions in favor of upperclass shops and department stores. Soon she was the sole proprietress, doing business under the name of Elizabeth Arden: Elizabeth, because that was her former partner's name and she saw no reason to scrap its gold leaf lettering on the plate glass window, and Arden from the Tennyson poem, Enoch Arden. The new Elizabeth Arden added what became her trademark—a huge red door with a brass name-plate—and a new industry was born.

Cosmetics were still not accepted for "nice" girls in America as the Edwardian era came to a close, but in Paris "la belle époque " was ending in a burst of social permissiveness. Ignoring World War I, which had just broken out, and braving the submarine menace to cross the Atlantic, Arden went to France in 1914 and was entranced by what she saw: rouge, lipstick, and mascara which, when applied with skill, produced remarkable effects and were being widely adopted. She came back from Europe with many new ideas for her growing chain of salons and hired chemists to compound smooth, fluffy facial creams and a high-style line of cosmetics that were snapped up at premium prices through her shops.

A course of treatments at Elizabeth Arden's was not cheap, but it did not produce much net profit for the stores, either; some consistently operated at a loss as salons. But as outlets for her constantly expanding line of cosmetics, Arden's shops were very profitable. Innovation, in the classic entrepreneurial style, was her secret of success. Lipsticks came in wider and wider ranges of colors and shades to match a woman's coloring, hair, or costume. Face creams, usually based on petroleum ingredients, had been oily and unpleasant, but Arden's Amoretta was fluffy and luxurious; anything that felt that good had to be good for your skin. Inevitable, the cosmetics line demanded wider distribution, and eventually leading department stores everywhere could not afford to be without it.

Arden's first husband, like most of her other interests, was connected with the business. In 1915 she married her banker, Thomas Jenkins Lewis, who took over management of the cosmetics lines. The partnership flourished but the marriage did not, and they were divorced in 1934. Prince Michael Evlanoff, a Russian émigré, brought little but glamour to her second marriage, and that soon wore thin; they were divorced in 1944, and Arden never married again. Yearning to be accepted by New York society, she achieved it through friendship with Elizabeth Marbury, of an old New York family, and Marbury's ally in the world of high culture, Elsie De Wolfe. The lavish charity balls that they helped with were highly successful, but it is likely that her prominence as a sportswoman was even more important.

Horse racing became Arden's passion, and, true to form, she made money at it at least some of the time. She established Maine Chance Stables (named for her former country home, which she had turned into a health resort), and in 1945 her horses' winnings totaled $589,000. The best was yet to come: in 1946 she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine—looking 40 but actually closer to 70—and the next year her horse, Jet Pilot, won the Kentucky Derby.

In business or at play, Arden was all business. Like the true entrepreneur she was, she knew just what she wanted and usually got it. Never losing the outward appearance of the woman who lived for beauty and refinement, she held her own in a violently competitive industry where her closest competitor, Helena Rubinstein ("that woman," she called her), possessed many of the same traits and racked up much the same success. But when it came to letting go, Arden could not, even as she neared 90. At her death on October 18, 1966, she had made no provisions for the disposition of the business in a manner that would minimize the inheritance taxes, and she was still the sole owner. A $4 million bonus to longtime employees; another $4 million to her sister, Gladys, who had managed the Paris branch; and a large bequest to the niece who had been her companion produced taxes that could be paid only by selling the company. It disappeared into the corporate maw of Eli Lilly and Company, but whatever it was that Florence Graham had brought to Elizabeth Arden, the new owners could not supply it and the name declined markedly in the hurly burly world of beauty care products.


Further Reading on Elizabeth Arden

Women in business are now getting more attention, along with women's history generally. Arden is included in Notable American Women—the Modern Period (1980) and is scheduled for inclusion in the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Eight. The book Miss Elizabeth Arden (1972), by Alfred Allan Lewis and Constance Woodworth, is readable, if not definitive. The best study of Arden is an article in the New Yorker magazine, April 6, 1935, "I Am a Famous Woman in This Industry." See also the TIME cover story, May 6, 1946.