Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

Bernarr Macfadden: Bodybuilder, Publisher, and Eccentric Prophet of Physical Culture

The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Bernarr Macfadden, who almost single-handedly launched the twin American obsessions with diet and exercise, wanted you to picture a roaring lion when you said his name out loud. Not content with his birth name, Bernard, the young Macfadden had his name legally changed so it supposedly better resembled a roar: Bernarr.

Macfadden certainly did roar his way through life. Born August 16, 1868 as Bernard McFadden on a farm in Mill Spring, Missouri, he was orphaned by the time he was 11. Macfadden’s father died from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal), and his mother from tuberculosis. The young boy was briefly installed in a Chicago boarding school, then housed, equally briefly, with relatives who ran a hotel in the city. He then worked as a farm laborer in northern Illinois for two years before he took to the open road, working as a miner, a dentist's assistant, a wood chopper, a printer’s apprentice, and a water boy for a construction team.

Because he spent his childhood dreading the arrival of the same tuberculosis symptoms that had killed his mother, Macfadden grew increasingly obsessed with physical fitness and healthy eating as wards against disease. By his late teenage years, he had set himself up in St. Louis, where he diligently practiced a well-honed exercise routine that included repeat sets with dumbbells and the horizontal bar, as well as daily six-mile walks carrying a 10-pound lead bar. He also decided on his purpose in life: spreading the gospel of exercise.

Around 1887, he rented a gym space in St. Louis, Missouri, and set a bold sign out front: "Bernarr Macfadden-Kinistherapist-Teacher of Higher Physical Culture." If you've never heard of a kinistherapist before, neither had Macfadden. The nonexistent profession just sounded good to him. And it sounded good to the people of St. Louis too. In a short while, business was booming.

But Macfadden had bigger dreams than St. Louis could fulfill. His drive to spread the gospel of physical culture soon led him to leave behind his St. Louis gym and head for New York City, where he rented a place in Manhattan and invited the press over for a “Physical Culture Matinee.” Surprisingly, the press actually showed up; their entertainment that afternoon consisted of Macfadden “chatting and posing in an interesting way,” according to one observer.

In 1899, at 30 years old, Macfadden launched Physical Culture magazine as a showcase for his ideas on bodybuilding, exercise, and diet. Those ideas boiled down to a simple formula: eat good foods, exercise often, and go on occasional fasts (his focus on fasting is seen as the precursor to today's popular ketogenic diet, by some accounts). However, his enthusiasm often overwhelmed his sensible ideas. He frequently campaigned against doctors and vaccinations, and generalized American “prudery.”

A portrait of Bernarr Macfadden
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite its quirky character, Physical Culture was a near-immediate hit. Macfadden’s tireless promotion and obvious zeal for his ideas were aided by convenient timing: Just as the magazine launched, Americans were turning for the first time en masse to improving their diet and exercise routines, encouraged by a similar craze in Britain as well as nationalistic fitness efforts like the gymnasiums favored by German-American immigrants. Macfadden was in the right place at the right time to be the prophet of the diet and exercise movement.

Like other self-styled prophets before him, however, Macfadden’s outsized personality became one of his greatest obstacles. He was given to fits of mooing and braying, which he believed aided in voice development. He wore his hair thick, wild, and long (at least by early 20th century standards) as proof of the efficacy of his cure for baldness (a “cure,” by the way, that involved vigorous pulling on the hair). He believed shoes were unnatural, so he frequently tramped about barefoot. He slept on the floor, with windows wide open even in winter. His hatred for the fashion industry led him to wear his clothes for years until they were literally hanging from his body in tatters. This last habit led to some unfortunate confrontations with the doormen at his New York apartment building, who frequently mistook him for a hobo.

Nevertheless, Physical Culture magazine made Macfadden wealthy and provided the seed money to launch twin empires in publishing and health. By the 1920s, he owned 10 highly successful magazines and was worth upward of $30 million. His publishing ideas were innovative and profitable, despite their often tawdry character. He launched the first true confession magazine, True Story, in 1919, as well as a number of other magazines in the same vein, such as True Romance and True Detective. He also launched the legendary New York Evening Graphic, one of the forerunners of modern tabloid newspapers. With article titles such as “I Taught My Wife to Drink,” “I Am the Mother of My Sister’s Son,” and “I Killed Him, What’ll I Do?,” the sordid stories of sin, guilt, and redemption in Macfadden's titles were hugely popular with the American masses.

The cover of "True Detective Mysteries," July 1926
Internet Archive // Public Domain

Macfadden simultaneously spread his Physical Culture empire into the health arena as well. He opened a chain of Physical Culture restaurants, with the gimmick of charging one cent for every item on the menu, following the idea that the best foods for you were also the cheapest. He also established four spas, dubbed “healthoriums,” in upstate New York, Long Island, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and Battle Creek, Michigan. At the Macfadden spas, participants could aim to achieve “an absolute purity of their blood through a regimen of exercise, fresh air, bland diet, and no medicines.” Macfadden’s empire-building reached its zenith at his spa in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which he vigorously—and unsuccessfully—campaigned to have incorporated into a new town dubbed “Physical Culture City.”

Macfadden’s outsized ego and overbearing convictions reportedly made him a difficult marital partner. His first two marriages quickly ended in divorce. His third marriage, arguably more successful, came about in a particularly Macfadden-ian way: Bernarr was in England, judging a contest he’d organized to find “the most perfectly formed female.” The winner was one Mary Williamson, a competitive swimmer, who was subsequently convinced to become Macfadden's third bride. He later would assert that her prize for winning the contest was … him.

Their marriage survived 34 years and produced seven children, named (by Bernarr, of course): Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byrne, Berwyn, and Bruce (although some sources call him Brewster). In 1946, Mary obtained a divorce, in drawn-out and very public proceedings.

Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Meanwhile, Macfadden’s fortunes began to diminish. The New York Evening Graphic, despite some early success, was quickly derided as one of America’s worst papers—thanks to sleazy headlines like “Weed Parties in Soldiers’ Love Nest.” The newspaper’s gradual collapse drained millions from Macfadden’s bank account. An ill-conceived run for the Republican nominee for president in 1936 also led to widespread public derision for “Body Love Macfadden.” A third blow was the failure of his chain of one-cent restaurants; the gimmick couldn’t withstand the reality of restaurant overhead.

Macfadden was married a fourth time, briefly, to a woman half his age, who shortly after had the marriage annulled. He sold off his remaining magazine interests in the 1940s and spent his last years, and the last of his fortune, on a variety of stunts and schemes. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida, offered a prize for the best biographical play about his life, and, when he turned 81, celebrated the accomplishment by parachuting out of an airplane. That feat became an annual event for Macfadden, who proudly defied his advancing years by parachuting into the Hudson River every birthday, and once, when he turned 84, into the Seine in Paris. He said he’d continue every year until he turned 120.

Sadly, he died a few years later, at age 87, in 1955. His cause of death, depending on the source, was either cerebral thrombosis (a blood clot in a cerebral vein in the brain) or an attack of jaundice following a three-day fast. By the time he died, Macfadden had about $50,000 left of his fortune and was generally regarded as an eccentric hovering on the edges of fame, always angling for a new way to see his name in the paper.

Macfadden’s ideas, however, outlived him, and some of them ended up having some merit. He was one of the first Americans to loudly proclaim the benefits of exercise and dieting. He railed against corsets and white bread, both of which have substantially declined in popularity. Today, you can find thousands of people jogging and lifting weights in cities across the country—highly unusual pursuits before Macfadden started spreading the doctrine of Physical Culture.

Additional Source: Great American Eccentrics

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