The elegant worlds of Elizabeth Arden
She really wanted to be a nurse...but this ageless, hard-driving, onetime Canadian had to settle for a world-wide cosmetics empire, a multi-million-dollar fortune, racing stables, six homes and a faithful following ready to spend $800 a week doing what comes unnaturally
DOUGLAS J. ROCHE
THE AFTERNOON PAPERS had just come in and there it was again: Elizabeth Arden, “the cosmetics queen," had winners two days in a row in the horse races at Aqueduct. Miss Arden turned to me, her blue eyes flashing. “Please don’t call me a ‘cosmetics queen,’ ” she said. The image may lack the aesthetics she promotes for womanhood, but it is an apt description of the imperial lady who reigns over an empire of beauty spun around the world. Her subjects are the legions of women who seek the psychological and emotional aura of radiance by being rubbed and scrubbed, scented and shampooed the Elizabeth Arden way. Her throne is on New York's Fifth Avenue, her fortune is dazzling, and her style is in the tradition of the great empresses who flitted from one court to another.
Elizabeth Arden, the little girl from Woodbridge, Ontario, got in on the ground floor of the cosmetics business and shot up to the penthouse. It’s an enchanting world up there. Queen Mother Elizabeth is a treasured friend. The Kentucky Derby has been conquered. The British ambassador invited her to the premier of My Fair Lady. Home is any one of six places, including the latest acquisition, an eleventh-century castle in Ireland surrounded by
grass as finely manicured as the new owner's fingernails. Everything in the Arden world is beauty, or at least the reasonable substitute, elegance.
On the way into my first interview with Miss Arden, her public-relations man cautioned me, “You won't ask her age, will you?" “Why would I do that?” I said. “Current Biography says she was born in 1891.” He seemed relieved and I neglected to
add that the publication had put a question mark after the date.
The tiny doll-like lady who welcomed me to her Victorian office
moved so lightly she seemed to
float. The diminutiveness of a woman so financially powerful is a striking characteristic. The male eye is drawn to the pleasing legs supporting her erect carriage, the trim ankles, and the fairly large hands with the same strength for massage that she demands of her operators. Her reddish-brown hair and glowing cheeks give her the appearance of a healthy woman of fifty-five. On this occasion she wore a black crêpe de Chine suit — the creation of her own designer, Oscar de la Renta — matching pearls and earrings, and a diamond ring the size of a pebble. Her lips were adorned with a rather brightish “Rose Orient” lipstick, one of the fifty-two shades she markets, and her fingernails painted with “Natural Light.” one of fifty-nine shades. She speaks softly, and I had to strain to hear, although it is said that her staff is familiar with a rising sharp tone.
My previous appointment, a week earlier, had been cancelled because Miss Arden strained an ankle at a party the evening before. In a burst of enthusiasm when the Blue Danube was struck up, an admiral grabbed her for a spin on the floor . “I didn't have time to tell him that my leg was giving out,” Miss Arden told me, “and I fell over. The next morning I couldn't move and I had to stay in bed for three days. That was torture. I’m so old the vertebrae slip out.” Here she gave her side a little pat. “But I could kick a chandelier in my day.”
Conversation with Miss Arden is apt to seem disjointed as it follows her agile mind into some detail of her business (“We once handled ninety-one debutantes the day of a ball — gave them a light face treatment, nothing rude or common") or her horses, which have won more than three million dollars. When she speaks about the fine art of leg massage, she may he referring to her clients — or her horses. The latter get their rubdowns with their owner's own ten-dollar-a-jar massage cream instead of twenty-five-cent petroleum jelly.
The beauty business comes first, however. Elizabeth Arden made femininity a science. Fortune magazine, more interested in dollar volume than whether “Mémoire Chérie” does its stuff, was hypnotized by her as long as twenty-five years ago, and reported, “She has probably earned more money than any other businesswoman in U. S. history.” Everyone except the Internal Revenue Service has given up trying to figure how many millions she takes every year out of the two-and-a-half-billion-dollar beauty business (Arden is one of the Big Ten firms that capture eighty percent of the U. S. market), not to mention the foreign markets where she is reputed to be second only to the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
The thousand-plus Arden products turned out in twenty Arden factories scattered through the world are sold in just about every country belonging to the United Nations. But it is in her fifty salons, those beauty-repair shops each distinguished by a red door, and spread from Lima to Algiers (there are three in Canada — in Toronto. Montreal and London), where she has reaped her harvest. The No. 1 salon, frequented by Ava Gardner and other women who can afford forty-five dollars for a day’s beautification, is in the Elizabeth Arden Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Fiere Miss Arden oversees the most minute operations of her staff and w'oe to the w'orker who doesn't meet the Arden standard of perfection. "She’ll fire you on the spot,” says one.
"Our clients,” says Miss Arden, “get damn good care.” As the only stockholder of Elizabeth Arden Inc., she is able to guard her financial facts as closely as her formulas. “Her approach is rather emotional,” says Elizabeth Dempster, an Arden executive for many years. "She believes that beauty is a woman’s heritage and that the woman hasn’t yet been born who can’t make herself beautiful.”
Although the connection between cold cream and a college degree seems remote, the University of Syracuse was so impressed with the Arden “cult of beauty” that it gave her an honorary degree. The French government gave her the Legion of Honor for promoting beauty in that birthplace of modern beauty. Some people, however, find it easy to be restrained in praising her, for Miss Arden sometimes displays the autocracy of genius. She lavishes praise one minute and condemns the next. Working for her has been likened to going all the way around a revolving door.
She wants no part of impulsebuying psychology that holds the future of cosmetics is largely in the supermarkets. “They’re making fools of the business,” she says, remembering the days when department stores had to vie for the honor of selling Arden products. The notion that any cosmetics can make a woman into a quick-change artist goes against the Arden grain. For more than half a century she has preached that beauty begins wdthin a woman: its foundations arc good health and a peaceful mind. Add careful grooming and well-chosen clothes and you have the secret ot the beauty that endures.
The philosophy is put to the test at two swanky Arden holiday resorts, each known as Maine C hance Farm, where wealthy women spend two weeks following individually prescribed diets and exercises as well as a busy round of riding, tennis, howling, badminton and swimming. For eight hundred dollars a week, patrons forget the cares of life, concentrate on the business of beauty, sip cocktails of vegetable juice instead of alcohol and make do on just a thousand calories a day.
The first Maine C hance, opened in 1934 at Mt. Vernon, Maine, became a summer resort, and for winter treatment she offered her followers a fifty-acre farm near Phoenix, Arizona. To this oasis trooped such notables as Clare Boothe Luce, Perle Mesta, Doris Duke, Edna Ferber and Ethel Barrymore. Mamie Eisenhower came, too, and that put Maine Chance Farm on the front pages, especially since President Eisenhow'er made a 2,945-mile detour on a flight back to Washington to let his wife off.
To probe what goes on behind the Arden red door. 1 toured the New York salon, or at least that much of the seven floors of body, face and hair works open to the male eye. With a tall blonde of stylish glowing look as my companion, I inspected w'igs that sell for four hundred and fifty dollars, got a quick course in makeup and admired models displaying lingerie that looked terribly expensive.
But all this was too peripheral, 1 decided, so a few days later I sent my wife in for the full-day’s treatment. Here are her notes:
day began at I 1 a.m. with a receptionist checking to see if 1 had heart trouble or high blood pressure. She took me to a pink locker (everything seemed to be pink), gave me an exercise suit to put on, and led me to my exercise teacher, who turned out to be a former ballet dancer and who showed me exercises I could do at home. Do them for ten minutes a day, she said, and the difference in my figure would be obvious within a month.
"Then another girl took over, zipped me into a pink stall, turned on the steam and gave me a small glass of warm lemon juice (‘Helps clean out the insides, like a laxative’). After a few minutes of steaming, I was taken to a private room (pink again) and told to lie down on a massage table and relax. Then the girl began a magnificent massage that made every bone in my body feel good.
"From there we went to a long narrow shower room where she sprayed me all over with hard streams of hot water from two hoses. Then she dried me off, rubbed me with a soothing cologne, and invited me to sit in an inner lobby for lunch. A maid brought me cottage-cheese fruit salad, four pieces of melba toast, and tea. The receptionist came by and 1 gave her a cheque for forty-five dollars. In answer to my request, she said the usual tip was six dollars, which she would distribute for me.
"Upstairs, a girl washed my hair while another manicured my nails. Ricardo, Miss Arden's personal hairdresser whom she brought up from Lima, Peru, set my hair. As I sat under the dryer, a manicurist took off my stockings and gave me a pedicure (this is about as luxurious as you can get. 1 think). A girl came by selling black pyjamas with fur trim for a hundred and fifty-five dollars, but I was able to resist them.
"Next I was taken to a pretty, private room where I relaxed in a boudoir chair while an operator cleansed the pores of my face, put on cream, and covered my face with cool cloths for ten minutes. Then came a wonderful massage of neck and face. I had chosen ‘Miss Dawn" nail enamel, so she gave me the same lipstick and suggested I highlight it with ‘Silver Rose.' She applied eye makeup lightly and asked if my husband liked perfume. ‘On the house,’ she said, spraying me with ‘My Love.’
“After the facial. Ricardo combed out my hair and a maid helped me dress. 1 tipped the hairdresser two dollars, the maid fifty cents, and left six dollars with the receptionist, who said my hair was beautiful and hoped 1 had enjoyed my day. I had."
Miss Arden's confidence in herself and her formula have never faltered. Even in her youth the driving ambition to make the world a more beautiful place was present. The youngest of five children, she was born Florence Nightingale Graham and the romance of that name made her first think of nursing as a career. She left school before she was eighteen to become a student nurse in a Toronto hospital. But nursing didn't satisfy her latent feeling for beauty, she recalls, so she left and got a job as a dental assistant. She came up with the idea of bombarding patients with letters suggesting what might happen to their teeth if they didn't hurry in to see the dentist. Her employer’s income doubled. Florence then moved on through a succession of small jobs, including one at a trust-manufacturing establishment.
Like her father, she found the prospect of a new land alluring and in 1910 she landed in New' York, where her brother William was living.
cy JL fter ten days as a stenographer, she got a job at the office of Eleanor Adair, where she learned massage and facial treatments. She found she had the hands for the work, picked up the elementary formulas for manufacturing cosmetics, and began to perceive the golden future in the beauty business.
Florence went into partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard on Fifth Avenue, but the partnership quickly blew up in an emotional storm. She borrowed six thousand dollars from her brother, spent it on topflight interior designers to spruce up the salon she retained, and was off and running. Unable to register Florence Nightingale, she created the new name of Elizabeth Arden (she says she was inspired by Elizabeth And Her German Garden and Tennyson's Enoch Arden). Just to make sure the name had the image she set for herself, she mailed a letter to Elizabeth Arden and when she saw the envelope the next day knew it couldn't be better.
From the first she was exacting. When she decided that the lace cream of that day was too hard and slippery, she told her chemists she wanted a cream light and fluffy, "like whipped cream.” When they told her it was impossible, she looked for other chemists. She went to Europe in 1914 in a second-class cabin and returned with the first eye shadow and mascara to appear in New York. Her long search finally turned up a chemist named A. Fabian Swanson, who produced the first of her famous creams, Amoretta.
By 1915, hardly past her midtwenties. Elizabeth Arden was a success. She moved to a larger salon on Fifth Avenue and squeezed into her working hours a marriage to Thomas J. Lewis (which gave her American citizenship). Lewis went off to the war and when he returned Arden salons were springing up in Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Palm Beach and Newport. He managed her wholesale business through the nineteen years of their marriage, which ended in divorce, but he never owned any stock in the business and was never admitted to partnership. In 1942, eight years after the divorce. Miss Arden married Russian-born Prince Michael Evlanoff, but this marriage lasted only fourteen months before she obtained an uncontested divorce. She had no children.
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Foreign markets were plucked off one by one, profits zoomed and Elizabeth Arden rode out the Depression. High society claimed her and her penthouse apartment, overlooking Central Park, became a glittering meeting place.
It was in this same duplex apartment, many years later, that Miss Arden received me for a second interview. The Arden intensity and energy for hard work and play had apparently remained constant. The night before she had entertained twenty people for dinner, the guest list strictly social register: an American ambassador to South America, a newspaper publisher, a Wall Street tycoon. The party ended at 2 a.m. By 8.30, Miss Arden (or Mrs. Graham as she is known at home) was up. bathed, ready for her breakfast of stewed fruit and strained porridge and the morning papers, including the Morning Telegraph, a racing sheet.
A maid brought me coffee and I was invited to look around. The high point is a flower-banked terrace giving a sweeping view' of New York's nice things: the Central Park skating rink, the children's zoo. the distant towers. Inside, the yellowand-white walls of the drawing room feature two portraits of Miss Arden by the celebrated British painter, Augustus John; in one she is a jaunty femme fatale in high hat. in the other a rather demure young matron. Several autographed pictures of Queen Mother Elizabeth are displayed on the grand piano, along with a picture of Miss Arden’s sister Gladys, now Madame la Vicomtesse de Maublanc, who runs the Arden salon in Paris.
Antique Chinese wallpaper lines the dining room. A white-lacquer Venetian dining set, a w'hite fur rug. a cabinet of racing trophies, a crystal chandelier imported from a Russian palace, and an adjoining bar with pink horses prancing around the walls all suggest the cluttered graciousncss of another day. Upstairs, the den features a small library, containing such items as Great Gardens Of 'The Western World. Farewell Romance and a set of Longfellow. It was here that Miss Arden came in to talk to me.
The memory of a happy party had lingered on. “We had the nicest
menu.” she said. “Salmon, partridge, avocado salad, Norway cheese and
chocolate souffle. 1 served champagne throughout the evening. 1 don’t believe in mixing drinks." She
doesn't believe in smoking, either: she tolerates it in her guests but not in her employees.
Her secretary came in to settle the time for a late-afternoon sales conference that would await her return from the racetrack. A luncheon with one of the directors of the Cradle Society, in connection with a charity fashion show in Chicago that she runs every year, would be followed by a quick trip to Aqueduct in her Cadillac.
The talk turned to horses and she assured me that, although the thoroughbred bug is a divertissement from the cosmetics concern, she’s in it for the money. "I have not had time for pleasure in life," she said.
She brought to her hobby the same shrewdness that built her business and it was not long after she bought her first horse in the early thirties that the turf world knew' Elizabeth Arden had arrived. The Maine Chance stud farm w'as rated one of the finest in America and began turning out horse after horse whose winnings soared past the one hundred thousand dollar mark. She had three starters in the 1946 Kentucky Derby, a remarkable feat in itself. None won. but the following year she w'as back with a winner. Jet Pilot.
In pursuit of new racing w'orlds to conquer, she recently bought Barrettstown Castle, outside Dublin and near the Curragh. Ireland's leading race course. She has twenty horses there now and soon will begin flying the Atlantic for weekend visits to the seven-bedroom castle.
Barrettstown will now' be added to the list of homes — the Manhattan penthouse, the Phoenix, Maine and Lexington farms, a cottage at Belmont, Long Island — and the world centres that she tours in a hundred thousand miles of annual travel. She visits Canada about once a year, but gives the impression it is her three salons (in Toronto. Montreal and London, Ont.), rather than her birthplace, that are the main reason.
With a gentle smile she acknowledged that her international accomplishments could not have been built on a Canadian base. Would she have become an American citizen even without her marriage? “I’d become a citizen of anywhere I was making a living.” she said.
As 1 prepared to leave, the secretary was back again, running over travel plans: California for a w'eek. back to New' York and out again to Phoenix for Christmas, and a sixweek trip in the New Year to Paris. Rome. London and the castle.
The little lady, who believes that boredom makes you old, was off once more to check the state of her empire.