“Every woman has the right to be beautiful”
~ Elizabeth Arden
She was the original beauty queen. She opened the doors of her first salon in New York City in 1910, and by 1929 she owned 150 upscale salons across the US and Europe. Her 1000 luxury skin care products were sold in 22 countries, and one of them would become a timeless beauty icon. At the peak of her career, she was one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Her name was Elizabeth Arden.
Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham on December 31, 1884, in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada. She was the youngest of five children and named after Britain’s famous nursing pioneer. Her father, William Graham was a Scottish grocer and her mother Susan was Cornish. Her parents had emigrated from Cornwall, United Kingdom, in the 1870’s. Susan arranged for a wealthy aunt in Cornwall to pay for her children’s education.
Florence worked odd jobs as a youth and studied nursing in Toronto before dropping out. It was during this time that she became fascinated by lotions used in burn treatments. Graham worked as a secretary for a short time before joining her elder brother in Manhattan. She then worked briefly as a bookkeeper for the E R Squibb Pharmaceuticals Company, spending hours in their lab learning about skincare. After leaving the company in 1908, Graham worked for beautician Eleanor Adair as a “treatment girl”. For almost a year she gained valuable industry experience, and in 1910 she invested $1,000 to start a salon with a partner, Elizabeth Hubbard. The business was located on Fifth Avenue, but the partnership was soon dissolved and Graham became sole proprietress, operating under the name Elizabeth Arden. Graham took the name from Elizabeth I and Tennyson’s well known verse, Enoch Arden. She added a huge red door to her office with a brass name plate, something that would became the hallmark of Elizabeth Arden salon’s later. “It’s remarkable what a woman can accomplish with just a little ambition”, she was to say. (www.searchquotes.com)
In the summer of 1912, Arden travelled to France to learn beauty and facial massage techniques used in Paris beauty salons. As well as being a female entrepreneur, Elizabeth was also a dedicated suffragette and that year she marched with 15,000 suffragettes in the cause of women’s rights. As a mark of solidarity, the women wore red lipstick – supplied by Elizabeth Arden, naturally. She would later develop a line specifically for women serving in the military.
By 1914 her partnership with Hubbard had dissolved, but she worked to grow her own business and began using the same name as her salon. Arden collaborated with A. Fabian Swanson, a chemist, to create a “fluffy” face cream. Venetian Cream Amoretta, and the corresponding lotion, Arden Skin Tonic, were a success, and led to a long-lasting business relationship. Make-up was then associated with prostitutes, so Arden launched a marketing campaign to change the public’s perception of cosmetics.
Although Elizabeth seemed to have captured the market for cosmetics and skincare in New York, a new rival appeared on the scene in 1914. Helena Rubinstein, born in Poland in 1870, had made a name for herself in Australia, London and Paris as a provider of high-quality skincare products and services. Rubinstein, who preferred to be called “Madame” had left Europe at the outbreak of World War I and sailed to New York. After taking out a full-page ad in Vogue, Rubinstein opened her first salon in May 1915, just seven blocks from Arden’s salon. Arden felt threatened and set about finding a larger space for her operation. Her new salon, which also housed its own laboratory, was even closer to Rubinstein’s salon than the original site. Arden hired her own chemist, Fabian Swanson, to work on-site. The rivalry was in full swing, with each woman trying to outdo the other. As Rubenstein opened salons all across the U.S., Arden followed suit, with salons in Boston, San Francisco, Palm Beach, Florida and Newport, Rhode Island. Their legendary rivalry would last more than 40 years—until their deaths. By intention, the two women never met, and reportedly neither would speak the other’s name. Each referred to the other as “that woman.”
By 1915, Arden began opening beauty salons around the world. “I don’t sell cosmetics, I sell hope,” she would say (www.quoteaddicts.com)
Elizabeth stressed teaching women how to apply make-up, and pioneered such concepts as scientific cosmetic formulations, beauty makeovers, and coordinating eye, lip and facial make-up. In 1922 she established a Parisian salon, and later opened businesses in South America and Australia. By the 1930s, the Elizabeth Arden company was doing so well, that it was bringing in more than $4 million a year during the Great Depression. Arden set a precedent when she developed travel-size products. She was also the first to offer in-store makeovers and in 1934, Elizabeth opened the first destination beauty spa in the United States, in Rome, Maine. Maine Chance operated until 1970.
“I pick good women, but I haven’t had any luck with my men” (www.brainyquote.com) Elizabeth Arden once said. She was an attractive brunette, tall and statuesque. Her trademark was to always wear pink. In 1915 she married her American banker, Thomas Jenkins Lewis, and through this marriage she became a U.S. Citizen. Thomas Lewis took over management of the cosmetic lines of Elizabeth Arden, although Elizabeth never permitted her husband to own stock in her enterprise. The partnership flourished, but the marriage did not and they were divorced in 1938. Thomas Lewis went on to work with her business rival, Helena Rubinstein. In 1943, Elizabeth married Russian émigré, Prince Michael Evlanoff, but the marriage lasted only 13 months and ended in 1944. Arden never married again, but was not short of admirers.
During World War II, Elizabeth recognised the needs of women in the workforce. She created a lipstick called Montezuma Red for the women in the armed forces that would match the red on their uniforms. In 1934, she introduced Blue Grass, which was a great success and considered the first all-American scent. By the end of the decade, it was said that: “There are only three American names that are known in every single corner of the globe: Singer sewing machines, Coca Cola, and Elizabeth Arden.” (www.fashionmodeldirectory.com) Heinrich Harrer proved this statement when he wrote in his book Seven Years in Tibet, that it was possible to buy Arden’s products, even in Tibet. From the 1930s through the 1960s, Elizabeth Arden would be considered the most upscale cosmetic brand. Her patrons included Elizabeth II, Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. “There’s only one Elizabeth like me and that’s the Queen” she once remarked (www.likesuccess.com)
.In 1943, Arden started a fashion business with notable designers such as Charles James and Oscar de la Renta. From 1944 onwards, Elizabeth worked closely with Leslie Combs II, who selected and purchased horses for her. The stables often made impressive winnings, such as the $589,000 they earned in 1945. In a 1947 interview, Leslie Combs II claimed in an interview with the Thoroughbred Record that Arden had a good eye for horses herself and chose a number of successful runners on her own. She had become one of the nation’s foremost racehorse owners. Arden operated stables near Lexington, Kentucky, from which came Jet Pilot, winner of the Kentucky Derby. The eponymous Eight Hour Cream, was developed to treat her horses’ hooves. However, the restorative powers of the balm caused it to become a beauty staple for many.
In 1946, Elizabeth appeared on the cover of Time magazine, looking 40, but she was actually closer to 70. By 1957, she owned over 150 Elizabeth Arden salon branches. The French government awarded Arden the Légion d’Honneur, in recognition of her contribution to the cosmetics industry in 1962.
Elizabeth Arden died at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan on October 18, 1966. She was 81. Arden was interred in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, under the name Elizabeth N. Graham. At the time of her death, her estate was worth $40 million.
The legion of Elizabeth Arden fans have included: Queen Elizabeth II; the Queen Mother; Diana, Princess of Wales; and Wallace, Duchess of Windsor. Elizabeth Taylor was a life-long devotee of Arden and collaborated with the company to create her own successful perfumes, such as Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion and White Diamonds. Amber Valletta and Catherine Zeta Jones have both been the “face” and brand ambassadors of Elizabeth Arden. The line is unisex, but not to be outdone, the company have produced products for men in the past. The fragrances Daytona 500 and Arden Men Sandalwood are available today.
Elizabeth Arden believed that every woman could be beautiful. She was a visionary and a true pioneer. Her influence and legacy cannot be overstated. She pre-empted many cosmetic trends that are still in vogue today. Over 100 years since Elizabeth Arden opened the doors of her first red door salon, her luxury skincare and make-up line remains desirable worldwide. She was the original beauty queen who paved the way for Estee Lauder and all the other countless beauty moguls who came after her. She was the first one to offer coordinating shades of make-up and nail colour, and to propagate a holistic approach to beauty that encompassed mind, body and soul. She was the first one to marry the concept of science and nature in beauty products and to establish the day spa. The Elizabeth Arden brand is known worldwide for quality, elegance, product innovation and its iconic Red Door. Arden was ahead of her time and her ground-breaking achievements will continue to inspire for generations to come.
Words: Alex Karas
Image: Hayley Miller
5 thoughts on “The Original Beauty Queen: The Story of Elizabeth Arden”
Thank you for the wonderful and thoroughly researched piece. I learned that Elizabeth Arden is a Canadian today!
Thank you so much for the kind comment. The gift for a writer is to know that their work has benefitted somebody in some way.
Beautifully written. Would that we all deserved such a lovely summary of our lives! Just learned from my sister that she was my great-grandmother’s sister (Christine Graham). At the age of 67, I am a bit late to the party on my family genealogy. For some reason, the name Elizabeth came to me when I realized I was pregnant with my only daughter 30 years ago, so that had to be her name. She could be Arden’s reincarnation. She now runs a huge law firm and we always joked that she could run the world, even as a preschooler. I am passing this on to her. Thank you so much for your wonderful work.
Hi Susan, I am fascinated with the story of Elizabeth Arden. I’m a journalisit and author and am considering writing a biography or novel about Elizabeth Arden. I’d love to hear what you learned about her from your relatives. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks! Sharon Boorstin
Thank you Susan, for this kind reply. Arden was a fascinating and inspiring woman. Without her, there would have been no Estee Lauder. She cleared the way. She even “appears” in an episode of Mr. Selfridge (!)