A Profile of Elizabeth Arden, Cosmetics Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur and Cosmetics Pioneer

Picture of Elizabeth Arden
Studio portrait of Canadian-born beautician and cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden. (circa 1950s). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Cosmetics industry pioneer Elizabeth Arden ran an international business at a time when few women headed major companies. Born in Canada and raised on a farm, Arden moved to New York City in the early 20th century and opened her first beauty salon. Although she lacked a formal education, Arden possessed determination and a shrewd business sense, both of which helped to make the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics brand a global success.

Elizabeth Arden was awarded the Légion d'Honneur by the French government in 1962.

Dates: December 31, 1881 – October 18, 1966 (Year of birth is listed in some sources as 1878 or 1884, but birth records in Ontario confirm the 1881 date. Arden never publically divulged her actual age.)

Also Known As: Florence Nightingale Graham, Elizabeth N. Graham

Famous Quote: "I only want people around me who can do the impossible."

Early Life in Canada

Florence Nightingale Graham, the woman who would become Elizabeth Arden, was born in Ontario, Canada on December 31, 1881 to Susan and William Graham. Florence joined older siblings Lillian, Christine, and William Jr. Susan Graham chose to name her daughter after renowned British nurse Florence Nightingale, a greatly admired figure in the late 19th century.

Florence's parents were both immigrants—William from Scotland and Susan from England. They had married in Toronto in 1872.

Susan's well-to-do parents frowned upon the marriage, believing that Susan had married beneath herself. (William was a peddler at the time of their marriage.)

The couple rented a small farm in Woodbridge outside of Toronto. Soon after their fifth child, Gladys, was born, Susan was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Weakened and unable to keep up with her household duties, Susan assigned chores to each of the children. Florence's job was to care for the family horse; in doing so, she developed a lifelong love of horses.

Determined to keep her children warm during the cold Canadian winters, Susan taught them to insulate their shoes with a layer of newspaper. Even decades later, the wealthy, successful Elizabeth Arden continued this practice on chilly days.

Death of Florence's Mother

As Susan grew weaker from her illness, she worried about what would happen to her children after she died. In desperation, she wrote to her wealthy aunt and pleaded with her to help the family out financially. Her aunt agreed to send money.

Susan Graham died of tuberculosis when Florence was six years old. Florence and her siblings were heartbroken. Having lost someone so dear to her at such a young age, Florence would find it difficult throughout her life to form close relationships.

When Florence was still in high school, her wealthy aunt died, and the family's supplemental income stopped. The Graham children had all hoped to go to college, but now that would not be possible. William Graham advised his children to start thinking about attending trade school.

Inspired by her given name and by the family's dire financial state, Florence decided to go to nursing school. At the age of 17, Florence left high school, having not yet completed her studies.

Brief Stint in Nursing School

William reluctantly sent his young daughter off to Toronto for nursing school. In moving from a rural area into the city, Florence became part of a larger movement taking place in the 1890s. Women represented an increasingly larger, more important part of the workforce in cities.

As much as Florence loved living in Toronto, she did not enjoy nursing school. The reality of dealing with illness and unpleasant tasks did not conform to Florence's idealized vision of soothing the brows of grateful patients. Her brief time at nursing school, however, was not wasted.

At the hospital, Florence encountered a young biochemist who was working on developing a medicinal skin cream that would treat burns and blemishes.

Florence was intrigued by the scientist's project, and inspired to consider what she could contribute in the area of women's skin care.

In an era when respectable women didn't wear makeup, very little could be done to hide blemishes, pock marks, and other imperfections. Florence believed that a large market was hers for the taking if she could create a beauty cream for the average woman's use. She quit nursing school before the end of the first semester and returned home to Woodbridge.

From Toronto to New York

Florence experimented with various concoctions, using her home kitchen as a laboratory. Success eluded her, however, and her failed efforts sorely tested her father's patience. William gave Florence an ultimatum—she must either get married or get a job. Yet Florence—although an attractive young woman and popular with men—had no interest in marriage.

Florence headed back to Toronto, where she worked a succession of low-paying jobs, such as receptionist, bank teller, and secretary. By 1907, Florence could see that her life was not progressing in the way she had hoped. Against her father's wishes, 26-year old Florence Graham moved to New York City to join her brother William.

Arriving in New York City by train, Florence was enthralled by the sights of the lively, modern city. She found a room to rent, as well as a bookkeeping job with Squibb and Sons, a chemical and pharmaceutical company. Still intent upon developing skin-care products for women, Florence approached company chemists to inquire about formulating such products. She was rebuffed and her project deemed a waste of their time.

Learning the Ropes in New York

Florence investigated what sort of services were available to provide female skin care in her adopted city of New York. Several entrepreneurs, who referred to themselves as "beauty culturists," operated beauty salons, where women could go for facial massages and applications of various tonics, oils, and creams. These salons were relatively expensive and catered to wealthy clientele.

Eager to learn more about the skin care market, Florence took the first job she could find—as a cashier—at a salon run by Eleanor Adair. Florence begged Mrs. Adair to teach her how to do the facial treatments, even though she had to continue to work as cashier. Soon, customers began requesting Florence by name, and she was promoted to a regular position as a "skin treatment girl." It probably helped that Florence herself had a peaches-and-cream complexion and appeared much younger than her actual age.

While working at Adair's salon, Florence also paid attention to how the business was run—how it advertised and drew in clients. Those valuable lessons learned at the salon would later influence how she ran her own business. Florence also proved herself a talented and persuasive saleswoman, able to convince wealthy, sophisticated clients to buy salon products.

Florence went a step further in her crusade to learn all she could about the business of beauty. She visited rival salons, taking note of their techniques and sampling their products. While doing so, she met Elizabeth Hubbard, the woman who would become her first business partner.

Florence Graham Becomes Elizabeth Arden

Florence found Elizabeth Hubbard's products superior to Mrs. Adair's. The two women joined forces in 1909, with Mrs. Hubbard developing the product line and Florence taking care of the marketing side of the business. Arden invested $1000 in opening her first business.

Florence found a space to rent on fashionable Fifth Avenue, an area she chose for its proximity to the affluent customers they hoped to attract. She also believed that the names of the products would be more likely to entice clients if they sounded exotic. Their first ad, taken out in the popular Vogue magazine, boasted of the salon's "Grecian" line of products, and appealed to the well-heeled women of upper Fifth Avenue. The business quickly became busy and prosperous.

Yet Florence and Mrs. Hubbard frequently disagreed about how to run the business and finally dissolved their partnership after only six months. Hubbard moved out and Florence stayed on. She now had exclusive rights to the salon and could choose what its name would be.

The salon window read "Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard." Florence opted to keep the name Elizabeth (in part to save money having the entire sign repainted) and decided to add an attractive-sounding surname. Reportedly, she took the name "Arden" from a poem by Alfred Tennyson. She also kept the "Mrs." in the sign, in the belief that it sounded more respectable. Elizabeth Arden became her professional name as well.

Determined to succeed, Arden worked from morning until late at night, giving manicures after hours to help pay the rent for her salon.

Arden's First Salon

Subsidized by a generous loan from her brother William, Arden set out to create her own line of products and to design her dream salon in a Venetian theme. She displayed Venetian glass objects and hung an extravagant Venetian chandelier in her reception area. Arden provided luxurious furnishings in her favorite color, pink, and painted her salon door a striking, deep red color. (To this day, the red door is the logo of Elizabeth Arden, Inc.). The business opened in 1910.

Despite the rich-looking decor of the salon, however, Arden remained frugal. Rather than hire someone to clean the salon, she came in early every morning and did it herself. She also served as bookkeeper.

Arden spent money where she knew it would make a difference—in advertising. She took out an advertisement in Vogue, and wrote her own pamphlets, touting the benefits of good skin care. She also spared no expense in the packaging of her products, affixing attractive gold labels and pink satin bows to her bottles and jars.

Success at Last

The salon became successful almost immediately, yet it took some time to turn a profit. Arden continued to give manicures in the evening to supplement her income. Her hard work eventually paid off. Incredibly, within six months, Arden was able to pay back her brother's loan.

When Arden first started her business, skin care treatments for women were considered acceptable, but the use of cosmetics was not. Typically, only prostitutes and actresses wore makeup in the early 20th century. Yet as women gained greater independence and sought the right to vote, notions of what they were "allowed" to do began to change. The idea that women could improve their appearance with a bit of makeup gradually gained acceptance.

Taking advantage of the trend, Arden began experimenting with powders and rouges. She learned how to choose colors that would complement each woman's skin tone. Once Arden had perfected her own technique, she set to work teaching all of her employees how to apply makeup so discretely that it appeared the client merely had a healthy glow.

Arden's addition of cosmetics to her line of products heightened her success and solidified her reputation. A savvy businesswoman, she responded by raising her prices.

Expanding the Business and Marriage to Thomas Lewis

In another stroke of marketing genius, Arden gave samples of her products to prominent department stores in New York. They quickly sold out, and word soon spread throughout the Northeast about the Arden brand. Swamped by new orders, Arden decided to expand her business. She hired more employees and opened another salon in Washington, D.C.

In May 1912, although she usually avoided political causes, Arden joined a massive march of suffragettes through New York City. More than 15,000 women marched, all dressed in white, and all wearing bright red lipstick as a sign of courage and solidarity. Arden was reportedly motivated more by a desire to rub elbows with the society matrons in charge of the march (potential customers), than a real interest in women's rights.

In summer of 1912, Arden traveled to Europe, where she studied cosmetic trends in Paris and London and collected product samples. In Paris, she made the startling discovery that French women were wearing mascara and eye shadow. Arden added eye makeup to the list of products she would work on when she returned to New York.

On the ship returning home, Arden met Thomas Jenkins Lewis, a banker. When they got back to New York, they continued to see each other, although Arden protested that her life was too busy to include a romantic relationship. She finally relented, accepting Lewis' proposal, and they were married on November 29, 1915. Arden was 33; the age of the groom is unknown. True to form, Arden worked the day of her wedding, taking an hour off for the ceremony and returning to the salon afterward.

Through her marriage, Arden became a U.S. citizen.

Rivalry With Helena Rubinstein

Although Arden seemed to have captured the market for cosmetics and skin care 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 and in London and Paris as a provider of high-quality skin-care 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."

Continued Success Despite the Great Depression

Arden's husband, Tom Lewis, had fought in the war in Europe; he returned when it ended in 1918. Lewis soon became an indispensable part of his wife's staff, along with Arden's sister Gladys, who had moved to New York after her divorce. Lewis was in charge of merchandising and the wholesale division, and Gladys gave training sessions to employees. Gladys, who spoke fluent French, later headed up the operation in Paris.

With the help of her husband and sister, Arden opened salons in both Paris and London in the early 1920s. She was motivated not only by profit, but also a desire to infringe upon the territory of Madame Rubinstein.

Arden soon expanded her product line to include eye makeup, lipstick, and hair and bath products. She added exercise classes and diet instruction to her list of services. By the late 1920s, her company was earning more than two million dollars annually in the United States alone.

In 1929, however, it appeared that the Great Depression would have a negative effect on Arden's profits. Remarkably, it did not. It seemed that most of Arden's top customers—the wealthy—could not do without their facial products, even if they had been forced to give up many of their other luxuries.

In 1934, Arden transformed her lakefront vacation home in Maine into a health spa. For the astonishing fee of $500 a week, guests at the "Maine Chance" were placed on strict dietary and exercise regimens and treated to massages and personalized skin care.

Divorce from Thomas Lewis

Arden's marriage to Lewis had never been a love match, but they generally got along well. She valued his business savvy, and enjoyed having an escort to social affairs. All of that ended in 1933, when—with the help of a private detective—she caught him cheating on her. They were divorced in 1934, and Lewis was fired from his position. He was given a small monetary settlement with the stipulation that he must stay out of the cosmetics industry for at least five years, which he agreed to.

Without Tom Lewis at her side to soften her harsh manner, Arden alienated many of the people she worked with—both business associates and employees. Arden—who expected her employees to work as hard as she did—was very difficult to work with. She was prone to outbursts and temper tantrums if she didn't get her way. In the two years after Lewis left, Arden hired five different managers.

Exactly five years after the divorce, Lewis went to work for Helena Rubinstein.

Racing Horses

Early in the thirties, Arden had developed a keen interest in horse racing after visiting the racetrack in Saratoga, New York. Before long, her new hobby turned into a business venture. Arden began purchasing thoroughbreds and hiring trainers, although it would take several years to see a return on her investment. Eventually, a few of her horses started winning some major races.

Much to the horror of those in the racing world, Arden chose pink as her racing color, to be worn by horse and jockey alike. She even painted her stables pink.

One of her top horses, Jet Pilot, had survived a massive fire at Arden's stable that had taken the lives of 22 horses. Jet Pilot went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1947. Arden's horseracing venture was not only profitable; it was a great source of relaxation and enjoyment.

World War II and a Second Marriage

As the threat of a second world war loomed large, Arden stayed informed on the situation in Europe. She had planned ahead and opened salons in Central and South America in anticipation of losing her income in Paris and London.

Profits were not Arden's only concern. She helped her employees who worked in occupied European countries to get back to the United States safely, and even sponsored some war refugees who had fled to the U.S. Arden also held evening classes for women who had taken on the jobs of the men who had left to fight in the war. The classes instructed women in diet and exercise, and gave advice on proper attire for the workplace.

In 1942, 61-year-old Elizabeth Arden shocked everyone by making an impulsive, uncharacteristic decision. Swept off her feet by debonair Russian Prince Michael Evlanoff, she married him in December of that year. Yet Evlanoff was not who he claimed to be. Soon after the wedding, Arden discovered that Evlanoff was not only lying about his title; he was also homosexual. They separated, divorcing in October 1943.

(In the mid-1930s, Helena Rubinstein had married a Russian émigré who actually was a prince.)

Working Until the End

Elizabeth Arden never retired—neither from the cosmetics industry nor the horseracing business. She maintained her strong—if inflexible—style of leadership despite frequent bouts of illness in her later years and two minor strokes. Arden was awarded the Légion d'Honneur from the French government in 1962 for her many contributions to the cosmetics industry.

Elizabeth Arden died of complications following a stroke on October 18, 1966 at the age of 84. She had never allowed her true age to be divulged until after her death. For her burial, she was dressed in an elegant, pink designer gown. Arden was interred at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York under the name Elizabeth N. Graham.

Arden's greatest rival, Helena Rubinstein, had died—also of a stroke—the previous year.

At the time of Arden's death, there were approximately 100 of her salons operating worldwide. The Elizabeth Arden company, now owned by Unilever, remains in operation, earning more than $1.1 billion dollars a year.