Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Story Behind the Maybelline Name

The hidden history of Maybelline

By Barbara Spector

Little had been known about cosmetics company founder Tom Lyle Williams and his loving yet fractious family. His grandniece's recently published book brings the story into the open.

If Mabel Williams hadn’t singed the hair off her eyebrows and lashes in a 1915 kitchen fire, there would be no Maybelline eye makeup today. Using a technique she had read about in Photoplay, Mabel mixed ash from a burnt cork with coal dust and Vaseline, then applied it to the missing brows and lashes. One of her brothers, Tom Lyle Williams, was fascinated by Mabel’s concoction and the way it enhanced her eyes. Tom Lyle, a movie buff, realized at that moment that glamour in those early days of Hollywood radiated from actresses’ eyes.

Out of this inspiration a billion-dollar business was born. Tom Lyle—a country boy from western Kentucky who had moved to Chicago to seek his fortune—set out to replicate Mabel’s product, at first with a friend’s chemistry set and then, after the first efforts failed, with the help of a chemist from drug manufacturer Parke-Davis. The product, initially dubbed “Lash-Brow-Ine,” at first was sold by mail order through magazine ads. It was eventually reformulated (after a government crackdown on the ads’ claim that it stimulated brow and lash growth), and the company was named Maybelline in Mabel’s honor.

Today, of course, Maybelline is a household name, and the business—which Tom Lyle sold to Plough Inc. in 1967 and was later acquired by L’Oréal USA Inc.—made the Williams family rich. Yet their fortune couldn’t shield them from discord, heartbreak and tragedy.

Tom Lyle’s grandniece Sharrie Williams, with assistance from publishing entrepreneur Bettie Youngs, has brought her family’s long-hidden story to light in a new book, The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It, is a page-turner tells the tale of the inspired founder and his loving yet fractious family. It describes how Tom Lyle’s resilient company faced adversity again and again, bouncing back and growing stronger each time. It also examines society’s changing views of women and beauty, and how money can affect family relationships.

Little had been known about Tom Lyle before Sharrie’s book was published.  In 1924, Maybelline ads featuring wholesome silent film star Mildred Davis targeted young ladies who feared makeup would tarnish their image.

Maybelline’s sales actually rose after the 1929 stock market crash (because of its low-priced products, prominent advertising and innovative waterproof makeup). But as the Depression dragged on, eye makeup began to fall out of favor.

In late 1931, Tom Lyle’s fortune disappeared when Chicago Guaranty Trust failed, according to Sharrie’s history of the company. Tom Lyle kept his business afloat via a $30,000 loan from advertising executive Rory Kirkland, which he used to form a distribution network and shift sales of Maybelline products from mail order to drugstores. During World War II, the company released patriotic-themed ads and continued to thrive. Later, Maybelline would become the first cosmetics company to advertise on television.

During Sharrie Williams’ formative years, her views on fashion and beauty were heavily influenced by her grandmother, the alluring and narcissistic Evelyn Boecher Williams—“my stage mother and biggest fan,” as the author describes her. Sharrie was five years old when Evelyn first put Maybelline cosmetics on her face.

To Evelyn, image was everything. “My grandmother was caught up in the illusion and the vanity, the grandiose expectation of how the family should look and act,” Sharrie tells Family Business. “It wasn’t that you were loved unconditionally; my grandmother had a lot of conditions. You had to look a certain way.”

Evelyn married Tom Lyle’s brother Preston—though Preston was married to another woman when they met and wasn’t free to wed Evelyn until after the birth of their son (Sharrie’s father, Bill). Tom Lyle, too, was captivated by Evelyn’s glamour. Preston took her to speakeasies and gambling dens, while Tom Lyle escorted her to elegant events.

“Tom Lyle and Preston held an almost preternatural sense that Evelyn embodied their other halves, while Evelyn split herself in two to accommodate their love,” Sharrie writes.

There was a twist to this love triangle. Although as a teenager Tom Lyle had fathered a son—Cecil, who changed his name to Tom Lyle Williams Jr. and eventually came to work at Maybelline—by the time he met Evelyn he had become conflicted about his sexuality. Tom Lyle adored Evelyn and treasured the idea of family. (He put numerous family members on the Maybelline payroll, though some, like Preston, did little actual work.) But Tom Lyle’s lifelong partner was a man, Emery Shaver, whom he had met before he invented Lash-Brow-Ine, when both worked at Montgomery Ward. Emery subsequently joined Maybelline and created the company’s ad campaigns.

Few people knew the true nature of Tom Lyle and Emery’s relationship, which lasted for 55 years, Sharrie notes in her book: “In public, Tom Lyle preferred to be associated with the female stars he signed for magazine ads.”

According to Sharrie, a faction in her family “was not excited about this book being written” because they didn’t want to publicize Tom Lyle’s sexual orientation. Those family members undoubtedly cringed upon reading the New York Post’s brief writeup on the The Maybelline Story, which bore the sensational headline, “Cosmetics King’s Secret Life.” 

Sharrie says her research for the book—which is rich in reconstructed and imagined dialogue—included poring over old letters, divorce depositions and legal documents. She also had the advantage of having lived among the characters. She knew how they spoke and how they viewed the world—especially Evelyn, who “was a very, very good story-teller.” Sharrie had hoped her grandmother would write an autobiography.

“This book has been in the works for 30 years—since my grandmother died,” Sharrie says.

Evelyn and Preston’s relationship was troubled from the start. Preston, a World War I veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress, drank too much and was prone to rage. After a stay at the Mayo Clinic for stomach pains, he traveled to Los Angeles, ostensibly to recover in warm weather, leaving Evelyn and his son behind. While in California, he worked briefly on film sets, drank and caroused heavily. He also took up with an Argentinean woman who spoke very little English and, unbeknownst to Evelyn, had a son with her. (Tom Lyle supported his brother’s mistress and her baby with Maybelline money.) Preston and Evelyn had several cross-country reconciliations, most orchestrated by Tom Lyle; she eventually joined him in California. Though their reconciliations were short-lived, the couple remained married until Preston’s death at age 37 in 1936. 

Tom Lyle and Emery, who first visited California at Preston’s urging, moved there permanently in 1934 to live in privacy. Congress had drafted two bills to scrutinize the cosmetics industry and purge it of “homosexual influences.” From Los Angeles, Tom Lyle sought new stars to model Maybelline cosmetics, while his brother Noel and ad man “Rags” Ragland ran the company from Chicago.

In late 1950, Maybelline—by now the world’s largest private cosmetics company—was threatened by the specter of a government investigation under a new anti-monopoly law. Tom Lyle also feared his lifestyle would become fodder for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He responded to the threats by restructuring Maybelline and creating a second company, Deluxe Mascara, that would be run as a separate business to handle mascara production, with Mabel’s husband, Chet Hewes, as the sole owner.

After Noel died in 1951, Tom Lyle incorporated Maybelline and named his family members as stockholders. In 1954, he gave each family member preferred cumulative stock in the Maybelline Co., raising their annual dividends.

When Noel’s son Allen declined the offer of an executive position at Maybelline, Tom Lyle feared a power shift because Ragland had three college-age sons, according to Sharrie’s account. Tom Lyle instituted a policy to prevent any family members—his or anyone else’s—from entering the business, with the exception of Chet and Mabel’s son at Deluxe Mascara. Thus, the family’s fate was sealed.

When Emery Shaver died in 1965, Tom Lyle fell into depression and decided to sell Maybelline. After the 1967 sale of the company to Plough Inc., the founder—who “never bought anything he couldn’t pay for on the spot,” according to his grandniece—wrote letters to his family urging them to invest conservatively. They didn’t heed his warnings. “Existence for the Maybelline heirs became a consumer free-for-all, a feeding frenzy,” Sharrie writes. When Plough merged with Schering, each stockholder received 1.32 shares of Schering for every share of Plough, making the family even wealthier. 

Noel, Mabel and other members of the Williams family had stable, long-term marriages. But Sharrie Williams’ parents, Bill and Pauline, had a tumultuous relationship that echoed that of Bill’s parents, Preston and Evelyn. Pauline, whose father ran the construction department and other units at MGM Studios, met Bill Williams in high school. Many factors lay behind their unhappiness: Evelyn’s disapproval of Pauline, Pauline’s depression and pill-popping, and Bill’s drinking and philandering. Although they renewed their vows two times, their marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. (Bill, who according to his daughter was pursued by “gold-digger women,” remarried twice.)

Two generations of dysfunctional family dynamics took their toll on Sharrie,

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