Some Like It Scandalous :: The Author’s Note
If one is going to write a series about girl bosses of the Gilded Age (as I have set out to do), it seemed inevitable that I would include cosmetics. But I was hesitant to write a novel about makeup, given what a fraught topic it can be among women—then and now. Does it perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty or does it empower? Once I gave myself permission not to know and to just explore it, I found ample historical material to support Daisy’s dream of launching a cosmetics company in the Gilded Age—with the help of a man.
I was first inspired by the book War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry, which detailed the invention of the modern-day cosmetics industry through the life stories of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. While their husbands were involved in their businesses, these women really ran the show.
But before Helena and Elizabeth, there was Harriet Hubbard Ayer, one of the great beauty and business entrepreneurs we’ve never heard of. In the 1870s, she was the reigning queen of Chicago’s social scene who spent her time throwing parties and redecorating her houses. But by the mid-1880s she was a destitute, divorced single mother supporting her two daughters in New York City. She sought employment from Sypher’s, an antiques dealer whom she used to make all her purchases from. Given her extensive knowledge of both antiques and their clientele, she was an incredible success. On one of her business trips to Paris, she bought the recipe of a face cream reportedly used by the famous French beauty, Madame Recamier. Back in New York City, with a loan from a man named James Seymour, she launched Madame Recamier’s Toilet Preparations, Inc., at her kitchen table.
It was a runaway success, in no small part due to the advertising copy she composed, paid endorsements by actresses, and the allure of her High Society status. In Some Like It Scandalous I have given these talents to Theo.
Harriet’s life provided a template for Daisy’s—up to a point. James Seymour wasn’t content with having his loan repaid to him; he went on to have her committed to a sanitarium in an effort to seize control of her business (which Theo would NEVER do). She escaped and went on to reinvent herself as the editor for the women’s pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World. She died at just 54 years of age—after helping launch the modern beauty advertising and women’s media industries. Her life story is a fascinating one and you can read more in her biography Dispensing Beauty in New York and Beyond: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Harriet Hubbard Ayer by Annette Blaugrund.
As I have been researching the Gilded Age and reading biographies of forgotten women, I began to notice something: all these impressive, successful businesswomen kept popping up in each other’s stories and they were doing the most fascinating, successful things and living incredibly vibrant, dynamic lives. We tend to assume “a young lady would never” when in fact so many women did. We just never were taught about it in school. With all of my historical novels, and this series in particular, I hope to shine a light on the history that’s been hidden from us.
On that note, the professional women that Daisy mentions in early chapters are real (with the exception of Adeline Black, my heroine in Duchess By Design, who is inspired by the real-life Madame Demorest who created and oversaw a veritable fashion empire in the later half of the nineteenth century). Fun fact: she was besties with Jane Croly (see below). Even a side character like Eunice at the theater has a real historical counterpart in Bessie Marbury, a theatrical agent and producer in this time period. Fun fact: in real life Bessie was also friends with Elizabeth Arden. They are all connected!
The character of Harriet Burnett is inspired by the real-life Jane Cunningham Croly, the journalist who founded the Sorosis Society, which is the real-life model for the Ladies of Liberty Club. According to The New York Times this club “inaugurated and epitomized the women’s club movement and was itself one of the most influential organizations for women in late nineteenth-century America.” Their purpose was to further the educational and social opportunities of women. The members included activists, writers, female physicians and ministers, a fashion magazine editor, businesswomen, and even Emily Warren Roebling, the woman who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. While Sorosis membership tended to be upper-class white women, I have made the choice to diversify my fictional ladies’ club with the inclusion of the real-life African-American millionaire businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker (she has an amazing story—look it up!).
Jane Cunningham Croly founded the club in 1868 after being barred from a New York Press Club dinner—at Delmonico’s. She responded by showing up with her fellow lady club members and disrupting the men’s lunch (horrors) at a time when it was considered highly improper for women to dine in restaurants without a male escort. To the credit of Delmonico’s they did let the women dine and even hosted their anniversary meeting each year. But a stigma about women dining without a man persisted. In fact, it was the 1969 protest of the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room’s refusal to serve women lunch that introduced Gloria Steinem to the women’s movement.
Speaking of scandals in restaurants—the scene where actress Annabelle Jones applies lip paint was inspired by the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who in the 1880s scandalized people by applying lip paint in public. But it also got people talking and helped pave the way for the use of cosmetics in the theatrical world and then on film. From the beginning, actresses had been relied on to help promote cosmetics and other products.
Lastly, what really got me fired up to write this story was a scene that never made it into the final version. Legend has it that lipstick only really took off in 1912 when Elizabeth Arden herself handed out samples at the suffragist marches, thus making the bold red lip as much a symbol of women’s empowerment as the white suits the suffragists wore.
So perhaps it is not “just lipstick” after all but a symbol of all the young ladies who dared—along with all their friends.